About Nicci French
An Interview with Nicci French
More About Nicci French
Nicci French is the husband and wife team of journalist Nicci Gerrard and writer Sean French. They write seamless novels while pursuing their own writing careers, and raising a family of four young children in Suffolk. Their novels include The Memory Game, The Safe House, Killing Me Softly, Beneath the Skin, The Red Room and Losing You.
Visit Nicci French's website here.
Husband and wife crime-writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French are more used to creating situations where their characters get a grilling. But today the tables are turned, and it’s Nicci and Sean’s turn under the spotlight as they answer our quickfire questions.
What was the first crime novel you ever read?
Sean: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (although, if I’m being really honest, I should confess that it was really ‘Biggles Investigates’, in which, not altogether plausibly, Biggles leaves the air force and becomes a policeman.
Who is your favourite crime writer?
Sean: Georges Simenon
Which crime novel do you wish you’d written?
Sean: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. I think it has the cleverest story of any crime novel I’ve ever read. It’s well written as well.
Why did you choose to write crime fiction?
Nicci French: We came across the idea for our first book, the controversy over recovered memory (or ‘false memory’) and it seemed a perfect idea for a psychological thriller. That was the start of it.
Has any thriller ever made you sleep with the lights on?
Sean: No, but the ending of George Sluizer’s movie, The Vanishing, made me so frightened I thought I was having a heart attack.
When you begin – do you already know the end?
Nicci French: Usually the ending of the book is our starting point. Then the problem is how to get there.
What is the most outlandish plot idea you’ve come up with – and did it become a book?
Nicci French: We have quite a few outlandish plot ideas in our head just now.
First person or third person?
US or UK?
UK to write, US to read.
Marple or Morse?
Or Arkady Renko? (Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective.)
Amateur sleuth or DCI?
In our own work, neither.
Paperback or hardback?
Past or present?
Most of the best crime fiction is written in the present (but there are big, important exceptions: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Luther Blissett’s Q.)
Series or stand-alone?
All series go off (even Sherlock Holmes).
Chandler or Hammett?
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
Sean - Laurel and Hardy attempting to deliver a piano or to fix the radio aerial on their roof.
Nicci - We have just given in to five years of pressure from the children and got a dog - a black Labrador puppy called Maisie, who gallops sideways with her ears flapping and her tail beating and her tongue hanging out. She’s ludicrous, clumsy, greedy, grubby, eager, unconditional, absolutely without dignity or guile. And it makes me feel cheerful, just to think of her.
What are you reading at the moment?
Sean - One of my bad habits is reading lots of books at the same time. So, by my bed at the moment in a pile are: The Victorians by A.N. Wilson, the vast John Updike Early Stories 1953-1975, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, Rubicon by Tom Holland, Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, a collection of the letters and poems of Keats, The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio, In Siberia by Colin Thubron, Antwerp by Nicholas Royle and a few others. This really is a form of psychological illness.
Nicci – Keats’ poetry with my eldest daughter, How to Paint with Watercolours with my youngest, and Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi.
Which author do you most admire?
Sean - Just at the moment it’s Samuel Beckett (for me a funnier writer than P.G. Wodehouse - and with certain other qualities as well), but last month it was somebody different and next moment it will probably be someone different again.
Nicci – Charlotte Bronte because she wrote Jane Eyre which remains a shockingly passionate account of buried female desires and fears.
What’s your earliest memory?
Sean - Snow on Hampstead Heath, forests and lakes in rural Sweden.
Nicci – A dream of a woodpecker attacking my thumb, and being driven in the car at night by my parents, being half asleep and entirely safe and watching the stars out of the window.
What is your greatest fear?
Sean - Violence.
Nicci – Something happening to one of the children.
How would you like to be remembered?
Sean - As someone who is still alive.
Nicci – Giggling.
Have you ever done something you’ve really regretted?
Sean - Almost every day. But, funnily enough, my real regrets are for the things I didn’t do.
Nicci – Yes.
How do you spoil yourself?
Sean - I always think it’s important to reward myself with alcohol for the achievement of having reached the end of the day.
Nicci – Lying in a hot bath with the door locked and not answering when someone shouts for me.
What’s your favourite word/book?
