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Interview: February 18, 2016

THE WIDOW, debut author Fiona Barton’s brilliant psychological thriller, had readers buzzing well before its publication date. It’s the story of a woman who has stood firmly by a husband suspected of committing a terrible crime. Now that he is dead, people want the truth --- which is never as simple as it seems. Although this is her first book, Barton has been a respected journalist for over 30 years and has a keen eye for the fine line between fact and fiction. In this interview, she talks to’s Joe Hartlaub about her unconventional storytelling choices, why she finds “the people on the edge of stories” so fascinating, and how she is adjusting to the unexpected but very well-deserved success of her inaugural novel. I just finished reading THE WIDOW and am convinced that it will be considered one of the best books of 2016. The narrative shifts points of view among five characters and jumps between the past and present (in chapters that clearly indicate whose point of view is being presented and at what point in time), adding to the suspense of the book and heightening the air of mystery, which never lets up. Let’s start our discussion with your narrative style. How did you come to decide to use such an unconventional style, which, it turns out, is perfect for this book?

Fiona Barton: I could hear Jean’s voice in my head and set out, originally, to write THE WIDOW as a first-person narrative. Way too ambitious as it turned out, and I realized I needed to have other voices to tell the story so the reader could see the gaps between what Jean was thinking and saying and what was happening outside her small world.

BRC: You’ve said elsewhere that the concept of THE WIDOW had been in your head for quite a while before you actually wrote the book. Was there a particular case that inspired it?

FB: I have always been fascinated by the people on the edge of stories --- the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the children of those accused of terrible deeds. They are often as affected by the events, but all the focus is elsewhere. I often wondered what they knew and what they should have known. I suppose the case of Dr. Harold Shipman --- a serial killer in the UK who killed his patients --- crystallized that fascination, because his wife, Primrose, stood by him throughout and remained silent even after he was convicted and jailed for life.

BRC: THE WIDOW is very much a mystery but is also the story of the darker corners of a marriage whereby the husband, Glen Taylor, is so manipulative and controlling that his influence holds sway --- to an extent --- even after his death. How did the character of Glen develop for you over the course of writing the book?

FB: My first vision of him was Jean’s --- at the bus stop where he bumps into her after a night out, suited and booted, on his way up in the world. I was seeing him through a dazzled teenager’s eyes and feeling Jean’s attraction and “fascination” with Glen and the life he offers her. But as I wrote on, Jean and I began to glimpse some of the demons that drove Glen’s ambition; chief among them, a desperate need to prove himself to a bullying father and a sense of entitlement. And so, all would be fine while his aspirations were being met, but I recognized in him that pattern of chippiness and black disappointment I had seen in others when faced with setbacks. I wasn’t sure where this would take him, but it began to lead us down a much darker path.

BRC: A great deal of THE WIDOW involves journalists and journalism, and, in particular, a reporter named Kate Waters. Do you and Kate share any traits? Are any of the newsroom vignettes inspired by real world occurrences?

FB: I have been where Kate goes --- on doorsteps, knocking on doors, persuading people to give an interview --- but she is not me (and my journalist friends agree!). The fact is that I have met a lot of Kates over my 30 years as a journalist, and she is an amalgam of the best and worst of them. As you probably guessed, the newsroom scenes are all rooted in experience!

BRC: THE WIDOW explores some, though by no means all, of the secondary themes in the television series “Making a Murderer.” Both your book and the program, though quite different, explore issues of guilt and innocence, manipulation, adverse publicity, potential entrapment, and the darker corners of motivation. Do you have an opinion as to why novels such as yours, which deal with the worst actions of humanity, have such a wide-ranging audience, one that cuts across countries and cultures?

FB: I think the pull is the fact that THE WIDOW is about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The reader is confronted with a situation that could happen to anyone and cannot help but put him or herself into the character’s shoes and ask “What would I do?”

