Katy Gardner is a graduate of Cambridge University, and received a Ph.D. from The London School of Economics. She is currently a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex. Losing Gemma is her first novel.
About Katy Gardner
An Interview with Katy Gardner
More About Katy Gardner
Katy Gardner goes under the spotlight...
What was the first crime novel you ever read?
Probably ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier when I was a teenager. Does that count?
Who is your favourite crime writer?
Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine
Which crime novel do you wish you’d written?
The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Why did you choose to write crime fiction?
I love really gripping stories. I also find the darker side of humanity infinitely more interesting than romance or comedy.
Has any thriller ever made you sleep with the lights on?
The Collector, by John Fowles
If you were stranded on a desert island – which fictional character would you most want to be stranded with and why?
James Bond. He’d be bound to have some high tech gadget that would send signals to a passing boat.
If you had to compare your books to any author, who would it be?
Maybe Nicci French, or Barbara Vine...
When you begin – do you already know the end?
Always. That’s the most important part.
What is the most outlandish plot idea you’ve come up with – and did it become a book?
A psychic cleaner. It became a book, but not one that was published!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m at the ideas stage at the moment, so shall keep it to myself...
First person or third person?
US or UK?
Marple or Morse?
Amateur sleuth or DCI?
Paperback or hardback?
Past or present?
A mixture, usually
Series or stand-alone?
Chandler or Hammett?
Please give your top three crime writing tips:
1) Start with the ending
2) Make sure your characters have strong and easily understood motivations
3) Plot is all.
We asked Katy Gardner to give us an insight into the inspiration for her debut novel, Losing Gemma, hailed as 'a real page turner', 'unputdownable' and 'an addictive novel' by booksellers across the UK.
Travel, especially to South Asia, has always been an important part of my life. After finishing my A-levels I journeyed with my sister on a double decker bus from Earl's Court to Kathmandu, then spent six months roaming around India with a school friend, eventually returning overland again through post-revolutionary Iran.
It was a life changing trip, and one which has strongly influenced Losing Gemma: in retrospect, like Esther, I was both terribly enthusiastic and terribly naïve. Once at university, anthropology gave me a structure for my yearnings for other places. It also provided me with a framework for analysing and understanding the world, something which has never left me.
Most importantly, perhaps, the 'fieldwork' required in order to complete a doctorate in the subject involved living with and participating in the life of a community, a privileged opportunity to learn the language and really get inside a place. I decided to work in Bangladesh and subsequently lived in a village in Sylhet over 1987-1988. My experiences there have been written up both in academic form and also as a book of short stories, published by Virago in 1991 (Songs at the River's Edge: stories from a Bangladeshi village; currently published by Pluto Press).
The experience changed my life. Whilst at times I found my transformation into the daughter of a Muslim farming family incredibly challenging, I shall never forget the friendship I received there. Since leaving, I have returned many times to the village - most recently in 1999, this time with a husband and two small children in tow!
I should add that I have also done fieldwork in Britain, working with Bengali elders at a day centre in Tower Hamlets. Losing Gemma is not, however, about anthropology, but about how two young Western travellers relate to India and in writing it I was drawing most closely on my earlier travels rather than my experiences in Bangladesh. Perhaps the novel reflects my changing relationship with the sub-continent, a consciousness that the world is not always how it is imagined to be. Most of all, however, the book is about friendship, about moving on and growing up.
Story Ideas are like buses...
Somebody once said that story ideas are like buses. It’s not so much you’re you wait for hours and three pull up at the same time, although that may happen! Rather, they have a tendency to arrive without their destinations clearly displayed on the front. If you clamber aboard the first bus that comes along, you may be committing yourself to a year or more of work on an idea that simply isn’t strong enough, a worrying prospect. A decision eventually has to be taken, so you climb on, a little uncertain of where you’re going, but full of anticipation. I shouldn’t labour the metaphor, but it does illuminate the difficulties of choosing a central idea for a novel. The commitment is huge, and the hazards loom large. What one hopes for are Eureka! moments, when a fully formed plot falls into one’s lap, like a gift from the Gods. In my experience, what actually happens is rather different. That isn’t to say that those moments of excitement, when a great idea suddenly plops into one’s mind, don’t happen. But the process of putting the fragments of disparate ideas together into a story is far more laborious and, at times, frustrating than one might think. Maybe this is particularly the case with thrillers, where a carefully planned plot is vital for the book’s success. One might have a fabulously scary opening, but without an incredibly satisfying ending, and some great twists and turns along the way, it isn’t a contender. To go back to the metaphor, the bus may initially head for the open road, but before you know it, you’ll be dumped back at the depot.
