Emily Winslow. On Staging Complex Crime Novels.
Although I try not to ask the same questions every time I interview an author, I do like to know about their background, because that usually has some bearing on either the subject matter of the book, or the way they have gone about writing it. This could not have been a more appropriate and illuminating question to ask crime author Emily Winslow, because there is a real sense of stagecraft in her wonderfully convoluted and psychological plots.
You’re an American living in England. How did this come about?
We moved here seven years ago, to Cambridge, my husband’s hometown. When we were living in the States, we considered where we wanted to raise a family. Fortunately, we both had jobs where we could be geographically flexible. We thought about all the places we’d lived before and the things that we liked about them.
Cambridge seemed to be ideal. It’s full of opportunities, and of people who are passionate about what they do, who want to learn more about all sorts of things. It seemed like a great environment for the kids to grow up in, to feel inspired and challenged, and to have all the opportunities to grow into their passions.
Have you always been a writer?
When I was younger, I’d wondered whether I wanted to be a writer or an actor. When I was a teenager I leaned towards the performing arts more, so much so that I ended up going to university for acting. It was a very intense programme and I learned a lot, which has helped me to become a better writer.
But when I finished with that programme, I felt like acting was too exposed, and that the criticisms were much too personal. For example, we would be told, ‘You don’t walk right. You don’t talk right. Your emotional interpretation is wrong.’ It was just overwhelming at that point, so I thought, ‘Right. If I’m a writer I don’t need to be in the room while somebody’s reading my work. I can have that little bit of distance between the act of creating and somebody judging it.’ Also, as a writer, you get to choose the stories you want to tell instead of waiting to be cast. It was those two aspects that that made me turn to writing with relief.
You say that taking acting as a degree helped you become a better writer. Why was this?
Because you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You have to take every character you’re given, even somebody you don’t like, or maybe somebody you would even loathe, or somebody you would completely disagree with. But you have to find some point of connection or common humanity. I think to be a good writer you have to be able to connect in that way with all of your characters.
This is interesting because recently I saw a debate on Facebook about readers having issues engaging with unpleasant characters in a book. So thinking about what you’ve just said, it may be that these unpleasant characters are unsuccessful, because they have no qualities which allow a reader to relate to them.
It really is tricky because whether I would personally like an unpleasant character to come over to my house and be my friend is a completely different question from whether I would like to read more about this character’s choices. I find it to be a discussion where people can end up at cross purposes because these are two completely different issues.
If you were reading a book, what would make an unappealing character readable?
If they’re funny, if they make strong self-consistent choices, and if they’re battling with something that isn’t so black-and-white.
Your acting degree and your experience acting seems to have helped you get into the skin of other characters and see what they’re about. I also think this experience may have had an impact on how you structure your books. How much do you think about stage plays when you’re plotting and also writing dialogue, because as an actor you must have examined plays very carefully?
Oh yes. Plays are a great thing for novelists to participate in, because things have to happen in plays. Characters are on stage doing things. In novels you can meander into description, and philosophical thoughts, while plays don’t allow for these sorts of diversions as easily. Plays remind you that, barring carefully chosen exceptions, two or more people should be butting heads in every scene.
For a crime novel this sort of approach is really very appropriate.
Yes, but not just crime novels. I think all novels benefit from this sort of approach. I’m sure you can find exceptions, brilliant scenes where supposedly nothing is happening, but for the most part in good stories something is always going on; not action in terms of things exploding, but action in terms of a character wanting something they can’t have and trying different tactics to get it.
Your books have multiple character plots, so a lot of personalities are interacting with one another. In The Whole World you have a mixture between youth, middle age and older age engaging in different types of interplay. In your other book The Start of Everything you begin with someone who is having problems dealing with the world and seeing the world from a completely different viewpoint to everybody else. Have you been influenced by any specific playwright?
