I had the opportunity to chat with Flynn Berry about her new novel A Double Life. Here’s what she had to say about her experience writing the book, and the Lord Lucan case. It just wouldn’t go away.
We have so many stories floating around us, how did you come to want to write about this particular one?
I wanted to write about this one because it just wouldn’t let go of me. A Double Life is based on a true story and for years and years, I followed the story in hopes to find out what happened and for the mystery to be solved. I started writing out of that desire to figure out what had actually happened.
When did you first hear about this story? You said you followed it for years…
I can’t even remember when I first heard it. It’s one of those cases that is constantly being written about in the UK press and there’re new clues and bits of information that come to light every few months maybe. So I know that at least for 10 years, and then the summer before last I really got hooked by it again after reading about a sighting of the main suspect.
A lot of the novel delves into the main character’s obsession, did you know that was going to be a part of your story right from the beginning or is that something that came to you as you went along?
That sort of came along with the character as the character progressed, but I think I love in general, stories where characters are obsessive and kind of compulsive, and will go to great lengths in order to figure out the truth about something or to find justice. It’s fun to play with a character who you feel like is kind of teetering on a line of being balanced, and calm, and kind of ordinary. You feel like they might kind of go haywire at any moment.
I know that you can’t always use everything in a book when you’re researching it, so what was the most interesting thing you found out that you were not able to include in the book?
I love this question because there’s just so much. The true case has been reported really widely and there are lots of different theories and suspicions, twists and turns. One theory was that the main suspect had been found living in India and was a musician at a bar on a beach, which turned out not to be true. But I just love how the press got really whipped up into a frenzy thinking that this was the vanished fugitive, and then it turned out just to be a completely random man. And then the other theory was that the suspect had, in fact, died years ago and one of his wealthy friends had a private zoo on his estate with pet lions. The theory was that– or pet tigers I think it was. And the theory was that he had been fed to the tigers, and that’s why he had never been found. Which is just something that you can’t really put into a novel because it’s so, kind of unbelievable.
It’s almost too strange. Right?
Yeah, like fed to tigers? That doesn’t happen.
So, based on Claire’s very obsessive personality are there any particular books that you would recommend for her to read?
Oh, that’s so fun. So a book recommendation for the character?
Oh, I love that. There’s so many. There’s a book called Damage by Josephine Hart, which is this very short book about a man who starts to have an affair with his son’s fiancee. He is also a doctor living in London and he’s also kind of respectable and he kind of goes off the rails in this really fascinating way. It’s one of those stories where the setup seems really conventional but then the way she writes it is just really compelling and odd. So I feel like Claire would enjoy that book.
Sounds like I would too.
Yeah, I really recommend it.
How many books do you tend to work on at a time? Do you get an idea and just work on it until you’re finished or do you have more than one thing going on at a time?
I only work on one thing at a time so that I can feel like I’m really steeped in its atmosphere and its world so I want to feel kind of obsessed with it. And when I’m working on a book usually then it becomes the lens through which I see everything so if I’m walking around I’ll find things that I want to stick into it so it becomes kind of this huge carpetbag to put everything in. But then before that usually I’ll start– I think before A Double Life I started seven different novels and abandoned them all early on because they just weren’t catching for some reason. So it usually takes a long time to figure out what will actually sustain itself.
Are there any books from your local area– books or writers that you really admire and would recommend that are set in your local area or written by local authors?
So that’s interesting because I just moved to Los Angeles this past winter and feel like a tourist here. In a way, I feel like my local area would be London because that’s where I had set my books and where I read the most fiction that’s set there. And so for that, or for the UK in general, I feel my authors are Kate Atkinson and Tessa Hadley and Ian McEwan and Harriet Lane and they’re just all really skilled at capturing contemporary life in London.
I really like Harriet Lane’s books, they’re so good.
Yeah, they’re gorgeous.
I am curious about what you’re reading right now?
I am reading a book called Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey. She wrote a book called Elizabeth is Missing a few years ago and this is her second book and it’s wonderful. It’s about a young woman who turns up after having been lost for a few days and she claims not to remember what happened. And it’s one of those where the plot could be also kind of familiar– I feel like we see lots of stories about women going missing. But the way she tells it is so interesting and so psychologically rich. I’m reading a bunch of short stories by a writer named Helen Simpson who’s an uncannily amazing short story writer.
Oh, great. Always like to get those recommendations. Going back to your book, how long did it take you to write A Double Life?
A Double Life, yeah. It took about a year to do the first draft and then there were about six months of revision with an editor.
Do you feel like it went through any major changes? Like any changes in perspective or, as you were writing the book– and I guess with current events being what they are, did you feel like you made changes based on that?
So I didn’t make changes based on it but it does– it did feel like the #MeToo Movement was so interesting to watch while working on a book about women involved in the criminal justice system. And then there were big sort of structural changes or moving things around because it’s a story that takes place over about 25 years, 26 years. There were a lot of different pieces from different time periods and I worked with my editor a lot on trying to get the information coming in the right place. And I have a wonderful editor who has a really good sense of plotting and sort of how to structure a book.
Thank you so much for your time. This was fun!