So where to start? When I’m at the ‘ideas’ rather than the writing stage of a book, I’m like a magpie, swooping on anything that sparkles. Particular places tend to yield more rewards than others. My books tend to be preoccupied with apparently normal relationships that turn nasty. With my first novel, Losing Gemma, (about two girls backpacking in India; one mysteriously disappears) I wanted to write about the dark side of female relationships: the manipulation, backstabbing and jealousies that exist not only in the playground, but amongst grown women too. This theme didn’t come to me in a thunderbolt; it was something that I’d become interested in over the years and that I hadn’t found described in many other novels. Like my other books, the territory of dysfunctional relationships, was inspired by my own experiences. Who amongst us hasn’t fallen out with a friend, or harboured regrets about less than perfect behaviour? I’m also fantastically nosy about peoples’ lives, and what makes them tick (which is why in my ‘day job’ I’m a social anthropologist), and like nothing better than hunkering down with a friend for a good gossip. It’s in the normal, everyday stuff of people’s lives and relationships, with their darkness as well as their light, that my stories are rooted.
My starting points are usually actual incidents. One of the central scenes in Losing Gemma, in which the main character, Esther, becomes lost in the jungle, was inspired not only by my own experiences of backpacking in India, but also by a story told me by someone I knew. Having taken a tourist bus to visit an ancient Mayan site in Central America, he stepped off the track and became hopelessly lost. The bus returned to the capital without him and he spent the next twenty four hours roaming the jungle, hopelessly disorientated, until he finally stumbled upon a village and, several adventures later, found his way back to the main road. A week or so after hearing this, I read a story in the newspaper about a British soldier who’d survived for several months in the jungle in Borneo. One of the central scenes of Losing Gemma was crystallised.
My second book, The Mermaid’s Purse is about student teacher relationships. I’m a university lecturer, and whilst I’ve never been stalked, have a friend who was drawn into an increasingly disturbing series of incidents with a student, culminating in the student using fake blood to convince his tutor that he was ill. Strangely, these real life events coincided with the book’s publication, so I couldn’t be accused of exploiting my friend’s predicament! Lecturers are exposed to a large number of young people, some of whom, inevitably, suffer personal crises during their courses. Their tutors are prime objects for projection, becoming objects of love, or of hate. In writing The Mermaid’s Purse I was also inspired by something that really did happen to a well-known academic. An obsessive student entered her home and, after proclaiming her love, tied her up. In the end, all was well, but the story got me thinking about the vulnerability of lecturers, and the openness of university life, in which anyone could walk onto a campus and claim to be a student.
The news is a great source of ideas, especially for thriller writers. I’ve always had a somewhat macabre fascination with true-life crime stories. Forensic information, gleaned from the newspaper or the T.V, can add vivid detail to a scene. In my latest book, Hidden, for example, the police have a breakthrough when they find minute blood splatters on a recently painted wall. The magpie had been at work here; the newly decorated walls, hastily painted to cover up blood stains, were part of a real case that I’d read about. It’s in news stories that one hears about the personality disorders that contribute to real murders, too. The classifications of psychologists: ‘borderline’ personalities, ‘obsessive compulsives’, ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and so on, belie a range of unpleasant characters, many of whom are able to function perfectly well in everyday life, but work outside the usual morality and norms of the rest of us. Perhaps it’s because people with personality disorders can blend so seamlessly into the fabric of normal life, that their cases are so interesting to thriller writers. It’s these characters, often charming high achievers, with apparently normal relationships, that coldly shoot dead their parents, or fabricate grandiose lies and deceptions. Such disorders are hard to spot; they are therefore inherently frightening, for until disaster has struck, it’s often unclear where the danger lies. Such a character lies at the heart of Hidden.
