OK, you all know how much I love this forum. I love introducing new authors to readers, I love finding new authors myself. But today’s Moment is a first for Suspense Your Disbelief–the appearance of someone who has long been on my short list of favorite authors. Readers everywhere will understand what it is to get to know someone whom you’ve long known “only” through her books. It’s like meeting the president. Or Santa Claus. So, without further ado, let me introduce Sophie Hannah, literary suspense author extraordinaire. And the even better news is–if you love Sophie’s work as much as I do, she has a long back list!
First, I’d like to say that I was thrilled to be asked to write this piece, as this topic is something I’ve been puzzling over for a long time. I have no idea whether I’ve made it or not. If I have, I don’t know when I did. If I haven’t, I don’t know if I will, and if I do at some future date, I’m sure I won’t know when it happens. I regard the whole issue as an intriguing mystery, and I am constantly searching for clues that might point me in one direction or the other. After all, like everyone else, I am forever hearing that hardly any writers make it, whatever ‘it’ is, so it seems quite important for a writer to know whether she has made it or not. When my first psychological thriller ‘Little Face’ was accepted for publication, that was probably my happiest moment as a writer, the moment when I most felt, ‘Hooray! I’ve succeeded!’ Of course, I quickly realised (indeed, I probably knew all along, though blissful denial obliterated the knowledge for a few days) that I’d succeeded only in securing for myself the opportunity to fail. So many published books wither and die without being noticed, and that might well happen to mine. Why wouldn’t it, in fact? There are so many books out there – why would anyone notice mine? And my publishers told me not to worry if ‘Little Face’ didn’t become a bestseller, as it almost definitely wouldn’t – they would build me up gradually. This sounded great to me – it was their way of telling me that they loved my writing and would stick with me and believe in me even though sales weren’t going to be much to write home about. At that point, things seemed clearly defined: I hadn’t made it, and probably wouldn’t for quite a long time, but my publishers and my agent and I would slog away together, hoping for the best.
‘Little Face’ was published the following August, and, although it got amazing reviews, it didn’t sell very well at first – a few hundred to a thousand copies a week, I think it was, which was perfectly normal for a first thriller by an unknown writer (well, I was known as a poet, but that basically meant that four people in Hampstead had heard of me, and maybe two in Chiswick). Then something odd happened. On Boxing Day that year, disappointed with all the books people had bought me for Christmas (‘Do they know me at all? How could they possibly think I’d want to read that?’), I made my virtual way to Amazon.co.uk, planning to look at the Crime & Thrillers chart and order some ace crime novels. Bizarrely, my non-bestselling novel ‘Little Face’ – which I’d been told by many book trade experts was too subtle and well-written to be a commercial success – was at number one. Numbers two, three and four were by John Grisham, Thomas Harris and someone else hugely famous and multi-millionairish that I can’t remember offhand – Ian Rankin, perhaps, or God. In shock, I looked at the Amazon Fiction Chart. ‘Little Face’ was number one there too. I assumed my husband was playing a trick on me, but couldn’t work out how he’d done it. At almost exactly that moment, my editor emailed to tell me I was number one on Amazon. From that moment, the sales of the book took off, and it soon came to be known as a word-of-mouth bestseller (or a ‘bestseller de passaparola’ in Italy, or a ‘bestseller boca-oreja’ in Spain). Pretty soon it was selling all over the world, and people started to refer to it as an international bestseller.
That was when I started to wonder about whether I’d made it or not. Did being number one on Amazon count as having made it? Or selling to eighteen foreign territories? No, surely not. At the time, I was living in a semi-detached house in Keighley, West Yorkshire – I was fairly sure John Grisham and Thomas Harris didn’t live in Keighley semis. And I didn’t have a chef or a full-time live-in house-tidier, two things I would certainly have had if I was a roaring success, since I love food but hate cooking, and love a tidy house but hate drudgery. Yet there I was, day after day, picking up other people’s socks and pants from the floor, stirring pesto sauce into pasta… Therefore, I couldn’t have made it – not yet. But people kept talking as if I had, and certainly there seemed to be a general assumption from that point onwards that my future books would sell as well as ‘Little Face’ and probably better – they would all become bestsellers. This seemed a rash assumption to me – I pointed out that my next book might not sell at all, and everyone laughed and said, ‘Oh, nonsense – of course it will.’ The strange thing was that the people who seemed so sure that all my books from then on would be bestsellers were the very same people who were equally sure that ‘Little Face’ wouldn’t be. So I went from thinking, ‘Hang on a minute – how do you know it won’t sell?’ to thinking, ‘Hang on a minute – how do you know it will sell?’ When I reminded everybody that my next thriller ‘Hurting Distance’ might not sell for all the same reasons that we feared ‘Little Face’ wouldn’t sell, the response was flat-out denial and a rewriting of history. ‘Oh, I always knew ‘Little Face’ would be a huge success,’ said someone who had encouraged me to send it to a tiny, unheard-of publisher on the grounds that ‘none of the big publishers will want it – it’s too unusual’. Suddenly (like in a film where everyone is scarily denying what the hero knows to be the truth – Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, for example) no one could remember ever having thought ‘Little Face’ would be any less popular and widely published than the Bible and Harry Potter put together. I experienced one of those ‘am I going mad?’ moments. Even my husband was in on the conspiracy. ‘Yeah,’ he said self-righteously, ‘No one really believed in it apart from us, did they?’ Us? I thought. Us? My husband’s exact words, before the book found a publisher, were, ‘Look, Soph – it might just be no good. You might be better off giving up on it.’
