Naomi Alderman passed me on to Sophie Hannah. The two met at a Society of Authors awards ceremony. Naomi had recommended Sophie’s book Little Face in ‘The Bookseller’ so Sophie introduced herself. Afterwards they started conversing on Twitter, became friends and meet up regularly. Hannah_HC_72-1

Her novels keep readers wide-eyed and tense, the answers to her perplexing scenarios calling them onward through the pages like a siren’s song. But perhaps the biggest mystery about Sophie Hannah is this: how did a poet come to be one of the UK’s most popular crime writers? If you asked me, I’d say Agatha Christie had a lot to do with it. Hannah tells me that she read all 66 of Christie’s novels as a teenager and revisited them all again as part of her preparation for writing the new Poirot novel ‘The Monogram Murders’, published in September last year.

Christie is the best selling author of all time, her books having only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare. Why, I ask Hannah, would we need another Christie-brand novel out there? Hannah points out that continuation novels are no longer a strange idea. Literary reboots of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes by Sebastian Faulks and Anthony Horowitz, among others, have proved successful. Maybe it was time for Hercule Poirot to make a comeback.

‘Overwhelmingly, the Christie Estate’s motivation was that they wanted to ensure Agatha’s books were discovered by new generations of readers. Now, with children having so many more activity options such as Xboxes and Playstations,  it’s more of a struggle to get them to read at all. The Christie family felt that the online generation of teenagers might mistakenly think that Agatha belongs to another era. It was time to remind everyone that her stories are timeless, that you can enjoy them now just as much as you can enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch whizzing around being a contemporary Sherlock Holmes.’

Hannah didn’t need the gig; her novels were doing pretty well for themselves. The enduring popularity of her detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse has meant that she’s published a novel every year since 2006. Her books typically start with a mysterious situation that doesn’t seem to make sense. A mother who swears that the baby in her house is not hers, despite her husband being adamant that it is, for example. Or a man who says he killed a woman several years ago and that the police are mistaken if they think she’s still alive, which they certainly seem to.

Aside from her enduring love for Christie, Hannah was drawn to the Poirot project because she had a firm idea of how she’d want to treat the moustachioed Belgian. ‘The Christie Estate were very reassured when I said that I absolutely wanted him to be Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I didn’t want to modernise him, I didn’t want him Googling anything. I just wanted to write a traditional Poirot, and the element of novelty would come in the form of the case that he had to solve.’ Duly reassured, the estate gave the green light and, according to Hannah, the new book has done the trick. Even before the book was published, the media buzz breathed new life into sales of Christie’s Poirot novels.Monogram-Murders_612x952

Although she started at the age of six, and despite having an author for a mother, Hannah tells me that she never thought about making a career out of writing . She owns up to doing the bare minimum at school to get by, relying on her ability to knuckle down in sufficient time to pass exams. She got into Manchester University, which led to an MA in novel writing. After that? ‘I deliberately got a job as a secretary: the easiest, quietest job I could find. What I wanted was a dead easy secretarial job so that I could get on with my writing and save all my mental energy for that, and I never expected to become a professional writer, or for it to earn me any money. I just loved it and it was the only thing I was willing to put any effort into.’ Sophie lived in Moss Side at a time when guns and drugs were ravaging Manchester. Despite the burglary of her house,  being held up at gun-point and mugged, she was content. ’It was always my boyfriend (now my husband) who would say “I don’t much like living here” and I would say “I love it here – we’re so near to loads of brilliant Indian restaurants!’

An early collection of poems, The Hero and the Girl Next Door (Carcanet, 1995) got her noticed, and that led to a lucky break – patronage from Trinity College, Cambridge (and later, Wolfson College, Oxford). Sophie loved Cambridge, and told me she felt ‘like little orphan Annie ending up in the home of Oliver Warbucks.’ Trinity College paid her more than she’d been earning as a secretary and sorted her out with a flat. ‘It made me think that I’d had a very lucky break, and it just fell into my lap. For the first time, I realised that I could be a proper writer rather than someone who just writes a bit. So I thought I would use those two years at Trinity to become a writer so that I didn’t have to go back to another job’.

Hannah thinks her writing grew out of a desire for a freedom – the kind of autonomy children and teenagers don’t have because they have to live by their parents’ rules. During her teenage years, she counted down the days until her 18th birthday. In response to her father wishing her ‘Happy Birthday’ on this landmark day, she promptly responded ‘Thanks.  Now, just so that you know, I’m never doing what you tell me ever again.’ Laughing as she recounts the tale, she dismisses the notion that this was pretty standard teenage behaviour. She tells me that she was always too scared to rebel overtly, in the way some teenagers did.  ‘I accepted whatever strictures were put in place, while privately yearning to be subject to no rules, and I was quite cowardly – too scared to challenge anything, so I went along with what was expected of me and tried to pacify and smooth over wherever I could. Often I’ve heard that the people who become writers are those who can’t satisfactorily express themselves or have any power in real life. My desire for autonomy came out through my writing. Having done that through my childhood, why would I give it up? It was how I best communicated with the world.’

It is this last line that makes me think that this dual life she maintained as a teenager has continued into her adult years. Though she’s excellent company, delivering insightful, considered answers to my questions, I would love to know how the Sophie Hannah unrestricted by social convention would have answered my questions. Not because I’m a paranoid hack who felt he was being indulged by someone intellectually superior to him (although, now you come to mention it…) but because we go on to talk quite a lot about how she considers herself to be a people pleaser. If one dinner guest has unwittingly upset another one, she’ll be the one wondering how she can smooth things over.

So what we end up talking about is freedom. The construction of the worlds in her books are up to her; she can have her characters say what they truly feel. That freedom is something she says she doesn’t have in the real world because there are always strategic decisions to be made in order to keep the peace. ‘Writing allows me to describe the world in the way that it is. That’s the thing my real life won’t allow. You try describing your own experience of life and someone will come along quickly to tell you that you’re wrong or you’re being contrary, or you’re getting on your high horse. When you’re writing a novel, though, you can create a fictional world that expresses whatever you want to express. That allows for proper freedom, which day to day life just doesn’t.’

Hannah’s more than happy to admit that the repressed stuff often finds its way out of the mouths of her female leads.  ‘My heroines stand up for themselves.  I really enjoy writing characters who do that. They’re not bad people, just people who sometimes don’t take much shit. I find that a hugely attractive characteristic, because I’m someone who’s always taken way too much shit.’ The success of the Zailer and Waterhouse series would seem to confirm readers also like it.

Aside from the dilemmas thrown up by the tricky navigating of other people, Hannah assures me she knows how to enjoy life. She’d earlier told me she hated saving for a rainy day, because that’s a way of life that’s based on worst-case scenario thinking. We meet in the Langham Hotel and she includes this in her list of indulgences. ‘I eat out all the time. I drink nice colourful fizzy cocktails. I eat really strong curries. I stay in posh hotels. I go swimming in beautiful swimming pools and lakes and the sea. I’ve got a dog now, so I go on nice country walks with my dog. I make time to do all those things.  I’m a bit of a hedonist, really.’

I leave her with half an hour to kill before she has to head over the road to the BBC and I’m halfway down the road before I remember that I didn’t offer to pay for my tea. If her next book starts with a generous author taking revenge on a journalist for being a tightarse, you’ll know where she got the inspiration.

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