Hannah King: She and I

Hannah King's debut psychological thriller She and I  is a gripping exploration of how far truth and childhood bonds will stretch following a brutal murder. She and I  is published in paperback by Raven Books on 19 January, 2023.

Many congratulations on the publication of your debut thriller She and I! What inspired you to write your novel, and why did you choose to set it in a small, Northern Irish town?

Thank you so much! It still hasn’t sunk in, people saying ‘the publication of your debut’. I’ve always written a lot. I wrote a fantasy novel and its sequel when I was about 11 (it makes me cringe to think about it now), but then I moved to only writing short stories for years. I always knew if I ever committed to anything longer, it would have to be the girls’ story. Jude and Keeley were characters I carried around in my head for years before I ever put pen to paper, really, and once I left university, I felt like I had the space in my brain to give the full-length novel a go. I’m so glad I did.

The girls’ small, Northern Irish town is a fictionalised amalgamation of my hometown and my closest seaside town – I basically invented my ideal place to live and put the girls there, but the more I wrote the more it felt like exactly where they needed to be. There’s a specific kind of angst that you find in some teenagers from small towns, and I think it can make them more vulnerable to drink/drugs/peer pressure, all of which are explored in the novel.  
The characters in my book have energy buzzing inside them that they can’t fully channel where they are, so they create their own, intense worlds and they’ll do anything to help them stay there. The town is oppressive enough to begin with, so it’s no surprise that some of the relationships are too.

The private world and close friendship between Jude and Keeley is intense and claustrophobic. Why did you focus on this relationship and place it at the centre of your story?

I really enjoy reading love stories, but I don’t find romance particularly interesting, if that makes sense. I definitely couldn’t write a romance novel, but I still wanted love to be at the centre of mine. I adore the uncomfortable intensity of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, I re-read that three times in one summer because I was obsessed by Barbara’s unsettling narration, so I suppose there was an element of wanting to create that same atmosphere in my book at times. I’m also really intrigued by how far we would go for the people we love, especially if there’s no blood tie there – that can be more intense, I think. If it’s someone you’ve specifically ‘picked’ as yours, people sometimes feel the need to stick by them no matter what, rather than admit they were wrong with their choice.

Jude and Keeley have that kind of relationship, in that they chose one another when they were small children, and they are the way they are simply because that’s how it’s always been, and neither of them knows any different. I wanted to show their bond growing and developing over the years, but I knew I needed something, a big event, something awful, as the catalyst for a change in their relationship. Something needed to really push them, to see if they were in it because it was easy, or if there was something concrete there that couldn’t be broken. I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide whether or not Jude and Keeley have a happy ending to their story…

Heading up the murder investigation is DI Chris Rice, distracted, flawed and deeply unhealthy, who acts as a very effective counterpoint to the teenagers – did you enjoy writing this character as much as we enjoyed reading him?

I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Rice – he’s been through a lot and I think his heart is very much in the right place throughout. He was actually the very last character that I created – the book almost didn’t have any scenes from the police’s point of view. The investigation was going to be in the background, originally, but the draft wasn’t sitting together properly and I couldn’t figure out why. I woke up in the middle of the night, sometime back in late 2019 and just had the solution – the book needed a character who could look in on the relationship between the girls from an outsider’s perspective, act as a counterpoint, as you say. I needed a detective’s narrative, so he could learn about the girls as the reader learns about the girls. Rice is the reader’s way in, I think (I hope!).

As soon as I knew this, I started writing Rice and it just felt so much better. I really love reading and watching police procedurals, so these bits were so fun to write, and I think those scenes added a bit of relief for me (and maybe some relief for my readers too). We’re meeting Keeley, Mack and Jude on the worst day of their lives, and those scenes are quite taut and tense, but we’re meeting Rice and his team on ‘just another day in the office’, so they can banter and joke in a way the other characters can’t, and I loved that.

Your multivoiced approach and deft layering of the action, which takes place mainly over four days at the start of 2020, is pacy and disorientating – how did you plot She and I and keep on top of all the details?