Sean - I don’t have a favourite word any more than I have a favourite number. It all depends what they’re applied to. Three dry martinis: good. Three months to live: not good. If a gun were put to my head and I had to choose a favourite book, it would probably be Anna Karenina or In Search of Lost Time.
Nicci – Fizzgig (a police informer, a flirtatious young woman, a firework or spinning top that makes a spinning sound) and giggle (see above) for my word, and if I had to choose a book, Tove Jansson’s miraculous story for children and adults, Moominland in Midwinter.
Who do you turn to in a crisis?
Sean - Nicci, poor thing.
Nicci – Sean or my mother or no one at all.
What makes you angry?
Sean - People who don’t put CDs back in their cases.
Nicci – Bullying.
Have you ever had any other jobs apart from writing?
Sean - I haven’t had many jobs. I was a stage hand in the first West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar (which caused a profound aversion to the works of Andrew Lloyd-Webber), I’ve been a cleaner in a Swedish hospital, and a few editing jobs but that’s about it. The last time I worked in an office, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
Nicci – As a student I picked strawberries and hops, worked in a library, was a waitress, sold jewellery on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, taught English to Italian children. Later, I worked with emotionally disturbed children, taught very briefly in an American university, was a freelance reviewer, a magazine editor, a literary editor, a feature write...But now, I just write, which was all I ever wanted to do anyway.
Are you in love?
Sean - Yes.
Nicci – Certainly.
What’s your worst vice?
Sean - In 1972, I bought Yessongs, the triple live album by Yes. And I still listen to it occasionally, when Nicci is out of the house. It’s not something I can share with her. Also, I used to play Tetris on my Gameboy so obsessively that I would see the shapes when I closed my eyes to go to sleep.
Nicci – I nag my family. I have no patience. I’m obsessive and a binger.
What are you proudest of?
Sean - This question brings out my superstitious side. I’m sure that if I said - for example - my children, they would instantly be struck by lightning. So I’m going to take the Fifth on that one.
Nicci – The fact that almost every evening we sit down together round the kitchen table, all six of us, and eat and talk and argue.
Where do you write?
Sean - I’ve tried not to develop fetishes about writing. I’ve written on trains and in hotel rooms and with children screaming in my ear, but when all else fails I have occasionally retreated to a remote hut in deepest Sweden.
Nicci – Usually in a lovely study at the top of the house (as far away as possible from Sean’s study at the bottom of the house) - but actually, anywhere and everywhere: planes, trains, boats, bus stops, gardens, other people’s houses...
Where’s your favourite city?
Sean - London. It’s just so weird and messy and big and unmanageable. I hate it as well, in lots of ways, but it just occupies a huge part of my brain in a way that no other city ever could.
Nicci – Venice.
When was the last time you cried?
Sean - I mainly cry at films so it would probably be the bit in The Adventures of Robin Hood when Richard the Lion Heart throws off his disguise or when the orchestra play the Marseillaise in Casablanca or when the old man remembers seeing his parents on the other side of the creek at the end of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
Nicci – I cry pretty much every day, usually in a maudlin and most enjoyable kind of way.
One wish; what would it be?
Sean - I’d like to know the place where I’ll die, and then I’d never go there.
Nicci – That all my children have long, good, full, thinking, loving lives.
Did you enjoy school?
Sean - There were good times - working on plays with friends, playing rugby, discovering wonderful books - but when I look back on my schooldays, ‘enjoyment’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind.
Nicci – I liked rounders, tennis, learning poems, finding out about the causes of the first world war and the properties of a thermos flask, colouring around maps, acting in plays, making friends, writing stories, getting the giggles. I hated getting up when it was dark and sitting glumly on the bus, wearing a uniform, polishing my shoes, going for cross-country runs, being part of that close and cruel girls’ world of exclusion and belonging. And I hated revising for exams when it was sunny outside.
Everyone needs a holiday and our authors are no different. Some have had scorching holidays and some quite frankly were too unsavoury to let you into. From dream holiday destinations and holiday horror stories to top holiday survival tips and summertime memories we’ve got the low-down and we’re willing to share...
What’s your favourite summer memory?
