An Interview with Minette Walters
Where did your interest in crime come from?
Two things really. Reading Grimm's Fairy Tales as a child. It's all about baddies getting their come-uppance and wicked stepmothers being rolled down the hill. Then there was the James Hanratty A6 murder case in the 1950s. (involving a man hanged for a murder that many thought he didn't commit). To hang someone with the level of doubt that existed in that case, it was so dreadful. He was one of the last people to be hanged in Britain. I was only about nine or 10-years-old then. But I was absolutely fascinated.
Why did you pick a psychological thriller as your first book?
I have always been fascinated by the challenge that crime fiction represents to an author. I wanted to know if I could carry an intricate plot for 100,000 words, and keep readers guessing, while I was portraying characters under considerable tension.
Why don't you have a series character?
I'm always asked why I chose not to create a series character like Poirot or Rebus, but I was never interested in creating a series character because I wanted to be free to tackle whatever I wanted, when I wanted, without being shackled to a particular person or place.
Of the books you have written, who is your favourite character and why?
This is always very hard to answer because I become fond of all my characters, even the murderers! It's quite hard to spend a year with people - which is how long it takes me to write a book and not end up liking their good sides. From the author's point of view, the most interesting characters to write are always the dark ones, so my favourites in purely creative terms are probably Mathilda Gillespie from 'The Scold's Bridle', whose twisted voice comes through her diaries, and Fox in 'Fox Evil' whose even more twisted voice comes through his complex love/hate/abusive relationship with 10-year-old Wolfie.
Is it true that you often don't know "whodunit" until halfway through writing a book?
It's not sometimes...it's always! It's a much more exciting way to write. The challenge is to create a puzzle for the readers. My job is to keep them guessing for as long as I can. It's like flying by wire. You embark with nothing, just a tightrope across a chasm. It's a much more enjoyable way to write because I have to work it out along with the reader. If I don't know who did it until half way, the reader is going to be fairly fazed as well. So it is very "suspenseful" for both the author and the reader.
Do you put some of your friends in your books?
Quite a lot of my friends think I have written them into my books, but, if I have, they never pick the right characters. I always say to them 'You're absolutely right' because they usually pick on the nice characters!
Do you consciously write with a specific reader in mind or do you write for yourself?
I write only for myself because anyone else would lose the plot if they could only read an average of 500 words a day!
You've spent many years as a prison visitor. Why do you go, and do you construct plots from the stories you hear there?
I find prisoners tell you so much more about themselves than friends ever do. At the dinner parties I go to, the topics are wine, mortgages, and children's education or summer holidays, and that can get a bit tedious after a while! However, I don't use the actual stories the prisoners tell me that would be extremely boring. I find I tend to use details of their personalities in constructing the motivations of my characters.
What is your writing day like?
It's a regular day. My two best working times are from early morning to about 1.30pm and then from about 5pm until 8pm or later. I have a lunch break and a rest. My husband Alec also has his office in the house. For two years now we have been working in the same house. It works amazingly well. We're both very disciplined. We take it in turns to make lunch and supper.
How long does it take you to write a book?
The Ice House took me two years to write. a year for my agent to sell it and a year before it was published. By that time I had already finished The Sculptress. It takes me about a year to write a thriller now.
Why have you been so successful?
I concentrate on the trauma that exists within families and communities when a murder is committed, and explore the tensions that necessarily arise from it. Perhaps there is a greater sense of involvement for my readers. That is not to say my stories are unremittingly bleak. I have a great faith in the redeeming power of love. And that is also reflected in the way I write. I think all my books are good "reads" which reflect my own taste. My favourite books are always the ones I can't put down.
Where are you most popular?
I seem to be popular especially in Northern Europe, Denmark, Scandinavia, France, and Germany. They have their own thriller writers but readers in Europe seem to have a passion for the British variety. They love Agatha Christie, the Germans, particularly. I think it's because they are getting quite a good view of English life through crime writing. As a crime writer you have to be very attentive to detail. I always say that if you want a good picture of English life in the 30s, you'd do better to read Agatha Christie rather than, say, Dorothy Sayers. Sayers was sort of swinging between Oxford academia and the aristocracy of Lord Peter Wimsey. I am a great Sayers fan. But Agatha Christie was dealing with suburbia, little county towns and bank managers who weren't all they should have been.
How would you describe yourself?
Essentially, I'm a workaholic who finds it physically impossible to do nothing. My philosophy of life is: Make the most of it while you've got it. Life's fun death isn't!
Sadly, Alec and I lost our three surviving parents during the last 12 months. They came to live with us five years ago when we moved to Dorset and, although all three were very frail, it was a shock to lose them so close together. This was particularly true of our mothers who died within six weeks of each other during the summer. As a result, finishing Disordered Minds was even more challenging. So, I really felt the need to re-charge my batteries, which was why I decided to take a short break from writing and publicity following its publication. However, I have now started work on book number 11 and hope to support its publication with a book tour in 2005.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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