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Sophie Hannah interview: ‘People can do pretty damaging stuff behind closed doors’

Crime writer Sophie Hannah’s latest novel looks at the dreadful secrets that could lurk behind the front door of even those closest to us.

When the book’s hero Beth glimpses an old friend after 12 years, what she sees is completely unbelievable. Her friend looks the same, only older – but her two young children don’t seem to have aged.

Sophie Hannah new book Haven't They Grown'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (26335408)
Sophie Hannah new book Haven't They Grown'. Picture: Keith Heppell. (26335408)

They are, without a doubt, Thomas and Emily – Beth hears Flora call them by their names – but they haven’t changed. They are just the way Beth remembers them. Even though that’s impossible.

“The initial idea for any of my stories begins with a ‘what if’ question,” says Sophie, who came up with the creepy plot for this novel, the standalone thriller Haven’t They Grown, when she was visiting a friend’s house.

“This book started when one of my friends bought a house that was very mansion-like and we were given a tour. At the time we were good friends but we hadn’t seen them for probably about 12 years and the last time we had seen them their kids were three and five,” says Sophie. “When we went to see them in the new house I jokingly said to my husband it’s really weird because our kids are 15 and 17 but I was still expecting their kids to be three and five, because in my head that was what they still looked like.

“Obviously they weren’t but it made me think, ‘What if we got there and their kids were still little?’. It always starts with a question like that.”

It seems as though something paranormal could be happening, but that would be much less interesting than a real-life explanation, explains Sophie.

“I actually really like supernatural stuff and I watch a lot of supernatural movies and TV shows, but as soon as I had the idea my next thought was it cannot be a supernatural explanation because that just means you get to rewrite all the rules exactly as you want them. It could be that they died at that age and now they are ghosts and they still look that age. It lets me off the hook too easily. I thought I really want the explanation for this to be human and fully plausible and set in the material world.”

Despite her husband’s protestation that she should mind her own business, Beth decides she has to find out what is going on and whether her friend and the children are OK. The book quickly dispenses with explanations such as cloning, genetic disease or weird anti-ageing drugs – it’s going to be something altogether stranger.

“One by one those more outlandish explanations are dispensed with to make it more enjoyable for the reader, leaving them thinking what possibilities are left. Not many. I wanted the reader to wonder how on earth can this be resolved. The challenge for me is to resolve it in a totally plausible way.”

Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar. (26335446)
Writer Sophie Hannah, photo by Onur Pinar. (26335446)

Coming up with these puzzles is something Sophie believes she has a particular talent for, and says it’s her view of human nature that helps her imagine the darkest possibilities for her characters.

Her sleuth, Beth, has the “ability to easily believe something terrible might be happening, and very few people do this,” says Sophie. “Beth has the ability to believe that more than her husband, and part of the reason he is determined she should mind her own business is he can’t quite believe anything that bad could really be going on with someone they know. Beth has to say to him that just because you are their mates, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing something horrible.”

It’s a trait Sophie says she shares with her character: “If someone said to me, ‘You know, the people living at number 12 are actually doing this terrible thing within their home’, my husband would probably go, ‘Oh, come on now, surely not’. Whereas I would say, ‘Really? Yeah, I can believe that’. Not because I have anything against the people at number 12, but that in my experience people can, especially behind closed doors and within families, do some pretty damaging stuff.

“I think everybody prioritises complying with social conventions over everything else, so we are all taught for a very good reason to mind our own business. It wouldn’t be very good if everyone knocked on other families’ doors and said, ‘Look here, I think you are doing a terrible job of bringing up your kids’. We all benefit from that system. But it means when there is something seriously wrong in a family, people are reluctant to interfere.

“I guess the book is about how I’m in favour of people being a bit braver and doing the thing that is difficult and goes against social convention if it is going to rescue somebody or make the world a better place.

“You don’t know until at the end of the book who the goodies are and who the baddies are, but I wanted to explore the fact that when we come across someone who is part of our family or our colleagues or our friendship circle, we are 90 per cent less capable of recognising them as dangerous than compared to someone we don’t know.

“For example, when Donald Trump comes on the news almost everyone I know wouldn’t have a problem saying he is evil, dangerous and terrible, but if I try to convince someone that that their cousin Freddie was terrible, they will say, ‘No, there was that lovely time when they got the bouncy castle sorted for so and so’s party.’ It’s just much harder to recognise danger from people who you have a structural interest in believing are fine and safe.”

Where does this belief in humanity’s heart of darkness come from? “I think from a very young age, I have encountered person after person who was meant to have my best interests at heart and quite clearly didn’t.”

Sophie Hannah. Picture: Phillipa Gedge
Sophie Hannah. Picture: Phillipa Gedge

An early memory of this is when, aged nine, Sohpie had written a poem but a teacher refused to allow her to enter it into a competition because they didn’t believe it was her own work.

“I remember thinking then that grown-ups and people in positions of power were highly overrated. They do not have my best interests at heart. That is just one experience – I could give you another 37 but, yes, I think that’s why.

“A good friend of mine said on Twitter recently that sometimes he finds things implausible in the crime genre because he finds it hard to believe in these dysfunctional families. He grew up in a family where everyone loved each other and was nice to each other – he absolutely trusted his parents and siblings to have his best interests at heart and they fulfilled that trust. So he really struggles.

“I’m the opposite. If I read a book about a lovely family where the parents are nice to the children and had their best interests at heart, it’s not that I wouldn’t believe it, but I would think these kids are lucky that their parents aren’t inflicting psychological damage on them.

“I should stress that my parents loved me and in almost every way I had a happy childhood. But even within a good and happy childhood I felt there were a lot of people acting out their own dysfunctional stuff, not realising that’s what they were doing. I couldn’t have articulated it to myself at the age of 10 or 13.”

Since then Sophie has studied psychology and what makes people tick, which played a large role in devising her thrillers, and she is applying what she has learnt in a coaching course for writers and a new self-help book about how to be happy, due out later this year.

“It’s all about how we manage our own thoughts and feelings so, yes, I’m quite deeply immersed in this stuff.”

So are these experiences the reason why she became a crime writer?

“I think what made me into a crime writer was reading Secret Seven books and then, at age 12, I got hooked on Agatha Christie, that was the driving thing,” she says. “Then because of my interest in psychology that dictated the type of crime books I write.”

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