Today we welcome British author Harriet Lane to celebrate the release of her second novel, Her. Following a successful career as a journalist, Harriet turned to fiction. Her debut Alys, Always was an instant hit in both the UK and US, receiving much praise and several award nominations. Her was chosen this week by People magazine. Their review says it is a “chilling, suspenseful and shrewd” novel that “captivates right up to it’s shocking denouement.” We are very excited to have Harriet join us today. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the conversation!
Her is a suspenseful novel about motherhood, friendship, and identity. Emma, a stay-at-home mom, meets Nina, a successful artist, for what she believes to be the first time. Nina, however, remembers Emma from years ago and befriends her without revealing this knowledge to Emma. Can you introduce us to your characters and share a bit more about what readers can expect in Her?
These women are the same age and live in the same neighbourhood, but — at first glance — they don’t appear to have much else in common. Emma is struggling with two very young children while mourning the end of her professional life; Nina has some success as a painter and a teenage daughter who no longer needs her so acutely. Though an apparent coincidence (Nina finds Emma’s wallet and returns it) they become friends, and the novel tracks the development of this relationship.
Nina and Emma take it in turns to narrate the novel. One perspective, one version of events; then the other. Only you realise fairly quickly that their views are quite different — in fact, they’re irreconcilable, dangerously so. First person, present tense. You’re up close with these women, right in their heads, inhabiting their worlds in what I hope is a vivid and immediate way.
I understand that an autoimmune disorder affecting your vision prevented you from completing your journalistic duties and forced you to change careers. Did you ever consider becoming a novelist before this time in your life? In what ways has your background in journalism helped you transition to being a fiction writer?
I stopped writing fiction when I left school. I loved creative writing when I was growing up, but somehow it fell away when I found my way into journalism. I guess the journalism scratched the itch to write.
In 2008, when things started going wrong with my eyes, the sight was just one of many things I was aware of losing. At the time I was writing features and interviews, mainly for the Guardian, but I decided to park that while we hunted for a diagnosis. Then the not-writing began to feel like yet another bereavement.
The aspect of my work that I really found myself missing was the sitting alone in a room and constructing a narrative, a personality, an atmosphere. The pure pleasure of finding the right word, the only word that would fit, like a key in a lock.
So I screwed up all my courage and joined a local creative-writing class. Walking into that class felt like the bravest thing I’d ever done. I can’t really explain why I was so terrified. Perhaps it was as simple as the fear of making a fool of myself. Or perhaps I had a very secret, very deep-buried hope that the class might point me in a new direction. Either way, the first exercise felt tremendously silly and humiliating. What was I doing, sitting around, making stuff up? But pretty quickly I began to feel… fantastic. Free. Liberated from something. Some joy came back into my life.
As a journalist you really can’t afford to lose your reader, and I think this is a principle I apply to my fiction. I want to keep the reader close, engaged, on edge, an active participant in the story. I’m a fairly restless sort of reader myself, and that restlessness seems to be key to the way I write. I write to amuse myself, always: these are my sorts of books, the stories I want to read. If I find myself losing focus while I’m writing, why on earth would a reader keep the faith? So that helps me to keep things tight and sharp and clean. I’m usually fairly happy to kill my darlings.
Good atmosphere is such an important element in suspense novels. Many have praised you for your ability to accomplish this in both of your novels. What tools do you use to achieve this in your writing? What were some challenges you faced in creating and maintaining the atmosphere throughout Her?
The right imagery helps. Finding the menace in the everyday. As a writer, I like taking a microscope to a certain sort of ordinary life, looking close, finding the threat or the horror there, just beneath the surface.
The sense of low-level anxiety, which seems to run through both of my novels, probably depends on the reader picking up on the fact that information is being held back.The growing awareness that there’s more to this than you’re being told. Something is happening beyond the words themselves. And this is where fiction is so very different to journalism.
Journalism is about conveying information clearly and efficiently; but when I’m writing fiction I love the fact that you can allow the story to appear very gradually, incrementally, maybe at the far edge of the reader’s vision. There’s something so luxurious about that. The lack of hurry. The playfulness of it. My books are nothing without an alert, observant reader.
Both of your novels are psychological thrillers. What is it about this genre that appeals to you as a writer? Who are some of the authors who have inspired you?
I can see why people call my novels psychological thrillers, but I don’t think it’s entirely useful. I imagine the readers who come to Alys, Always and Her expecting a traditional thriller narrative might be disappointed. Both books use the conventions of the genre (I read a lot of thrillers, I adore propulsion) but I think they’re doing something else, too. They’re character studies as much as anything.
Someone recently described Her as the horror of the everyday: I liked that. I don’t read a great deal of horror but one of my favourite books is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: so beautifully written, so economical, so mysterious and so thoroughly alarming. I love the space she leaves for the reader. The permeability of the barrier between sanity and insanity. That has a strong bearing on Her, I think.
Other inspirational books: Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. Unsettling psychodramas with a terrific sense of place. Complicated characters, characters who are sometimes hard to like, and yet you can’t bring yourself to look away. I find there are few things more pleasurable than the sensation of being disturbed by a book.
The psychologically suspenseful nature of Her is obvious in the video trailer produced by your publisher, Little, Brown and Company. Although book trailers have been gaining popularity over the last few years, not every book has one. Are you happy with what your publisher has done to capture Her on film? In what ways do you think book trailers are an ideal publicity tool for authors today?
My kids think the trailer’s terrifying. It gave me goosebumps. Job done! So yes, I think it’s great. This snappy little digital package, a bright flag to wave around on social media… Anything that hooks a reader’s interest has to be A Good Thing. Nowadays I pick up so many book recommendations from Twitter, and I guess a good book trailer can feed into that ongoing online discussion.
It reminds me — as if I needed reminding — that I’m in excellent hands, that the publisher has faith in the book. Judy Clain, my wonderful editor at Little, Brown and Co, has shown terrific commitment to Her, so much so that she gave the book this extra push. I feel very lucky.
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Author Exposure would like to thank Harriet Lane for taking the time to talk to us about Her. To find out more about Lane and her books, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
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