Writer’s Passport: Jenny Milchman Talks with Sophie Hannah

By Jenny Milchman

The stories that spark deepest in my imagination are the opposite of traditional thrillers. High stakes on a small stage. The intimate family drama, with the dial turned up to 11. That’s where all the really bad sh–stuff happens. Even without tactical weapons, multiple foreign locales, and billion dollar intrigue, I find these tales the scariest. Because they could happen to you or me. And no one brings this threatening truth alive better than Sophie Hannah.


Jenny Milchman: You were at the forefront of what has become one of the hottest selling genres of literature today: domestic mystery, family thriller, psychological suspense. Titles such as Little Face, The Wrong Mother, and many, many others are exemplars of this genre. Does this feel like a good description of your work? Was the choice to write it conscious in any way?

Sophie Hannah: I’m very happy with the label of psychological suspense, and/or psychological crime. I was influenced by brilliant writers such as Joy Fielding (See Jane Run) and Nicci French (The Memory Game), whose novels were mysteries but with a strongly psychological focus. They were the people – along with Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Agatha Christie – who made me want to write crime fiction, and they are all authors who are obsessed with warped psychology and unusual motivations. So, yes, psychological suspense feels like the right description. Domestic mystery and family thriller are not labels I’d ever use, and they’re not labels I like. Both sound reductive, and make me think of narrowly focused books that are all set in one family’s kitchen. All my books involve people outside the home as well as inside it, and many relationships that aren’t familial, and the action/focus is never confined to one house. I’d be happy with the label human relationships thriller but that sounds a bit odd!

Then again, I might reformulate that question, and say you were at the forefront of a resurgence of one of the hottest genres. As literary critics such as Sarah Weinman have shown us, domestic suspense arguably has some of the oldest of literary roots. Where do you see the genre beginning?

I don’t know when it began, but it’s certainly true that psychological suspense focused on human relationships is not a new thing. Agatha Christie’s Endless Night is a psychological thriller and so is Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. You could argue that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is too.

You write standalones such as A Game for All the Family and your latest, Did You See Melody? (Keep Her Safe in the U.S.), and also feature DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse in a series. How do you decide that a crime will become one of Charlie and Simon’s cases versus writing about it in some other way?

With each story, I just instinctively know if it’s a case for Simon and Charlie or a standalone – or a case for Hercule Poirot, about whom I now also write! Almost always, an idea occurs to me complete with its ideal detective/team of detectives. In A Game for All the Family, for example, I knew from early on that the role the police would play would be that of being generally useless and unhelpful. Simon and Charlie are not useless, therefore they couldn’t be in it! I only put them in books where they’re going to brilliantly solve the mystery. A Game for All the Family was better suited to being a standalone because Justine, the heroine, has to solve the mystery and save her family all by herself. 

Your books start with some of the most intriguing premises in all of crime fiction (in my humble opinion). Crib death that may not be. A stolen vacation that leads to a lie. And more. Do you use the premise as a jumping off point when envisioning a new novel, or does something else get you to sit down and write?

I’m so glad you like my intriguing plot hooks! Yes, I absolutely am inspired by weird, outlandishly mysterious situations that will make the reader think: ‘What could possibly be the explanation for this? I can’t think of anything that would explain it.’ I think that’s so much more compelling and addictive than starting a mystery novel simply with ‘Here’s a dead body? Who killed this person?’ – because that’s a question where you can easily think of any number of possible answers. The apparently unanswerable question is far more compelling, in my opinion. What I love about crime fiction is the mystery – I literally adore mysteries, in real life as well as in fiction. Nothing excites me like an unsolved mystery. So I find scenarios that, – however apparently impossible, are actually happening, and an explanation must be found – more thrilling than anything else. Having said that, some of my novels start with an idea for a brilliant solution to a mystery. I always either start with what I think is an amazing beginning, or an amazing ending.

Please tell us how Agatha Christie came into your life–first as a reader, and then when you were given the opportunity to breathe life into Poirot again.

It all started with a lucky coincidence of timing. My agent was having lunch with an editor from Harper Collins and mentioned in passing that he had an author who would be perfect for writing an Agatha Christie continuation novel – he knew I was a huge Agatha fan. The editor said, ‘No, the family definitely don’t want anyone to write a continuation novel.’ Then, the very next day, that same editor had a meeting with members of the Christie family, and at that meeting, Mathew Prichard (Agatha’s grandson and the then chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd) said, ‘This will surprise you, but we’ve decided we might want a continuation novel after all.’ The next thing I knew, I was being wheeled out to pitch to a room full of expectant ears. There was a particular idea for a plot and solution to a mystery that I’d had, and I’d tried for years to make it work in one of my contemporary thrillers but I just couldn’t lever it in there. I kept shelving it and thinking I’d use it later. What I’d always liked about this idea is that it felt very Agatha Christie-ish. I realized it would be perfect for Poirot, and that it hadn’t worked in any of my contemporary novels because it wasn’t a contemporary psychological thriller idea – it was a classic Golden Age mystery idea! Mathew Prichard and his son James (the current executive chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd) liked my story idea and could see that I was a devoted Agatha fan, so they asked me to write a new Poirot novel. And then another, and now two more – I’ve already started work on my third!

The first Zailer and Waterhouse came out in the U.S. in 2007, if I’m not mistaken. What kinds of changes have you experienced in the industry between now and then?

Well, more ebooks sell now, and there are fewer book store chains. There’s no Borders any more. Self-publishing is now a valid and smart route for writers, whereas when I started out it was regarded as a weird ego-trippy kind of thing to do. I feel that now things are much more encouraging and promising for new writers – you have two possible routes in: traditional and self-publishing. When I started out, if you weren’t lucky enough to attract the attention of an agent and an editor, you were in trouble. I think it’s great that there are now more ways for new writers to succeed, more channels for them to pursue.

You’ve also experienced a range of publishers, from the independent Soho Press here in the U.S. to your current U.S. publisher, William Morrow. What differences and similarities do you find between these two publishing models?

I think publishing models – whether your publisher is big, small or medium-sized – are less important than individual people who one might be working with. If talented, trustworthy, original-minded, hard-working, inspired people are involved, that’s all you really need, and it’s what every writer wants, I think.

The Thrill Begins is proud to count many debut and emerging writers amongst its readers. What advice would you give an author just starting out today?

If you have a great story to tell, have confidence in your story and don’t let anyone put you off or crush your confidence. Many people might try, often with well-meaning advice. Smile politely, say ‘Thank you for your most valuable input’, and then completely ignore them.

Jenny Milchman is the USA Today bestselling and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author of four novels, including the forthcoming Wicked River. She sits on the board of directors of International Thriller Writers, is a member of the Sisters in Crime speakers bureau, and founded the holiday Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated in all fifty states and on five continents.

To learn more about Wicked River, click on the cover below:

Previously in Writers’ Passport:

Tom Sweterlitsch talks with Israel Centeno

Rob Brunet talks with John Burdett

E.A. Aymar talks with Leye Adenle

S.J.I. Holliday talks with Alexandra Sokoloff

Mark Pryor talks with Tana French

J.J. Hensley talks with Ian Rankin