May 2013

Margaret Howie

features

An Interview with Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah is just another successful poet-turned-crime novelist-turned-horror writer. Her work has won the T.S. Eliot prize, the Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition, and she's had two of her psychological thrillers filmed for British television as Case Sensitive. She has recently diversified her portfolio with the ghost story The Orphan Choir. Invited to write for cult film studio Hammer Horror's dedicated book imprint, she joins authors like Jeanette Winterson and Helen Dunmore in loosening their psyches to compose a horror novella.

The result is a deliciously tense combination of the domestic and the spectral. It begins with supremely middle-class suburban problems of noisy neighbors, home renovations, and public schooling. But the traumatized heroine ends up walking into something far more horrifying than being forced to listen to soft rock anthems. Even if your neighbors are blessedly quiet, it's likely to keep you up all night.

Hannah was kind enough to answer some questions on the inspiration for her spine-rattling tale, and discuss the surprising similarities between writing supernatural stories and crime fiction.

I loved that throughout the story, Louise was never in doubt of her feelings -- something about her that shaped her as character and drove the story forward. It feels like usually a typical damsel in distress has to stuff around for a long time doubting herself and doing stupid things because of her uncertainty (e.g., "Why are you going back to the haunted house with no weapons all by yourself in the middle of the night?" syndrome), which Louise doesn't do. Was this a deliberate choice from the outset, or did it evolve with the creation of the book?

Hmm, interesting! No, it wasn't a deliberate choice at all. While I was very conscious of inventing the plot of The Orphan Choir, and some of the characters, I didn't really feel I had to invent Louise's character at all. She was just... already there in my head, which I think probably means that she's a version of me; she is me as I would be in that particular situation. And in her situation, I would be very certain that my noisy neighbor needed to be dealt with and that I didn't want a boys' choir to steal my son! Louise does doubt her sanity when she starts to wonder if the singing she's hearing is real or not, but she never doubts her right to be angry with her noisy neighbor, the choir that has (as she sees it) stolen her son, or her husband, who has taken the choirmaster's side against her.

Was the title always going to be The Orphan Choir? It's wonderfully resonant and spooky-sounding, but also very specific to the plot's direction.

The title actually came first. For about four years, I have had The Orphan Choir in my head as a title -- for something, but I didn't know what. I'd never been able to think of a way to use it as the title for one of my crime novels, but when I was asked if I wanted to write a supernatural-horror novella, I suddenly thought, "Surely now I can use The Orphan Choir as a title," because it sounds so sinister and ghostly. And within about twenty seconds, I had the idea for the plot and the twist. It often happens that way -- the title is a crucial part of the initial inspiration. My crime novels Kind of Cruel and The Carrier were the same -- I'd had those titles in mind for years, long before I had the actual story ideas.

Music plays an important part in the book. Did you use musical cues to write with? Was there a specific reason you chose a certain Queen track to haunt Louise?

Yes -- I once had noisy neighbor troubles, and "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen was a song I often heard blasting out at 1 a.m. from my neighbor's house. The lyrics are outrageous -- he's having such a good time (noisily) that he's not going to stop? What if his neighbors have to get up at five to fly to New York, or perform open-heart surgery? I am very much zero tolerance when it comes to noise. My idea of a good time is being able to hear nothing whatsoever from the house next door, apart from perhaps, very faintly, the theme-tune of Game of Thrones -- but never after 10 p.m.!

Were you tempted to make Louise an unreliable narrator? There are hints made about her precarious mental state throughout the book (mostly from her useless husband).

For me the issue wasn't so much Louise's reliability as the reliability of the ghosts in the book. I'm getting a bit sick of reading novels advertised as supernatural in which the ghosts turn out to be ambiguous -- they might be ghosts, or they might be figments of the protagonists' imagination. I think that's starting to become a cliché. So I was determined that my ghosts should be real ghosts, and that the world of the novel is one is which ghosts exist and are as real as living people. I'm so glad you thought Louise's husband, Stuart, was useless! A couple of readers found Louise to be too strident and killjoy-ish, and sympathized more with Stuart than with her. They saw Stuart as the voice of normality in the book, but I didn't. He's not a bad person, but he's pretty ineffectual and annoying!

When you were a child, were you drawn to spooky stories or scary movies? Did you have reading rituals to draw out the tension?

I've always adored spooky books and movies. And, though they scare me, it's always in a way that I love and enjoy. So I'm terrified, but I don't mind being terrified. Though I have to say, writing The Orphan Choir really scared me and upset me -- it was a bit much for me at times. I don't know if I'm supposed to admit this, but initially the book had a much jollier ending -- but some early readers said, "If it's going to be this scary, you need to escalate the fear and horror at the end, not diminish it." So I gritted my teeth and went full-on horrific.

In the book's afterword, you point out that ghost stories are generally mystery stories -- were there any surprises in shifting from writing one kind of mystery to another?

I was surprised by how similar the two genres are to write -- but then I suppose not all ghost stories are mystery-driven in the way that The Orphan Choir is. Basically, trying to work out why ghosts are doing horrendous things and trying to work out why people are doing horrendous things -- they're both kind of the same discipline. Supernatural fiction is like crime fiction because ghosts, despite being dead, have grudges and motives too!

You've published poetry, crime novels, and now a horror novella -- is there a genre or style that you've not attempted that, given no restrictions of time or money, you'd love to have a crack at?

I have what I think is a brilliant idea for a novel that would be commercial women's fiction -- but no time in the foreseeable future to write it. Also, it would be highly controversial in terms of what it says about sex and relationships, so I probably shouldn't write it ever unless I want to be hounded by angry people for my outrageous views!

Did you find in creating Louise's world, where the most secure and comforting aspects of her home and family ended up being so easily violated, that any mundane parts of your own life became more sinister or scary?

I think I became aware of that before I started writing the book -- and that's why I wrote it. When I had noisy neighbor troubles, it was one of the most psychologically distressing experiences ever, because someone can invade your home without physically invading it.

In a recent issue of Bookslut, novelist Meg Wolitzer talked about how she guided the cover design for her new novel to be gender-neutral, because she was bothered by how simple it seemed to be to lose male readers with books that seemed to emphasize female characters. Given that horror is one genre that's more associated with male writers and readers, was gender a consideration in your construction of the book? Do you ever get bothered by gendered covers or marketing?

This is probably very politically naive of me, but I never give gender a second thought when I'm writing. I don't mind if my books are mainly read by women, or by men too -- whoever wants to read them can read them, and that's fine. I assume that because I am so interested in feelings, psychology, and the minutiae of interpersonal relationships (rather than about the CIA, volcanoes, submarines and car chases), my books might appeal more to women than to men, and I'm quite happy with that. I don't want to bore men who would rather read about volcanoes! In terms of cover design, my only concern is that each of my books should look like what it is, so that readers aren't tricked. I've been very lucky in this respect. My crime novels and The Orphan Choir have brilliant jackets that completely encapsulate their true character.