Interview: June 28, 2013
S. J. Bolton, an award-winning author of five books, delivers her most compelling novel to date, LOST, in which a fragile Lacey Flint must work with Barney, a courageous, lonely 11-year-old boy, to unmask a killer. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Bolton opens up about the not-coincidental similarities between Barney and her own 11-year-old son (who even plays Barney in the book trailer), the inspiration for and evolution of the story, and why it's crucial --- when writing a mystery --- to be led by plot and not character. She also stresses the importance of following your instincts and pursuing whatever it is you're passionate about.
Bookreporter.com: Your new novel, LOST, begins shortly after the events in DEAD SCARED, in which London police detective Lacey Flint almost lost her life. Flint, who is still emotionally troubled, remains on leave and shows no particular inclination to return anytime soon. Meanwhile, a fiend is kidnapping and murdering young boys on the cusp of adolescence, holding London in a grip of fear. The only key to solving the murder may be possessed by Barney, an incredibly observant and intelligent young boy who lives next door to Lacey. I was fascinated by the manner in which you introduced Barney, whose personality is fully presented here down to the last nuance. Tell us more about him. Who is he? Did anyone inspire his character?
S. J. Bolton: I have an 11-year-old son who has a great deal in common with Barney in the story, especially when it comes to his little peculiarities. Barney’s ability to see "patterns" in the world around him and the deviations in those patterns that enable him to find things that are lost is directly lifted from real life. And we have a four-leaf clover collection, a little wizened now, but definitely among our treasures. Writing the scenes with the children was one of the easiest parts of the story for me, because I spend so much time around children of that age.
Having said that, the inspiration behind LOST was much darker than my desire to immortalize my son. When I was growing up, a serial killer (The Yorkshire Ripper) was terrorizing the north of England, and I remember a news story about the number of women who’d suspected someone close to them of being the killer. I started wondering what it must be like to fear that someone you love is a monster. And how dreadful that would be if the person so afraid were a child.
My son also played Barney in the video trailer for the book. I’m not sure he enjoyed some of the things we asked him to do (pulling parcel tape off his mouth), but it was great for me to see the character coming to life, so exactly as I’d imagined him.
BRC: DEAD SCARED was one of my favorite books of 2012, and LOST is even better, though it is a much different book in every way. Lacey was a very active participant in DEAD SCARED; yet, as a result of what happened to her, the beginning of LOST finds her a virtual recluse until she is drawn, almost in spite of herself, out of her shell as events overtake her. Each of your books is quite different from the others, whether they are part of the Lacey Flint series or stand-alone novels. How do you meet the challenge of keeping your plots and themes new and fresh after having written several novels?
SJB: If I’m honest, it gets harder with each book. I have a theory that creative people have a "tank" that will inevitably empty after the first two or three books (paintings, songs, symphonies, etc.). It will replenish, but slowly, a little like a cistern, so without that massive resource to tap into, the process becomes much more labored.
I think the key is to read widely (fiction and reference) and always to change direction one book before it feels necessary. My current work in progress will probably be my last Lacey Flint book for a while. Not because I’m tired of her, but because I want to make sure I don’t become so.
BRC: While LOST is most certainly a Lacey Flint book, Lacey shares the spotlight not only with Barney, but also with his friends, a "Little Rascals" type of group who are a part of the victim demographic of the murders that Lacey ultimately is drawn into investigating. Will we see more of Barney and/or any of his friends in future novels?
SJB: Not sure. I wrote them into my current work in progress, and really enjoyed having them back, if only for one short scene, but that scene didn’t make it past my UK editor and her big red pen! I certainly wouldn’t rule out bringing Barney back at some point, though. His ability to find lost things could come in very handy. What I am certain of is that I will write more books with children as the main characters, because I love the freedom I get from looking at the world through the eyes of a child.
BRC: One of my favorite elements of your books is the complexity of the mystery that forms the core of each book. What comes first for you: the development of the characters who are introduced in each book, or the idea behind the mystery? Or do they both evolve together?
SJB: I am very much a story-led writer. It’s all about the plot for me, the more original, twistier and shocking the better, and I give very little thought, before I start writing, to the characters. Luckily, for me, they tend to write themselves, in the way they interact with each other and in their reactions to events. In my view, this leads to a more natural, believable result than forcing an already developed character into a given role does. I hate what I call “character bling,” plastering on defining characteristics to make a character stand out. It always looks false and overdone.
BRC: On a related note, I really enjoy working out the mystery, or mysteries, you present as I get deeper into your books. This was particularly true of LOST, where you present a number of legitimate clues as well as a few false trails just to keep things interesting. How did the evolution of the mystery that forms the deep and dark core of the book come about?
SJB: My books usually need three core ideas before they take off in my head. In LOST, these were 1) small boy suspects his father is a serial killer, 2) the psychiatric condition of being obsessed with blood, including clinical vampirism, and 3) the multitude of ways in which someone can be "lost." Once I have this triplet of inspiration and can see the connection between the ideas, I know the story will work. After that, I just spin and weave until I’m done.
