Fiona Barton: Each book is a mountain to climb
She wrote her debut novel at 57 and didn’t expect it to be an international sensation. The Widow (2016) became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, and has been published in 36 countries. Readers’ feedback has inspired the author to write more stories about the journalist Kate Waters, whose character is based on Fiona Barton herself, according to many.
Born in Cambridge into a family of a journalist father, she basically grew up in the newsroom. So after university, she became a fledgling reporter on the East Grinstead Observer in southern England. Later she took the positions of a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at the Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards. Having been a reporter for 30 years, she left the journalism field in 2008 to pursue volunteer opportunities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar with journalists facing exile in their home countries, where she starts writing her own stories.
Her second novel, The Child (2017), was a Sunday Times bestseller too, and her third thriller, The Suspect (2019), has already been translated into more than 20 languages.
Fiona Barton is already working on her fourth novel, but she found time for a conversation with bgstoryteller. Staying true to our founding mission of helping aspiring writers and satisfying the interest of lovers of quality fiction, we discuss at length her inspiration and writing each of her books, self-editing and working with an editor as well as the confidence that the journalistic experience gives her while working on her exciting stories.
Fiona Barton: I had to stop being a reporter in order to write a novel
Interview by Valentina Miziiska
Photo: Jenny Lewis
Does your career as a journalist help you write crime thrillers? What is the difference between writing about crime as a journalist and as a novelist?
It sounds ridiculous but I had to stop being a reporter in order to write a novel. I knew how to write – I’d been doing it for a living for more than 30 years – but what I was writing came from other people. Journalism is listening, probing, testing other people’s words and telling a story concisely and often under 500 words. So… Writing The Widow meant unlearning a lot of things including frontloading – as a reporter you tell the whole story in the first paragraph (not great for thrillers) – and developing my drip, drip, drip skills.
It was incredibly hard at first and I got to 10,000 words and thought I had nothing left to say but there was a moment where I gave myself permission to fully invent. It was a real crunching of gears but wonderfully liberating to be free to create my own world.
I can invent motives and twists, inner voices, events and feelings but everything I write is fed by my experiences as a reporter. I have the best imaginable cast of characters to draw on, having spent more than 30 years watching and listening to people caught up in dramas, tragedies and conflicts. I like to root my stories in real life so I can sniff the air, see the colours, hear the voices – I suppose it is the journalist in me, fighting against flights of fancy.
You started your writer’s career a bit late but your debut was very, very strong! Tell me about your experience with publication. Did you have an agent? Did you have any rejections before you sold your first book?
It was very late but I was too busy with my career and family to start earlier. I began when my husband and I travelled to Sri Lanka as volunteers in 2008 and I had the time and space in my head. When my story was finally 10,000 words long in 2014, I entered a competition and was shortlisted but I had to finish the book to be judged. Six intense months later, I had a first draft. I was runner-up in the competition and sent the manuscript to an agent who represented other thriller writers. She took me on and sold the book in 36 countries, including Bulgaria.
How did you get inspired for ‘The Widow’? Which was the first sparkle – the case or the character? Did you expect this success when you first sat at your computer to write it?
Jean. She was always there. I could hear her voice from the start. She is the widow in the title and the phrases she used, her thoughts, her distress, her disbelief had been echoing in my head. Hers was a compelling presence and when I finally stopped thinking about it and finally wrote it down, tapping away on an old laptop in a flat in Colombo (my husband and I were volunteers in Sri Lanka with VSO at the time), I felt chilled, despite the 30 degree heat. Jean was saying the words I had written in my head for her but it was as if I was hearing them for the first time.
I remember straightening hunched shoulders after a lost couple of hours, realizing it had got dark outside and feeling slightly tearful. Ridiculous, but it felt such an act of faith, writing that first chapter.
How long did it take you to write this novel?
It was both short and long… On paper, I started in February 2009 and finished August 31 2014 so that’s six and a half years but 95% of the book was written in six months when I was given a deadline.
Was there anything your editor asked you to consider for editing? What were the main revision elements you worked on together? Dialogue, structure, characters, conflict, backstories, anything else…
It was different for each book but for The Widow I worked on the structure and put more of the journalist, Kate into it.