Places are important sources of inspiration too. For most good thrillers, a creepy or atmospheric setting is vital. Would Don’t Look Back have been so terrifying were it not set in Venice? And can you imagine the action of The Shining taking place in a Trusthouse Forte Inn off the M25? Losing Gemma is set in India, where I had travelled as a teenager, and which I still love to visit. I was particularly intrigued in the backpacker scene and the perils that it contained for my naïve and arrogant central character Esther, as well as the vastness of India, where it’s so easy to disappear. After Losing Gemma, and an academic career based on research in Bangladesh, I wanted to set the next two books closer to home. The Mermaid’s Purse takes place in Brighton. In this book, not only the seedier sides of the city, but also the sea play an important role. Hidden is set in a small town in North Kent where I lived during the early 1990s. It was a strange place, in an oddly cut off part of the country. Like my central character, Mel, I used to walk along a small river that led through a boat yard, snaking through the surrounding mud flats until eventually spilling into the Thames Estuary. Boats rotted in the mud and there was never anyone around. It always seemed to be windy, too: the cry of herring gulls drowned by the frantic clicking of masts and flapping of sails. One building in particular attracted my attention: a huge, derelict Victorian warehouse. It’s been renovated now, just as Mel and her husband are trying to do during the course of the novel, but back then it seemed filled with ghosts. I’d always wanted to write about it, and when I was planning Hidden, this seemed like the natural setting for the story.
Whilst ideas may be stolen from many sources, something inherently nasty has to be at the heart of a thriller. Losing Gemma is about a young backpacker who vanishes in a distant far-flung corner of India. The Mermaid’s Purse involves an obsessive stalker. Hidden opens with what parents dread the most: the abduction of a child. Finding this idea was simple. I focussed on what scared me the most. As the mother of three, who’s been reduced to blind panic within minutes of losing sight of a toddler in a playground, the disappearance of one of my kids is probably the most terrifying thing that could happen. The search for Poppy, Mel’s daughter, drives the action of Hidden. I obviously can’t divulge the ending!
What next? Well, I’ve climbed aboard another bus. Let’s hope I wind up somewhere exciting...
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?
Summer of 95. It was breathtakingly hot, and I was expecting my first child. I was living in one of Brighton's most beautiful garden squares, and was writing my first (unpublished!) novel. A blissful summer of long hot days on the beach, few responsibilities and delicious expectancy.
And your dream holiday destination?
Somewhere tropical, with beautiful scenery and loads of interesting culture. Perhaps Cuba? Or India, which I absolutely adore and can never get enough of.
What do you always pack for summer hols?
Loads of books of course!
Do you have any favourite places you like to go in the summer months?
I live at the bottom of the Sussex Downs, which will always be my favourite place, whatever the season. Apart from that, the beach at Ovingdean, near Brighton is a great place in the summer holidays. I always bump into a gang of friends, and there are enough rock pools to keep my kids happily occupied for hours!
What place in the world do you think everyone should visit at least once?
The Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, it could almost be Heaven. Everyone should have a taste of India, for its exuberance, its cultural diversity and its ability to make one question life back in the West
Had any holiday horror stories you can let us into?
Find Books by Katy Gardner
Coming back from the Maldives with my two-year-old daughter and husband, the plane we were on had just taken off after refuelling in Abu Dhabi when there was a huge bang. The plane filled with smoke, and on one side of the plane we could clearly see flames spurting out! Not a good moment, I can assure you. The engine had exploded, the captain told the terrified passengers. But we weren't to worry. He and the crew had practised this type of emergency many times over in a simulator. In the end we had to do an emergency landing, as the entire fleet of Abu Dhabi's fire engines rushed to meet the plane. All was fine, but never before have I been so happy to get off a plane. As a habitually nervous passenger, that's saying something!
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