Neighbours in Crime: Sophie Hannah and Emily Winslow

Neighbours in Crime: Sophie Hannah and Emily Winslow

You're both transplants to Cambridge. What brought you there?

Emily: Cambridge is my husband's home town. We met when he and I both lived in the States, but moved here seven years ago to raise our kids. It's an inspiring place, full of people who are passionate about their interests, and of over 800 years of history. I know most people get excited about nature, about beaches, about mountain views. I'm crazy about architecture. I love the stories that buildings tell, and the human choices they represent. Cambridge is a great place for that.

Sophie: I lived in Cambridge for two years between 1997 and 1999, when I was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College—that basically means Writer in Residence. I fell in love with the city the first time I set foot in it, in exactly the way one falls in love with a person—I just knew straight away it was the perfect place for me. I adored living there for those two years, but then we had to move away when my husband got a job in Yorkshire. After 11 years in Yorkshire, however, my husband decided to give up his job, and suddenly we had a completely free choice about where to live—we both screamed "Cambridge!" at the same time. So we moved back to Cambridge in 2010, and it feels more like home than anywhere else I've ever lived.


How did you meet?

Emily: Sophie was organising workshop teachers for a local literary festival and contacting Cambridge writers. While researching me, she noticed a link to an article about my house, which we'd had custom built. She's a great fan of interesting architecture, so once she'd booked me to teach, she asked if she could come over and see the house! At the time, she was renovating parts of her own lovely house, and writing her book Lasting Damage, the plot of which involves property listings, so with all of that we had a lot of “house things” to talk about.

Sophie: I was doing an event at Waterstone's in Cambridge City Centre and Emily came and introduced herself to me. I knew about her already, because I'd recently bought her book The Whole World.

Emily: Now I remember that! I think that was between our phone call and the subsequent tea in my living room. I only had my first book out at that time, and I remember feeling a bit nervous and deferential about introducing myself in person.


What do you like most about each other's houses?

Emily: Sophie's top floor study is stunning. The room itself is spacious, every wall covered in either art or bookshelves, with a big, neat desk ready for work. I'm a “piler.” The flat surfaces in my house are never neat, so this makes me jealous. The best part is the study's attached patio, with a view of iterating rooftops.

Sophie: Emily's house is the kind of house that might turn up on Grand Designs—architect-designed, very contemporary, totally unique, incredibly stylish. It was built to perfection, from scratch. Mine's the opposite—I bought a very shabby Victorian house and am slowly perfecting it room by room. Yes, Emily's house is a bit messy, but as long as she can find teabags to make me a cup of tea when I turn up, I'm not planning to complain!


What else did you find you have in common?

Emily: Our admiration for complicated characters and for Ruth Rendell. Sophie and I both feel strongly that the most interesting characters aren't “all good” or “all bad.” Ruth Rendell's characters, especially in her Barbara Vine books and her standalones, have that complexity, even ambiguity. Heartstones, Live Flesh, and A Fatal Inversion are my favourites, as well as her short story collections. Pretty much as soon as I answered Sophie's “Who's your favourite crime writer?” question with “Ruth Rendell,” she asked if I'd like to form a writer's group, reading each other's work-in-progress.

Sophie: Yes, we found that we liked a lot of the same books, especially Ruth Rendell. And we're both interested in layers of psychological complexity in fiction, rather than simple linear narratives. And, in terms of being writing group friends, we have in common that we are properly critical of each other's work in progress. We don't just say, "Yes, it's great, it's lovely". We pick everything apart and examine all the separate components, and provide real hands-on editorial advice. That is what a writing group should do, I think. My last writing group, in Yorkshire, was way too flattering and not nearly critical enough.


How do you work together?

Emily: We send each other parts of whatever we're working on, sometimes the whole thing, sometimes just chapters. With crime and psychological suspense especially, it's extremely helpful to have comments about the logical progression of clues and assumptions. For her, I usually make a table of comments with columns for “Lines I love,” “Moments of confusion,” “Mystery raised,” “Mystery solved,” and “Comments.” The “mysteries raised” then “solved” are probably the most important. It gives a skeleton of the most important aspects of the structure, and can reveal things that need more emphasis or clarity.

Sophie: The feedback I give Emily is less organised than the feedback she gives me—this is mainly because she knows how to do complicated spread-sheets and I don't! And I'm too busy to work out how to. So I just read through whatever she's sent me and make a list of all the points I want to make—what's working well, what isn't, what almost is; the changes I would make to improve the text—that kind of thing.

Emily: I usually have half a dozen early readers for my books, and each one has a different emphasis. One proofreads my British English, another comments on my University and local references. Sophie's feedback focuses on that logical flow. She questions my characters' leaps and assumptions, and challenges me about the overall structure. When she says it “works,” I feel confident.


What do you most enjoy about each other's books?

Emily: I love the unique setups. In Sophie's Little Face, a new mother comes home from the gym and discovers that her baby is not her baby, but a different one; her husband, who was home the whole time, disputes her claim. In Lasting Damage, a woman viewing property listings sees a crime scene in one of the photos, which then disappears; of course no one believes her, but she knows what she saw. Kind of Cruel begins with a visit to a hypnotherapist, which leads to an arrest for the murder of a woman the main character has never met. Even though Sophie's series books all have the same police and similar style, the plots are always absolutely distinct, from one another and from other stories out there. You can also see her origins as a poet shine through in her eloquently expressed psychological insights.

Sophie: I love the structure of Emily's books—they're never straightforward linear narratives. They're more like circular shapes with added ripples of psychological significance that spread out in all directions. There's something very organic and natural about them, and I also love the fact that Emily has a totally unique authorial voice. I could read three sentences of Emily's work without her name attached to it, and I'd know I was reading Emily. It's very rare to come across an author who has that distinct a voice. I like the psychological layering in Emily's stories, also—the sense of every character having his or her own complicated mental landscape, and then all those individual psyches colliding...

Emily: It's a real treat to get to read Sophie's books early. When they hit the shelves, I feel a little tickle of pride that I already know the ending, and that I had a small effect on the finished work.


Sophie Hannah's latest novel is The Orphan Choir, published by Hammer. Emily Winslow's The Whole World is out now, published by Allison & Busby.

Find out which books Sophie Hannah would take to a desert island.

Read an exclusive short story by Sophie.