So many different ones. But we remember years ago when the children were very small, a miraculous early summer lunch on a quayside in a Normandy fishing village. We watched the boats come in and sat and talked about stupid family things for hours surrounded by a growing chaos of mussel shells and glasses of muscadet. But then a large number of our family memories revolve around food, drink and children.
And your dream holiday destination?
Cycling between the small hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany in a rather rickety group of children, brothers, sisters, with horrible ups and wonderful downs and the reward of food and drink in the evening.
What do you always pack for summer hols?
Books, books and more books.
Do you have any favourite places you like to go in the summer months?
Every summer we go to a cottage we have in deeply rural Sweden among a growing troop of relatives. While there we pick mushrooms, blueberries, wild strawberries, raspberries, fish, take saunas and jump into the lake and we sit and talk and eat and drink in the endless northern evenings. Incidentally, we’re starting to wonder if alcohol is cropping up a little too often in these reminiscences.
What place in the world do you think everyone should visit at least once?
It has to be Venice, which on the right day, can feel like the most beautiful environment ever created by human beings. Unfortunately it sometimes does feel as if the whole world is visiting Venice. But the amazing thing is that you only need to walk for a few minutes away from St Mark’s Square or the Rialto and you’re on your own. And that’s a part of the magic: you can walk on almost deserted pathways along obscure canals and find some of the most bewitching paintings in the world in tiny scuolas and churches.
Had any holiday horror stories you can let us into?
Many years ago we went to a travel agent in November and said we wanted to go somewhere very sunny and very cheap. We arrived at an extremely squalid resort on the Tunisian coast and realized we’d forgotten to say ‘warm’ as well. Interesting country, though.
What books will you be packing in your suitcase this summer?
This is always a complicated, acrimonious matter, constantly subject to negotiation and restrictions of weight and last minute changes of plan but current contenders include: John Updike’s Early Stories, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, one of Alice Munro’s collections of stories, Life: An Unauthorized Biography by Richard Fortey, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio, the excellent Everyman edition of three Penelope Fitzgerald novels, a couple of poetry anthologies (we try and learn poems when we’re away) and one of the fine thrillers by that other husband-and-wife team (who also happen to be Swedish), Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.
Any events/festivals you are looking forward to this summer?
We’re going to the Edinburgh literary festival, so we hope that will be fun.
It’s a massive summer for sport – will Euro 2004 make you euphoric, will you be following the England Rugby team on their tour to the southern hemisphere or is Wimbledon more you thing? Or, does the idea of sport make you want to run away and hide?
Theoretically we’re not interested in sport but we always get sucked into watching Wimbledon on TV. And four years ago we found ourselves watching a rowing final at two in the morning, so we’ll probably be glued to the Olympics as well.
Nicci French, aka husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, have been enthralling readers with their unique brand of psychological thriller for years. We asked them about the difficulties and rewards of writing as a team.
Why did you decide to start writing fiction together?
In the first years we were married, we talked about the idea. We knew that people could collaborate in different ways but we were interested in whether two people could write a novel that had one voice, where you were really creating a new person.
How do you manage co-authorship? Do you sit down and write together or do you take it in shifts?
Nicci: When we talk about how we write together we tend to make it sound much neater and better managed than it actually is, it's a rather chaotic and messy business. The one thing we never do is actually sit down and write together, and the thought of one of us dictating to the other is a kind of madness, it just wouldn't work. We spend a long time talking about the shape of the novel, the story, the way the plot goes, the development of the characters and above all the voice of the narrator into whom we both have to write, and once we're satisfied with that then we'll start to write. The writing will quite often take us away from the plan, but that's what we do. One of us will write, say, the first chapter and then hand it over to the other who is absolutely free to change it, edit it, erase it, add other words to it, and then they will write the next chapter and pass it back. It's a question of moving between the two of us. We never decide in advance who's going to write what chapter, there's no division.
Sean: We felt that in order for it to work we both have to be responsible for everything, whether we (individually) have written it or not. If there's any research that needs doing for a book then we both have to do it, we both have to have all of it in our heads.
Nicci: If Sean writes something and I change absolutely nothing about that whole section, but I read it and approve it, then it becomes mine as well. It becomes a kind of Nicci French thing so we both own each word of it.
Do you ever find yourself arguing when you're writing?
