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Interview with Sarah Hilary

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Sarah Hilary’s second Marnie Rome novel, No Other Darkness (Headline) is beautifully crafted, deeply captivating and not a little disturbing. Here Sarah explains the emotional, creative and developmental processes involved in writing such a book and what she’d like to ask her favourite author should they ever be trapped in a lift together.

No Other Darkness is a very dark novel. How did writing it have an effect on you?

I wept over the first draft, at the moments when readers have told me they’ve wept. It’s important to me that the darkness in the novel isn’t numbing, but rather that it strikes an emotional chord. I try to always think of the reader’s response to what I’m writing. With this story, the journey is dark but the ending has light. I knew that at the outset, and it kept me focused on finishing.

What first caught your attention of those who build and stockpile food against “the end of the world”?

The danger inherent in an obsession with safety. There’s a kind of fearlessness that grows out of paranoia and, taken to its extreme, it threatens all of us. For me, it was with the image of a man in the US teaching his young children how to shoot their neighbours in the event of post-apocalyptic marauding. This man—this father— said proudly to the camera, ‘They’ve never known any other life,’ and that chilled me to the bone.

Mental Health issues are very much at the forefront of the novel – and on several levels. How much research did you have to undertake and what was the most surprising fact thing you discovered?

I read a lot of first person accounts, which are always more important for my writing than textbooks. The first person accounts aren’t always rational, but they’re real. They tell me what the chaos of the storm feels like when you’re right in its eye. Afterwards, I retro-fit the research that gives me the surprising (and depressing) facts, such as how little help there is for the carers and loved ones of the mentally ill. That disturbs me, profoundly.

Marnie and Noah are both beautifully rounded characters. How well do you need to “know” the people you create before committing them to paper?

Hardly at all. They come alive in the writing, and I love to be surprised by what they say and do. Marnie, especially, as she’s such a secret-keeper. Noah is great fun to write as he’s so centred and happy at heart. Marnie is the opposite, in many ways. She is very centred on the surface, but at heart she’s scared and guilty and conflicted. That’s the series arc, of course, so I wouldn’t have her any other way.

Similarly, how long is it into the writing process that the original story you have thought of has “the legs” to become a complete, novel length story?

Very early on. I’m writing a book a year, so I can’t afford to start something that isn’t going to pan out. I’m not a plotter by nature, but I’ve learnt to do a lengthy ‘treatment’ (extended synopsis) before I start, and any problems shake out in that process.

What, for you, are the most satisfying aspects of being a writer and what, if anything, would you like to see changed within the publishing industry?

It’s my absolute dream job. Sitting down and inventing friends and enemies all day? Love it. If I ever get exasperated, I remind myself how many years I spent dying to be here. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my agent, and my editor and publishers who’ve been so supportive and done such a great job in pushing my books.

What would I change about the publishing industry? Parity in pricing, perhaps. It’s depressing when readers won’t buy a book because they feel it’s too expensive at seven pounds. There’s an expectation that debut novels in particular should be cheap, and of course plenty are sold for 99p on Kindle which makes the idea of a ‘bestseller’ a very strange beast to quantify. There’s a debut crime novel that I absolutely love and want everyone to read, but so many people have said they won’t buy it until the price comes down. That’s someone’s career at stake, and I do get angry about it.

Your debut Marnie Rome novel, Someone Else’s Skin, has been long listed for theTheakstons Crime Novel of the Year award. That must be exciting, but how important are such accolades?

In the case of the Theakstons? Very important—to me, anyway. To be on a list with so many of my writing heroes is amazing, and humbling. But that’s the great thing about the crime fraternity — it’s a level playing field where it counts. Newbies rub shoulders with legends. Will it change the way I write? No. But it will help the book to reach a wider audience, which is vital.

Which writer from the past or present would you most like to be stuck in a lift with for a couple of hours and what would you ask them about their work?

Oh, good question. Nabokov. I’d ask him who the real monsters are in Lolita. That’s my favourite question to be asked about my books, and I bet he’d have some excellent answers.

What is the single most important piece of advice that you have been given with regards to your writing career?

Fail better. Until you’ve been rejected, you don’t know how good your writing can be. Always believe the next book will be your best book.

What’s next?

I’m about to start on the edits for Tastes like Fear, the third book in the Marnie Rome series. It’s a different sort of dark to the first two, and may be the closest I’ll come to writing a serial killer story. It’s also very, very twisty which kept me on my toes when I was writing it, and hopefully will do the same for readers.


If you would like to comment on this interview with Sarah Hilary in 2015, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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