When I wrote my own newsletter back in the dark ages, I interviewed many life time writers, established authors, newer published people, and what I liked to call “First Offenders” in BLANK I had the good fortune to talk to one first offender who is now a long time established author, and last night’s Edgar winner for Best Novel, Mo Hayder. Winning an Edgar is a tough thing to do, only 5 are nominated each year, and chances are when you are nominated, you won’t win. The Edgars, unlike the Agathas, are voted on by their writer peers, and not fans. Also, the books rewarded by an Edgar are usually very hard boiled, masculine pieces, whereas, The Agathas,which will be presented this weekend, are of the traditional, less violent genre of crime novel. So, historically, women fare less well then men. Not for lack of ability, but perhaps because less women tend to write very hard boiled books. Ms. Hayder is one of the many exceptions that have been honored. So, here’s an interview with her when the very first novel was released. It’s an interesting look back at a then newcomer. And an incredibly fascinating life it has been.
If you haven’t yet heard of Mo Hayder, I will clue you in on some details. She is the novice author of Birdman, recently #3 on the UK book charts, and the author who literally fainted when told of the advance she was getting for her manuscript. I kid you not. She explained that the info came via a phone call from her agent, and when she heard the news, she keeled over! Birdmanis a hard-boiled serial killer book, which is not unusual, there are tons of serial killer books out there, but in this case the detective is with Scotland yard, a place usually reserved for the gentler men of detection. The victims are all women, again not out of the ordinary, but the twist is that someone has sewn a live finch inside each victim’s chest, after death. Grisly, perhaps, but her hero Jack Caffrey is appealing and well-rounded enough in his own tormented way to belie any thoughts that the story is simply a case of gratuitous violence in the pursuit of sales. I met Mo Hayder at a lavish lunch her publisher held for her at the famed Russian Tearoom in mid-town Manhattan. The Russian Tearoom didn’t disappoint, the ornate furnishings and moving miniature Red Square were dazzling. And so was Ms. Hayder, a most unlikely looking person to have written one of the most brutal books around. She is tall, blond and strikingly pretty, with a soft pitched voice. She read a prepared speech that, far from being boring, piqued my interest enough to want to write a profile of her. So where and how did she arrive at the fainting stage? She is a native Brit, whose father is a scientist. She avoided following in her father’s footsteps by acquiring a police record at age 14 (for a playground
fight) and leaving home two years later. She survived by working part-time in bars.
“Academia seemed such a dusty, unreal world to me: as far as I was concerned real life, glamorous life, was out with the shop girls in high street, smoking fags all day and having unwanted pregnancies.” Much of the gritty realism of Birdman comes from her early experiences on the street.
“My boyfriend was a session musician and that famous triumvirate of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock and roll really exists–through him I met prostitutes, dealers, strippers: all the faces that surfaced in Birdman. After this brief walk on the wild side, she returned to school receiving 2 A levels. She then bought a one way ticket to Japan!
“I had no idea what I was going to do out there–I think I vaguely imagined I might become a geisha.” What she became was an accomplished liar, or put more politely, storyteller. She claimed she was an Oxford scholar like her father and began writing articles for an English language column in a local newspaper.
“I made up the most ludicrous stories, no-one spoke English so they didn’t know any different.” Later, as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub, her co-worker was brutally raped and Ms. Hayder became mesmerized by the incident.
“I found myself obsessing about what the rapist had been thinking, why had he done it, what was in it for him. I was fascinated by the randomness of the attack. The rapist got into my friend’s apartment using a key that he had stolen from a previous tenant and it was that detail which really got me.” The questioning of a perp’s motives never leaves her.
“It’s a conundrum I will never unravel because I believe it operates deeper than at a societal level. I’ll never understand it and so I’ll always write about it. It’s a compulsion.” Some past sociopaths that have intrigued her include Peter Sutcliffe, the infamous Yorkshire Ripper.
“However, none inspired my writing quite as much as 2 homosexual killers in London. The first, Dennis Nilsen, was about as close a copy to Jeffery Dahmer that I can think of, in that he kept the 15 victims’ bodies in his own flat. Like Dahmer I believe Dennis Nilsen knew what he was doing, couldn’t stop himself, and hated himself for it. The character of Harteveld grew from Dennis Nilsen. A second influence was Colin Ireland who killed around5 homosexual men in a very short burst of activity. In one instance, he also killed the victim’s cat: involving an animal in the crime like this gave me the idea of the birds.” After Japan she came to the US to get an MA in film making. What she ended up trying her hand at was claymation.
“But no matter what film I set out to make however nice and Wallace and Gromity I made the little clay characters, somehow they always ended up in a bloodbath.” Back in London, after winning several awards for her “bloodbaths,” she began Birdman. Her agent is working on rights for a film adaptation and this would be her dream cast:
“Philip Seymour Hoffman (Bliss), Patricia Arquette (Joni), Daniel Craig (Jack Caffery), James Spader (DI Diamond), someone Toni Collette-ish (Rebecca), an unknown, non self-referential Malkovich (Harteveld).” Not one to pull punches about what she believes has been wrong with the British crime fiction scene, she says;
“I think we’ve been in a bit of a Christie rut in the UK. A bit cozy, a bit shy of the noir/hardboiled genres. However, that is changing thanks to a new group of writers, particularly Nic Blincoe, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin.” Favorite authors include the above plus Thomas Harris;
“I think the route he took in Hannibal, although not uniformly popular/satisfying, was the only route he could have taken.” Others include, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Patricia Highsmith. Having a bestseller that has sold in 10 countries is not all a bed of roses, however.
“I’m getting a lot of attention, some of it not the best sort (a lot of people are scandalized and ‘sickened’ by the violence – I should have expected this sort of criticism, but it still makes me feel sad)!” She’s currently working on another Jack Caffery book. “The second and probably the last. The reader is going to find what happened to Ewan (Jack’s brother), and Caffery is going to be involved in a case that has uncomfortable parallels with his own background. After that, I’ll possibly write a crime novel set in Japan.”
At the end of one email, she added a personal postscript for me, “PS Ferrets rule!”. You can’t help but like this hard-boiled babe!
Mo Hayder novels: Hanging Hill, Gone, Skin, Ritual, Pig Island, Tokyo, The Devil of Nanking, The Treatment, Birdman