What is the best thing you’ve learned from your first editor that you still try to implement in your works?
That writing is not all about putting fingers on the keyboard… As I sweated over my endless edits on my second book, The Child, I understood that I needed to spend more time thinking than typing. I found my writing rhythm and factored in long walks and staring at walls so that storylines and my characters could cook in my head.
Did you expect that the first novel would be a part of series?
No, I had no thoughts of more books but you could say that my journalist Kate Waters got her foot in the door in my debut novel, The Widow. There I was, happily writing about a marriage with secrets when I heard Kate’s rap rap rappity rap in my head. In my sketchy synopsis, she was simply the character who allowed other people to tell their stories – much as I had done for thirty years. But gradually, she made her own voice heard and, tenacious as ever, she has stayed.
Here in Bulgaria you are also well known for your novel “The Child” which was amazing! Actually it was the first of your novels I came across and I immediately fell in love with your writing. Do you remember how you felt writing the second novel after the success of “The Widow”? Were you afraid you might not be able to meet readers’ expectations?
I felt huge pressure fuelled by the legendary second album paranoia. The thing is, no one knows you are writing the first book so you can pootle along, letting it all cook in your head, move sentences around a hundred times and leave it for weeks on end. But Book 2 is a whole other story (in every sense…). The success of The Widow meant there were expectations for the second book from the first word and it created a completely different writing experience. Not to say I didn’t enjoy writing The Child but I confess there were times when I felt as if I was wrenching it out of my body with bloodied fingernails! And I wept when I wrote the final scenes. They may have been tears of relief…
Was there any difference in the writing process? Were there mistakes you were trying to avoid or any tips you were eager to apply?
Thinking is writing (see above)…
Do you do a lot of research for your books? Do you research and then write or do you do both in parallel?
I think I have been researching my books for 30 plus years as a reporter but for The Suspect, I travelled to Thailand. I know people use Google maps and their imagination but I had to sniff the air –my years as a journalist mean I have to see, hear and smell things for myself… I spent four days in Bangkok. It was my first proper visit (although I have travelled in south east Asia before) and sat in Khao San Road among the backpackers, listening, chatting but mainly watching. I’d decided to stay in a cheap backpacker hostel while I was there and found a suitably appalling guesthouse for the two girls. It cost $3 a night (they were overcharging) and was filthy. I stood in the room, took it all in and decided you can go too far for your art…
While there I talked to journalists based in Thailand, travellers and locals about the risky behaviour of backpackers and those who take advantage of it. And, most importantly, I found the character, Mama. She was sweeping up cigarette ends outside her guesthouse wearing a billowing white kaftan and scarlet lipsticks.
Strong story, multiple POVs, plot twists, high stakes, proper pacing, creepy atmosphere, short chapters, suspense, balanced dialogue, intriguing characters fighting their own demons… It seems you know the good psychological thriller formula. What are the proportions in the recipe?
I wish I had a recipe!
Do you plot your novels, do you have a complete strategy about structure and characters at the beginning of the writing process or do you just write and wait to see where the story will take you? Have you experienced unexpected plot changes because of your characters’ decisions/actions that seemed more logical at certain points?
I am an unashamed plunger. I do write in my head before I put my fingers on the keyboard but I don’t make copious notes. I sit at my laptop and plough on and then review. Feels a bit dangerous at times – like walking a tightrope – but adrenaline is a great motivator.
Your stories are ideas-centered but your characters are very well developed and they easily get under readers’ skin. They always have a complicated past. Do you know everything about them before you start writing or do you develop their backstories during the writing process?
Not everything – I like to get to know them as I write.
How many manuscript revisions do you make? Are they getting fewer with each book?
I wish I could say yes but each book is a mountain to climb so I usually do three – one structural, one tidy up and one copy edit where we catch grammar and the mistakes that slipped through.
How do you realize that you need to stop revising and your manuscript is final?
When my editor says so…
Your third novel has already been published in Bulgaria. Where did the idea for “The Suspect” come from? Why did you center the story around Kate this time?