BRC: LOST gives us a very close view of Lacey's personal life, such as it is, including her neighborhood in London. Does this neighborhood actually exist in London? What is it modeled after?
SJB: Not only does the neighborhood exist, but Lacey’s apartment does, too --- a friend of mine lives in it. She even has the infamous garden shed! Bless her, she can’t read my books anymore, the experience just feels too close to home. London has been used as the backdrop to numerous novels, but southeast London is much less known than the districts north of the river, which is probably why it appealed to me.
BRC: How did you initially conceive of Lacey Flint? How much of S. J. Bolton is a part of her? Do you have any specific future plans for her, and if so, are things going to get better for her?
SJB: Lacey started out as a killer! One of my favorite literary devices is the unreliable narrator, and I get a real kick out of that moment when I can no longer trust what a protagonist of a story is telling me. With Lacey I wanted to see if I could write a book in which my first-person narrator was a) the killer and b) still very likable. Well, I couldn’t, is the honest answer, but Lacey evolved as a very dark, cold, difficult-to-get-to-know character. If I’ve done my job properly, the reader should be intrigued by her and, if he or she stays with the series, should eventually grow to love her. I’m not sure yet how long she will be with me, or where we will go together, but all Lacey fans need to be clear: when she has her happy ending, when she and Joesbury sail off into the sunset, the series is over!
BRC: The series has been growing in popularity, yet you have written a number of successful stand-alone works as well. Do you have a preference for either series books or stand-alone works? What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing each?
SJB: I have a strong preference for stand-alones and am quite eager to get back to writing them. I like their completeness, and having confidence that all the information we need is right there and not dependent on a book that went before. I also believe that if characters have achieved their happy ending, we should leave them in peace to get on with it! On the other hand, characters come along occasionally who just demand more than one book. Lacey Flint was one such. I hope there will be another one day.
BRC: What has influenced or drawn you to write mystery and thriller fiction? Have you ever pictured yourself writing in another genre?
SJB: I did submit a couple of books to Mills and Boon at the start of my career but never had anything accepted. Those who know my work will probably think that a very good thing. I could have changed a much-loved brand beyond all recognition. Ultimately, I think you have to write the sort of books you love reading, and I’ve always loved dark, creepy mysteries with a bit of romantic suspense.
BRC: You have a family, and given that writing often takes place at home, life often gets in the way. What type of writing schedule do you keep? Is it the same as it was when you initially started writing? What methods do you use to adhere to your schedule when it seems to be all but impossible?
SJB: I write when my son is at school. It really is as simple as that. Sometimes (increasingly often actually) work spills over into school holidays, but I’m lucky in that my son is very active and sporty, and always wants to be out at tennis camp or similar. I imagine it will get easier as he gets older and wants to be out of the house more, but I really can’t bring myself to look forward to those days!
BRC: We always enjoy knowing what books our favorite authors are reading. What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
SJB: Belinda Bauer’s RUBBERNECKER and Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL were both brilliantly dark, disturbing reads. I’ve also enjoyed Joanne Harris’s PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURÉ and JK Rowling’s THE CASUAL VACANCY.
BRC: Looking back on when you took your first steps toward becoming a published author, what do you think is the smartest thing you did? And what, if anything, would you do over, if you had the opportunity?
SJB: I wrote the book I wanted to write, in the face of many fears that it was always going to be a bit fantastic --- in the old-fashioned sense of the word --- to find a place for it in mainstream publishing. I also wrote it honestly, putting a huge amount of myself into it. I didn’t cheat, and I didn’t hold back. As to what I’d do over: I think I’d just do it all a lot sooner.
BRC: Most authors are also voracious readers, and most readers started their love affair with books at an early age. How did you come to love reading? Did someone read to you as a child? What were your favorite books?
SJB: I was born before electronic games and when even TV was rather poor. It was books or nothing. Enid Blyton was probably my first love, and I adored the classics growing up, especially the dark ones.
BRC: While writing is a jealous lover, many authors nonetheless have other vocational interests. What would you see yourself doing if you were not writing?
SJB: In a parallel universe, I think I’m a florist.
BRC: Have you discerned any differences between your British and American audiences? Do you find that a certain style or element works better with one group than with the other? If so, why do you believe that such a difference exists?
SJB: I do notice differences, but none that I can generalize about. For example, US audiences tend to be gentler, more inclined to object to overt violence, especially when directed against children. They object more to issues such as animal cruelty and pregnancy termination. On the other hand, some of the grittiest, most violent drama we enjoy in the UK comes from the US. I’m still puzzling it out.
BRC: Even though LOST was just published in the United States, we're always looking ahead. What can you tell us about your next book, and/or what you are working on now?
SJB: Another Lacey Flint story, but probably the last for a while. She’s bought her first home: a 40-foot yacht moored at an almost derelict marina on a Thames tributary, and is feeling oddly at home in the weird and wonderful riverside community she has found herself among. At dawn one morning, she finds the shrouded corpse of a young woman in the river. She puts it down to chance --- she works for the marine policing unit. It isn’t, of course; it was left for her to find. Oh, and one of the characters is a mermaid.