A Q&A with best-selling British author Fiona Barton

What words or phrases do you overuse? "In life, 'beautiful' and 'what to do?'. In books, I think I've used 'needle in a haystack' too much and my characters seem to nod and close their eyes a lot."

17 March 2019 - 00:00

Published in the Sunday Times (17/03/2019)

Which book changed your life?
I cannot decide between these two: Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier awakened a hunger for psychological thrillers when I was a teenager. I'd been a slave to Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie for years, devouring all their books and never once guessing the murderer. But Rebecca did something else. I was in the head of the second Mrs de Winter from those iconic first lines, chilled and intrigued by the menacing undertow (and the scariest housekeeper ever created). Then there's Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?  She showed me the power and possibilities of a story told by many and gave me the confidence to try for myself. I owe them both huge debt.

What music helps you write?
Sometimes I get in the mood with Nick Cave's menacing Red Right Hand but otherwise I need silence. I love music but I cannot tune it out when I'm writing and I find myself singing along instead of typing.

What is the strangest thing you've done when researching a book?
I almost stayed in a backpacker hostel in Bangkok. I was looking for a suitably appalling guesthouse for two girls in The Suspect and found a gem - it cost $3 a night (they were overcharging) and it was filthy. I stood in the room and decided you can go too far for your art...

What words or phrases do you overuse?
In life, "beautiful" and "what to do?". In books, I think I've used "needle in a haystack" too much and my characters seem to nod and close their eyes a lot. 

What books are you embarrassed not to have read?
The Harry Potter books. My daughter grew up with the boy wizard but I've never read them.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
So much depends on age, interests, reading ability. My first love was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome but I'm not convinced that would do it for the iPad generation.

Do you finish every book you start? 
I used to read everything to the last fullstop but now I'm sent about six books a week and the sheer volume means I give them a hundred pages to grip me. But I have to confess that there are some I put down after two chapters. Reading is such a personal act, you cannot love every book.

What's the best book you've received as a gift?
Too many to list. Last best one was I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell. It's autobiographical, told in a series of brushes with death and the first one will make you gasp out loud. The hairs on the back of my neck are still standing up.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster has been making me laugh since my teens. Okay, it may be an English thing but I love every fibre of him. Pip pip!

What are you most proud of writing?
The Widow, my first book. When I held the finished copy in my hand and realised I had actually written a novel is a moment that can never be bettered. 

What keeps you awake at night?
Brexit. And the plot of book four.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Hurry up and get started. I was in my 50s when I wrote my first book so I've got a lot to cram in.

  • The Suspect by Fiona Barton is published by Penguin Random House (R290)