Elizabeth Haynes on her thrilling debut
British author Elizabeth Haynes started a novel one November, little suspecting that her story of a young woman who falls in love with the wrong man would eventually become a big bestseller—and Amazon U.K.'s reader-selected Best Book of 2011. With a movie adaptation and the book's U.S. publication date on the horizon, Haynes took some time out to answer our questions about this chilling first novel.
Into the Darkest Corner began as a National Novel Writing Month project. What was it about NaNoWriMo that worked so well for you?
I wouldn’t have completed a novel (and so never have been published) without NaNoWriMo. It’s very difficult to find time to write while working, being a mum and a wife and a daughter, and so having one month a year when I could prioritise writing was a complete gift. More than anything, in November writing is such great fun that it’s surprisingly easy to get carried away with the story. I still find it very difficult to write at other times of the year, so the first draft of all my books is written in November and I will carry on doing this.
Your book deals with heavy topics such as domestic abuse and mental illness, particularly PTSD and OCD. How much research did you do into these topics, and to what extent do you think writing fiction requires thorough background research?
I think research is pretty essential. There’s nothing that ruins a story more than some glaring inaccuracy or improbability, and besides that I think if you are going to write about something that, for real people all over the world, is a condition they have to live with day to day, the least you can do as an author is paint a reasonable picture of what it is they go through. Whatever I read, I like to learn something, and my expectation as a reader even from fiction is that what’s presented is reliable. For Into the Darkest Corner, after I’d finished the first draft I spoke at some length to a close friend who is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist—she was able to explain what would happen when Cathy sought help with her condition, and she recommended some great books which really helped to get a feel for how people live with OCD. More importantly, she recognised that the way I’d written Cathy’s symptoms showed that it was likely she had elements of PTSD as well, which led to further research.
There are some graphic scenes of sexual violence in Into the Darkest Corner that are truly terrifying. Were you ever surprised or scared that you were able to take your characters to such dark places?
It was scary writing some of those scenes so I hope that feeling comes across for the readers, too. The more time I spent with the traumatised Catherine, the more I realised that I was building up to writing the scene detailing what actually happened to her, and that it was going to have to be bad. By the time I got there it had become very difficult to write, not only because having got to know these characters so well it’s hard to put them in that dark, terrible place, but also because I was aware in writing it that this sort of thing does happen to real people, every day. So yes, it was difficult but it had to be done, and I think if I’d turned away from that scene or glossed over it, I would have done a disservice to the people who have survived assaults like that, and worse.
Fear makes everything in life unnecessarily harder to deal with.
It’s fairly safe to say that Cathy, your heroine, has experienced one of the worst boyfriends and breakups that one could ever imagine. Care to share your own worst breakup story?
I’ve never experienced physical violence or aggression in a relationship, but I have had relationships that have been controlling. For a while in my late 20s I behaved pretty much as Catherine did before she met Lee. When I was writing Into the Darkest Corner I was very aware that the relationship she falls into is something that could have happened to me and I was very lucky to have come out of what I recognise now as a crazy and reckless time unscathed. I learned a lot from it; perhaps most of all that it’s important to make your intentions clear, and to consider the other person’s point of view. I had a relationship with a guy that I believed was a casual one, since I often didn’t see him for weeks or months at a time, and was based around whether I happened to see him when I was out with friends—so when I went into a serious relationship I didn’t really consider that he might not be happy with our association coming to an end. He called me out of the blue hoping to meet up and I told him I wasn’t free; the next few nights I kept getting calls from strangers and it turned out that my name and phone number had been posted on a singles website. I assume it was his revenge.
One of the scariest things about this book is that it paints a very convincing picture of just how easy it can be to get trapped in an abusive relationship; initially, Lee really does seem like the perfect boyfriend. In the work you’ve done as an intelligence analyst for the police, you’ve come across hundreds of cases involving domestic abuse, so are there any particular warning signs you think women should be on the look out for when embarking on a new relationship?
Controlling behaviour is easy to spot in someone else’s relationship, but very difficult to see in your own, because emotions get in the way. This is why I think close friends and family have such a responsibility to look out for you, and also why trying to isolate you from the people who care about you, controlling who you can see and when, is a big warning sign for a potentially abusive relationship. It’s portrayed by the abuser as a sign of their love for you, that they need you, that your friends don’t care about you in the same way—and once you are focused on that, you end up isolating yourself still further.
