"As a journalist your words are regularly read by lots of people but they’re not your words, they’re someone else’s, you’re quoting people.”
Fiona Barton may be used to having her writing read and critiqued, but having people read her début novel —her own words—has been a “slightly terrifying” experience, and “much more exposing and thrilling” than writing for a newspaper.
The Widow—which was shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller competition in 2014—focuses on Jean Taylor, whose husband Glen has just died. His death has not gone unnoticed. Glen was accused of a horrid crime while he was alive, and it was bad enough to have resulted in journalists now gathering on Jean’s doorstep, and to spark the interest of Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes, who hopes it will finally lead to the conclusion of a case that has been haunting him for years.
As the book moves between Jean, Bob, and journalist Kate, and between the present and past, what unfolds is a dark tale about the lies and half-truths people tell themselves in a bid to remain ignorant, and how complicit this makes people in a crime.
The spark for Barton’s novel came from her time as a journalist. “When I was sitting in court, often I’d find myself looking at the family, not the victim’s [family], but the accused’s,” says Barton from her home in France. “Often that was the wife. What does it feel like to be hearing this, to find out stuff about someone you thought you knew? Are you standing by him? What do you know or don’t know?”
Kate and Bob’s strands are told in the third person, while we hear from Jean in the first person, because Barton wanted Jean to “communicate direct with the reader”.
“So the reader could see that what she was saying might not be true, you then had to have other narrators,” says Barton.
“It is all about perceptions. It pointed out the fact that you see what you want to see, you hear what you want to hear.
“But it is exhausting writing in the first person. It is nice for me to stand back slightly [with Bob and Kate]. I am as involved with those characters as I was with Jean but Jean drives the story. The others are reacting and adding.”
Jean sees what she wants to see, because she does not understand why her seemingly perfect husband needs or wants to carry out such awful deeds. The why is something Barton was keen to explore in The Widow.
“I have done a lot of stories about online sexual abuse and the moves to try and stop it,” she says. “I have read a lot and I’ve interviewed quite a few people who have been accused of it, so I’ve used that experience.
“It is so hard to understand. I felt it was right to try and bring out some of Glen’s feelings about it. Interviews I’ve done with people who are accused, incredibly self-serving and saying, ‘It’s they’re always not my fault, the internet made me do it, there’s nothing wrong with looking at girls’, and all of those things.
“I talked to people who were in the online industry about it, trying to get myself as informed as possible.
“I wanted to get it right and I am interested in what drives people to do that sort of thing.”
Barton does not give explicit details about Glen’s crime, preferring instead to examine the people affected. “The imagination is such as powerful tool, suggestion is all you need,” she says. “People fill in gaps. It is much more chilling if you’re doing it yourself, if you don’t have it laid out.”
Those gaps are fine in fiction, but the detail is what Barton would have been after as a journalist, and what Kate tries to get from Jean.
I expected Barton to feel closest to Kate, given that the two share a profession, but it was Jean whose voice Barton could hear, and still can.
“If I am reading the paper and there’s something about a case involving a husband and wife there are lots of echoes of Jean,” says Barton.
Kate—who will appear in Barton’s second novel, on which she is currently working—is not meant to be Barton herself, but she is modelled on an amalgam of journalists Barton has known.
In The Widow Kate offers an insight into Jean’s state of mind and also serves to present a different view of journalists than the criminal, phone-hacking types that have recently been making the news.
Kate is after a story, but not to the detriment of her humanity. She probes at Jean, but never makes her feel uncomfortable. And the way she handles Dawn, the mother of missing child Bella Elliott, is filled with kindness and sympathy.
“Journalists are [now] part of the news rather than just making it, for bad or good,” says Barton. “When I first became a journalist people said: ‘Oh, that must be interesting.’
“They saw it as slightly glamorous, slightly edgy. They wanted to know more.”
But the situation has changed. Barton relays a story about someone who visited her house, who said to her that “all journalists make things up”.
“I am really sad about it because there are so many brilliant journalists,” she says. “People have lost sight of that. Journalists do a great job.
“A lot of people think journalists are criminals, and there are some who haven’t helped us.
“But the media is essential for democratic society.”
Picture: © Justyn Wilsmore