Liz: ‘I find it relatively easy to get into the mindset of sociopathic characters’
Crime has become a really broad genre in recent years, and whereas it used to mean police/ detective procedural, now it encompasses so much more. Thrillers, psychological suspense, spy novels, domestic noir, cosy crime, mystery, courtroom drama and the “whydunnit” are all sub-genres within crime. The spectrum is very broad and the standard varies hugely.
I have always been interested in the psychology of killers. What makes them tick and how they deal with the horror of what they have done. Three books which were hugely influential were John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby. All three books delved into the personality of the killers, their motivations and their coping mechanisms.
I used to work on RTÉ’s Fair City and one day in a story meeting, we were discussing a character who had just killed somebody and I insisted that he must be extremely distressed and I said aloud “You know the way when you dream you’ve murdered somebody and you wake up in the horrors?” Everyone just stared at me and that was when I realised that not everyone murders people in their sleep. I regularly have dreams in which I have to deal with the emotion of having killed somebody, though funnily enough, I never dream of the action of the murder, just the guilt and the fear in the aftermath. The relief when I wake from those nightmares is immense. So when I’m writing from the point of view of a murderer, I almost feel like it’s from personal experience. Har har.
In real life, I am a pacifist and actively avoid confrontation, so I’m not sure from where this murderous side of my psyche comes, but I hope it has given me an edge when writing psychopaths and sociopaths. I feel that committing these horrendous acts must strip one of an element of one’s humanity. I believe that killing another human being out of anger or frustration or jealousy must cause a fracture in one’s emotional structure.
Character always comes first for me. I must know my protagonist inside out before I write a single word. I will know their accent, tone, political opinions, fears, hopes, vulnerabilities and what they like to watch on TV. I don’t necessarily have to put any of these details in the book, but they are very useful background.
I find it relatively easy to get into the mindset of sociopathic characters like Oliver in Unravelling Oliver and Lydia in Lying in Wait. There is something quite liberating about writing from a point of view that is entirely selfish and without emotional connections, because they can say what they think without filtering it to see what might be acceptable to society. They are talking to themselves (and the reader). I do also try to tell the story from the point of view of those surrounding these characters, because while the killers try to justify their behaviour, I need to contrast it with the devastation caused.
I am constantly intrigued by the nature vs nurture argument. I prefer not to believe that people are born evil and so in the case of each of these characters, I gave them a background or childhood incident which could explain the emotional fractures within.
A lot of people have traumatic events in their early lives. The vast majority of them manage to overcome these obstacles and move on to live fulfilling lives. What separates Oliver and Lydia from us is that, when faced with decisions, they make terrible, terrible choices whether on the spur of the moment, or as part of a grand plan. These choices are made out of desperation and have far-reaching and devastating consequences for those around them.
I think the timeline and the setting of a book are vitally important elements of storytelling. Both Lying in Wait, and my forthcoming novel Skin Deep are mostly set in the 1980s. I grew up in that decade and it was a time of great threat. The rise in popularity of the far-right is scary now, but in the 1980s, there was the constant threat of nuclear war, both the Pope and Ronald Reagan survived assassination attempts and John Lennon was shot dead on a New York street. Malcolm MacArthur murdered a nurse Bridie Gargan, who was innocently sunbathing in the middle of the day in the Phoenix Park. Ann Lovett, a 14-year-old girl, died alone giving birth in a grotto, presumably because she was too afraid to tell anybody. I was a few months older than her.
On a personal level, we had a creepy neighbour who used to climb over our back wall and steal clothes from the washing line. He also held my brothers and sisters at knifepoint one night, so I grew up with a general feeling of insecurity, as if nobody could really be safe. I was pretty much scared the whole time. I thought I was going to be killed.
I am often asked about the rise of Irish female crime writers in recent years. Maybe Tana French and Alex Barclay opened the doors for the rest of us, and as writer Jane Casey says, women are more attuned to threat. We are the ones looking over our shoulders, making sure that we have our keys in our hands, texting each other to make sure we got home safely.
If there is a difference between the way men and women write, I’m afraid I don’t see it. Writing is not and never has been a competition between the sexes. All genders are capable of great work and terrible work. Our approach is as diverse as the human race allows. Tall people don’t write differently to short people and so it is with men and women. We each apply our imagination to the page and some of us are lucky enough to get published. What a wonderful world.