TCT: Your debut novel The Hidden Legacy seems to be made up of a patchwork of genres. You’ve got a psychological thriller element, some mystery, a bit of domestic drama and some romantic threads as well. How would you describe the genre of the book?
I think you’ve summed it up pretty well! It’s been a source of much interesting debate because people have seen it in different ways. Some see it as a thriller and are really drawn to the darker side of the novel. Others are drawn to the central character, Ellen, and her desperate desire to plug gaps in her understanding of her own family background which drives her to seek answers rather than just accept her good fortune.
To be honest, I wasn’t remotely concerned with the genre itself when I wrote the novel. What really inspired me to write it was the desire to tell a damned good story that people would enjoy reading and also maybe to get people to think about a few issues on the way.
TCT: What kind of reader do you think would enjoy The Hidden Legacy?
I’ve always loved novels where there’s a mystery of some sort and as the story unfolds different layers are peeled back until I’m able to get a glimpse of what might be going on at the heart of it. I like to be treated as an intelligent reader capable of working things out for myself so I was keen to give the same opportunities to anyone reading The Hidden Legacy. I also wanted to write about real people rather than superheroes who dodge bullets and escape every other page from impossible situations. It’s Ellen’s frailties and insecurities that attracted me to her as a character because they’re what make her recognisable to the average reader. It probably won’t appeal to someone who expects bodies to pile up and the horror of the opening chapter isn’t typical of what follows but that’s pretty much the point. It’s horrific because it’s in isolation – if I put it on every page it would lose its impact.
TCT: The first chapter – in which a twelve year old boy sets fire to two teenage girls – is terrifying and horrific. Where did that idea come from?
I suppose nowadays it’s difficult to hear of any barbaric act by one child against another and not think of the Jamie Bulger tragedy but this scene was actually prompted by a news item about Mary Bell who was arrested in the late 1960s as an 11-year-old for killing the child she was meant to be babysitting. At the time when I was about to start an MA module entitled ‘launching the manuscript’, I read that she was living under an assumed identity and had taken out a court injunction to prevent the details from being disclosed, not for her own sake but because she now has a daughter and has never told her about her past. I found myself trying to imagine that conversation that has never taken place and wondering just when and how exactly you’re supposed to go about it. As for the nature of the atrocity I came up with for the prologue, please don’t ask where that came from. I’d rather not look too closely at it.
TCT: Without giving too much away, do you feel sorry for the boy murderer, John Michael Adams, who was clearly harbouring some difficult mental issues?
This is such a difficult one to answer. I certainly wouldn’t want there to be any suggestion that I’m trying to champion any causes here because I have very mixed feelings about it all and I’m not sure I’ve really worked them through adequately in my own mind. I suspect strongly that if I were a member of a family that has been put through the horrors that are described in that opening scene, I’d be almost implacable in my desire for some form of retribution and would not take too kindly to any arguments expressed on behalf of the person responsible. At the same time though, from my privileged comfy seat on the fence, I can see a case for arguing that it seems disproportionately harsh to make anyone responsible for the rest of his life for something he did as a young child, especially if the reasons for that act are as nuanced and complicated as they are in The Hidden Legacy. What I am clear about however – and hopefully this comes across strongly in the book – is that the media has an enormous responsibility to show restraint and offer a balanced viewpoint and it’s a responsibility some sections of the press haven’t always borne with any great dignity, it seems to me.
TCT: The character of O’Halloran (the investigative journalist who is trying to track down John Michael Adams after he is released) is portrayed as ruthless and stubbornly determined; a determination which is at once admirable and repulsive. When you were writing him was he supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy?
He became less likable the better I got to know him. In the early planning stages I remember him being more of a figure of fun but it wasn’t compatible with his dogged perseverance which borders on the obsessive. As the plot became clearer in my mind, so his character shifted slightly. He displays a lot of the characteristics that a good investigative reporter needs in order to be able to do his job effectively but at the end of the day it’s his lack of empathy that makes him unattractive. I think repulsive might be a bit strong. That certainly wasn’t my intention. He’s driven by his own demons the way many of us are – he just doesn’t know when to take a step back.
TCT: We really connected to Ellen (the main character) – you captured her character so well. Do you think that men can be as successful as women at capturing the female experience?
That particular compliment means a great deal to me . . . and the answer is I really, really hope so. I know I could have played it safe and followed the old adage of write what you know but there was something about the story that seemed to demand a strong female lead and I didn’t want to shy away from it and reshape things just so that I could stay on familiar territory. I’m sure there are many areas of the female experience I’ll never be qualified to write about with any authority but if I can’t understand how Ellen feels in this situation, especially the doubts and fears that besiege her, it doesn’t say much for my skills as a writer or my ability to empathise as an individual. In the final analysis though, it won’t be for me to decide whether or not I’ve been successful because only female readers are in a position to make that kind of judgement.
TCT: Who did you read when you were working on The Hidden Legacy? And do you have one book which you always return to for inspiration?
I honestly don’t know because it was a while ago now. I could probably look it up because I keep a reading log as I get through between 70-80 novels a year. But it wouldn’t be relevant as I’m sure it didn’t play a part in influencing the novel in any way. I have several authors I admire – Maggie O’Farrell, William Boyd, Kate Atkinson, Kent Haruf, Toni Morrison, Pete Dexter, Michael Redhill – but you’ll see that they’re a pretty eclectic mix. If they have one thing in common it’s that they remind me with every novel they produce of just what it’s possible to achieve with the written word. They’re sublime.
TCT: What has surprised you most about becoming a published author? Are there any aspects of the world of publishing which you didn’t expect?
Just about everything. To be honest, I knew very little about what comes after you’ve found an agent and secured a book deal. I was a bit of a sceptic when it came to social media, one of the ‘you’ll never see me on Twitter/Facebook’ brigade, so that has been an essential and major adjustment in my life. I also had only the sketchiest understanding of the editing process and just how extensive that whole side of things is. Then there’s been the business side of things, the publicity angle with its PR plans and the feverish build-up to publication day . . . it makes me wonder when I’m going to find time to do some more actual writing. But I think the most wonderful surprise of all has been the warm and supportive relationship with other authors, especially everyone at Twenty7. Maybe it’s because it’s a relatively new enterprise and everyone is working that tiny bit harder to ensure it’s a success but it feels as if nothing is too much trouble. When you’re operating in the sort of vacuum I was in to begin with, that makes such a difference.
TCT: What is next for G.J Minett? Will you continue writing in a similar genre to The Hidden Legacy or will you explore different literary avenues?
I’ve already completed my second book.
It’s not a sequel to The Hidden Legacy and maybe there’s a little more humour and a touch of noir about it but it does follow the same pattern of a central mystery that needs to be unravelled. In this instance there is a murder towards the end of part one, then part two reveals to the reader (if not entirely to the authorities) who is responsible, and part three describes the attempts to build a case that will ensure the perpetrator is brought to justice, an issue that hangs in the balance until the final few pages. It has the provisional title of The Goose Drank Wine and is due to appear as an eBook and paperback simultaneously towards the end of next year.
The Hidden Legacy by G.J Minett is out in eBook on 5th November and released as a paperback in 2016 (Twenty7).