Q&A with Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, AKA Nicci French, author of BLUE MONDAY
BLUE MONDAY is your thirteenth book and the first book in a new series of psychological thrillers, introducing Frieda a psychotherapist. It’s also the first series you’ve ever written. What was the inspiration for this new series?
Frieda came along before the idea of writing a series did. We had always said we wrote stand-alone thrillers, but then we thought about a central character who is a therapist, someone who believes you can’t solve the mess in the world but you can try to address the mess in your own head, the pain and fear and anxiety inside of you. We thought of her as a different kind of detective, a detective of the mind, who is unwillingly dragged by the events that unfurl in the novel out into the real world.
Once we had imagined Frieda—solitary, insomniac, prickly, difficult, honorable, trustworthy, fiercely private—we knew she needed more than one book. She has to be discovered over time. And from that the octet gradually emerged. The books will cover a decade in Frieda’s life and the lives of the cast that she assembles around her; we want to see how time marks them, how they are changed by the experiences they live through together.
Also, we became excited by the idea of writing eight books that could stand as gripping thrillers in their own right, but which are also connected by one over-arching story. In BLUE MONDAY a fuse is lit that then will burn its way through the remaining seven books, coming to a climax in the final novel.
Where did the title BLUE MONDAY come from?
This is the first book of a planned series of dark thrillers that will be named after the days of the week. The title BLUE MONDAY seemed perfect to us because it is both about beginnings but also about the difficulty of beginning, its pains and regrets and fears. It also happens to be the title of not just one but two (very different) great songs – by Fats Domino and New Order.
Set against a backdrop of a dark, tangled London, BLUE MONDAY illustrates your power over a sense of place. As Frieda navigates its streets one can almost feel the damp chill of London’s foggy night air. What is your writing process? What are some things about the London you depict in your books that those of us in the US might not know?
As regards London, our writing process is to do what we have always done, which is to spend a lot of our time walking, cycling—and sometimes running—around the city, exploring its hidden alleys, squares, canals. We have both spent many years living in the city and every time we go out we see something completely new. Much of BLUE MONDAY came out of those walks.
A few things you need to know about London:
It’s big; really big. Greater London is about thirty-five miles across.
It’s really old. It’s been a continuously functioning (and dis-functioning) city since the Romans and it has been built on, burnt down, bombed, demolished, built on, over and over again.
London is really a collection of villages that used to be separated by fields and meadows and woodlands and orchards that gradually got filled up but they still hang on to their identity. In good ways and bad, London is a jangling mess. North Londoners don’t like South London, East Enders feel persecuted by everybody, West Kensington isn’t really in Kensington, and wherever you’re from anywhere in the world, you’ll find a community somewhere in London.
London is a landscape as much as a city, one of the oldest and most complicated landscapes in England.
And still, there’s so much that we don’t understand about London. For example, why do tourists always go to Madame Tussaud’s?
What are some things about you that might be a surprise to those of us in the US?
Sean: My mother is Swedish and we spend every New Year in central Sweden. On New Year’s Eve we have a sauna and jump through a hole in the ice.
Nicci and I studied the same subject (English literature) at the same university (Oxford) but we didn’t meet until ten years later.
In 2005, we ran the London Marathon together. Literally—we crossed the line at the same time.
Nicci: I broke my back a few years ago (and have sworn never to get on a horse again).
I am trained as a celebrant—I can bury people!
One of my passions is growing chillies—very, very hot chillies. Another is eating them (if you eat burningly hot chillies when they are frozen, you can taste their real flavour and only later do they explode in your chest like a small bomb).
Frieda is a psychotherapist. What kind of research did you do to make her so real?
Sean: Frieda emerged from our fascination with the whole subject of doctors whose job it is to make sense of our lives just by the way we talk about them. We have friends who are therapists, we have a certain experience of therapy, we’ve talked to people who have undergone therapy and we’ve read an awful lot about it.
Nicci: And also, in a way, therapy is a bit like writing itself: you take chaos and put order onto it, a road out of the dark woods.
