Author Sophie Hannah tells Hannah Stephenson about her online obsession and penning the next Hercule Poirot novel.
Bestselling author Sophie Hannah has a fascination with the cyber world. The award-winning writer confesses she has constantly been on the likes of Twitter and Rightmove, and also trawls sites like OKCupid, Grindr and Craigslist – but not in search of a date.
The happily married mother-of-two (pictured below) was, in fact, researching her latest thriller, The Telling Error, which centres on the murder of a vitriolic newspaper columnist and subsequent questioning of a woman who has some dark secrets about her web activity, most notably a cyber affair which threatens her marriage and freedom.
“I became quite fascinated by the question of whether cyber infidelity was the same as physical infidelity,” explains Hannah. “People are spending a lot more time online, so it seems to me that if you want to write about people’s relationships, you have to take into account the cyber world. “I asked lots of my friends what they thought, whether a cyber relationship where people never met at all was a less serious form of infidelity. Some said it’s just as bad, other’s said they wouldn’t take it that seriously if their partner had never even met the person.
“I was fascinated by the idea that something that’s not actually happening physically and in your real life could nevertheless take over, so that your online life becomes more real than what’s actually going on around you.” She found that most people who put personal ads online say exactly what they want and what they’re looking for, which doesn’t happen in the real world.
“In the real world, if you’re introduced to someone in a social situation, you would never in a million years turn round and say, ‘OK, what I’m looking for is…’. Online, people are direct. “The weirdness of the things some people are looking for was a real eye-opener,” adds the Manchester-born author, who now lives in Cambridge with her husband, Dan, an academic, and children Phoebe and Guy.
“There were quite a few from people who wanted to be able to lick shoes. One I remember in particular was from someone offering to pay £80 to lick someone’s shoes. Such a specific amount!” For all that, she says that if she were single and lonely, she wouldn’t hesitate to look for companionship on the internet.
“If I was looking for love, I’d have no qualms about doing online stuff. Apparently 60 percent of relationships start online [now].” The inspiration for her fictional victim, a controversial newspaper columnist, also came from the internet. “I’m kind of addicted to Twitter and I often read articles that are tweeted by opinionated newspaper columnists.
“I became quite obsessed with them – people like Rod Liddle and Julie Burchill, who say what they think and don’t care if people get cross with them. I admire people like that. “The thing about Twitter is that everything is on there, so whatever you’re interested in is there. But it is capable of being incredibly nasty. I noticed that whenever somebody either does something wrong or offends somebody, Twitter will form a kind of aggressive, vindictive mob and start slagging off that person. Almost always, the punishment is worse than the crime.
“While I think there’s loads of stuff about Twitter that’s brilliant, it’s also used as a tool of persecution, which is really dangerous. I wanted to explore that theme as well.” Hannah, 41, was brought up in a bookish household. The daughter of the late academic Norman Geras, a political theorist and professor at the University of Manchester, and children’s author Adele Geras, she says writing was her destiny.
“I always knew that all I wanted to do with my life was write. My plan was to get the easiest, most boring job possible so that I would have the mental energy for writing.” She became a secretary, doing her writing in her spare time and enjoyed success with her poetry, which was published before any of her novels and is now studied by GCSE, A-level and university students. Between 1997 and ’99, she was writer in residence at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Her debut crime novel, Little Face, wasn’t a big seller initially, when it was published in the summer of 2006. But gradually, sales increased and soon the book was number one in the Amazon crime chart. “I initially thought my husband had played some kind of trick on me. I said, ‘Have you put this in the computer as a joke?’” she recalls. “I rang my editor to check it was the same on his computer. It stayed at number one on Amazon for over a month. Sales just kept going up.”
Since then, she’s enjoyed huge success with her psychological thrillers, including Kind Of Cruel and The Carrier, and two of her novels, The Point Of Rescue and The Other Half Lives, have been adapted for TV. She has always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature. “As a young child I would observe human interactions where I would secretly think, ‘There’s something wrong with the way this person’s behaving’,” she says. As a youngster, Hannah was hooked on Enid Blyton mysteries. Later influences included Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie, so her latest project, the first Hercule Poirot novel since the death of Christie, has been a labour of love.
It came about during a lunch between her agent and an editor at HarperCollins, who was talking about taking on contemporary writers such as Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid to re-write Jane Austen classics. “My agent knew that HarperCollins was Agatha Christie’s publisher and suggested that if they were doing that sort of thing, they should get Sophie Hannah to write an Agatha Christie novel,” Hannah recalls. From there, she had a meeting with HarperCollins editors and told them about an idea she had for a Poirot novel – and events snowballed. She was called for a meeting in London at the offices of Agatha Christie Ltd, where she met Christie’s grandson Mathew Pritchard and great-grandson James.
Was it daunting meeting the family of such an iconic author? “Well, actually when I met them, I didn’t think it was going to happen, so I wasn’t that daunted. I said to them there was absolutely no reason why they should let me write a Poirot novel. I’m not, after all, Agatha Christie. “I felt a bit embarrassed being there at all, but they wanted to hear the idea.“I felt daunted when they liked it and thought, ‘Yikes! Now I actually have to do this!’” She already had a vision of the famous Belgian detective, thanks to the TV series. “In my head, Poirot looked like David Suchet. It was quite useful to have that visual reference point.
I didn’t want to try to pretend to be Agatha Christie. She’s a great, great writer, very elegant and simple. I’m probably less simple and definitely less elegant.” Hannah’s Poirot story will be told in the first-person of a newly-created character, a policeman, who knows Poirot and gets the Belgian detective involved in a case he’s working on. “I wanted to write in a style that read like a book that had been written in the Twenties. I really enjoyed writing a golden age detective novel.”
The Monogram Murders is set for release on 8 September and has already caused a stir within the publishing world. Before the book’s out, people are more interested in me than before I was writing a Poirot novel.”
• The Telling Error is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £12.99