Interview: International bestseller Sophie Hannah on the art of writing crime fiction

“The best crime fiction has a great hook and strong mystery that means you don’t want to put it down. It reveals the darkest, most fascinating aspects of psychology.”

The British CouncilSophie Hannah

Hong Kong’s annual literary extravaganza returns! Up to a million Hongkongers are expected at the Convention Centre, which starts on July 19, snapping up the latest bestselling novels and sought-after titles, meeting literary heavyweights in the flesh and attending lectures on the art of writing. One of the biggest names in the lineup this year, is international bestselling crime novelist and poet Sophie Hannah. Her crime novels have been translated into 34 languages and published in 51 countries. But to many, she is best known for continuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series and publishing two new Poirot mysteries in 2014 and 2016, titled The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket respectively. We chat to her about writing the world’s most famous detective (second only to Sherlock Holmes) and exploring the possibility of setting her next novel in Hong Kong.

Hi Sophie! Crime fiction is a whole genre of its own. How does writing it differ from other genres?
Crime fiction is the best kind of literature in my opinion, because it’s got that vital sense of plot and narrative momentum, and also a puzzle, usually, at its heart. The best crime fiction has a great hook and strong mystery that means you don’t want to put it down, it reveals the darkest, most fascinating aspects of psychology.

In your opinion, what makes a good protagonist in a crime novel?
They have to be interesting, complex and believable. That doesn’t mean they have to be telling the truth, but the reader has to believe they’re a real person – whether they are likable or not!

Can you talk a little bit about your writing process - where do you draw your information from and how closely do you work with forensic experts/police?
I always work out my plot carefully before writing, and then I research around the details if necessary. I have been known to buy the odd expert a drink or a curry in exchange for a good conversation!

Have you ever witnessed any crime, and if so, what was the most memorable scene for you?
Yes, I once heard a noise outside my bedroom window, and when I looked out, I saw that two men were trying to break into a car. I ran outside in my pyjamas and yelled at them, and they ran off. It was quite exciting!

You’ve written two new Hercule Poirot mysteries, the first since Agatha Christie’s death. What made you decide to continue the series and was there any trepidation taking on the project?
I’ve always been a massive fan of Agatha Christie and she has influenced me hugely in my writing. But never in a million years did I expect to be writing a continuation novel. I was approached by Agatha Christie Limited, and jumped at the chance! I know Poirot so well that I wasn’t worried about writing him, though obviously I was a little daunted and awestruck, and determined to do my best. These books are kind of like my love letters to Agatha Christie.

Poirot is such a well-loved literary character. How difficult was it to capture the voice of the character and how much of your own voice was added?
I have loved Poirot for years, and know him so well that it isn’t any more difficult to write about him than about someone I’d invented, or someone I know well in real life. I didn’t want to mimic Agatha Christie’s style, though, so the voice is entirely mine. My main aim was to make sure the puzzle is good enough for Poirot, and for his many fans.

What do you admire most about Christie’s work, and are there any other crime writers that also influenced/inspire you?
I love how she starts with a seemingly impossible scenario – not just a dead body, but something really weird, that makes you ask, ‘How can this be happening?’ Then when the solution comes it seems inevitable, but it’s nothing you could ever guess. I have inherited from Agatha Christie a love of those apparently impossible set-ups that then turn out to be possible. Ruth Rendell has also inspired me and helped me to develop my interest in warped psychology.

With Murder on the Orient Express about to hit the big screen later this year, do you foresee a rise in popularity of Agatha Christie’s work and crime fiction in general?
Agatha Christie has always been and will always be popular, because she is the best! But I am hugely looking forward to Murder on the Orient Express, and I know many people who will be going to see it – and hopefully checking out the book later!

What’s next for you - a new project, a third Poirot book?
My new thriller, Did You See Melody?  is out in August. It’s set in a five-star spa resort in Arizona, where a stressed tourist enters the wrong room, and sees a girl who happens to be the most famous murder victim in the country…except she appears not to be dead. I’m working on two books now: a third Poirot mystery, and a contemporary psychological thriller provisionally entitled Haven’t They Grown.

What are you most looking forward to at the Hong Kong Book Fair? Any Chinese writers you’re fan of?
I’m looking forward to exploring a great place that I’ve never been to before, and to discover new books to enjoy. I’m really excited about it! Also, I’m very keen to swim in my hotel pool while I’m there - one of the things I do wherever I go is swim as much as possible!

Have you ever considered setting your next novel in a city like Hong Kong?
Yes - but I won’t know if that would work until I’ve been there!

The British Council, in partnership with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, is hosting a series of talks throughout the book fair featuring well-known writers like Sara Wheeler and Tim Moore. You can catch Sophie Hannah on Monday July 24 at the HKCEC. 

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