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 and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album