After interviewing the mother of the missing toddler, Kate Waters says: This was what the public wanted to read so they could shiver in their dressing gowns over tea and toast and say to their spouse “This could have been us.

BRC: I had a very sudden and strong emotional reaction to the story’s ending. Did you find that writing a book about every parent’s greatest fear --- child abduction --- took you into places you were hesitant to explore emotionally?

FB: To hesitate would have been dishonest. I had led the reader to this point, and I had to go on. I remember straightening hunched shoulders after a lost couple of hours, realizing it had gotten dark outside, and feeling slightly tearful and shaken after writing parts of the book.

BRC: I had people asking me what I knew about THE WIDOW several months before it was published. Having read it last night, I am sure that it will surpass everyone’s lofty expectations; it surely did mine. Are you surprised by the reaction? Did you have any moments while writing it when you realized that you might be creating something that perhaps would rise above the fray?

FB: I was beset with doubts --- like almost every newbie author --- throughout the process, and when it all began to happen for the book, I couldn’t believe the reaction. All a bit surreal and overwhelming, really. I’ve said it felt as though I was standing on a pavement, watching it all happen to someone else. I am completely thrilled, but it takes some getting used to…

BRC: Up to this point, you have been best known as a journalist. For the last few years, however, you’ve been doing volunteer work assisting exiled journalists. How did you come to embark on that career path? Will you continue to do that work concurrent with your work as a novelist?

FB: My husband and I had planned to do voluntary work when we retired, but we suddenly decided to get on with it while we were young enough to enjoy it. In 2008, we went to Sri Lanka for two years as volunteers with VSO. I was working with journalists in a very repressive regime, and when our placement ended, I continued working with exiled and threatened journalists through a Swedish organization, Fojo, attached to the University of Linnaeus. I have carried on, training journalists in Myanmar, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Kenya, Thailand and Eastern Europe. I plan to scale back my training so I have time to write, but I would be reluctant to stop completely. 

BRC: What sort of work schedule did you follow while writing THE WIDOW? Did you have trouble keeping to it, or did you find it relatively easy after years of working against deadlines as a journalist?

FB: I have a confession: I write in bed like some sort of Dame Barbara Cartland. The trouble is, if I get up, I get distracted immediately, so I stay put, fresh from dreams, and write for at least two hours. I have always needed a deadline, and the thought of missing one is the stuff of nightmares. That is not to say that I don’t skid up the finishing line occasionally…

BRC: At one point in THE WIDOW, Kate is writing what she hopes will be a “tell-all” article about Bella’s disappearance and makes the distinction between a “plunger” --- a writer who jumps into their writing and sees where their thoughts and words lead --- and a “planner,” who outlines their article, story or book before they start writing. In the United States, we call a “plunger” a “pantser” --- someone who writes by the seat of their pants --- but the distinction is still noted. Which method did you use to write THE WIDOW: one, the other, or, like Kate, are you a combination of the two?

FB: An unashamed plunger (although I love the word “pantser”). I suppose I write in my head before I put my fingers on the keyboard, but I plough on and then review. It feels a bit dangerous at times --- like walking a tightrope --- but adrenaline is a great motivator.

BRC: I’m asking this next question generally as I don’t like spoilers, but please feel free to answer as specifically as you wish. THE WIDOW features a number of compelling characters, some with interesting chemistry and possibilities. Will we see the return of any of them in future novels?

FB: I didn’t set out to write a series, but Kate Waters, the journalist in THE WIDOW, is central to my second book. It is the story of her investigation into the discovery of a baby’s body buried in the garden of a house. It is a hunt that leads to an unexpected reckoning for all those involved.

BRC: One of the minor characters is named Ian Matthews. Are there any Fairport Convention/Plainsong fans in your household?

FB: Sorry, I didn’t realise, so, no, not a music reference.

BRC: What are you working on now? Do you plan to continue writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

FB: I'm hard at work on book two, and it's very much in the psychological genre with strong women characters at its heart. #watchthisspace