Thank you! I think a lot of writers are put off by the idea of having multiple narrators (some readers seem to hate that), but I love reading and writing novels like that, and I think it actually makes a lot of things easier in terms of plot.

I definitely didn’t sit down and plan each chapter carefully – I had particular points that I wanted to hit at particular times, and I made notes about these, but apart from that… I wrote the very start, and then I wrote the very end, and kind of filled it in organically. The good thing about having five narrators is that anytime it feels like a scene isn’t working, you can take the scene away from that character and write it from someone else’s point of view, and nine times out of ten that’s why the scene isn’t working. It helps with the gradual drip-feed of information as well, having the two girls telling us some parts, the detective filling in the gaps on his own, Keeley’s brother’s slightly warped view of the proceedings, and then hearing from Jude’s mum, who is very different to all of the others and who has different priorities.

When She and I got to second and third draft editing stages, my editor and I worked from a colour-coded spreadsheet to help keep track of the details – it was a far more technical way of working, but it was so useful in those later stages.
Can you tell us a bit about how you found your agent, Charlotte Seymour? What have you found to be the most rewarding, and most challenging, aspects of getting your novel published?

In 2019, a short story of mine was published in an anthology, and a copy of that anthology was sent to a few agents across the UK. I didn’t hold out much hope of anything coming from it, I was just delighted to be included, and I pretty much forgot about it after that. Fortunately, a few months later, one of the agents who read the anthology reached out to me via my university and we got chatting from there. So I suppose Charlotte found me! I consider myself incredibly lucky that she did.

The best part about the publishing experience is how much I learned about the craft of writing from working with my editor and agent during the editing process. I learned more in that year of editing than I ever did in school! As well as that, writing is an isolating experience, but I’ve made a small handful of good writer friends in the last year or so through having She and I published. It’s great to speak to people who completely get what it’s like trying to live and work in the real world at the same time as creating fictional worlds.

What I find the most challenging is dealing with imposter syndrome – a lot of writers I’ve spoken to feel the same, that they have no idea how they ended up published and they don’t feel worthy of it. I’m pretty much just taking each new step as it comes and enjoying myself as much as possible without adding to the pressure. If I can keep writing and being published and I can make this my full-time career, than that’s perfect and a dream come true. If not, I’ve had the most amazing experience and I’ll be forever grateful for it.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and which Irish writers do you particularly enjoy reading?

Around the same time I started on She and I properly, I also discovered Lisa Jewell. She’s the absolute master of character-driven thrillers. She could write a menu and I’d be all over it. So I think even if she hasn’t necessarily influenced my writing, I’m always subconsciously looking up to her, because it’s my long-term dream fantasy goal to be a tenth of the writer she is.

When I was writing my short stories, for university and just for myself, I went through a period of devouring Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, all those creepy things he wrote. I loved that they were set in our world, but that there was always something just a little bit off, a little bit uncomfortable, under the surface. I don’t read much fantasy or horror, but one of my favourite things is when very real, relatable characters and very real scenarios have something subtly horrific about them.

In terms of Irish writers, I’m a massive fan of both Tana French and Catherine Ryan Howard, for different reasons. I think Catherine Ryan Howard is the queen of crime recently – I really admire her deft plotting, the way she can layer clues and, even if there aren’t massive twists, her novels are twisty enough throughout, in every sense. Tana French has this ability to bring settings to life and create these gorgeous, usually quite bleak, representations of small-town and rural Ireland that are so spot on, but so intriguing. There’s something almost gothic about her writing, and I love that. The Likeness is one of my favourite novels of all time.

And finally, what can we look forward to from you next – another thriller, or something completely different?

I think I’ll always write thrillers. I’ve recently finished my second novel – it has a similar vibe, but this time it’s a cold case, set on a fictional island off the coast of County Down. The Notes app on my phone is full of ideas I’ve had for novels (or, more accurately, ideas for a single scene with no further background details, ideas for a particular quirk that an unknown character will have), and I’ll never tire of going in there and picking something and running with it. You never know what might come of it!
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