Q. What inspired you to write a psychological thriller? Have you always been fascinated by them or has it been a recent obsession?
It’s a return to my roots! My last two novels (The Naked Name of Love and Sugar Island, published by John Murray) were historical fiction, but my first two were literary thrillers. Theory of Mind and Angel Bird (Black Swan) both have dark and deadly plots; they also have a lot of science woven into them. With my latest book, and my first psychological thriller, published under my pen name of Sanjida Kay, I’ve concentrated on making a book that is, I hope, taut, tense and thoughtful but not freighted with big ideas.
Q. Having studied psychological thrillers for the past four years what did you learn? What makes a good one? Do you have a favourite?
My initial observation when I started reading this genre so extensively was, ‘Gosh, there’s so much chat!’ (I know, I know, I worked hard for that Ph.D!). Usually the plot points hinge on what the character thinks, knows or believes and then they change their mind – not necessarily due to new information or action but rather down to a new insight or train of thought, often about what other characters think, know or believe. There are plot twists, and the story generally relies on one large one at the end.
For me, what makes a great thriller is if the characters are credible and don’t stretch disbelief by doing or not doing stupid things, and if I can’t guess what’s coming next and if the writing is beautiful. Gone Girl has an incredible plot, the characters are chillingly Machiavellian and the prose is pitch-perfect for this kind of thriller. Flynn’s previous novel, Sharp Objects, doesn’t have such a rollercoaster plot, but it’s much edgier with a searing twist; perfect Southern gothic-noir. I loved Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, Jane Shemilt’s Daughter and The Drowning Lesson, and Gilly MacMillian’s Burnt Paper Sky.
Q. How did you find your voice as a writer?
I think we have a style, or a voice, that is unique to us, just as our own voice or appearance is unique. However, when writing we should try and change that voice to suit our story. For example, although we have a recognisable speaking voice, we alter it depending on who we’re speaking to and what the context is. How you might talk to your mate in the pub is different to the way you’d speak if you were reading from your book at a launch party!
With Bone by Bone, I’ve changed my style to suit the genre. My writing has become sparer, terser, tighter. There are fewer descriptions – but I think it’s still recognisably mine! I’m probably still more descriptive and have more nature in my thrillers than the average writer!
Q. Bone by Bone is gripping but also disturbing to read. As a parent I found it really difficult to get through bits that I could relate to most. Was it difficult to write it?
I was bullied as a kid. As soon as my daughter was born, I started to worry about her. Would she – mixed race like me – be bullied? What could I do about it? Would she be able to stand up for herself when I had not been able to?
I found it a challenge to write Bone by Bone from a technical point of view: it’s hard to get across the nuances of bullying. As a child, if someone calls you a name, it can be devastating, but as adults, we don’t always remember how soul-destroying it was. Emotionally, it was also a challenge. I haven’t used any events from real life, but I still used to cry every time I read it all the way through.
Although Bone by Bone is a thriller, it deals with the horrific side of physical, emotional and cyber bullying in a realistic way. I’m donating a percent of my profits from Bone by Bone to an anti-bullying charity called Kidscape, to help protect children and prevent childhood bullying.
Q. You live in Bristol, was it important to you to set this novel outside of London, in your hometown?
So many thrillers are set in London and I wanted to write something different yet also authentic. I thought I’d aim for a gritty urban landscape, graffiti-ridden and litter-strewn – although I ended up setting much of the action in an urban nature reserve!
Q. It’s a testament to the writing that I was clouded in paranoia for most of the time I was reading. I couldn’t trust any of the characters. I was mired in suspicion. Do you think readers have come to pre-empt the unreliable narrator?
There is a trend for first person narratives in thrillers, where the reader believes the narrator is reliable and feels close to her (it’s often a ‘her’); the plot twist relies on the central character having ‘done it’ and has thus concealed the truth from the reader throughout the course of the book. Clearly, for this to work, the writer has to be skilled enough for the reader not to guess, nor to feel too angry or cheated at the end. I often do feel cheated by this approach so it wasn’t one I wanted to take. At the same time, I wanted readers to doubt some of the characters in order to make the plot twists work.
Q. You’ve weaved in Autumn’s voice in to the story which I found refreshing. Was it challenging to capture the innocence and voice of a nine year old?
In a word, yes! It’s a long time since I was nine! And when I was nine, I wasn’t like Autumn. I wanted to uncover the devastation that bullying can wreak upon a child’s character, as well as showing the trauma that can appear in families when people withhold information from one another because they don’t want to hurt each other.
Q. You’ve already written a post about diversity in grip-lit for us. Why is it important for you to write about a world that was truly representative of the multi-cultural society we live in?
I’m mixed race and I rarely see my experience portrayed in the books I’m reading! In psychological thrillers, which are very middle-class, the majority of authors and characters within them are white. I include racial diversity and prejudice in my novels as standard – rather than writing stories that are solely about race.
Q. Finally, you’re working on your second thriller. Does it get any easier?
I’m writing a second thriller, The Stolen Child, which will hopefully be published in spring 2017. It did feel easier, second time around, but I haven’t yet heard back from my editor so I am blissfully ignorant about the amount of extra work I’m going to have to do!
Sanjida Kay lives in Bristol with her husband and her daughter. Bone by Bone is her first psychological thriller.