Meet the novelist: Sophie Hannah on genre-hopping, and the sound of silence

Image shows author Sophie Hannah in the centre with two of her book covers either side of her photo - Hercule Poirot's Silent Night, and The Mystery of Mr E

Bursting with positivity – and an aversion to desks

Continuing our series, we meet another exceptional novelist, Sophie Hannah, who reflects on a writing career in which she cannot be pigeonholed.

How would you describe yourself?

I am excessively optimistic, to a Panglossian degree – often almost to the point of delusion – but this is an approach I very much choose on purpose, because I firmly believe that it’s the best way to be, from the point view of having the best life experience – and as a way to maximise the chances of everything going as well as it possibly can!

Where is your perfect place for writing?

The ideal writing spot for me is at home, with a block of five guaranteed interruption-free hours and nobody else in the house, preferably late morning to mid-afternoon. But this literally never happens, so I have to make do with anywhere, any time and under any conditions! The place is definitely less important than the solitude and lack of interruptions.

Do you write by hand or go straight to the keyboard?

The planning stage is always handwritten in a beautiful notebook, and the actual writing of the book happens on my laptop. I absolutely hate sitting at a desk, though. It feels too much like work and makes me shudder, so I sit in an armchair with my feet up on a footstool and my laptop is balanced on a cushion on my knee.

Read more: Meet the queen of ‘domestic noir’, Julia Crouch

Tell us about how you work across different genres

I’m not one for staying in my lane and have branched out into self-help, writing three books in that genre. I wrote the latest, The Double Best Method, after I realised that I had invented the world’s greatest decision-making tool. Yes, really… If you disagree, email me via my website and tell me why! Anyone who struggles to make wise choices, who second guesses their decisions, or beats themselves up when things go wrong, needs my foolproof method in their life.

Sounds like something we could all use. What other lanes do you like to venture into?

I’ve written a murder mystery musical that started life as a school play and is just about to come out as a movie called The Mystery of Mr. E. It premieres in a London cinema on 25 November and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime from that day too. It’s a feel-good, family-friendly musical with catchy songs and a baffling mystery. Twin brothers John and George Danes call themselves The Generalists and they do all kinds of bizarre jobs for all sorts of peculiar people. One day, they get a visit from a mysterious stranger, who says no more than, ‘I am the murderer’ before disappearing. John and George have to find out who this odd man is, and what murder he is referring to. Before they know it, a murder is committed right under their nose. But the strange man who identified himself as the murderer is nowhere to be found…

How do you inspire yourself when you’re running on empty?

I think my strategies are just the standard things that many people do to recharge – rest, holidays, swimming, meditating – nothing out of the ordinary, but all highly effective.

How do you beat the distractions and prevarications that can prevent you from getting your writing done?

I really struggle with this. I can only force myself to work when my self-criticism gets so loud that it’s more painful to avoid writing than it is to write. Luckily, though, I also get obsessed with any story idea that I really love, so once I start work on it, I’m driven to carry on and see it through because I’m determined to make it real.

Do you invent any of your characters or are they based on real people?

I invent most of them! Though obviously they share traits with people I know or have encountered. I think that’s inevitable.

Have any friends or enemies recognised themselves when you’ve written them into a novel?

Yes, but only when the characters could not be more different from them if they tried. Once someone – a bit of a rotter – threatened to sue me because he thought I’d based a character on him. The fictional character was unlike him in every possible way, apart from being a bit of a rotter. Evidently, that was the part he recognised!

Do you eat and drink when you write?

I drink constant, endless cups of tea with milk. Usually Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong.

Do you play music as you work or are you desperate for absolute silence and solitude?

Absolute silence and solitude all the way to the last page.

Are there any absolute hard and fast rules you set yourself about your stories or characters?

My main aim is to grip the reader, which I always try to do with an impossible hook; something that presents a mystery that feels completely unsolvable, even unguessable. I love to create flawed and complex characters, because anything else just isn’t true to life. My characters have to be psychologically interesting. And I’m not interested in transferrable, generic motives such as the killer doing it for the money. I want my motives to be specific to that particular killer, in those particular circumstances, and to have arisen from their unique psyche.

Will the internet and people’s shortened attention spans ever mean the end of the novel?

No, I don’t think so. The more instant online culture becomes, the more it’s going to wear us down and that’ll lead to some people, at least, remembering the joy and the benefits of immersion in something longer and more satisfying. Novels will always have a place in the world and many people will always love and want them.

What do you wish you’d known before starting this novel-writing malarkey?

That one day I was going to be successful. If I could have seen the future, I would have been far less gutted about each of the early fail results I stacked up when I first started trying to get published. I’d have been able to be happy in the moment, no matter what, because I’d have known I was going to achieve my goals. Although the good news for writers just starting out is that you can and should approach the process as though success is guaranteed – it’ll make your dreams much more likely to come true and ensure a contented writing life.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

I found I had so much advice to offer that I became a Master Certified life coach and set up Dream Author Coaching, my online coaching programme that has helped hundreds of writers so far. And it’s not just for new writers. I’ve helped lots of hugely successful and bestselling authors who were suffering from the negative emotional and psychological issues that seem to – but certainly don’t need to – come with the territory. The programme is for anyone who loves writing and who wants to feel happy and energised about their dreams, rather than anxious, frustrated or stressed. Over the four years that I’ve been teaching and coaching, we’ve had some quite staggeringly brilliant results – writers watching their dreams come true in front of their eyes!

  • Find out more about Sophie’s coaching programme: To buy her books and find out more about her work:
  • National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. It began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.

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About Sam Harrington-Lowe
Sam is Silver's founder and editor-in-chief. She's largely responsible for organising all the things, but still finds time to do the odd bit of writing. Not enough though. Send help.

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