The night I called Ruth Ware was suitably eerie. Torrential rain and high winds were causing the branches of a tree to bash the window I was sitting next to, and the security light outside kept going on and off ‘for no reason’. All in all it seemed a fitting context for the call to discuss Ruth’s brilliant psychological thriller IN A DARK, DARK WOOD.
If you’ve not read this fantastic thriller, here’s the blurb to give you a flavour: “Leonora hasn’t seen Clare for ten years. Not since Nora walked out of school one day and never went back. Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen do arrives. Is this a chance for Nora to finally put her past behind her? As the champagne corks pop, and the secrets begin to flow, and a hen do for an old school friend begins to take a sinister turn …”
So, to the interview …
I found Nora a hugely compelling character – likeable, genuine, and self-doubting, yet refusing to be beaten by everything thrown at her. What was your jumping off point for creating her?
I like to think of Nora as being vulnerable on the outside but with a core of steel on the inside. The idea for IN A DARK, DARK WOOD came about from a conversation with a friend. They said they’d never read a thriller set on a hen night, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write that book (and luckily they didn’t!).
In the beginning I knew that Nora would struggle with accepting the invitation, and wanted to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and threat. I think most people, unless they’re real extroverts, find being in a group of relative strangers for a long period tiring. I wanted to bring this out.
Through working with my editors I explored the reclusive, introverted side of Nora’s character, but I also strongly wanted to keep an ‘everywoman’ feel to her. I felt this was important, and it lets the reader ‘tread the path’ with the character – which is something I enjoy to do in a thriller.
The book tells both the modern day action of the hen party, and the past events that led to Nora and Clare not speaking for ten years. Did one of these timelines come to you before the other, or did they develop alongside each other as you wrote?
I always had the sense that there was a lot of history between them, you know the weight of shared experience – good and bad – you have with people you’ve known a long time. And I knew there was a big reason in their past that made Nora reluctant to accept the invitation.
I knew the incident where things all kick off would happen a long way into the book, so the hospital timeline and hen night timeline were really important to get all the players in place first, and for the reader to get to know them. I always find it more interesting to start from a place where you know something dreadful has happened – it’s an easy way to show something bad is coming, without having to do a lot of tedious signposting.
What I especially loved about the book was the uneasy dynamic between the friends at the hen party, and that they felt so incredibly real. When you’re writing do you use actors (or real people) when you picture your characters and how they’ll react in a scene?
I tend to keep everything in my head. I do keep a few notes on basic stuff – eye colour, height if that’s relevant to the plot – but that’s it really. There are quite a few scenes where the guests at the hen are all together, but without any other characters, so that made it easier to flesh them out. Also, the set up [of them meeting on the hen] meant they could introduce themselves, and allowed them to talk about themselves.
I’ve been on a few hens, and I think you start to notice archetypes. In fact, I’ve probably been all of them at one time or other over the years – the organiser, the bride, the new mum – so you could say the characters are all different aspects of me. The alpha girl was also a lot of fun to explore!
The glass house in the forest is chillingly cut off from civilisation, yet the glass allows those outside to see in. It’s creepy and adds an added layer of tension to the story – what gave you the inspiration to create such a setting?
I’ve always been fascinated by forests. Pine forests are always so dark, because they’re evergreen and never lose their leaves. And I love the Scottish forests that go on and on for miles. So setting the story in a forest was a bit of wish fulfilment!
The glass house I pinched from all those American horror films – the ones where the people are going round the house checking all the doors are locked, but you know it’s too late! I thought about the time of day, as it gets dark, when windows stop being a way of looking out, and become a way for people to look in – that’s when I close the curtains! But when I see houses with huge walls of glass, like on Grand Designs, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live in a house like that – where you can’t have curtains.
One of the themes of the book is exposure – exploring the face we choose to present to others and the face we choose to hide. In a way, the glass house is like a physical representation of this.
IN A DARK, DARK WOOD has been likened to the sort of locked room mystery Agatha Christie would write if she was writing crime novels today. Are you a Christie fan, and what other crime novels do you count among your favourites?
Yes, I’m a Christie fan, although I didn’t set out to write that type of novel – my agent was the first person to say the story was like a modern Agatha Christie. I read a lot of Christie’s books when I was a teen. She was a great plotter and I’ve always loved books which have intricate workings and red herrings. Gone Girl is a lot like that – the plot locks together in a really satisfying way.
I worked in the publishing industry for a long time so I got to read a wide variety of genres and authors, and I still have a magpie reading habit now! I’ve just read the non-fiction book that the movie Pitch Perfect was based on – which was great. I love psychological thrillers – books like Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, and Tammy Cohen’s When She Was Bad (which is incredibly scary!)
What would you say your favourite part of the writing process is?
I love the ideas stage, that point where you’re nudging at an idea and letting in take shape. It’s like an unscratched lottery ticket – it could be the most wonderful book ever written. It’s like being in the early stages of a love affair – full of possibility.
IN A DARK, DARK WOOD is your debut thriller, can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
I wrote YA books before, but this feels very different – the types of events you do, the amount of exposure you get. It’s very nerve racking, putting yourself out there, and it definitely felt like a risk, trying something out of my comfort zone, but I’m so glad I did. If I’d sat down to write a fantasy wish list, then I think the top three things would have been getting onto the New York Times Best Seller List, the Sunday Times Best Seller List, and achieving a film deal. I would have been over the moon to get any of those – I still can’t quite believe that IN A DARK, DARK WOOD has done all three.
You mentioned the film deal, can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, it’s still at an early stage at the moment, but very exciting. It’s been bought by New Line (part of Warner Bros) and Reese Witherspoon, who produced Gone Girl, is attached to the project.
Will you be involved in the writing of the screenplay?
A part of me would love to be involved, but I know about books not film, so it’s best to leave the screenplay to those in the film industry I think.
And how have things been since IN A DARK, DARK WOOD was announced as one of the Richard & Judy Book Club Spring Reads?
Surreal! I knew when it was on the shortlist, and that was really nerve racking. Being chosen is a dream come true. The Richard & Judy Book Club persuades people to take a punt on an author they’ve not heard of, because it’s Richard and Judy saying ‘try this, you might like it’. It feels incredibly special to be part of it.
And, finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for you?
Well, I’ve just finished the structural edits on my next book. It’s called The Woman in Cabin 10, and I’ll be spending the next few months doing the copy edits and proof reading on it. Then I’ll start writing the third book. I’ve got a skeleton outline of the plot already, and a cast of characters – I’m in the love affair stage of writing!
A huge thank you to Ruth Ware for letting me interrogate her for the CTG blog.
Be sure to check out Ruth’s website at www.ruthware.com and follow her on Twitter @RuthWareWriter
And you can read my review of IN A DARK, DARK WOOD here