What are you working on now?
Sean: We’ve just finished the second Frieda Klein and we’re standing nervously by the edge plucking up the nerve to dive into the third one.
You are known as the internationally bestselling author Nicci French, yet really there are two of you: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, writing partners and husband and wife and you live in England. Why did you decide to start writing fiction together?
Sean: In the first years we were married, we talked about the idea. We knew that people could collaborate in different ways but we were interested in whether two people could write a novel that had one voice, where you were really creating a new person.
Nicci: It was like an experiment. But looking back at it, all these years and fourteen books later, it seems so odd, such a strange thing to do when we were both working flat out anyway, with four tiny children racing around the house. We didn’t do it because we thought we would write a book, get it published, become Nicci French. We did it to see if we could do it, because it seemed like a shared adventure—and it has been a shared adventure, a way of exploring the world together.
How do you manage co-authorship? Do you sit down and write together or do you take it in shifts?
Nicci: When we talk about how we write together we tend to make it sound much neater and better managed than it actually is, it’s a rather chaotic and messy business. The one thing we never do is actually sit down and write together, and the thought of one of us dictating to the other is a kind of madness, it just wouldn’t work. We spend a long time talking about the shape of the novel, the story, the way the plot goes, the development of the characters and above all the voice of the narrator into whom we both have to write, and once we’re satisfied with that then we’ll start to write. The writing will quite often take us away from the plan, but that’s what we do. One of us will write, say, the first chapter and then hand it over to the other who is absolutely free to change it, edit it, erase it, add other words to it, and then they will write the next chapter and pass it back. It’s a question of moving between the two of us. We never decide in advance who’s going to write what chapter, there’s no division.
Sean: We felt that in order for it to work we both have to be responsible for everything, whether we (individually) have written it or not. If there’s any research that needs doing for a book then we both have to do it, we both have to have all of it in our heads.
Nicci: If Sean writes something and I change absolutely nothing about that whole section, but I read it and approve it, then it becomes mine as well. It becomes a kind of Nicci French thing so we both own each word of it.
Why did you choose to write crime novels?
Nicci: I’m interested in crime in the sense that I’m interested in the strange path that people’s lives can go down. I’m not so much interested in the criminal; I’m much more interested in the victim, the effects of the crime and what lies beneath the settled surface. Most people, when you meet them, present themselves as ordered and controlled; they have a self-possessed image. Underneath that everybody is a welter of doubt, grief, loss, nostalgia, love and hate; that’s what I’m interested in. The thrillers that we write are not about fiendishly clever serial killers outwitting the police, they’re about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happening in the middle of their lives, and the way that they change and have to resolve things. I think that attracts us to the thriller genre.
You chose to use a female pseudonym, and almost all your novels so far have been written from a female viewpoint. Is there a reason for this?
Sean: The first idea we had was about recovered memory, and 99% of people recovering memory in therapy are women, so it obviously had to be a woman. Once it was a woman as the main character then it just seemed obvious that if we were going to choose a name, that it should be a female name. Women have achieved a kind of independence and equality, a nominal independence, and yet so many things haven’t changed. There are so many kinds of unexpected pressures that have come along with that, and that seemed an interesting road to go down.
Nicci: It is that sense of there being a cross-current between what modern women are like now; assertive, independent, strong, ambitious, and yet still very physically vulnerable, but also vulnerable to all the things that attack us from the past, all the things we’re conditioned to feel. There’s a kind of emotional vulnerability and intelligence, a particular kind of female intelligence that seems to be a good way of looking at the world.
The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when a picture of his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda Klein is left troubled: one of her patients has been relating dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson doesn't take Frieda's concerns seriously until a link emerges with an unsolved child abduction twenty years ago and he summons Frieda to interview the victim's sister, hoping she can stir hidden memories. Before long, Frieda is at the centre of the race to track the kidnapper. But her race isn't physical. She must chase down the darkest paths of a psychopath's mind to find the answers to Matthew Farraday's whereabouts.
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Disclosure: I did not receive any form of compensation for this post.