Author Interview: Lucy Hooft

Have you ever tried to write a novel for a genre you rarely or never read?

When I started writing the Sarah Black series, I rarely read spy novels. I had read Ian Fleming’s Bond series and I always loved Graham Greene – not typically considered a spy writer but did write some spy fiction. I would not recommend writing in a genre that you do not know well! In order to properly understand the expectations of the genre and be sure that my series would not disappoint lovers of spy fiction, I had to read widely amongst contemporary spy writers. As I started exploring more widely in the genre, I was surprised to find how few female spies there are in the world of contemporary spy fiction. There are some great female spy wartime stories, but most contemporary spy fiction tends to be gritty, dark and male. I wanted to revisit the Ian Fleming world of spy stories – exotic locations, outlandish baddies, car chases, horse races and explosions – but to bring it into the 21st century with a believable, relatable, female heroine.

How do you develop your plot and characters?

My plots are all inspired by real-life events – generally something that happened that sounds stranger than fiction or where the official story seems to be missing some element of truth. I then invent Sarah’s (my protagonist’s) involvement to help the real-life story make more sense.

I am a firm believer that plot is derived from character. When I am planning a new book in my series, I begin by sketching out for each of my characters – what do they want and what is stopping them from getting it? Ideally these will overlap creating conflict, i.e. what the protagonist wants is the opposite from what her main opponent wants. And then when you lie these threads over each other, you have the outline of a plot!

How do you process and deal with negative book reviews?

My journey to publication was a long one. There were lots of ‘almost but not quite’ moments along the way that ended in a no. I think this has prepared me well for negative reviews. There is no book in the world that everyone loves and tastes are very subjective. So, if my book is not to the reader’s taste – that’s fine. The positive reviews where you have managed to connect with a reader more than make up for the negative ones.

How long did it take you to write this book?

A very long time! I started writing when my daughter was a baby almost 9 years ago. I obviously wasn’t writing continuously throughout that time – I had another child, moved continents four times and wrote two other books. But I did need lots of time to work on my craft and to return to the manuscript with fresh eyes and see ways that I could make it better. I had a lot to learn and it took many redrafts until I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell.

If you’re planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?

Yes! The Sarah Black series has always been envisaged as a 5-act play with 5 books in the series. They will be a continuous story, following Sarah Black’s career from innocent beginner to hardened operative and each will be set in a different location. In book 2, Sarah is still inexperienced but significantly tougher with the confidence of a lucky start behind her. She strikes out on her own in wartime Sierra Leone, hungry for revenge. It is a work of fiction, but based closely around the historical events that led up to the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone. The Head of the Snake will be out in March 2023 and is available for pre-order now.

If your book were made into a movie, which actors would play your characters?

This is one of my favourite games to play! I’ve always pictured the books as a movie and love thinking about who would be the best fit. My top picks to play Sarah would be Jodie Comer or Anya Taylor Joy. A young Robert Redford would be perfect for Elias, perhaps Johnny Flynn if it was to be cast now. I have always pictured Michael as a younger ‘English Patient-era’ Ralph Fiennes and the character of Jeff, Sarah’s father, could only be played by Jim Broadbent. They had better get on with making the films before he gets too old! I wrote the character with him in mind and cannot imagine anyone else in the role.

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?

I think a lot of beginner writers get stuck with trying to make their book perfect first-time round. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given when I was starting was to think of writing a book like refurbishing a kitchen. You don’t start with the gold leaf and perfect detailing. You start by making a mess. I found it very liberating to let go of perfection and just write – to enjoy making my mess – and the work of beautifying could come later in the edit.

What books did you grow up reading?

I was a huge book worm and I think the books you enjoy as a child have an extremely deep impact on you and stay with you in a way that books you read later in life rarely do. My favourites were The Worst Witch, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Goodnight Mr Tom and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The Little Prince is one of my favourite books of all time but it was lost on me when I read it as a child. I only came to understand it when I read it as a teenager. And another ‘children’s’ book I came to slightly later in life is Tintin. I read the whole series in French while living in Paris in my early 20s and think it is one of the biggest influences on the Sarah Black series – exotic destinations, lots of adventure, action, mystery and intrigue and never taking itself too seriously.

What inspired the idea for your book?

After university I joined the Foreign Office and then the Department for International Development. I was sent off to the former Soviet Union, then China and Sierra Leone. Everybody always assumed I must be a spy. The Sarah Black books began as a way of imagining what that life would have looked like if it had been true.

Would you and your main character get along?

I think we are too similar to get along well. Sarah is not me, but I did put a lot of my own experiences into her story. I think I would probably be jealous that she is a better, tougher, more interesting version of me and would thrash me at chess!

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