M.R Hall Interview for Books and Reviews – July 2012
1. Nowadays it is still very common to find men as main characters in crime novels, even when they are written by women. Why did you choose to have a woman as a main character?
It wasn’t really a conscious choice to have a female central character. For ten years before writing my first novel I had been a screenwriter, and as such, very programmed to plan everything meticulously in advance – you have to sell the idea before you write a word of a script, of course. When I sat down to write a book it was a liberating experience – no one to please except myself and the audience. No executives picking over every word! I actually set out to write a male character, but Jenny Cooper loomed into view, arriving very quickly complete with all her emotional baggage. Perhaps there is a lot of me in her? – I certainly suffered very badly with anxiety symptoms when I was a younger man. But in many ways she is very different from me. I expect she would drive me mad if I actually met her.
One thing writing a female character has given me is a measure of distance; I can write intimately from her perspective without her being a thinly disguised ‘me’.
I also wanted a character who was compassionate and crusading while being personally very vulnerable. This set of qualities didn’t set so easily with a man. We expect men to be classical heroes, whereas I wanted someone who could experience all the usual insecurities and more. Having witnessed the working lives of many professional women – including my own wife – I could see that in fiction women were often portrayed as highly competent and not suffering from all the myriad emotional and practical problems which go with being a mother and holding down a career. Many women carry out these dual roles heroically – I wanted some of that in Jenny, even though she often fails.
2. Jenny is a very complex and troubled character yet we sympathize with her and, in my case, love and admire her. How did you get to make her so flawed yet so interesting and human?
Firstly, that is one of the nicest things anyone has said about Jenny Cooper! All I can say is that I am trying to write her from a standpoint of truthfulness. I am a married man who has spent much of his life living with women – my mother, then my grandmother, then my wife. The influence of my father and step-father has been rather less. I am quite an emotional person, I suppose, but also very rational at the same time, so have got very used to analyzing emotions and feelings. I am particularly aware through my own life’s journey of how powerfully formative experiences operate unseen beneath the surface throughout one’s life. I wanted to explore all that through Jenny.
3. You were a lawyer: how did you get into writing fiction?
I was a lawyer, but becoming a lawyer was probably the aberration! My father is a classical musician, my mother and step-father writers. My upbringing was sometimes a little disrupted – family break-up, then moving in with my mother and step-father – and so I came to associate the creative life with emotional chaos. I wanted something sure and steady, so chose law. But after a few years my instincts re-surfaced and I started to try to write screenplays. This was simply because they were a shorter form of writing which was easier to handle alongside an incredibly busy working life. After three or four years of learning the mechanics of writing (mostly through trial and error), I produced a script that was fairly respectable – a legal thriller. It didn’t get made (spec scripts from unknown writers never do), but it did prove to be a calling card, and some months later I pitched a story to the ITV show KAVANAGH QC. The producer commissioned a script, it got made, I did several more for them, and suddenly I had a screen writing career. It was a relatively lucky start, but the years that followed were always tough. Nothing ever runs smoothly in screen writing – having a book a year to write is wonderfully relaxing in comparison.
4. I found the novel to be very critical of certain social problems. Did you think your novel could denounce them and make readers more aware?
I’m political with a small ‘p’ in my writing. I always have a point to make which is about something other than the story, and this has always been the case with what I have written for the screen as well as in my books. Drama and fiction are ultimately more powerful if more indirect tools than straight journalism or non-fiction.
THE CORONER was a spin on a story I had been wanting to tell since I first began working as a barrister and found myself working with juvenile criminals. I found the way the criminal justice system treated these damage kids truly shocking. They had all been horribly deprived and often abused, and then found themselves locked up in very uncaring institutions denied the love, affection and attention they needed to stand any chance of becoming functioning adults capable of looking after themselves and others. I became incensed that Britain is second only to the US among Western democracies in its imprisonment of teenagers (and under the last government, the age for imprisonment was dropped to 12).
Much of feeling about our treatment of young offenders went into THE CORONER. From the reactions I have had, I think readers appreciated the sentiments I tried to convey. My mission as a novelist is very much to deal with serious issues through a popular medium.
5. Are you a fan of crime fiction? What are you reading right now?
One of the few problems of writing crime fiction is that you have to be careful how much you read of other writers in your genre in case you are subconsciously influenced or find yourself imitating them. That said, I adore Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, James Ellroy and Scott Turow in particular. Elmore Leonard remains my favourite through his sheer ability to create characters you absolutely believe in. On this side of the Atlantic, I would advise readers to have a look at the novels of GF Newman – he created a whole new genre of British crime fiction in the 1970s, and his recent book, ‘Crime and Punishment’ is a fantastic sweeping narrative loaded with insight.
I have never read Stig Larsson, but finally picked up ‘The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest’ three nights ago and have become glued. The writing is elegant and contemporary. I do love crime (and any other fiction) that gives you insight into the world as it is now.
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Thank you very much, Matthew!