I can’t say there’s a particular playwright in my mind, but play structure in general is something I certainly carry with me. A big difference, though, is that when a play’s being acted out on the stage, it’s like third-person: you’ve got all your characters there, each of them vying for their own point of view all at once. In my books, when I’m using a first-person narrator, I’m more in the position of an individual actor than a playwright. I can only say what that character would think and what they would observe. This can sometimes create a frustrating position for me as a writer, because if I want to go in a particular direction, and I can’t do it through that character’s eyes, I’m stuck. I have to make the decision whether to change narrator, which is what I do decide sometimes, or to say, ‘No, that’s not a direction I can go in.’ Although I do change narrator a lot in my books, I always aim for a symmetrical structure.
There’s a different structure for each book, but having some kind of symmetry is important. It creates a balance for the narrators. It’s important that I’m not throwing narrators in just for convenience. Although I allow myself the freedom to change, it still has to come out with an elegant structure at the end.
Point of view is certainly very important in your books, because it does change the way a character can work within a story.
It also changes what the reader perceives. In The Whole World, for example, several of the characters describe the same scenes from different points of view. Readers have a tendency to believe whoever they’re with, whoever’s eyes they’re looking through. When you switch those points of view, and the story changes, it’s not so much that anybody’s consciously lying, but that everybody has their biases and their priorities. Some characters are going to describe what people look like, but some characters don’t care what other people look like. Some characters are going to notice that one character in the background that they have a crush on and other characters are going to take no interest in that person at all. But the reader, almost always, will trust the person they’re with at the moment. That’s great fun to play with.
Your novels, with their complex plots, must be a strategic nightmare to organise. How’d you do it?
At the start I just come up with some interesting premises and I go. I just say, ‘This is interesting to me. Let’s make it happen.’ I play with it. Then I come a point when I say, ‘Okay, I’ve got enough interesting things, now I need to figure out how I’m going to rein them all in and put them all together.’ I usually start plotting more tightly around the midpoint.
Afterwards, when I have the whole story from start to finish, I start making outlines and charts summarizing what I’ve written. That’s when I see exactly what I’ve got. I look for symmetries and patterns, and the important things at the end that need more weight in the beginning. I’ve got file cards that are colour-coded, which I can shuffle and reshuffle.
This is something that comes after the first draft is complete. I can’t do it at the start, because I don’t know what I’m going to have. I have to create the raw material by writing it first.
So do you just sit down and write in sequence or do you write episodes that you put together afterwards?
I always attempt to write in the sequence of the intended reader’s experience (which may not be chronological; some of my storytelling bounces around in time). I may decide later, when I’m revising, to move things around, but I’m always writing in sequence as far as I understand the sequence at that point.
Your novels do demand close reading. You do drop clues on the way amongst all the complex relationships going on. Do you organise the clues towards the end?
I am purposely hinting at things throughout, but often (and this is particularly true for me) when you see a writer use something at the end that was mentioned inconsequentially in the beginning, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was put there in the beginning as a setup. It’s often the other way around: I used it at the end because it was already there!
Your books are probably the crime equivalent of a Rubik’s cube.
I love puzzles. I love a setup that seems impossible (whether physically, as in a locked room mystery, but more interestingly psychologically), which in the end not only makes sense, but seems inevitable. I find it very satisfying to have my expectations and assumptions skilfully played with. Those are the sort of books I like to read.
Your characters are certainly not two-dimensional, but you’re not a writer who goes out of their way to describe the physical appearance of your characters. You’re relying on other things like dialogue and action to give the reader impression of the person.
This probably goes back to my acting. Different actors can step into the same part. Their hair colour or height or what they physically look like is not as important. What is important is what the character does, how they make other people feel and what they bring out in the other characters. I don’t find describing somebody’s physical appearance to be all that interesting, unless it’s affecting somebody else or demonstrates a choice they’re making.
Thinking about writing what you know, the two girls in the first book are American. Was this because you are American and decided to write within your comfort zone?
Yes. I was very intimidated by the idea of setting something in a country that wasn’t my own. I was very aware that I was slightly over my head, so, yes, there was an element of comfort there. But also, there were things that I wanted to express about Cambridge that required a character as new and fascinated as I was.
