As a fan of the Frieda Klein series, I was even more interesting in interviewing who is behind the character when I learned it was a couple: Nicci French is the pen name of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who also happen to be married. I contacted them on Twitter last week and they kindly answered five questions exclusively for Books & Reviews. Thank you!
1. What was the inspiration for Frieda Klein? Most women investigators are Dis or DCs, so why did you choose a psychotherapist?
We’ve never really been interested in crime in itself. We’re more interested in the emotions that lead to crime, or result from crime. What is like when normal life suddenly goes wrong and becomes strange and frightening?
So we were always clear that we didn’t want to write police procedural stories. We started to think of the idea of a therapist who believed that the world is a dark and chaotic place that we can’t do very much about. What we can do is deal with the confusion in our own heads. That’s what therapy does. We thought of a woman who believes in solving problems in the controlled environment of her consulting room. What if circumstances dragged this woman out into the terrible world and forced her to confront real crimes, because – unfortunately for her – she happens to be good at it?
2. You write together. Could you tell us something about your process?
We’ve been writing together for almost twenty years now, and it still seems as mysterious as it did when we first contemplated it, in the autumn of 1994.
The basic ‘process’ is that we never write a single word together. We talk about ideas together and we plan the book together and we do any necessary research together. We travel around London together. But once we start the painful writing process, somehow that needs the freedom of solitude. So one of us will write a particular section, chapter, whatever, and then send it to the other, who is free to edit, add to it, subtract from it, or leave it entirely alone. Then they can carry on and the process continues until the book is finished. We constantly discuss and evaluate the story as we write. Then, when we’re finished, both of us, one after the other, go through the whole book.
3. Your novels read like therapy because the reader is always presented with questions rather than answers. How do you achieve this?
Interesting question. The idea of therapy in these books felt natural because, in a way, therapists, detectives and writers have something in common. In different ways they all impose some sort of narrative on the messiness of existence. (One of the fascinating aspects of criminal trials is when witnesses suddenly have to narrate their lives and explain their motives as if they were literary texts.) The subjects that attract us are precisely problems, issues, that we can’t resolve, that we don’t know the answer to. In actual fact, our books generally have ‘answers’: namely, who committed a particular crime. But we’re always interested in what solving a crime leaves unsolved.
4. Tuesday’s Gone is fantastic. I especially loved Frieda’s moral dilemmas and how she tries to navigate the world always taking into account everyone has their own perception of reality. How important are grey areas and self-perception for your writing?
Thanks very much! This is a big and complicated question for us. Briefly, one aspect of Frieda that is crucial to us is that she doesn’t want to be a detective. Frieda has a particular feeling for the secrets that all of us have. It’s both her gift and her curse. The germ of Tuesday’s Gone is that there is one other character who also had that sixth-sense for people’s secrets and weaknesses: the murder victim.
Grey areas are important to us but the areas aren’t just grey. Many wrong things are done in Tuesday’s Gone, but that doesn’t mean that all wrong things are equal. Some are just normal human fallibility, some are shoddy and corrupt, some represent a terrible cruelty and disdain for others.
Frieda is always torn between therapy as a detached, medical procedure and its equal important (though complex and ambiguous) moral role.
5. Some suggested reading for our readers?
There are many fascinating books about therapy and the strangeness of the mind. A particularly fine example is Darkness at Noon by Andrew Solomon. There are fascinating (and slightly alarming) books about therapy written by practicing therapists, such as Irwin Yalom.
As regards fiction, we read very widely, and by no means especially thrillers. And when we read different sorts of thrillers – from each other and from Nicci French. For example, Sean would recommend early George V. Higgins (‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’), mid-period Elmore Leonard and the non-Maigret Simenon books. Whereas Nicci would recommend the Gothic detective stories of Wilkie Collins, and then contemporary writers such as Imogen Robertson, Sophie Hannah….