MC Interviews Novelist S.E. LYNES
Ahead of the release of her highly-anticipated novel Mother, we speak to author S. E. Lynes about the workings behind her creative process, what makes a truly gripping thriller, and what it takes to carve out the complexities of different characters.
There's no doubt that Susie has an incredible expressivity in her writing. Looking to her much applauded debut novel Valentina, Susie's novels create such energy, suspense, and a pace that takes hold of your emotions with every twist and turn. Yet, it's in person that we are struck so profoundly by her articulacy and way with words. As soon as she starts uncovering her experiences with writing and her motivation behind delving into the thriller genre and the myriads of truths it allows her to explore, she captures our attention in its entirety. It's something about Susie's curiosity in unravelling the psychological depths of human beings that is so fascinating. It's not simply Susie's intellect, passion, and love for writing that has us hooked. There's a rebellious energy in Susie. Human frailty, sex, manipulation, loneliness, weakness and strength, Susie doesn't shy away from taboo topics and pigeonholing her female characters. If male authors can do what the hell they like with their characters, then why can't women. Why should female characters come under scrutiny that is any different to their male counterparts?
If you're intrigued by what it takes to write a successful novel, read on to find out the insights that Susie kindly had to share with us! We've had a sneak peak of her new novel Mother and for any thriller-lovers looking for their next read, we know you won't be disappointed!
MC: Can you first tell us what it is about writing exactly that you love and are so passionate about?
S.E.L: I love the process of starting with a blank sheet of paper and making notes on a character until they become a person. I love that in order to invent a person, you need to invent a life, and a life is a story. Even if you have an event in mind, a happening, which you are going to throw at your character, you cannot arbitrarily decide what your character is going to do in response unless you have worked out who they are. And that’s backstory. Then, the way they respond will create complication. And I love going with that and seeing what happens. After that, I love refining those ideas until the whole thing hangs together. And finally, I love polishing the sentences and the thought processes to try and make them shine.
MC: What about your initial inspiration for these characters and their life stories that then unfold? Where does that come from for you as a writer?
S.E.L: All over the place but I would say usually from small happenings and chance remarks. Valentina came from a remark a friend made when she discovered… Ah, no, spoiler alert! My latest book, Mother, came from a story a friend told me – she quote a line from a letter which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I kept that line and created a story from it. I also think in metaphors a lot of the time. I remember seeing a hearse outside my house, come to pick up my neighbour’s body, and it had to queue behind the refuse lorry. That could be comic or profound, or it could simply be a coffin in a van waiting behind a lorry taking away the rubbish - it depends on how you look at it.
MC: Wow... there really is an intense irony there! As well as these metaphors taking shape in your mind, is there a particular process you use to develop the different layers of your characters and the various ways in which you can look at them?
I start with a very rough plot, with enough latitude for the unexpected. My novels have so far been the result of planning, riffing and happy accidents. My character notes are in response to what I need to happen. For example, in Valentina, I needed Shona to fall in the love with a cottage in the countryside, I needed her to be someone who, in love, trusts without question and I needed her to have an incredibly strong sense of justice, upon which she would act without thinking. So, for the first example, there is no way I would choose to live in the country. I have never wanted to do that, I am far too gregarious. So I had to figure out why Shona would make that choice and from there, I asked questions about what that cottage meant to her, which took me to her aspirations, which in turn made me look at what she’d never had growing up. You can see, I’m sure, how the character then begins to take shape. Basically, if you want to trace a psychologically authentic arc, you have to plant character traits early on, which then pay off at the end. It is impossible to develop character without plot and vice versa.
MC: When you are creating these psychologically authentic arcs for your female characters, do you feel a particular sense of responsibility? We were wondering whether you may attempt to anticipate how your readers may react to your characters in any way, or whether your focus is elsewhere?
S.E.L: I feel quite strongly about this. The short answer is no. When Gone Girl came out, the author, Gillian Flynn was criticised for having her female character, Amy Dunne, cry rape in order to get away with murder. She (the author not the character) was called anti-feminist, accused of having put women back years. I didn’t agree with that. No one gives responsibility to a male author for making a heinous male villain. Hannibal Lecter is not in some way representative of men, nor is the male serial rapist or the male, murderous fetishist. So why should Amy Dunne be somehow representative of women simply because she is female? The fact that she, the character, betrays her sex in this way is one of the reasons that she so awful and so compelling. To suggest that women authors are in some way responsible for portraying a certain type of role model is dangerous, censorious and potentially another example of whatever women do, we do it wrong in a world where men do what the hell they like. As women writers, surely we must reserve the right to create baddies every bit as evil and manipulative, narcissistic and sexually deviant as their male counterparts?