When my editor rang me last year to say that my fourth crime novel, ‘The Other Half Lives’, had got to number 2 in the national book chart, did I think, ‘Aha, that’s it, I’ve really made it now’? No. I was thrilled, obviously, but I also strongly suspected it had to be a fluke – all the other books must have been off sick that week. And I remembered my ex-agent (emphasis on the ‘ex’) saying to me, ‘For your own sake, give up on ‘Little Face’ and write something else – I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it’. I thought about the time (recently) when an event organiser said to me, ‘Thanks so much for doing this – we did ask Ian Rankin, but the trouble with really good, successful writers is that you never hear back from them.’ I thought about all the people who accost me at my events specifically to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of you before today, never read one of your books, and only ended up here because it’s a compulsory part of my immersion in the witness protection programme.’ I also couldn’t help thinking of the woman from the Doncaster reading group who whispered in my ear, while hugging me, ‘I hated your book, but you seem like a lovely person.’ (Why, in such situations, does one never say, ‘Actually, you’ve got it the wrong way round: my book’s a fucking masterpiece. I, on the other hand, am an evil bitch.’) I suspect that rude insensitive people are just as rude and insensitive in their dealings with writers who have made it as with those who haven’t – which makes it hard, as a writer, to know which camp you’re in. I often find myself thinking, ‘If I were a famous writer, would I be being treated like this right now?’ Yes, I think I would – but I also would if I was an unknown writer.
Which, I think, raises an interesting point. Commercial success, while being financially very useful, is ultimately meaningless. Our needy egos constantly remind us that no amount of fame can stop us from feeling like worthless scumbags for a large proportion of the time, or stop other people from making endless significant contributions to the creation of that feeling within us. I reckon this is the universe’s way of reminding us that we need to look beyond the artificial uppers and downers in our lives – the chance events that big us up, like our new book getting a good chart position, and the chance events that squash us down, like getting a bad review from a withered old fu…. Oops, sorry, I was ignoring my own ‘looking beyond’ advice for a minute there. And it is important to look beyond what the world thinks and says about us, and to see who we truly are, which is unaffected by anybody’s opinion. Even if it’s impossible for us to do this, it’s important to try. In fact, the more impossible it is, the more important it is. Otherwise we might end up like those insane old famous-writer duffers who sell trillions of copies and whose books are adored the world over, but who grumble about other multi-millionaires selling four more copies than them, or stew about not being taken seriously by critics.
The other day, my sister sent me an email saying, ‘Pity about new Dan Brown book coming out in paperback this week – it’s going to stop ‘A Room Swept White’ [that's my new paperback] from getting to no. 1.’ I was baffled as to why she thought my book might get to number 1 even in the absence of Dan Brown, but if she thought it might then maybe it might. Except it wouldn’t, because Dan Brown would block it – the bastard!! I had a clear choice – it was a fork-in-the-road moment. Either I could become the sort of idiot who lamented her misfortune in not being able to top the book chart, or I could remain a reasonable human being and realise that to make something like that into a problem was as good as begging Fate to send you a real problem to deal with. Like reading on the backs of countless mediocre novels that the author is ‘the new Sophie Hannah’…now there’s a real problem…grrrr!!
Sophie Hannah is a bestselling crime fiction writer and poet. Her novels of psychological suspense have sold 500,000 copies in the UK, and are published in nineteen foreign countries.
Sophie’s fifth collection of poetry, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot Award, and in 2004 she won first prize in the Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition for her suspense story “The Octopus Nest”. Her poetry is studied at university.
Besides her psychological thrillers, Sophie has also written three other novels, even harder to characterize. Women’s fiction? Literary fiction? Yes to both.
She lives in Cambridge, England with her husband and two children.