Sean: I think the real argument actually comes at the earlier stage when we're working out the story. We go through a long and painful process of finding something that we're both really passionate and committed to doing, because for a book you're going to be spending a year of your life on it, so you've got to trust each other that it's something we really can do.
Nicci: We don't argue so much about the fact that words have been changed as about who's going to make the next cup of tea and who's working harder, all the domestic squabbles that every couple goes through, but we're quite respectful of each other in the act of writing. Outside of the act of writing not so much!
Why did you choose to write crime novels?
Nicci: I'm interested in crime in the sense that I'm interested in the strange path that people's lives can go down. I'm not so much interested in the criminal, I'm much more interested in the victim, the effects of the crime and what lies beneath the settled surface. Most people, when you meet them, present themselves as ordered and controlled; they have a self-possessed image. Underneath that everybody is a welter of doubt, grief, loss, nostalgia, love and hate; that's what I'm interested in. The thrillers that we write are not about fiendishly clever serial killers outwitting the police, they're about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happening in the middle of their lives, and the way that they change and have to resolve things. I think that attracts us to the thriller genre.
You chose to use a female pseudonym, and almost all your novels so far have been written from a female viewpoint. Is there a reason for this?
Sean: The first idea we had was about recovered memory, and 99% of people recovering memory in therapy are women, so it obviously had to be a woman. Once it was a woman as the main character then it just seemed obvious that if we were going to choose a name, that it should be a female name. Women have achieved a kind of independence and equality, a nominal independence, and yet so many things haven't changed. There are so many kinds of unexpected pressures that have come along with that, and that seemed an interesting road to go down.
Nicci: It is that sense of there being a cross-current between what modern women are like now; assertive, independent, strong, ambitious, and yet still very physically vulnerable, but also vulnerable to all the things that attack us from the past, all the things we're conditioned to feel. There's a kind of emotional vulnerability and intelligence, a particular kind of female intelligence that seems to be a good way of looking at the world.
Are you frequently tempted to include issues which you feel strongly about in your books?
Sean: I hope all our books deal with serious issues, things that seem important to us, but one does have this ruthless, amoral commitment to the story. If something isn't working for the story then you have to stop and ask what it's doing there. There may be things you feel really passionately about - political things - and you may be able to work that into the fabric of the book, but if it's not worked into the fabric of the book then you have to re-think it.
Husband and wife writing team Nicci French talk exclusively this month about Secret Smile. Just don’t expect them to give the game away!
What gave you the idea for Secret Smile?
We like the idea of taking ordinary emotions that all of us have experienced, or at least can understand, and pushing it further and further until it becomes really sinister. Many people have experienced the embarrassment or irritation in meeting an old girlfriend or boyfriend who you never wanted to see again. But what if they weren't just tiresome? What if you couldn't shake them off whatever you did? What if they were out for revenge? We started from there.
Tell us about Brendan, the villain of the story.
When you're in love with someone, you love everything about them, their gestures, the sound of their voice, their little habits. By contrast, we wanted to write a 'hate story'. Miranda, the narrator of the story, dislikes everything about Brendan, everything he says, everything he does. And Brendan lives up, or down, to her view of him by lacking any sense of appropriateness, of boundaries. He's a man who gets too close, who gets into everything, who says things he shouldn't. For Miranda he's like an infection she can't rid herself of. We wanted to make him a very domestic form of horror.
What about Miranda?
We like Miranda very much and we feel a bit guilty about putting her through the ordeal she has to undergo in Secret Smile. She is almost like the heroine of a farce. Unlike the beginning of our previous novel, Land of the Living, her plight at first seems almost trivial. But her problems deepen and deepen, and everything she tries only makes things worse. In the end, the only person who believes her is the reader.
At least you let her meet a nice man. But why couldn't he help her more?
It's funny how, when the leading character is a woman, and she gets into trouble, people want a strong man to come and rescue her. We don't believe in that. We hope that each Nicci French novel is different, but if there's a common theme to the books it's that you can't sit there looking cute, waiting for someone to come and save you. The morgues are full of people who are there because the cavalry didn't arrive in time. We feel that, in the end, if you're in trouble, you'd better rely on yourself. Anything else is a bonus.
I was alarmed by the ending.
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