With Shona, I was less interested in a weak woman and wanted to look at a strong woman rendered momentarily weak by a set of circumstances: a baby, sleeplessness and extreme loneliness. One thing that was important to me was that both women enjoyed sex, but sex meant different things to them just as it could do for men. I didn’t anticipate reactions but in Valentina I wanted to create a female love to hate character that in some way gave the reader a vicarious thrill through the harsh but often funny things that she says but who also left the reader outraged. In that sense, she was almost camp – I was channelling Mae West at times and perhaps Julian Clary with maybe a few drops of the wicked queen from Snow White thrown in. What was interesting was that women reacted passionately to Valentina leaving Shona to look after her baby for hours and yet when she does something much, much worse, women readers have told me that this was the moment they actually quite liked her – admired her, even. I love that!
MC: The contrasts you create between their arcs really are compelling! And we have to say that you have a true skill for exploring people’s personalities and just how intricate and multi-dimensional they can be. You talked earlier about how you shape characters and then throw various life situations upon them and work out how they would react. Could you let us know a little bit more about this process and how you translate all of life’s complications into your works?
S.E.L: Gosh, thanks. I hope I do! It is very difficult to get across human complication even in the long form of a novel. I think, as I have said, that you have to trace a psychologically authentic arc through the story. You can have a painfully shy introvert become a cabaret artiste, no problem, as long as you understand and show on the page how they got there. For Valentina, I read up on narcissism personality disorder, sociopathy, and psychopathy. To be a psychopath, you don’t have to go around murdering people with a crazy glint in your eye, but simply live without the ability to feel empathy. We all have psychopathic traits; we need them to survive, but if you completely remove empathy what you are left with is still a rounded, multi-faceted character – one who can even fake empathy, since they are clever and can mimic - all you have removed is their ability to feel what others feel. They might even understand how their own actions affect other people, particularly those who love them, but ultimately they don’t care and will never accept responsibility for it. The husband in Dr Foster is a perfect study of a narcissist – he steps over every possible boundary and then, when he is called out on it, when he has to face the result of his actions, he goes to pieces and becomes the victim. This is because he is only and exclusively tuned in to his own feelings, no one else’s. If you are not a psychopath, there is no way you can anticipate what a psychopath could do, since you can only perceive the world through your own subjectivity. Even if a psychopath is deliberately lying to you, hurting you, reducing you and manipulating you, it will take you a long time to see that since you will interpret their actions through the prism of your love for them, your own motivations with regard to love or friendship. You will come up with excuses and reasons for their behaviour but these reasons rely on your emotional lexicon, not theirs. So, even in the extreme example of the psychopathy spectrum, there is immense complication. I tried to understand that and apply it scene by scene.
MC: It always amazes us just how much research and understanding must go into writing a novel, and exploring this psychology, and psychopaths as you mention in particular, must be fascinating. With this research and planning in mind, do you set out with any particular mission or intent when you are writing your novels? Is there an impression you would like to leave on the people reading them?
S.E.L: I aim to explore a theme, certainly. In Valentina I was exploring love and trust in a romantic and a platonic context. I was exploring betrayal in both contexts and was asking which was worse.
In Mother, I was exploring the primal need to belong and to be loved and how strong that need can be. I always set out with the intention of writing a story that will stay with the reader for a while afterwards and I guess, to achieve that, it has to feel real.
MC: Looking ahead, what future do you see for the thriller genre?
S.E.L: Thrillers have always been popular. Two of of my favourites are The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which I read in preparation for Valentina. As long as the characters are compelling and authentic, as long as the story has enough complication and surprise, the future is endless. Life is a thriller. A good thriller will play with a reader’s perception of events, as life does. How often have you been convinced something was one way when in fact it was quite another?
MC: Frightening indeed! But we are excited to see what direction you take next! Can you give us any hints at what you will be working on in the future?
S.E.L: Yes! After finishing Mother, which is set mostly in Leeds in the late 1970s against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper, I am now finishing off a super contemporary psychological thriller called The Pact, which explores parenting in the age of social media. How do we keep our children safe? There is an unconventional family at the heart of it – three women (yay!) trying to look after each other in the best way they can. I love these characters very much, particularly the anarchist, rock chick aunt, and will find it very hard to say goodbye to them.
We loved having the chance to chat to Susie and can't wait to see what the future will bring for her and her works! We couldn't recommend Valentina and Mother enough, and if you do have a read, we'd love to hear what you think. Comment, get in touch, ask some questions. For Susie, it's all about tackling taboo and starting a conversation together.
Words by Lottie Franklin