Elizabeth Haynes: 'Pole-dancing is a real killer ...'
The writer tells Danuta Kean how she swapped criminology for exotic dancing to research her new thriller
Sunday 25 March 2012
There is something about modern housing estates: the homogenised exteriors; the windows kept small to econom-ise not enlighten; the cars on front drives ready for escape. Anything could happen behind these doors. This thought occurs to me as I park outside Elizabeth Haynes's semi, which is tucked into a cul-de-sac on the edge of Eccles, a characterless north Kent village. Because this house holds a secret: inside lives the hottest new crime writer of 2011.
Not that you would guess it if you met her. With a tangle of brunette, shoulder-length curls, large-framed glasses and clothes that are more pedal power than Diesel, her appearance suggests practicality not homicidal imagination. Her manner underscores this impression. Barely through the door, I am offered coffee and cake – for me not for her. "I'm doing Lighter Life at the moment," she shouts from the kitchen. "I've lost just under two stone in four weeks."
But impressions can be misleading. Inside Haynes's sensible head bubble gruesome plots involving murderous exes, vengeful gangsters and psychopaths conducting the kind of experiments that give hypnotism a bad name. In 2011, her talent for telling stories caused Amazon UK to name her debut, the domestic abuse thriller Into the Darkest Corner, the Best Book of the Year.
Haynes has now published her second novel, Revenge of the Tide, but sudden success has made her nervous. "Because the new book was written before the success of Into the Darkest Corner, there was no pressure on me," she explains. As with her debut, she used National Novel Writing Month – an annual internet challenge for which entrants must write 50,000 words in 30 days – to derive the first draft. By the time she began editing it, she was on the bestseller lists. "I suddenly realised that I had an awful lot to live up to." Her mouth twists into a nervous grimace.
She is not exaggerating. Overseas publishers joined the scramble for the rights to Into the Darkest Corner, and Revolution Films fought off five rivals for the movie rights and has commissioned the Bafta award-winner Tinge Krishnan to adapt it. Haynes is also the only author for whom I have had literary agents call asking if I knew her details.
Though there are parallels between the two novels – both feature women whose escape plans prove less than watertight – Haynes wanted her new heroine to contrast with her predecessor: "I was anxious to make Genevieve quite different to Catherine."
How different is illustrated by Genevieve's weekend job. To supplement the income she earns as a high-pressure sales executive in the City, she is also a pole dancer in a gentlemen's club. A less than reliable narrator, she claims that pole dancing funded her plan to stop working and buy the houseboat that the novel is named after. As the book opens, it seems she has achieved this ambition, but when a body turns up after her boat-warming party, we learn that her decision to quit was not clear cut.
The inspiration for the weekend job was the pole-dancing Britain's Got Talent contestant Alesia Vazmitsel. "She looked so balletic," Haynes says. In classes taken to research the book, the author found that it is harder than Vazmitsel made it look. "The warm-up nearly killed me," she says. "It was all that I could manage every week, but I thought I should show willing."
It is a controversial choice of profession for a heroine. As a police analyst working for Kent Police, Haynes might be expected to take a conservative view of a job in the hinterland of the sex industry. She does not. "As a worker in the sex industry, I wanted Genevieve to be in control of what she was doing," she says. Control is a dominant theme in her work, but when I ask why, Haynes appears nonplussed. They are about relationships, she replies repeatedly.
I am not convinced. Later in the interview, she mentions editing her next novel, Human Remains, about a "really intelligent but socially inept man" who uses autosuggestion to get people to sleep with him, but then discovers more pleasure in their suicide than sex. "Ah, control again?" I ask. "No," she insists, "it's the absence of relationships."
Many writers have a blind spot: a subtext clear to readers but not to them. This appears to be Haynes's. Even when I ask what she fears, her answer is about control, not fear. "One of the things that really hit home to me [when having my son] was that fear makes everything much more painful," she confides. "Therefore I deliberately set out to not be afraid, no matter what happened."
Fear about the loss of control is at the heart of readers' obsession with crime: loss of life acts as a conduit for fears about livelihoods, relationships and bodies. That she lends Genevieve power over fear, her body and the men for whom she dances has enabled Haynes to create a character with more complexity than is usual in genre thrillers. Genevieve's fearlessness is matched only by naivety – she goes from selling financial products to selling her body with the blithe rapaciousness of a Big Brother blonde at Chinawhite. As she narrates increasingly dangerous scenarios, it feels like watching someone slip into addiction.
Haynes is pleased when I tell her this. It has been her life's ambition to write, and she's now planning a series of books to be published by the big-league imprint Sphere. They will be written in a shed at the bottom of the garden, on which her husband has said she may splash some of her newfound wealth. A shed? I ask. And there is a sparkle in her eye as she nods. "Oh yes." Somehow, the bottom of the garden seems a more suitable place in which to plot murder.
Danuta Kean is books editor of 'Mslexia'
Revenge of the Tide, By Elizabeth Haynes
Myriad Editions £7.99
"... we ended up walking out of the pub together and without really discussing it, into the pub next door. It was full of blokes, post-work, ties loosened. Sport on the huge flat–screen TVs.
'You should think about dancing properly then.'
'In a club. You'd earn an absolute packet.'
'You mean, like in a strip club?'
' A gentleman's club, they're called' "
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