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Tuesday 16 February 2016

Claire MacKintosh


Lynne Patrick talks with Clare MacKintosh

It’s not often a debut novel by a completely unknown author reaches the bestseller lists and stays there for several weeks, but Clare Mackintosh’s taut psychological thriller
I Let You Go beat the odds and did exactly that – and became a Richard and Judy Book Club choice and one of Loose Women’s Loose Books as well.
Clare is a journalist as well as a novelist, and before becoming a
full-time writer she was a police officer for twelve years.
She is currently chasing a deadline for her second novel, another
psychological thriller, titled
I See You and scheduled for publication later this year.

Lynne: Clare, thanks so much for taking this on when you’re already up to your eyes.
First of all, I’m interested to know how much of a part writing played in your life before you decided it was going to be your life. I don’t imagine working as a senior police officer leaves much time for creative pursuits.
Clare: Writing has always played a huge part in my life. Although policing isn’t creative in the sense that my working life is now, there are many similarities between writing a novel and piecing together an investigation. I enjoyed the responsibility of telling a victim’s story; presenting it to a court in a compelling and authentic way. My characters now are fictional, but they still have stories to tell.

Lynne: Do you read crime and thriller fiction? I’ve heard it doesn’t have much credibility among people whose work involves dealing with the real thing.
Clare: I read predominantly crime and thriller fiction and I enjoy it immensely. I’m comfortable with the use of artistic licence, and it’s rare I throw down a book purely because the procedure is inaccurate, although I might occasionally roll my eyes a little…

Lynne: Your earlier career must have provided a rich vein of experience to draw on. Was the scenario of I Let You Go based on, or influenced by, a real-life case?
Clare: In 2000, just after I started my career in the police, there was a tragic hit and run in Oxford. It killed a nine-year-old boy and sent shockwaves through the city. I didn’t work directly on the case, but I was profoundly affected by it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could drive away from such a terrible act, and I couldn’t see how the child’s mother could ever survive such a tragedy. Many years later I lost my own son – in very different circumstances – and I began to understand the impact grief has on one’s life. The more I considered this, the more a story took shape.

Lynne: Another aspect of your writing life is journalism – a different skill and technique from fiction. Can you move from one to the other easily, or do you have to find a way to keep them separate? If the second, how do you set about it?
Clare: The two complement each other very well, I think. Structure is very important to me and this differs little between fiction and non-fiction; just like a novel, an opinion piece or interview needs a beginning, middle and end; it needs light and shade; pace and tension.

Lynne: Richard and Judy, Loose Women: not many debut novels get chosen for such high-profile attention and into the bestseller lists as well. How did that make you feel? 
Clare: 2015 was an extraordinary year and I’m very grateful to all the readers who helped put I Let You Go on the bestseller list, and keep it there for thirteen weeks. I’ve loved every minute of it, but now I need to knuckle down and concentrate on my next book. The pressure’s definitely on, but I think I’m up to the challenge…

Lynne: Your protagonist Jenna is a contemporary view of an abused wife: ‘coercive control’ rather than physical violence. This kind of abuse is now being recognized as just as criminal as the physical kind, but not so long ago it was hardly acknowledged. Was it something you ever encountered as a police officer?  Or did Jenna come entirely out of your imagination?
Clare: During my time in the police I met many victims of domestic abuse, and many offenders, too. Jenna is fictional, but she has traits of the women I encountered during that time. Much has been done to tackle domestic abuse – both physical and psychological – but there is still a great deal of work to do.

Lynne: Not many women would disagree with that.
You must have encountered comparisons with Gone Girl: a storyline which sets up a situation and creates expectations then turns on its head halfway through. Were you influenced in any way? Or is it one of those ideas which floats up there in the collective consciousness, waiting for writers to develop their own take on it?
Clare: I read – and loved – Gone Girl, but I can say with absolute certainty that it had nothing to do with the structure of I Let You Go. I knew from the outset the effect I wanted to have, and built the novel with the twist in mind. I wanted to play with readers’ perceptions and challenge the judgements we all make about the people we meet.

Lynne: Now for something close to my own heart: the backdrop to I Let You Go once Jenna has made her escape. I know that stretch of the Welsh coast, and you bring it to life in a way that carried me back there. Is it an area you’ve explored and know well? Or again, pure imagination? 
Clare: A bit of both! I know South Wales fairly well, but had never explored the Gower peninsula before I set I Let You Go there. It fitted the story in terms of both location and landscape, and when I found Three Cliffs Bay I knew it was the perfect setting for Jenna’s hideaway cottage.

Lynne: I kind of felt I knew your characters too, especially Iestyn and Bethan; and by the end of the book I almost felt part of detective Ray’s family. Great respect to you for creating characters who took on a life of their own and felt as if that life continued when they weren’t part of the action. Again – imagination, or are there real-life people in there somewhere?
Clare: Thank you. Creating characters is actually one of my least favourite parts of writing – I far prefer hammering out plot twists to imagining back stories for my fictional heroes and villains. But both are essential for a well-rounded novel, so I do take time to live with my characters, listen to their stories and understand what makes them tick. I think every character in I Let You Go draws something from real life, but I’d never say more than that: a journalist never reveals her sources…

Lynne: Point taken!
A first book is a very special thing. Do you remember the moment when you held your first copy of it? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Clare: I’ve never read the whole thing in book form – I’m not sure I’d be able to do so without getting annoyed by things I’d like to change! I went to watch the paperback being printed, and it was one of the most special days of my life. Imagine standing in the centre of a room, watching thousands of copies of your book circling the factory floor on conveyor belts; it was extraordinary and I couldn’t stop crying.

Lynne: Yes, it’s quite an experience, isn’t it?
Let’s talk about the violence in I Let You Go, which is (mostly) psychological. How do you feel about graphic violence on the page? Is there anything you wouldn’t write, any line you wouldn’t cross?
Clare: There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about, and I’m not squeamish about violence, but I think that in most
cases violence packs more of a punch when it happens off the page.

Lynne: Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you set out to write?
Clare: I write for myself, although I do think about my editor and will sometimes delete a paragraph, just because I know that if I don’t, she will!

Lynne: Take us through the process: do you produce a detailed synopsis first? Just plunge in? Do you know how it’s going to end before you start? (I’m especially interested in that spinetingling final kick at the end of I Let You Go; did you plan for that to happen, or did it take you as much by surprise as it did me?)
Clare: I plan extensively, mapping out all major twists and plot developments until I have a chapter by chapter breakdown of the story. Then I write the first draft, tear it apart and write it again. By this stage the story will bear little resemblance to the original plan, and I will plot out the book again before a subsequent draft. I Let You Go went through eight drafts and the final version is really very different from the first one; I think only the prologue and the central twist are the same!

Lynne: How does a new book start in your mind? In particular, tell us about your next book, I See You.
Clare: My books start with ‘what if?’ scenarios. In the case of I See You, the question is around routine: you do the same thing every day; you know exactly where you’re going… what if someone else does, too? The book starts with Zoe Walker flicking through a London newspaper on her way home from work. She sees her own photograph in an advert in the classifieds, and sets out to find out who put it there, and why. It’s a very unnerving psychological thriller and I’m really enjoying writing it.

Lynne: Then it’s time I let you get back to it. Thanks so much for this, Clare. I look forward to reading I See You later this year.
I Let You Go is published by Sphere in paperback.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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