No one builds tension and delivers a killer twist quite like husband-and-wife crime writing duo, Nicci French.
Having written over twenty novels together Nicci Gerard and Sean French explain that it doesn’t feel like work, but a way of exploring the world together. Well, they must be doing something right - their gripping psychological thrillers have been hugely successful and we’re sure their new standalone novel House Of Correction will be no exception. Here they chat to Woman&Home about just how they manage writing and living together…
Do you enjoy writing together?
‘Enjoy’ doesn’t seem an adequate word. We’ve been writing together for twenty-five years, and when we’re not writing together, we’re talking about writing together, doing research together. It’s become like the air we breathe. It feels impossible to imagine not doing it.
Do you plan meticulously beforehand which sections each of you will write?
We sometimes think of it as like planning a walk. We know where we want to end up and we know where we want to go on the way. But within that we need to leave ourselves a freedom of how to manage a particular scene. And the one thing we never do is plan which of us writes which bit: there is no allocation of labour like that.
Do you write alternately, or do you both write each of your sections in one go?
We write alternately and we write the book in order. If we didn’t, we would get hopelessly confused! Also, a book needs to be able to change its mind, go in different and surprising directions, be organic. We need to be open to that.
How do you decide how much your lead character, and therefore the reader, will know at each point?
We think about it and talk about it all the time - among many other things. It always depends on the kind of story: sometimes the suspense is the reader knowing something the protagonist doesn’t. Sometimes the reader and the protagonist learn the truth together. Sometimes the reader isn’t sure of exactly what the protagonist knows.
Do you each write specific elements in each book depending on your preference?
It sounds like it would be logical. The famous Swedish thriller-writing couple, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, divided it like this, with the man writing the police procedural episodes and the woman writing the more ‘literary’ passages. We’ve never done anything like and never plan in advance who will write which bit. People think it must save time to write together but in fact it takes longer.
Have you ever got a sense that something you’d planned is no longer quite right, that the character or storyline was taking you in a slightly different direction?
Yes, over and over again. We sometimes feel that when you plan a book, you work in two dimensions and when you write a book, you work in three dimensions. You’re not just thinking about the world, you’re in it, you can smell it and feel it and inhabit the characters and some of your best-laid plans just don’t work and other possibilities open up. In Blue Monday, the first of our Frieda Klein series, we introduced Josef, a Ukrainian builder, who was supposed to only appear for a few scenes but he refused to go away and stayed for the whole series.
How do you go about ensuring that the tone of the novel remains consistent throughout, no matter which of you wrote a particular section?
Sometimes people misunderstand our collaboration. We constantly edit and rewrite each other, of course, but that’s not to make Sean more like Nicci and Nicci more like Sean. When we write our own books, we are completely different writers, different styles, different imaginations. But in a way that is mysterious even to us, because when we write as Nicci French we become another writer who is separate from either of us. The consistency comes from days and days of talking about what the book is about, who are its characters, what is its emotional heart, what is its world.
When you sit down together at the end of the day, do you make a conscious decision not to talk about your book over dinner?
There have never been neat compartments in our life. Everything spills over into everything else. Almost unfailingly, our best ideas have come to us when we’re meant to be doing something else. But it doesn’t feel like work; it feels like our way of exploring the world together.
Do you write in the same room or separately?
It’s very important not to write in the same room. We have extremely different styles: Nicci, focused, head down; Sean - shall we say? - a little more distractable. Nicci works in an attic at the top of the house and Sean in a shed in the garden. When we finish a section, we email it to the other.
Do you both read the same books?
Reading is a huge part of writing. We’ve always passed books between us. It’s a way of thinking about stories. Both of us read lots of fiction, not just crime. Perhaps Sean reads a bit more non-fiction. Nicci read an enormous amount for her book, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love. But we read in different ways. Nicci reads one book at at time, Sean many books at a time.
How do you reward yourself at the end of the day?
Wine, baths, cooking, watching old movies.
House of Correction by Nicci French (Simon & Schuster) is out now