Describe your latest book.
The book I've just finished writing is The Lying Game
, which is due out this month. It's about four women who meet at Salten House, a second-rate boarding school on the south coast of England. The title comes from a game the girls played at school, competing to tell lies to gullible friends, strangers, classmates, and teachers. They were expelled in their final year at school, and since then have scattered, doing their best to forget the events of that year, while still being held together by their pull.
When something washes up on a local beach, however, three of the women get a text from the fourth in their clique, Kate, the only one of them still living down near the school. It says simply, "I need you." And so they drop everything — lives, children, careers — and return to Salten, where it seems as if 17 years of secrets and lies have finally caught up with them.
It was huge fun to write, and enabled me to live out my childhood fantasy of attending boarding school in fine, dark style!
What was your favorite book as a child?
I had too many favorites to narrow it down, but the first world that I can remember completely falling in love with was the Green Knowe
series by Lucy M. Boston. It's about a little boy who goes to stay with his grandmother in her strange, rambling old house, Green Knowe, but it's really a love letter to the house itself, which was based on Boston's own home. It probably contributed to my fascination with place and setting.
When did you know you were a writer?
Since I could write. I started scribbling stories pretty much as soon as I could string a sentence together — and even before that, I was telling my sister long sagas about the secret lives of our teddy bears and dolls. The stories just got longer and longer until somehow they turned into books.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I write in a little room at the back of our house. It has a beautiful view of the Sussex Downs, but my desk faces a blank wall very deliberately — I think for me, it's important that the views in my head are more interesting than the real-life view.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I think this is probably something most writers share, but I definitely care more about language and a well-formed sentence than many people I know. I find it genuinely upsetting when I read bad prose, and poor use of language in newspaper articles makes me so irritated, I find it hard to concentrate on the actual piece. I don't mean typos — anyone can do that. But things like talking about a “breech in protocol” or “the need to be discrete with our intelligence” in a document published by professionals makes me annoyed out of all proportion. It's not something I particularly like about myself — I don't actually think these things are more important than the subject matter of the article, and goodness knows, I'm sure I have my fair share of errors in my own work. But it's something I can't stop myself from noticing and gritting my teeth about.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I played with Barbies until I was well into my teens. Actually sod that, I was embarrassed to admit it at the time. Now I think it probably made me a writer! They led very exciting Jackie Collins-type lives.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I don't really believe in guilty pleasures. I think if it's making you happy and it's not hurting you or anyone else, then you shouldn't feel bad about it. That said, my mum was very good at making small things (a chocolate biscuit, a scarf) into a treat, and as I got older I came to realize that part of that was not having them too regularly. We only had ice cream on Wednesdays, for example — because it was the day furthest from the weekend when you needed a pick-me-up. So it was something we really looked forward to. Maybe for that reason, I always feel a bit sneaky when I pinch a chocolate biscuit from the tin after my kids have gone to bed. When I go up to kiss them goodnight, I have to hold my breath or they smell the chocolate!
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
Here are my top five thrillers and mysteries set in schools and colleges. They're awesome settings for a mystery, both familiar and strange, and enclosed to just the right degree. It's surprising more novels aren't set in schools, I think.
Miss Pym Disposes
by Josephine Tey
I have written before about my love for Josephine Tey. One of the things I like about her is how very different all her novels are. This one is set in a women's physical education college, and Tey makes great play of the dictum, mens sana in corpore sano.
The healthy body is certainly there — but what of the healthy minds? Both the strength and the weakness of the novel is the fact that although we know it's a murder mystery, the actual murder doesn't occur until a long way through the book, which slows the pace a little; but at the same time, by the time it comes about, we have learned to care for and know, intimately, many of the people in this little world, and the idea that any of them could be either killer or victim is doubly shocking.
The Secret History
by Donna Tartt
No secret either of my adoration of this novel. It's not a whodunit, for we know right from the outset who is killed and the narrator's participation in the event. All the characters are beautifully drawn, but the true star, to my mind, is the love letter to the academic cloisters that Tartt writes alongside the novel. Every brick, every leaf, every acre of Hamden College seems entirely real.
by Dorothy L. Sayers
is not my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers novel — that would have to be Strong Poison
but it is an enormously satisfying read, not least because after five books worth of persuasion, Harriet finally agrees to marry Peter. However, that is not the only reason to love it, for it is also quietly, determinedly feminist. In many ways, the book is an examination of the long struggle for women to be treated as academic and intellectual equals at Oxford and Cambridge — a struggle Sayers herself was intimately acquainted with — and which is mirrored both in Harriet's own struggle to decide whether to renounce her personal and intellectual freedom in accepting Peter's proposal, and in the crime she eventually comes to investigate.
Murder Most Unladylike
by Robin Stevens
The Lying Game
came, in part, out of my own fascination with boarding school stories as a child, and my later realization of how different the actual experience of being at boarding school would be vs. the idyllic Enid Blyton
version. So for that reason it seems appropriate to include Robin Stevens's gorgeous mystery series aimed at readers aged 8-10, which I would have absolutely gobbled up as a child, and which no doubt would have fed my obsession even further. The books nod towards Blyton and Christie
, but also grapple with questions of racism, class, and prejudice with a very modern sensibility.
Notes on a Scandal
by Zoë Heller
This last one is a real cheat because — prepare to gasp — I've never read it! I know. Shocking for a writer of psychological thrillers. But when I put a call out on Twitter for recommendations for books set in schools and colleges, it was easily one of the top two or three titles recommended, and it made me remember all the good things I'd heard about it. It is, of course, a little out on a limb in one other way, because it's not set in, but rather around a school (the school in question not being residential). But that's probably semantics, and it's now firmly on my TBR pile.
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grew up in Sussex, on the south coast of England. After graduating from Manchester University, she moved to Paris, before settling in North London. She has worked as a waitress, a bookseller, a teacher of English as a foreign language, and a press officer, and is the internationally bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood
, The Woman in Cabin 10
, and most recently, The Lying Game
. She is married with two small children.