Questions by Harriet
Harriet: Hi Laura – thanks for agreeing to answer some questions. I really loved The Other Woman and have some questions specifically about that. But first, our readers always enjoy hearing about how peoples’ writing lives began. When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
Laura: I don’t remember making a conscious decision about wanting to write fiction, just as I don’t remember learning to read. It may not be a coincidence that the first book I remember reading for myself, The Tale of a Fierce Bad Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, was, in its own way, a crime novel. Being from the sort of middle-class family where an apology is the default position for everything, the fierce bad rabbit swiping the other rabbit’s carrot (‘He doesn’t say thank you. He just takes it.’) made an enormous impression on me – probably more than anything else I’ve read since. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the desire to write was always present, waiting for me to stop dithering and act on it, which I finally did in my late twenties (although it was another seven years before the result – my first novel – was published).
Harriet: Can you tell us something about your working day? How disciplined are you, and when, where, and how do you like to write?
Laura: I have three different jobs (writing, reviewing crime fiction for the Guardian, and teaching on the Crime/Thriller MA course at City University, London), so I am usually juggling several deadlines at once, and it’s necessary to be fairly disciplined in order to get everything done on time. Fiction-writing days tend to involve starting work at about 9am and working straight through until lunch, which I try to make as late as possible because my concentration is never as good in the afternoon. It picks up again in the early evening, so I can go on for several more hours, but 9pm is about my limit for useful output. I aim for 1,500 words, but it’s usually nearer the 1,000 mark. I tend to speed up after I’ve written three-quarters of a book – knowing you’re on the home straight makes you faster. There are always interruptions – dogs, phone, doorbell – and I use these as an excuse to make cups of coffee. I can write anywhere, and I’m not precious about needing absolute quiet in which to work – which is just as well, because I live in London.
Harriet: Although your publisher describes The Other Woman as a psychological thriller, it’s at least equally a black comedy. I believe this is your first venture into this kind of writing – could you say something about how the idea came to you?
Laura: I’ve always liked a dark comedy. Dr Strangelove, Harold & Maude and Kind Hearts & Coronets are amongst my favourite films, and my earliest memories of theatre-going were of laughing until I gasped for breath at Joe Orton’s Loot (sadly, the brilliant Leonard Rossiter, who played Inspector Truscott, died during the run) and at the first production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which starred the wonderful Paul Eddington. I often wondered, over the years, if it might be possible to do something similar in book form, but I could never see how one could get around the absence of the visual element.
As with many writers, all my novels begin with scribbles in notebooks – something I’ve heard or seen or read that appeals to me. Some things seem to require more mental ‘composting’ than others, and often you need two ideas to combine in a way that creates a story. In the case of The Other Woman, the impetus came from a newspaper column by the late Simon Hoggart about ‘round robin’ Christmas letters, and from a cutting sent to me by a friend about a murder case in America in which a chest freezer played a large part. I decided that it would be possible to couple them together in order to create a blackly comic take on the domestic noir novel: every time the protagonist thinks she has solved a problem, three more appear in its place, and, because there is a dead body involved, the stakes are very high indeed. The more I thought about it, the more I saw parallels between crime fiction and comedy: a character with a truly hideous dilemma is the perfect subject for both.
As you say, I’ve never written anything quite like The Other Woman before, and it taught me how meticulously accurate you need to be in order to create chaos –farce has to be one of the most difficult art forms there is.
Harriet: The novel takes place in a very upmarket Norfolk village, colonised by incomers from the city. Is this an environment that was familiar to you, or did you need to do lots of research?
Laura: Compared to other books I’ve written, The Other Woman didn’t require a great deal of research. I already knew North Norfolk fairly well – in fact, my previous novel, The Wrong Girl, was also set there. Most of the ‘research’ was very enjoyable – I wrote part of the book while staying in Wells-Next-the-Sea, and took my dogs (and my notebook) for a lot of long walks to get a good sense of the place. I also had to learn some technical stuff about yachts, and quite a lot about the effects of freezing on cadavers.
Harriet: I’d love to ask you about the ending but can’t really do so without spoilers. But I did wonder whether you’d always planned for things to end this way, or whether you’d considered any alternatives?
Laura: It was really a question of whether or not the protagonist could be allowed to get away with what she’d done. I plotted the book up to about three-quarters of the way through, but left the ending open, so that it would be a mystery to me while I was writing… Sometimes you just have to trust your subconscious to get on with things, rather than worrying away at them, and this is what happened – I woke up one morning knowing what the denouement should be.
Harriet: So, what’s next for Laura Wilson? Are you planning another novel? Any chance of another outing for Stratton?
Laura: I’ve decided to take a temporary break from crime fiction and try my hand at an entirely different sort of novel, which is scary but great fun. I’m sure I will write about DI Stratton again at some point – it’s a question of finding the right thing for him to do next.
Harriet: And finally, what are you reading at the moment, and what would you recommend to our readers?
Laura: The crime fiction titles I’ve enjoyed most this year have been The Dry by Jane Harper, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, and several novels by Pascal Garnier. Other than that, favourite recent reads have been Blindness by Jose Saramago (difficult but rewarding), and a YA novel by Jack Gantos called The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs (magnificently bizarre).
Harriet: Many thanks, Laura.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Read her review of The Other Woman here.
Laura Wilson, The Other Woman (Quercus, 2017). 978-1786485212, 384pp., hardback.
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