When I come home from work I am always really, really excited to see what post I have received because sometimes, in those non-descript brown packages, are little treasures. This was the case when I opened one a little while ago and found Jenny Blackhurst’s How I Lost You inside. It was a stunning advance copy, with a Polaroid of a boy stuck on the front and a name and address underneath. I started reading Susan Webster’s story straight away – what really happened to her son Dylan? – and when I finished I promptly gave it to Mother dearest as she shares my love of crime fiction. She devoured it just as quickly and loved it as much as I did. It’s a brilliant novel with engaging, extraordinary characters and a plot that just won’t stop (who needs a booty when you have a page turning plot?). When I asked Jenny if I could interview her, and she agreed, I did do a little dance of joy.
The interview is under the cut and a fascinating insight into a book which is going to be massive. Enjoy!
As a main character, Susan was incredibly interesting – I wanted to know so much more about her and her past (and I wanted her to win!). How did you go about creating her?
With How I Lost You, the situation came to me first, and I set about creating Susan afterwards. I wanted her to be someone who had never had to experience any problems in her life, which is why she comes across a little too trusting at times, and certainly naïve. She wants to believe the best in others because she’s never been hurt. Then she loses her mother and Dylan in the space of twelve months and when we meet her she is essentially broken, but hopeful. The worst has happened and she’s survived, I’m not sure she cares what happens now.
Cassie is my favourite character! She was so much fun to write. I knew I wanted her to be the total opposite of Susan, and someone Susan would never usually associate herself with in her ‘old’ life. I wanted to use Cassie’s character to show that actually, there are grey areas in life and people are not all good or all bad – she’s done bad things but essentially she saved Susan’s life. I pictured her to be a bit like Becky MacDonald from Corrie – in fact if HILY ever made it to the screen I’d love Katherine Kelly to play Cassie.
How I Lost You is such a tightly plotted novel which left me as the reader guessing and speculating until the denouement. Did you plot your novel meticulously before you started or did vital elements of your story change as you wrote?
I didn’t do any plotting beforehand for this one, as I was never writing for publication. I started How I Lost You while I was on maternity leave, the shop I managed went into administration and in the space of four weeks I went from a retail manager, always organised and in control to an unemployed new mum who couldn’t even control when I slept! Writing was something that was just for me. The lack of planning and plotting meant a LOT of editing and plot changes before I decided to show it to anyone.
Your supporting characters are extremely well thought out and rounded. Is it easier for you to create these secondary characters as opposed to the main protagonists?
It hadn’t really occurred to me before, but I suppose it is easier in some ways, and harder in others. The secondary characters don’t have to hold your attention for pages and pages, they get to do their important bits and go back ‘off-stage’ if you like, whereas Susan has to convince you to follow her on a whole journey. It’s also harder for the same reason – they don’t get a huge backstory to convince you that they are ‘real’, you get much less time to relate to their motives.
I wanted people to see for themselves what had happened, rather than have it ‘told’ through dialogue from one character to another, so I wrote the end scenes from the past as part of the original book. My editor liked these scenes but wanted to know more about Jack, and how he became who he was, so I suggested I write his whole story from the beginning, which I had a great time with- I loved exploring in depth what made him who he became.
Because of this duality, a lot of the story is set in the past in the 1990s (the decade I still like to believe was only ten years ago) and in these scenes you slowly reveal the horrors that certain characters committed while at University. What made you decide to have University be so impactful?
I think University can be a real changing point for people. You are away from home, and actively encouraged to behave badly in some respects with hazing and Fresher’s Week initiations. It can be a time of great vulnerability and leaves us more susceptible to people like Jack. There has been a case recently at the prestigious Vanderbilt University which demonstrates this perfectly – boys who are made to feel they are indestructible and that regular rules don’t apply to them because they are wealthy and good at sport which led to some heinous actions.
You obviously did a lot of research in the book – especially with puerperal psychosis. How did you go about researching puerperal psychosis and were there things you really wanted to include in the book that you couldn’t?
It was an episode of This Morning which brought puerperal psychosis to my attention. There was an interview with a lady who had been absolutely convinced that her baby was trying to kill her, and I just felt such sadness for this woman and how confused and terrified she must have been when her own mind turned against her. I had to know more about the condition so I spent hours reading articles and medical journals on the net. Having just had my first baby I had a lot of new mum friends and I had my own experiences of how intense that time can be, and I spent hours reading other women’s stories on forums because I wanted to do the condition justice for those people who have suffered with PND – I didn’t want people thinking for one second that I’d trivialised it for the sake of entertainment. There wasn’t anything I didn’t feel I could include – as I mentioned I was writing for myself and never expected anyone to read it, so I was quite open and honest and I’m happy that a few people who have suffered from PND have contacted me and told me how much they identified with the themes in the book.
People are loving How I Lost You but when you reread your work are you tempted to make changes or are you happy it’s out there?
Oooh, that’s a tough one! Firstly, I haven’t read it since I submitted it for the final time because it’s too late now anyway. However, with it being my first book, for the first few weeks whenever someone said anything negative about it I definitely wanted to pull it back and change it. If I’d been self-published I probably would have been rewriting every time I got a review! Luckily there have been way more people who have been in touch to say they love it, my skin has thickened substantially and I’ve actually been grown up enough to learn from the negatives. I’m sure all authors with the benefit of hindsight would make changes but you’ll still never please every reader, so all in all I’m very happy with how it’s been received.
Can you tell us all a little about your writing process? Are you a pen and paper sort of person?
Absolutely. I mean I could never write a whole novel longhand but I love the way the words flow when I’m writing on paper, and how connected to the story I feel. I hope that doesn’t sound really corny! I’m still finding my way with regards to a ‘process’, the first time I had a newborn baby so I wrote with one hand and changed a nappy with the other! This time I have a newborn and a three year old so I’m changing nappies with one hand, pouring juice with the other and trying to write with my feet! Maybe my third book I’ll be left alone to write!
Have you already decided what you will be writing next? And if you have, please tell us in great detail (with spoilers) all about your next book’s plot.
I’m working on something new but I haven’t even told my mum what it is yet. When I find out where it’s going you’ll be the first to know.
I hope you all enjoyed reading that as much as I did writing it. How I Lost You by Jenny Blackhurst is published by Headline. It’ll be in all good and evil shops on the 23rd of April 2015 and I urge you all to read it.
All photography is my own except for the author photo of Jenny herself. For that one credit goes to Jenny Blackhurst.