The thrill of writing the thriller

25 January 2013

By Pan Macmillan

Author Susanna Jones talks about how she came to write thrillers almost by accident, and why she loves them.

I didn’t particularly set out to write psychological thrillers or crime. It was a surprise to me when early drafts of my first novel The Earthquake Bird started to head in that direction but, when I got there, it was a revelation. It seemed obvious that it was where I should have been all along. It was the perfect place from which I could do all the things I wanted to do with the novel and I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. I don’t think about genre as such now because this is just what writing a novel is for me. I work my way around the fictional world until the mystery begins to emerge and then I know I’ve started a novel. 

It’s harder to explain why I’m drawn to the form of the thriller. If crime fiction is about providing resolution and reassurance, or restoring order (though, as I think P D James said, 'What order?'), then that’s not for me at all. In life I might sometimes seek reassurance and even a sense of order (whether or not they’re there) but in fiction I’m doing my best to avoid them. I’d say it’s the opposite that I’m looking for.

A crime or act of transgression shifts the story into a minor key, where feelings are heightened but uncertain, where the world feels weird. It’s the uncanny zone, where morality is tested but isn’t always easy to judge and that’s where, as a writer, I can get to work. The very ambiguities and contradictions of character, the dangers people present to themselves and each other are what interest me. I don’t want things clear-cut and straightforward. I want to explore the unease of not knowing quite what has happened, what can happen, whose story can be trusted. It’s about finding questions rather than putting them, and finding possible answers where things can’t ever be certain. It’s about coming to a new resting point or another sort of beginning rather than sewing things up. 

In my new novel, When Nights Were Cold, the central mystery is around a mountaineering accident in the Alps. It’s also embodied in the narrator, Grace Farringdon in that the friends, family and rivals she has to negotiate are all in some way reflected versions of herself, the ones she wishes she could be or fears she might become. As she embarks on her adventures, the risks she takes are physical and psychological. If you like, she’s climbing without ropes. Writing the book, I got my thrill from exploring that sense of danger in an off-kilter world and that, I think, is why I keep returning to the psychological thriller.

You may also like

When Nights Were Cold
The Earthquake Bird