To say I was excited when Angela (@angelaontour) got in touch earlier this month would be an understatement – after all, she was giving me the opportunity to do a Q&A with one of my favourite crime-authors, M.J. Arlidge! Since my friend Melissa (yes, the very same one that first recommended Sophie Hannah to me – what can I say? She’s got great taste in books!) lent me Eeny Meeny I’ve been hooked.
I devoured the first book in the Helen Grace series within a couple of days and since then I’ve been thrilled with every new release. Number seven in the series, Love Me Not, has just been released in paperback and can be ordered here.
Originally this was set to be a Q&A about one of my favourites, The Doll’s House, but I couldn’t resist asking Matt about the whole series! One of the reasons I love The Doll’s House so much is because of the tension and suspense; the ending is also great and it feels much more of a pyschological thriller than the first two. I always love it when a book really delves into the mind of a criminal.
I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some interesting answers and make sure you keep reading ’til the end to find out what Matt is up to next!
Helen Grace is so well developed and complex as a character – with every novel you surprise us, unveiling a little more about her. Where did you get your inspiration for such a strong, yet sensitive, female?
When creating a protagonist for Eeny Meeny, I was desperate to avoid cliches. A male copper, with a drink problem, marital issues etc was not for me. I wanted Helen to be different – so I created a tea-total biker girl with an aversion to relationships. I wanted her to be tough and resourceful, but I also knew she needed a pressure release, something to turn to when life became too much. Hence her predilection for BDSM – Helen uses pain to manage her emotions, to dispel those dark moods. Right from the off, I thought it would be interesting if the person Helen is closest to is the person she pays to beat her.
What compelled you to have a woman as the star of the show?
Three reasons. First, because I think women are more interesting than men both in life and fiction. Men are predictable and relatively simple in their desires, women are much more complex and nuanced – and thus more interesting to write. Second, because life is harder for women, which is good in terms of creating an interesting protagonist – you want to be able to throw as many rocks as possible at your main characters. And lastly, because it just feels like the hour of the woman in crime fiction. All the interesting crime fighters of recent years – Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Lund, Saga Noren – have been female.
In The Doll’s House you created such a vivid, dark and atmospheric world, particularly in the cellar. How do you approach research for your novels to keep them and the world’s within them feeling authentic?
The amount of research I do differs massively for each novel. If it’s set in a particular place (Hide and Seek, Holloway Prison) or is based on specific cases (Liar Liar) then I really go to town on the research, as it can throw up really interesting story material. For Doll’s House, I read Natascha Kampusch’s biography and a few other abductee accounts but actually it was one of the least researched novels I’ve written, because I had no problems just dreaming it all up. The inspiration for the book actually came from my daughter. We were on holiday with another family and she always wanted to sleep in with the other kids. Fearing they would wake each other up in the middle of the night, I would sneak in once she was asleep and carry her back to her own bed. After a while, I realised that each night she went to sleep in one bed, but woke up in another. And I wondered what that would be like for an adult? How weird and disorienting it would be. And the novel just grew from there.
Why did you set the series in Southampton?
Mostly because I love port cities. The whole world comes and goes through ports, bringing all sorts of stories (and criminality) with it. As a result, port cities have a unique, occasionally unsettling atmosphere. But it was also because Southampton reflects Helen’s identity. Southampton was, I think, the most bombed city in Britain during WWII. It suffered terribly, but rebuilt itself and prospered. Much like Helen.
What has been your favourite Helen Grace book to write and why?
That’s a super tough question. Eeny Meeny is a contender, obviously, as you always love your first. Also, Little Boy Blue as it’s so personal to Helen and possibly Hide and Seek too, because I love the concept – a serial killer at large in a prison. But they all have unique qualities and virtues. What I love about about Doll’s House is that no-one actually dies in the book, until the denouement at least. This was a great challenge for, especially after the gore fest that was Pop goes the Weasel!
Who was your favourite character to write?
Another tough question. Helen, obviously, and Charlie too, as she is the light to Helen’s darkness. I always enjoy creating surprising, twisted killers and I really enjoy writing Emilia. She has all of Helen’s toughness and determination, but none of her morality.
Is there anything you would change about your characters or stories if so, what?
Not really, to be honest. Not because everything I write is great, but because I never flinch from making tough decisions. There have been times during the writing of the novels, when editors have said “Are you sure you want to kill that character? People really like them.”, but I have generally ignored them, favouring the honest, logical conclusion of a story, rather than a fudged decision made for the wrong reasons.
You’ve managed to keep readers hooked throughout the whole series – do you feel pressure to keep delivering storylines? What keeps you motivated when writing?Yes, there is always pressure – to make the latest good book as good as the one before and also to keep innovating, to make sure each book feels unique. But it’s a great pressure, one I thrive on, because at the end of the day making up stories is a great job. My motivation to keep writing? Simple, I want Helen Grace to join Reacher, Rebus and others in passing the 20 novel mark.
You started your career writing scripts for Eastenders – how has this experience influenced your writing now?
It influenced me a lot and not in just in my love of a good cliffhanger! Like a lot of TV drama, soap opera works by intercutting a lot different storylines to generate pace. This is exactly the technique I use in my books – multiple POVs, short, punchy scenes, a relentless driving narrative. And it seems to work!
What made you want to make the change from writing for television to writing novels?
To be honest, the novel writing came before the TV writing. Previous to Eeny Meeny, I was a TV producer, which is a great job, but is all about collaboration, about combining lots of different people’s talents and vision. In a novel, it is your vision and yours alone, which is tremendously satisfying. I found that once I’d written that first novel, I didn’t want to stop.
What’s your favourite book?
The Silence of the Lambs or anything by Patricia Highsmith. I love all her classics – Strangers on a Train, Ripley etc, but also lesser known ones like Deep Water and The Cry of the Owl.
I understand that the Helen Grace series is on hold for a year or two. What’s next for you and what can we expect from your next standalone novel?
Helen is having a well-earned breather! But she will be back, perhaps end of 2017 or early 2018. In the meantime, I am writing (and have nearly finished!) my first standalone novel, The Last Rites. It’s entirely US-set, a twisty turny serial killer thriller set in and around modern day Chicago. All the usual thrills and spills, but this time with a slight supernatural flavour. I’m hugely excited – the Last Rites to be out summer 2018.
A BIG thank you to Angela McMahon for making this happen, and needless to say also to Matt for taking time out to chat. Bring on The Last Rites!
You can see other Q&As and posts, which are part of the Helen Grace blog tour here: