Monday, January 8, 2018

Partners in Crime: Guest Post by Nicci French

Today I continue our Partners in Crime (collaborative writing) feature with a guest post by Nicci French, the pseudonym of English wife-and-husband writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Their books have sold more than 8 million copies around the world. They began the Frieda Klein series in 2011 with Blue Monday, which was lauded by peers and press alike, with New York Times Book Review calling it, “a neat puzzle,” People Magazine, saying, “fast-paced and spooky,” and Louise Penny, praising, “A fabulous, unsettling, and riveting look at motives and memory and relationships.” Through each day of the week, each new entry into the series, French have delved deeper into their enigmatic—and sometimes not very likeable—protagonist, Freida Klein, who continues to intrigue and allure readers. As she roams the streets of London at night, fighting insomnia, readers explore the atmospheric settings of a well-known city seen through a unique lens. Sunday Silence (Morrow Books) will be released tomorrow in the U.S.

Nicci French: 
Partners in Crime

When we met, we were both journalists. Nicci was an editor and a feature writer on the London Observer. Sean was a columnist and critic, writing mainly about films. So we were writers but we were also readers, passionate readers. If we wrote an article, we should show it to the other person before anyone else saw it. We would pass books between us talking about why we loved it – or didn’t love it.

And then at some point we can no longer remember, one of us said: Why not try writing together some time?

In 1994, we read an article about recovered memory. Women – it was almost always women – were going into therapy and suddenly recalling horrendous abuse committed against them by family members. As a result, fathers, uncles, neighbours were receiving long prison sentences. These memories felt so real. But were they reliable?

As citizens we thought: what a troubling issue. As writers we thought: what a terrific subject for a new kind of thriller. And since we’d come across the idea together, what about that notion of trying to write it together?

So we spent a few months constructing a plot, talking about characters, doing research. Then, at the beginning of 1995, we started writing. We stumbled into the only method of doing it that seemed to work for us. One of us would write a section, send it to the other, who would be free to edit, rewrite, add to, subtract from, or just leave alone. Then they would write another section, send it back, and so on.

It had started as an experiment. Would we simply be able to produce a book – publishable or not? But as we got going, we started to get involved with the ideas, the characters came to a kind of life and wouldn’t leave. It was like a party that was getting going and taking on a life of its own. By August we had written the book, had sold it to a publisher and had become a new writer that we called ‘Nicci French’.

That was then, and now we’re in 2018 writing – can it really be? – our twenty-third novel together. When we began The Memory Game, our youngest child couldn’t read. Now she has a post-graduate degree in English literature. This experiment has been at the heart of our life for most of our marriage. What is that like? What has it done to us?

Firstly, we spend an awful lot of time together. We suspect that many relationships depend on leading separate lives. You have different jobs, different work friends, different interests. You meet in the evening to compare notes. We work together (though, when we’re writing, never in the same room). We don’t work all the time, but even so, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, there is a bit of our brain thinking: can we use this? Would this be an idea for a book? We go to meetings together, we go to book festivals together, we sign books together. When it’s going well, we can both enjoy it. But when it’s going badly – and there will always be times when it goes badly – then there is nowhere to hide. This is not a life for everyone. We’ve often said that, if you’re in a troubled relationship, don’t try to heal it by writing a book together.

There is another basic question: why do it? All writing is hard; why make it harder, with all the complications, the differences of opinion, of sensibility, of prose style, that two people bring?

There is a French expression: folie à deux. It describes people who act in a more extreme way as a couple than they would alone. Think Bonnie and Clyde. The strange thing about writing together, and one of the surprises, is that writing together isn’t a matter of bargaining, of compromise, on finding something we can both settle for. It’s more like two people goading each other, spurring each other one, writing for each other, trying to surprise each other, to turn each other on.

Separately, we are very different characters. But when we write together, we’ve discovered we become this other person and it’s strangely freeing. It’s like going to a carnival and putting on a mask and behaving in a way you could never do in your normal life.

Nicci French has gone into some dark areas, exploring primal fears, madness, sexual obsession, victimhood, psychological and physical violence. Nicci French is not a better or worse writer than Sean French or Nicci Gerrard, but she’s a different one. In a way we still don’t quite understand after twenty-two years, she goes her own way.

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