A very modern mystery: Q&A with the author of What She Left
What She Left by T R Richmond is, in many ways, a classic mystery.A young woman, 25 year old trainee journalist Alice Salmon, is found dead in a river. Did she slip in and drown after a drunken night out with friends? Did she kill herself? Or was she murdered? However, the way the story is told feels new and brilliantly executed. An elderly academic becomes obsessed with the case and compiles his own evidence – but what are his reasons for doing so? Using a mixture of blog posts, police transcripts, tweets, forum message board and diary entries, the reader has to piece together the clues. If you’ve ever spent any time reading the comments below the line after someone has disappeared or been murdered (never advisable) Richmond has managed to capture the tone perfectly, complete with those well meant but oh so casual RIP’s. With no linear structure, I did sometimes find it hard to see how everything was going to add up but it does mimic the way these cases unfold in real life: things are messy, everyone interprets things differently.
It was in fact a tweet that sparked the idea for the book. Someone was talking about what song they would like played at their funeral – an oddly intimate thing to share. Richmond began to wonder what else you could piece together about someone purely from their online life. We all, whether we like it or not, leave our own ‘digital footprints’. With this in mind, I set about to see what I could find out about him. Within a few minutes I discovered that he has been a journalist for over twenty years, and had read some of his award winning features online. I found out that he has had two other novels published under a different name. Delving a bit deeper, I found out the name of his wife, saw pictures of his cats, that he once set fire to a bin, and that he owns a set of Blue Denby pottery.
Being much in demand, I was pleased when he agreed to answer some questions.
I read that you got up every day at 5am to write for two hours before going to your day job as a journalist. I imagine things have changed dramatically since publication a few short weeks ago or perhaps not. What’s been the best thing so far about having a book on your hands that everyone is talking about?
Everything’s changed but actually nothing’s changed. I still have my day-job. I still get up early. I still like writing at that time of day (I’m working on a new novel). The whole experience has been amazing and there have been so many unforgettable moments but ultimately for me the buzz is the writing itself and that’s like an itch you can’t scratch. One of the best aspects of having a book published is suddenly being part of a team, For years it felt like I was working in a vacuum without any real guidance or support. Now I’ve got an agent and an editor who are a constant source of ideas, encouragement and, when it’s needed (as it often is!), constructive criticism. Knowing that you’ve got talented people looking out for you and fighting your corner is the best feeling in the world.
The onslaught of 24 hour rolling news sometimes feels that the news will eat itself. With the explosion of social media, it seems everyone is a journalist but with none of the legal training. Suspects are being named on social media despite warnings from the police and the press are often playing catch up. You’ve written about this here and as a journalist myself it worries me too. How do you think it will continue?
I’ve heard it said that the internet and social media will sound the death knell for journalists, because they no longer have a monopoly on providing information. Actually, the opposite is true. There’s so much information out there that the need for accurate, timely news that can be trusted is greater now than ever. There’s still a lot of brilliant journalism happening – the problem is that there is so much space to fill, whether it’s on the internet or on 24-hour rolling broadcast news, that a lot of what is served up is, frankly, tosh. It’s recycled, speculation, gossip and padding.
In terms of the public, I think we’re in an interim phase where people are going to realise they have a responsibility in terms of the information they share. If you have, for example, a well-read blog, you might not consider yourself to be a journalist, but you are in a position of responsibility and are governed by the same laws regarding defamation and contempt of court as those working in the media.
What do you think of the apps that will tweet for you after your death or the services that will keep your Facebook page going for your loved ones? Have you thought about what will happen to your online legacy?
Writing What She Left has made me think more carefully about my online presence. On a practical level, it’s made me aware of the dangers of, for example, tweeting holiday photos because it’s an invitation to burglars to target your home. In terns of how I’m perceived after you die, I’m not desperately concerned about that. I’ll de dead, after all.
The marketing campaign for What She Left is very clever as it really serves to enhance the book. There is a Facebook page for Alice (which I actually found desperately sad) and a tumblr page ‘written’ by the Professor. Can you tell us more about how these evolved?
We wanted the story to be as realistic as possible and it just felt inconceivable that Alice, as a contemporary 25 year old, wouldn’t have a Facebook page. Similarly, as Professor Cooke took shape, it became clear that he would inevitably want to continue gathering information about Alice even after the point at which the novel finishes. Hopefully the Facebook and tumblr pages are true to the spirit of the book – it’s partly about the online environment so it feels natural that it also has a digital incarnation. Hopefully they give the book a life beyond the page and allows readers to engage with the characters in additional ways.
The cover is very strong – it reminds me of Twin Peaks. Who designed it and did it go through many stages?
I’m delighted with the cover – the image and the title work together to make it really impactful. Sadly, I can’t take any credit for it as I have no artistic sense whatsoever so resisted putting in my two penneth. I’m a great believer in letting people get on with doing what they do best and Penguin’s designers know far more about book covers than I ever will.
I love the fact the audio version (available here) was narrated by Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (amongst others) – a real Game of Thrones reunion. Did you go to the recording sessions and what was it like hearing your words come to life?
I went to one with Charles Dance. It’s a strange experience to hear someone else speak the words you’ve written but I loved it. It brought a freshness to the story and made me feel as if I was hearing it for the first time. I tried to play it cool but as a huge Game of Thrones fan, I was massively excited to meet him and probably totally star struck.
Many thanks to T R Richmond. What She Left is out now, published by Penguin.