I started writing The Whole World six months after I moved here. I was still finding it all very amazing and surprising. What I noticed about people who grew up here, like my husband, is that they take it all for granted and don’t give it a second thought. I needed characters who would notice their surroundings. The British characters of Nick, Morris and Gretchen hardly ever comment on the architecture or the way things look; but the two Americans do because it’s all very strange to them and stands out. I needed characters who would let me describe those things that as a newcomer I was finding so interesting.
How did you, as an American, get your head into Englishness?
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and hoped it would be okay. Luckily I live here, so I live among British people, particularly Cambridge people. Cambridge really is a very particular subset of Britishness. With all the characters I just tried to find something that I could relate to. I think it can make a mess if you try being too conscious about it. For example, if you say to yourself ‘I want to have a character who’s a battered spouse,’ and you research this in detail to get a list of the characteristics of this sort of person, then you write a scene to express each of those characteristics, it can be distancing and unsuccessful. I think the most important thing you can do is observe, absorb, then let that all go into the back of your mind. Just let the person exist in your mind on that foundation, and write them down.
Do you find when you go somewhere, you’re closely observing the place from a writer’s viewpoint?
I always have paper and pen with me. I make notes on everything, and every few weeks I put them a heap and try to make sense of them. My stories are local, so I’m faced with potential settings every day. My children help me explore places sometimes, and they (bear in mind they’re still quite young) will say to me, ‘Oh look Mom, you could dump a body there. That would be a great place for someone to dump a body.’
Thinking about looking at things from an outsider’s viewpoint, in the second book, The Start of Everything, Mathilde Oliver has Asperger’s syndrome. What sort of research did you do to get inside the head of this character?
I did pretty much what I’ve just described. I did do a lot of research, of Asperger’s and autism and also sensory disorders. Then I put it all away. The biggest thing that I held onto when creating Mathilde was a small piece of myself. I’m a natural introvert. This doesn’t mean I’m not a sociable person; I’m quite happy in company. I mean an introvert in terms of how I get my energy from having regular time alone.
I said to myself, ‘Okay, what if Mathilde is like me and she needs her space and solitude, but instead of needing a few hours a day, or a couple of days a week, what if Mathilde is so intense that even normal, everyday encounters make her go under?’ It’s just a magnification of a need in myself, a magnification to a point where it interferes with her daily life.
You did say that in The Whole World the American girls noticed Cambridge when nobody else did. How did you decide what Mathilde in The Start of Everything was going to see?
Everything she sees stresses her out. Through her I get to show some of the most iconic images of Cambridge, but she views them very differently from the way tourists do! Physically, Mathilde’s job gave her a starting point in the Registrar’s office, which is right near Kings College. That gives her a chance to walk down Senate House Passage, which I walk down whenever I go into town. It’s beautiful. Then you go down Kings Parade. I liked that she was the character we saw the Corpus Clock through.
You can actually see my personal geography expand in the books. The reason why The Whole World starts in that beautiful old lift with that lovely iron grille is because my younger child was still in a pushchair then. You can’t access the Sedgwick Museum in a pushchair unless you use that lift. I was in there about twice a week. I chose Magdalene College because I used to go by it on the bus, and a friend of ours at Magdalene showed me around. I use whatever I’ve got access to. The longer I stay here the more you can see my access growing, the expansion of what I feel is mine and what I know well enough that I can describe it.
Some of the characters have been carried over from The Whole World. Is this a world that you’re going to inhabit as a writer for a while and develop these characters further?
Absolutely. Both books (and the next one!) have Morris and Chloe the police detectives in them, but the series is not written to be a DCI Morris Keene or DI Chloe Frohmann vehicle.
If you read the books in order you do see some chronological development of the detectives, but they’re written very much as stand-alone books. That’s why I don’t think it would be accurate to call the series the ‘DCI Morris Keene mysteries’. I don’t think we see their point of view enough to justify that, because they are part of a cast of characters who share an equal presence. I suppose if there is a lead character connecting all the books, it’s Cambridge.
What’s happening in the next book?
My children are involved with one of the University choirs as choristers, so part of the setting of the next book is that choir and also the local children’s orchestras, because that’s where I spend my time now. The books are fiction, but their settings tell a mini biography of my recent life.