The Essay: What has Nicci French's career done to her creators?
Fifteen years ago, two married authors collaborated to invent the female thriller writer.
On the cold, sunny New Year’s Day of 1995, we – Nicci Gerrard and Sean French – drove out of London to the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary. We parked the car and set of for a walk through the reeds of the bird sanctuary. We had a lot to talk about because on the following day we were going start doing something very strange: we were going to try to write a book together.
A few months earlier, we had read an article about the growing controversy about so-called “recovered memory”. This involved a number of women in the United States who had entered therapy. During the course of this they had suddenly remembered episodes of horrific sexual abuse from their childhood. As a result, and based on no evidence apart from these newly unearthed memories, fathers, uncles, neighbours had been convicted and were serving long prison sentences.
This had provoked an acrimonious controversy. Were these memories genuine, and were these women victims whose testimony must be believed and acted on? Or could they be false, even if the women themselves genuinely believed them, and therefore were the convicted men innocent?
We had two reactions. First, as readers, we thought: what a tragic and difficult issue. Second, as writers, we thought: what a terrific subject for a new kind of thriller, a thriller that was as much about the mysterious interior of the human mind as about actual physical threat. And then we had a further reaction. This idea seemed urgent and compelling, and if we had recognised it, other writers were probably recognising it as well, so we had better get a move on.
This anxiety was a piece of great good luck, because there’s always a reason for putting off starting your novel. You need to do just a bit more research, you need to wait until you have the space in your life, until the idea is properly worked out, until the time is right. But the truth is that the time is never right. At a certain point you just have to call a halt to your research and start writing.
The time certainly wasn’t right for us. We were both working full-time as journalists and we had four children under the age of eight. But in the corners of days we planned and researched and drew maps and argued about characters and then, entirely in secret, wrote The Memory Game. When we started writing, it felt like an experiment. Could the two of us, with our different writing styles, our different sensibilities, tell a story and somehow achieve a single voice?
And we had to find a way of writing together. Our way, it turned out, was never to write even a single word together. The ideas, the structure, the characters, the research, all that we did together, during long walks, drinking coffee or tea or wine around the kitchen table, but we wrote alone, passing the book between us, writing, rewriting, editing, cutting, adding. By the time we were halfway through, we felt that we were telling a real story and by July we handed a bulky manuscript to our slightly bemused agent, Pat Kavanagh.
The Memory Game was published in 1997 and we discovered we had become a female thriller writer called Nicci French and that she was having a career that neither of us had ever anticipated. Not only was she better known and more successful than either of us individually, but she was a writer with her own imagination, her own way of doing things.
We embarked on a series of psychological thrillers with women at their centre, and that very act seemed to suggest compelling areas for us to venture into. These weren’t stories about terrorists or heists or nuclear weapons. These were women who didn’t know they were in a thriller or want to be in a thriller (they would have preferred a romantic comedy perhaps), but one wrong turning, one reckless decision, led them into a different, frightening world.
These were the terrors of ordinary life – but pushed a few steps further so that they became life-threatening. What if the dangerously attractive man you suddenly fell in love with was really dangerous? What’s the difference between an ex-boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer and a psychopathic stalker? What does it feel like to be lonely, or jealous, bereaved or abandoned?
Book by book, we found that the thriller form wasn’t just a diversion and puzzle. It’s an incredibly powerful and versatile instrument for exploring our anxieties and our fears and our nightmares. Mental illness, a missing child, a relationship turning toxic – such things are more frightening and destabilising for most of us than a terrorist on the loose, and these have been the sort of stories we have found ourselves telling.
The ideas for our books rarely came from reading about crimes, or even imagining them, but from conversations or discussions or arguments, things that nagged away at us. On a car journey we started talking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream - about how falling in love was like going mad, how you had to go a bit mad to fall in love but how you had gradually to return to sanity, from the dark enticing woods into the world of daylight. But what if that madness led you into an entanglement you couldn’t escape from? What if the person you had fallen in love with wouldn’t let you return? We abandoned the book we were writing and wrote Killing Me Softly, in some ways a breakthrough for us.
In all sorts of ways that we could never have predicted, Nicci French took over our lives. It may be that many marriages depend on compartments and divisions: leaving for different jobs, having different colleagues. If one of them has a bad day at work, they can come home and put it behind them. We’ve been working together for 17 years. The good days are great, but the bad days are bad for both of us. Even Lennon and McCartney in the end felt so stifled by their relationship that they almost killed each other, and they didn’t have dinner and make sure the children did their homework.
Nowadays, there is so much more to being an author than sitting in a room writing. Becoming a female crime writer isn’t the only thing we didn’t anticipate when we got married in Hackney Town Hall in 1990. We’ve addressed a ladies’ lunch in Sydney and a Women’s Institute Centenary in Suffolk; we’ve been quizzed about our favourite pop songs by a Belgian TV interviewer and about our sex life by a Dutch one; we’ve appeared at the Gothenburg book fair as representatives of the Swedish province of Varmland (Sean is half- Swedish) and met Heather Graham on a film set (she wanted to talk to Nicci about sexual obsession; a long story).
Over 17 years we’ve discovered things about each other’s imagination that we wouldn’t have known if we’d continued working as journalists. We’ve argued and even shouted, but oddly enough not about the books, not about the characters, and not even about the violation of having our words altered or erased, then written over by the other. But the books and the stories have been part of our lives. They may even have been a hidden, unintentional kind of autobiography. At the beginning we had four children under the age of eight. Now we have four children under the age of 25. In 1998 we wrote about a vulnerable small child. In 2006 we wrote about a missing teenager. None of our teenagers ever went missing, except in the way that all your teenagers go missing – by having secrets, their own lives, and by leaving home.
Until last year, all our books had been self-contained, stand-alone thrillers. But then we had the idea for a new character, a psychotherapist called Frieda Klein. She is a woman with a flair for recognising other people’s secrets, as well as a compulsion for keeping her own. We realised that she wasn’t someone we could dispose of in a single book. She had too much hidden, too much of a story to tell. And we wanted to follow her over time, over the decade that our eight-book sequence will cover.
And in a way we’ve come full circle. Our first book had at its centre a psychotherapist who was some kind of a villain. Our new book, Tuesday’s Gone, has at its centre a psychotherapist who is a complicated kind of heroine. Her subject is not just crime but the different kinds of madness and disorder and violence inside the human mind. The first book was written when we were the parents of small children. We began this linked series when we were the parents of grown-up children, and when the youngest of them was ready to leave home. We’ve been drawn to areas of life that frighten us. What’s more frightening, embarking on an eight-book sequence or your children leaving home?
Nicci French’s new novel is ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ (Michael Joseph)
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