As hard as it is, I think one of the best defences against a relationship like this is the ability to remain objective about it—if this was happening to a friend, what advice would you give: put up with it, or get out? Being honest with yourself is so important—but so difficult to do when emotions are involved.
Quite understandably, Cathy has a slew of fears that plague her on a daily basis. One thing she winds up finding quite helpful is ranking them in order of most to least threatening. If you had to name your biggest fear, what would it be?
My biggest fear is probably the same one that most people have—something happening to my loved ones. Most of the time, though, I make a conscious effort not to be afraid. Fear makes everything in life unnecessarily harder to deal with. When I was pregnant with my son, I read a lot about how fear reduces your pain threshold and so I really tried not to be afraid of labour and childbirth. Admittedly I was lucky and everything went well, but I still went through nearly 24 hours of labour with no pain relief stronger than two Advil. He was 9lbs 3oz.
One of my favourite books is Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway which I first read in my early 20s. It taught me a lot about how any fear at all is at its most basic level a fear of loss of control, or of not being able to handle a situation. Once you recognise that and consider what, realistically, will happen, everything becomes much easier.
Prior to writing your own thriller, were you a big fan of the genre? Are there any authors that your particularly admire?
I’ve been a fan of the thriller genre since I first read Agatha Christie as a teenager. I love police procedurals although having worked in the police environment some of them are now difficult to read because they are quite unrealistic. An exception to this, however, is John Harvey—his books, as well as being brilliant, have a great note of authenticity. I am a big fan of Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Mo Hayder, each for different reasons: Rendell is a genius at unpicking the most disturbing threads of the human psyche; French explores narrative structure in each book, making for an intriguing and fresh read every time; and Hayder is not afraid to tackle violence as it often is, dirty, grim, painful—even when this makes for an uncomfortable read.
How did you celebrate when you found out that Into the Darkest Corner had been named Amazon UK’s Best Book of 2011?
I found out almost by accident! I knew the results of the Rising Star of the Year were going to be announced and I was checking the page regularly. As this is based on the number of positive reviews, I was aware that Into the Darkest Corner was marginally in the lead, so it was wonderful but not a massive surprise when I saw the announcement that it had won. Then I noticed the phrase “click here to see why this is our book of the year” and I clicked the link to the Amazon Best Book of 2011 chart, showing Into the Darkest Corner as the number one. This was so completely unexpected that I genuinely thought it was a mistake. The next day at work I got someone to check the list on their smartphone to see if I’d misunderstood it somehow. Even when I knew it was real, I still had no idea what a big deal it was and how much it would change things for me and for the books—if I had, I think I would have celebrated a whole lot more than I did!
Each step of the publication process has been amazing for me—if you look on my Facebook page there are some pictures of me watching the first print run being bound into books at the printers, and it’s quite clear that I’m practically delirious with excitement. I don’t take anything for granted, because I still can’t quite believe all the things I’ve dreamed of my whole life are coming true.
There are plans to turn Into the Darkest Corner into a film. How involved are you going to be in bringing your novel to the screen? If you had your way, who would you love to see playing Cathy, Lee and Stuart?
I’ve been immensely lucky here, too: the director of the film version of Into the Darkest Corner is Tinge Krishnan, and she is also writing the script. We’ve had plenty of in-depth discussions about the plot and the characters and she has even met up with some of my police colleagues to get a proper “feel” for Lee and his environment. I believe the way Tinge has allowed me to be involved like this is quite unusual but it’s worked well for us—she completely understands what I was trying to bring across with the book. I recently got the chance to read an early draft of the script, and it just blew my mind. Tinge is such a genius. It felt to me like she had taken the characters I’d described in black and white, and coloured them in.
As to the cast . . . well, I had some clear ideas when I was writing the story, but these have changed completely since reading the script—and will no doubt change again when the casting gets underway!
Now that you’ve published one novel to such great acclaim are you writing full time or have you still kept your “day job” working for the police?
I’ve just started a two year career break, so although I’m still in touch with the organisation but I have a fantastic opportunity to write and see where it takes me.
It was a hard decision to make because it was a fantastic job, and I worked with a really great team of people. I’m still in touch with a lot of them and they’ve been very supportive of my writing, for which I am eternally grateful. I miss them all—but who knows? Maybe I will be back in a couple of years if there is still room for me!
Read our review of Into the Darkest Corner.