The Books Interview Mo Hayder: Death beneath the Dome

Mo Hayder hit the jackpot with her blood-stained debut - but behind it lie some very private fears.

Mo Hayder, a biography

Mo Hayder was born in 1962, the daughter of a scientist, and brought up in Essex and the US. She left Loughton County High School at 15 and "drifted" until 1987, when she tutored herself through A-levels and went to Japan, where she taught English and worked as a hostess in a night club. In 1990, she took an MA in film-making in Los Angeles. She started to write Birdman, her first novel, in 1995, and financed the project by working as a secretary and also as a security guard in South-east London. Mo Hayder lives in Lewisham, south London, with her partner, Keith Quinn.

If you were looking for someone to say "boo" to a goose, you probably wouldn't pick Mo Hayder. In conversation, her voice rarely rises above a confessional murmur. Long slim limbs are pulled into a defensive knot, while carefully disordered hair shields her extremely pretty face. She hugs her coffee cup into herself like a fearful secret.

If you were looking for someone to write the kind of splatter fiction that leaves you scared to leave the room, you definitely wouldn't pick Mo Hayder.Yet this is the woman whose first novel, Birdman (Bantam, pounds 9.99), threw last year's Frankfurt Book Fair into a bidding frenzy and was snapped up by publishers in 10 countries as a sucesssor to Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs.

Birdman, a crime thriller of astonishing goriness, is not a book you want to read on a full stomach. It opens with the jellied bodies of prostitutes and strippers being dug up in the shadow of the Millennium Dome. The killer is dubbed "Birdman" because he rips out his victims' hearts and sews a live finch into their chest cavity. The womens' breasts are surgically mutilated and other markings hint at arcane tortures.

Hayder has a kind of forensic fascination with bruised and battered flesh, a penchant for putrefaction, which leaves the senses bludgeoned. At one point, a police officer has to search a brimming lavatory bowl for clues and we are told how "the accumulated mess of hairs, condoms, toilet paper and faeces was dumped, dripping and stinking on a plastic sheet". In the general context of the book, this passage comes as a breath of fresh air.

"It is a kind of obsession," says Hayder lightly, faintly embarrassed, like someone confessing to a mania for jelly beans or perfectly painted fingernails. "I have this kind of compulsive need to wriggle my toes in life's gutters. I'm sure a lot of people think it is a prurient interest whch is a bit destructive, but for me it is about getting rid of ghosts."

Hayder, the daughter of a scientist, grew up in a highly academic family. A teenage rebel, she was arrested aged 14 for her involvement in a fairground fight and considered her shiny new police record "a far greater achievement than getting a university place". She ran away to London just before her 16th birthday and entered a "wild child phase" complete with musician boyfriend and casual jobs in scuzzy pubs. Twenty years on, her seamy-side up descriptions of the capital can still make you reach for a handywipe.

At 25, after a brief marriage, Hayder bought a one-way ticket to Japan where she thought she might train as a geisha. While working as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub, one of her colleagues was brutally beaten and raped, and this incident triggered the obsession with sexual violence which all but consumed Hayder for the next 10 years.

"When I was in Tokyo I lived a very austere, isolated life of self- imposed poverty, living in one room and only going out to work. I think I was torturing myself, a kind of self-punishment for all those years of not really getting my act together. After my friend was raped, I went through a phase where I kept seeing people die. The first time, I was sitting in a coffee bar when someone at the next table died of a heart attack. A week later I saw a workman fall to his death from a high building. Then I saw a young boy die of snakebite.

"I became a bit of an ambulance chaser. If anyone was ill or going to hospital, I would want to go with them... I was getting obsessed with violence, and in particular men's sexual violence towards women."

After travelling in Asia, she took a course in film making in Los Angeles. "That was when I realised I was deeply anti-social person," she says, with a strange, wry working of her mouth that doesn't quite make it to a smile. "I was sent off to do a film project, but I couldn't speak to people... So I did claymation films, where I could make my own actors. I'd start off with these cute little Wallace and Gromity figures, and then they would start doing terrible things to each other. There was one film where this couple go to bed together and then he pulls her head off and eats it and throws the skull out of the window. I won an independent film award for that, but the local TV station wouldn't run it with the other category winners. I got this apologetic note saying `We're really sorry... but on this channel we don't agree with cannibalism'."

On the ground, Hayder's dark fantasies were generating their own excitement. "I remember sitting at the back of a private showing of one of my films and a woman in front was saying `This is seriously fucked up'. But she said it in a slightly awed way". Hayder is very clear that she is writing to a female audience. "An obsession with serial killers is definitely a woman thing," she says. "I've lost count of the number of women who come up and say that they've had this kind of obsession at some time in their life. I think that a lot of men, whether they admit it or not, feel a lot of anger towards women.

"Men are more likely to make the link between sex and violence. I suppose it's to do with evolution: the male of the species is having to fight off other males at the same time as they're trying to mate and the signals get confused. I've spoken to a lot of men who tell me that when they are angry, they get an erection... I think that with women, the more you understand about these things, the easier it is to deal with them. Books are one way to defuse their fear."

There is of course the possibility that some men will be fascinated in less constructive ways by a maggot's eye view of mangled women. At what stage does pitiless observation become pornography? "We're getting into one's responsiblity as a writer here," says Hayder. "I have never really seen a convincing link made between violence portrayed in a book of a film and people actually going out and doing these things."

Birdman was written, she says, purely to exorcise her obsession. Researching it, she waded through thousands of case histories, visited murder incident rooms with the Metropolitan Police and watched pathologists in forensic laboratories. She know exactly what kind of fly lays eggs in what body cavity and the exact moment a body turns black - and seems curiously comforted.

"If I drove past a car crash now, I wouldn't be frightened," she says. "Before I might have been nervous about what I might see. But now I've seen pretty much everything. On the negative side, having read so much about sexual crime, I realise how we are always, always at risk. Since writing the book, I've become a kind of cave-fish. I won't go anywhere. I sit at home with big bars on the window. I'm exaggerating slightly, but I do now find it difficult to be on my own".

There are of course compensations. A reported pounds 200,000 rights deal has enabled her partner to go back to university, while Hayder has thrown in her day job as a secretary to concentrate on her next book. When she heard the news from Frankfurt, Hayder was serving on a jury for a rape trial (these things, she says, just seek her out). On being told what kind of money was on the table, she fainted clean away.

The freedom, however, is purely financial. "By getting to the bottom of my fears, I've lost something," she repeats, and flicks back the blonde curtain, as if the thing she has lost might be waiting for her, just visible, out of the corner of her eye.

`Birdman' is on sale from 18 Dec

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