Harriet Lane tells us how she came to write her new novel, ‘the ultimate frenemy thriller’, Her.
“It’s her. I’m almost sure of it.”
My first novel Alys, Always came along in 2010 at a very frightening time in my life. I’d started to lose my sight, no one was really able to explain why, and I’d had to park my career as a journalist.
I missed the writing bit of the journalism quite desperately. And the need to write became so strong and urgent that it compelled me towards fiction: even though at first the business of sitting around inventing things felt quite absurd and shameful. (And then pretty quickly it simply felt fantastic, so I stopped caring.) I wrote Alys, Always in a great delirious rush, and as I wrote I felt a odd confidence that it might be working, that I might be on to something. And then I met Arzu Tahsin, my editor, who seemed to feel the same.
So that was wonderful. But even before Alys, Always was out in the world, people were asking me: so, what’s next?
I knew I had to wait for the right story, the story that I could get lost in again. I felt sure I’d find it eventually. So I really did push book two to the back of my mind. I didn’t worry about it.
In August 2012 I had a very bad relapse and I lost a lot of sight very quickly. For a few days I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to read again. And then when the drugs, incredibly, worked (they don’t always), when the text started re-appearing on the page, I felt a strong desire to get writing, partly because I knew I didn’t have endless time, and partly because I wanted to lose myself in another story. I needed to get out of my head, with its rather grim and sad preoccupations, and try out someone else’s for a change.
This was when I noticed an idea that had been bothering me — in a low-level, itchy sort of way — for some time. It was a feeling, really. And so I took this very small but (to me) somehow significant idea and went to a coffee shop with a notebook, and made myself think about it, hard. And in that hour or so I found myself a plot that amused me, and scared me a little, that involved some of the same elements that made the writing of Alys, Always so enjoyable.
Unease. The sense of characters who say one thing while meaning another. A sort of emotional and physical texture to these characters’ lives. An element of ambiguity, a deciding role for the reader.
(Why does Nina do what she does? Is she bad, mad or haunted by her own guilt, her own ancient culpability?)
Her has two female narrators, Nina and Emma, whose views interlock and and contradict. One perspective, one version of events; then the other. Only you realise fairly quickly that their views are quite different — in fact, they’re irreconcilable, dangerously so. First person, present tense. You’re up close with these women, right in their heads, inhabiting their worlds in a vivid and immediate way.
Her took twice as long to write as Alys, Always. I started it in September 2012 and I finished it the following May. Writing it over the winter — when everyone in my family has birthdays, and gets sick, and then of course there’s flipping Christmas — felt a bit like chasing after a runaway horse, and grabbing it, and hauling oneself into the saddle, and having a bit of a gallop, then being thrown off and having to start all over again.
But I always got the momentum going, and I think that velocity — that urgency — helped the writing. And I hope it helps with the reading, too.