I chose this subject because I wanted to turn the tables on Kate, make her the story instead of the reporter to get a different perspective on the media and I knew that involving her family would be the perfect hook. I chose to set much of it in Thailand because my son went travelling to south east Asia on his gap year more than fifteen years ago and was terrible at keeping in touch. There were stories in the newspapers about gap year kids going missing, being mugged or murdered and I remember lying in bed at night, catastrophizing about what was happening to my child. I used that fear to infect Kate who admits for both of us in The Suspect: ‘Being a reporter means I know that these things happen to people like us.’
You also raise the questions about the effect of social media on people’s lives, about parents who don’t really know their own children. Did these ideas come with the story or were they something you were waiting for a chance to explore?
A little of both, I suppose. Social media has a massive role to play for everyone – especially journalists. It allows us to speak to a much wider audience and to have direct contact with our readers/listeners and viewers. However, with every innovation, there are challenges to face. One of them must be privacy and the other, the rush to judge and attack by anonymous trolls.
The changes have come from how we deliver and consume news. Some say that everyone is a journalist now. I disagree. I would say that everyone can have a public voice now – and millions are grabbing that opportunity, posting information and their opinions online. But a professional journalist gathers information, researches, checks, analyzes and crafts a story that allows the audience to see the full picture and form their own opinions. Well, that’s the theory…
I wish I could hear all the characters’ voices in each of your novels but you always let just one of them talk. How do you select the center of each story?
I choose the character who fascinates me most – the person whose shoes I want to stand in to see the world as they see it.
How much of you is Kate Waters? Did you feel more comfortable writing mostly about her in this book; was it easier to have her as a lead character?
I have been where Kate goes – on doorsteps, knocking on doors, persuading people to give an interview – but we don’t share DNA. The fact is that I have met a lot of Kates over my 30 years as a journalist and she is an amalgam of the best and worst of them. As you probably guessed, the newsroom scenes are all rooted in experience!
How many new cases do you plan for Kate Waters?
I decided to rest Kate after The Suspect – both of us needed a lie down in a darkened room after the rollercoaster of emotions and ethical challenges. So book four has a new cast of characters and I’ve really enjoyed writing it. However, I never say never to the return of Kate and Bob Sparkes.
How do you select your next story? How do you know if an idea would have the potential to become a good story?
The hook – like any good reporter I was always looking for the next story and developed a nose for news, spotting an intriguing detail or character.
What part of your daily life is writing? Describe your writing routine (where, how long, how much do you write; do you need special music, drink, light etc. in order to let the writing flow)
I write for a minimum of four hours a day but often up to eight hours. I used to write in bed – not out of laziness or decadence (honest!) but I found if I got up, I would get distracted immediately so I stayed put, fresh from dreams, and wrote on my laptop. I now have a writing shed at home with a proper desk and chair so my back feels much better. Sometimes I write with music on but other times, I have complete silence. My wonderful husband brings me regular cups of tea to make sure I am hydrated…
How do you manage writer’s block?
I am lucky that I don’t suffer from writer’s block – I think it is because I have written every day of my working life. But I do block myself. I am brilliant at making a million excuses not to sit at my desk and write –but two things happened to get me on track. The first was being given a proper deadline. As a former journalist, I found I needed one and the thought of missing one is the stuff of nightmares. That is not to say that I don’t skid up the finishing line occasionally…
The second was a placement in Myanmar (formerly Burma) for six months. In exile from my everyday life, I found a rhythm, getting up early to write before the day started.
Do you use beta readers or critique partners? Whose opinion and advice do you value most?
My first readers are my editors. I used to show my manuscripts to family but they are too kind…
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? And what is the best?
Only write what you know is the worst – imagination is a powerful tool. And the best one is that first drafts are always a mess…
Do you have enough time for reading? What kind of books do you like?
Reading is my passion – I can’t imagine a day without reading – and my tastes are very varied. I love modern literary fiction, historical, biography. And thrillers, of course.
What is your current project? Are you writing something new or are you editing your next novel?
I’m writing book four – a departure from Kate and Bob with a new detective and set of characters. Loving it.
What is your advice for Bulgarian aspiring writers who read bgstoryteller?
Stop making excuses and start now. Write every day – it can be a sentence or a chapter – but do it.
Here is a link where you can find more about Fiona: