Liz Jensen: Imagining the future of a haunted planet

The genre-hopping author talks about her extraordinary new hybrid. Can she pull off the high wire act?

Liz Jensen is in the middle of moving home, from her Wimbledon house of 12 years to Copenhagen. She has warned me that the house is stripped bare so that its interiors look "straight out of a Scandi-crime set." It would be fitting for a novelist who is not only half-Danish but has won acclaim for the kind of eloquent and pacey psychological thrillers that a Scandi-crime screenwriter would die for to be ensconced in a terrace house which looks like it has just been vacated by forensics.

In reality, Jensen's house turns out to be warm and welcoming. So too does Jensen – tanned, elegant, good-humoured – for a writer whose imagination has ranged into the mind's darker nooks and crannies. In her fiction, life as we know it could soon be wiped out (The Rapture ended with a climate catastrophe), and even utopias turn quickly dystopian (The Paper Eater features the "perfect" man-made island of Atlantica).

Most of the household bustle takes place in Jensen's kitchen. She points to the bare bookshelves and cracks a joke about being won over by her e-reader; her son, Raph, yawns awake over a bowl of cereal (he's just finished his A-Levels). Her husband, the Danish writer Carsten Jensen, makes coffee topped with the kind of froth that only good pavement cafes whip up. In the middle of it all, there are two laptops on either end of the kitchen table that mark where the Jensens write, face-to-face, as family life rumbles on around them.

Here she sat to write (in part) her latest, eighth novel, The Uninvited (Bloomsbury, £12.99), a hugely inventive generic hybrid, part-crime thriller, part-morality tale, that dances along the borders of SF as a fast-spreading epidemic sees children killing their parents. As is often the case in Jensen's fiction, two worlds gallop alongside each other, both our recognisable universe in which her handsome, hyper-rational protagonist, Hesketh Lock, investigates corporate sabotage, and a far less familiar territory, a nightmarish "other" world in which children seem to be suffering the contemporary equivalent of demonic possession. The seeds of this other world do not lie in futurism or SF, Jensen says. The Uninvited is her endeavour to write a 21st-century ghost story in which the terror is on an epidemic scale. "I started with the idea of a haunting. I re-read books like The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I wanted to do the opposite of what these stories were doing, to write a post-Freudian ghost story.

"The haunted house in these books often represents the family and the mind, and the haunting is related to the conscience. But the haunted house here is the planet. "

The story's creepiness cranks up incrementally, with moments of eerie revelation that don't break out into full-blown horror (or at least, not until the end) but teeter on a far greater point of tension. The idea of child possession, of innocents turned evil, is its most unsettling element, along with the conceptual blurring of evil and good this brings. "I don't like the world 'evil'," says Jensen. "I'm not at home with it. This is about perspectives. Something seen from one perspective seems like a good thing but seen from another perspective, is murderous."

Jensen's oeuvre has shown surprising generic diversity; her readers never get a repeating tone or subject-matter. Even within a novel, there is a generic mash-up. The diversity is partly for her own benefit – "I don't like to feel like I'm covering the same ground twice". Yet this latest book takes care of "unfinished business" that began with The Rapture, whose plot revolved around a teenager who has murdered her mother and has premonitions of an earth-shattering catastrophe.

Jensen moved onto something completely different after finishing it in 2009, but certain themes returned and demanded unravelling. Eighteen months later, she put aside the book she had been working on and The Uninvited came into being.

One of the most striking aspects in Jensen's work is the quasi-religious symbolism – the apocalypse, demonic possession, the flood – that is re-appropriated to take on a secular significance. What she is interrogating is not the Christian belief system, she says, but a contemporary belief system for living – how we survive in the world, especially amid climate changes, who is causing the destruction and "the levels of denial we indulge in to pretend it is not happening."

"I continue to read about the climate. To me it's the biggest moral issue of our time. The question for me is 'how can I write about it in new ways?'"

The Uninvited, she says, is a high-wire act. Some people might not buy its vast imaginative what-ifs. But it is these lavishly imagined lives and worlds that she applauds most as a reader herself. "The writers I most admire are the ones with the biggest imaginations, and writing that uses the world of now as a starting-point but makes it into something that is much bigger and wilder. I like the story that will break across into a new frontier, that will go into a wilderness."

Her own starting-points are grounded in the factual: newspaper reports, research gleaned from the pages of New Scientist and books on climate (Professor Callum Roberts's Ocean of Life sits on the mantelpiece). "It's fantastic," she says, pointing. "How could you not come away with your head bursting with ideas?"

Filmmakers have loved her high-wire act with all its imaginative gymnastics, and the pace and visual appeal of her plots seem particularly attuned to the screen. The Rapture was optioned (by Warner Bros), as was My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, while War Crimes for the Home was adapted for stage in 2003. Most famously, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, her stunning fifth novel which combined a family mystery with the inner voice of a boy in a coma, was the subject of a vigorous studio battle. Miramax won and Jensen received a princely sum which afforded her valuable time and space to write what she really wanted to, and tear up the stuff that didn't quite work (Carsten Jensen says "she has a high throw-out rate"). The film was to be directed by Anthony Minghella, but was grounded when he died.

The easy conversion from book to screen might be down to a former career as a radio producer, where dialogue and word-pictures are paramount, though the visual imagination came later, she says.Her first job was at the South China Morning Post, which she landed during a year out from Oxford University. "I was restless and I didn't particularly enjoy my first year at Oxford."

She came back to finish her degree but took off to Taiwan straight after to work on a radio station and carried on in TV and radio production at the BBC in London. In the 1980s, her former husband, a medical researcher, got a job in France and she finally decided that now was the time to write fiction."I always tell my creative writing students not to give up the day job, but I had to give up the day job to write." Curiously, the pram in the hallway helped. The birth of her first son, 23 years ago, was a trigger. "I was incredibly productive. I wrote Ark Baby in the two hours a day when he was asleep."

Alongside the dystopian dreams in Jensen's world, there are happy endings ("You have to end with a note of hope, otherwise it's bad manners") and some burning romances too. In The Rapture, the wheelchair-bound psychologist, Gabrielle Fox, has a passionate love interest. In The Uninvited, the love story is between Hesketh and his stepson, Freddy.

There is a history of ardent and unexpected romances in Jensen's own background. Her Moroccan, Oxford-educated mother met her Danish father, a carpenter who left school at 14, on a backpackers' holiday. Then there is Jensen's own romance with Carsten Jensen, begun inauspiciously more than 12 years ago. "We first met in 2000 at a literary festival in Ottawa. There were a lot of Scandinavians there. I suppose at the start I slightly resented that there was another Jensen at the festival. No writer wants to share their name with another writer. It's really not cool."

A friendship evolved, and then became more. Now they are mutual admirers ("He really is very knowledgeable"; "Liz is extremely generous"; "I shamelessly nick his ideas"; "I regard Liz as my real editor"). They married two years ago, and it seems like the perfect romantic ending for Jensen – and Jensen – sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table, happily imagining alternative worlds.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal