Interview with Sophie Hannah

The crime writer on how to teach mystery writing, why she loves self-help books, and the literary appeal of a campus murder

November 26, 2020
Crime author Sophie_Hannah
Source: Onur Pinar

Sophie Hannah is one of the UK’s leading writers of crime fiction whose many books include “continuation novels” featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. She studied English and American literature at the University of Manchester and has combined her writing career with a series of honorary fellowships at the University of Oxford and now Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. She recently created – and started recruiting for – Cambridge’s first master’s degree in crime and thriller writing.

Where and when were you born?
St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, 1971.

How has your upbringing shaped what you write about? 
I write a lot about families with all kinds of strangeness and subtexts and power struggles going on within them and this is bound to be partly as a result of coming from a very large extended family about which I could tell you many implausible stories that are completely true. A great example is that when my paternal grandmother and her third husband decided they couldn’t bear each other any more, instead of getting divorced, which they couldn’t afford to do, they got lawyers in to divide up their bungalow legally – rather than physically – into two halves. It was only after the legal division was in place that they realised my ex-step-grandfather’s half of the bungalow didn’t have a door in it. He climbed in and out of a window – such was my grandmother’s hatred of him, she wouldn’t even let him use her door.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was both incredibly conscientious and a complete slacker. I worked very hard at all of my creative writing modules, in my novel-writing MA and for all the courses taught by Michael Schmidt – a truly inspiring teacher who went on to publish my poetry; and for the rest, which just didn’t inspire me, I did very little indeed.

Your initial success was as a poet. What led you largely to switch to crime fiction? 
I didn’t really see it as a switch, although I first became known as a poet. Poetry and mystery stories had been equal obsessions of mine since childhood; I had always written both. It’s just that I got better at writing poetry sooner!

You have had honorary positions at a series of Oxbridge colleges. What did these require you to do?
None of these positions has involved any specific duties or responsibilities, though I’ve done lots: writing workshops, literary events, and I’ve sponsored the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for three years. As a result of my contrary personality I find nothing motivates me more to work hard for a college than them saying: “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

What kinds of exercises will you give your master’s students? 
All kinds! We look at ways to misdirect the reader while still playing fair – this is crucial in crime fiction, clueing and building suspense. And more holistic methods, too: my blurb-first approach, where you start by writing the most tempting, exciting blurb possible for your book as a sort of mission statement you have to live up to; my “gnocchi” method of planning novels, which is a half-plan/half-write process; and my “literary diagnostics” approach to editing, which is really effective at curing manuscript maladies. It’s the psychological aspects involved in being a writer which particularly interest me, and which set this course apart from similar offerings.

Is it a problem that courses in creative writing can promote particular styles of writing at the expense of others? 
No. Every student on any course has the chance to think for themselves and go against the norm, if there is one. You can be a maverick while still learning loads from your creative writing MA; you can just use what you learn to fuel your originality rather than becoming dull and conformist.

You have just published a book in praise of self-help books, Happiness, A Mystery: Ans 66 Attempts to Solve It (Profile Books). Why is the genre so appealing to you?
The self-help book which turned me on to the genre, and completely changed my life, was Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It presented me with an alternative way of looking at my world and everything in it which was revolutionary; I saw that I didn’t need to negatively judge people who’d annoyed or upset me – they were just doing the best they could, and that it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the events in our lives which cause our feelings rather than the events themselves. The more self-help books I read, the more I found that I was creating much less suffering for myself.

How would you respond to the disdain that many academics and others feel for the self-help industry? 
I think it’s hilarious that I’ve ended up in four genres that some people like to look down upon: poetry that rhymes, scans and makes sense; crime fiction that is very puzzle-and-solution driven; continuation novels; and self-help books! I have enormous love and respect for all of these things. What other people like to think about them is entirely their business.

Do you see the appeal of the classic detective fiction set in universities? 
There is special, brilliant cosiness and atmosphere in a university setting. I love Inspector Morse, where all the murderers have very college-specific motives, such as the wrong don getting the coveted personal chair in classical civilisation.

Should universities do more to promote the creation and appreciation of crime fiction?
Only if they want to! I personally loved being an English and American literature student at the University of Manchester and secretly ignoring all the highbrow literature we were told to read while devouring Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and Wendy Cope instead. Readers will read and appreciate the books they enjoy; I don’t think universities necessarily need to push in any particular direction.


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