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Find more The Booklist Interview
Mo Hayder, an award-winning author of crime fiction, has written six novels to date; her latest, Skin, published in February 2010, is the fourth to feature Detective Inspector Jack Caffery. Hayder’s characters are brilliantly crafted and impossible to forget, and her fiction explores the bleakest side of the human psyche. For more information about Hayder, check her Web site.
BKL: During a panel discussion held at the 2008 Bouchercon in Baltimore, one of the questions posed to you and fellow panelists Natasha Cooper, Ann Cleeves, and Val McDermid related to writing as a kind of marketable catharsis. Do you think writers write for catharsis? Do you think people read for catharsis?
HAYDER: I happen to think it’s more likely to be the writers writing for catharsis rather than the other way around [laughter]. I think readers, particularly in this genre, read because—whether they admit it to themselves or not—they are scared on some level and are looking for pointers. They’re scared about some unidentifiable threat out there, and they’re searching for role models to help them cope with that violence. If they read about a character who is subjected to a violent experience, they’re very often finding clues in that character’s response to the violence and maybe even preparing themselves in case it happens to them. I think a lot of women walk around thinking it could happen any day and wondering what they would do.
BKL: Are you saying that you see readers looking for role models, or thinking, thank God, it’s not me?
HAYDER: I don’t know! I’m sure it’s always different. When I’m reading, I’m often thinking “what if, what if, what if” and how will that character react to a situation which terrifies me. But I recognize your point. Why do we sit and watch real-life disasters on TV? Maybe there is a part of us that likes to see a train crash and think, thank God it’s not happening to me. There could even be something quite life-affirming about it, couldn’t there?
BKL: What do you view as being essential to a modern cop novel, and what has become passé?
HAYDER: That’s really interesting. Even 10 years ago, the cop novel absolutely had to have full-on violence, and it absolutely had to have huge dollops of forensic science. I think there was an unquenchable desire at that time for violence in crime novels, but I can feel the end of that trend coming because we’ve thoroughly immersed ourselves in that Grand Guignol. Now we’ve come out blood-spattered, and we’re looking for something a bit fresh. I think fiction can still be horrific even if it isn’t superviolent. For a long period of time before I started writing, crime novels were very, very careful about the amount of violence, and I hit the ground with a kind of manifesto that I was going to write clearly about violence and be very descriptive about it.
BKL: That was a fully planned goal?
HAYDER: Yes. Oh, yes. Well I just thought that, look, if you’re going to write a crime novel with a violent crime at its heart, that’s what’s making people turn the pages. So it’s fundamentally dishonest not to describe the full violence of the crime. But that, I think, was a wave that hit the States earlier than it did in the UK. I think the wave’s just about leaving us now. I think we’re keeping the intricacy and the lovely sense of verisimilitude that the police procedural offers—we’re trying to hang on to those things but maybe drop the extreme gore.
BKL: Several of your works have elements that seem supernatural; for example, the apparition that seems to be at loose on Pig Island, or in Ritual, the contact between police forensic diver Flea Marley and her dead parents. Yet you always are careful to include the possibility of a rational explanation whenever the supernatural crops up. Care to comment on that?
HAYDER: Yes, that’s always my challenge. I tend to leap back to the gothic novels I read when I was very young. A lot of those novels were concerned with the supernatural, so there’s a natural inclination for me to write something of that sort. And yet I come from a very scientific background—my father was an astronomer. He was a Cambridge don and was involved there with a bunch of philosophers who became interested in the supernatural. Ever since I can remember, there’s been a debate within my family as to whether scientific principles can be applied to research in the supernatural. So you can see that, since I’ve been very young, I’ve been trying to rationalize the supernatural within myself, and I still have a very open mind about it.
BKL: Is there anything truly supernatural in your books?
HAYDER: The only book that has supernatural elements that aren’t really tied up is Tokyo [published in the U.S. as The Devil of Nanking]. There are suggestions that some of the characters can see the future or read the past, and I never really comment on that; I just leave it open, and I like the openness of that ending.
BKL: You’ve created some truly evil men in your books, ranging from the cannibal Fuyuki [The Devil of Nanking] to the pedophile Roland Klare [The Treatment]. How do manage to get into the psyche of a male character who possesses the need to harm women?
HAYDER: Answering this question absolutely scares the life out of me because the truth is I don’t have to struggle with creating the bad guys at all—it just comes to me naturally! You’re the second person who’s asked me that, and I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Maybe it’s best not to try to unpick one’s influences or second-guess oneself when something is flowing naturally. Scarily, I can’t provide a clear answer.
I do read a lot about criminals, and I speak to the police a lot. I’ve taken inspiration from real life, too, and most of my characters come from some amalgamation of different people I’ve met or read about. But at the same time, a lot of it comes from that creative ether that writers draw on without really understanding how they do it.
BKL: One of the most fascinating continuing characters in your novels is “the Walking Man.” This ex-convict who chooses to live as a homeless person becomes a kind of sage for Jack Caffery. Can you tell us how the Walking Man came to be?
HAYDER: Well, first of all, I’m battling with various publishers around the world to have the whole series called the Walking Man series; I always refer to it that way. Although Jack Caffery ties books together, and so does Flea Marley, the Walking Man, for me, is the real key. The Walking Man is probably the only character I’ve lifted straight from real life; he’s based on a vagrant I used to see walking around the area where I lived in the West Country. One day I stopped to talk to him and learned that he’d been a soldier posted in Northern Ireland, and while he was away, his wife back in London started an affair. When he got back, she ended the affair—the boyfriend wasn’t very happy about this, and he petrol-bombed the soldier’s house. The wife and the children were killed in the attack. And as for the soldier . . . well, his reaction wasn’t to stick around and deal with the whole situation. His solution was to pick up what he could from the ashes of his house, put them on his back, and start to walk.
The more I spoke to this guy, the more I realized he was completely barking mad. In retrospect, I really don’t know how much of his story was true. I spoke to people in the police, but I couldn’t find facts about this petrol-bomb attack. It almost didn’t matter, though, because it’s an incredible idea, and you can also see how someone could be sent completely mad by an incident like that. The thing about this vagrant was that he had such a look of purpose in his eyes; I think that’s what really got me the most was that he looked so intense, as though he was going somewhere. He looked as though he was walking toward somewhere. And that’s what really inspired me: What would it be like to be walking every day, day after day after day? And what would you be looking for? Actually, in the books, the Walking Man is looking for something, but that doesn’t become apparent for several books down the line.
Elliott Swanson is a former librarian in Washington State and a regular contributor to Booklist.
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