Having devoured Lucy Foley’s ‘The Invitation’ and ‘The Hunting Party’ – the latter being one of last year’s biggest hits – there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to see Foley interviewed at Goldsboro Books by her friend and fellow author, Charlotte Philby, who gave such an interesting talk at The National Archives recently.
Foley has a new novel out, ‘The Guest List’, which sounds every bit as intriguing as her previous books. Here’s how she described it to us: “Set on a fictionalised island, it’s about the very glamorous wedding of a golden couple. But several guests have brought unpleasant baggage with them – and tensions build from the rehearsal dinner onwards. All the classic elements of the wedding provide opportunities for the tension to build – and a body is found just after the wedding cake is cut.”
Weddings, Foley smiled, provide a fertile source for plot ideas because they throw a whole mix of people together in a melting pot. It’s a pressure cooker situation, with family members sticking their oar in. Asked how she captured the upper class public schoolboy world so accurately, Foley confided that her father attended a “mental” boarding school in Lyme Regis which was “just like ‘Lord of the Flies’.” Clearly still horrified, Foley described “perverted Latin teachers” and a school building standing upon a crumbling cliff, where the pupils played games – “and people used to fall off the cliff and nearly die!”
Her father’s experience, Foley continued, has left her “fascinated” by the concept of boys sent off to school at a young, impressionable age – and what that does to their psyche.
Foley and Philby continued discussing characterisation, and how you make your reader care about reprehensible characters, with Foley reminding us of Val McDermid’s reasoning that you don’t have to like a character, but you do have to care about them: “We need to understand people’s motivations and their past and how that has shaped them. Even your villains can’t be cardboard cut-out figures.”
The novel’s setting is equally important. With ‘The Guest List’, the Greek island setting came first, but Foley “…wasn’t sure it would work or whether it was too Mamma Mia! The wedding was becoming quite camp and wasn’t setting off the location in the way I needed it to.”
All was resolved in the end, however, with Foley paying tribute through the book to her paternal grandfather – a naval surgeon on a WWII destroyer and the Navy’s bare-knuckle boxing champion – and who died before she was born, but who hailed from Cormorant Island: “I was interested in finding out how the island shaped him.”
You may not know this, but Lucy Foley started her career as a ‘Girl Friday’ for a publishing company, catching mice, unblocking drains and answering phones. As a reward, the company allowed Foley to read the ‘slush pile’ (unsolicited manuscripts) – “which was brilliant.”
From there, Foley became an editorial assistant working for five different editors, so gained exposure to all different types of fiction. As a junior editor, she specialised in women’s and young adults’ fiction – and the benefit of working in publishing what that it took some of the mystique out of books, which “…gave me the confidence to try writing myself.”
The negative side of having an editorial background means constant thoughts about marketing and packaging, which “…do not help me edit my own books; you need someone fresh to your writing to do that.” The flipside, Foley mused, was that she now understands the importance of an editor because “The first draft of your book bears no resemblance to the final version.”
Luckily for Foley, her husband is always on hand to read her first draft: “When he read ‘The Hunting Party’ he was really mean and in true lawyer0style he got out his red pen. But he’s actually really helpful and I trust him to be my first reader.”
Of the writing process itself, Foley told us that she writes in organised chaos, as “I’m naturally a chaotic person.” Having previously written in the world of historical fiction, where she would spend at least six months researching her novels, Lucy found that crime fiction is much more plot-heavy and location-based.
Depending on her deadline, Foley will take time off between books to “decompress”. It’s the thought of this “golden time”, she confided, that keeps her going when she’s writing: “But I really miss it when I stop!”
Coming next is a novel set in an “Old, beautiful apartment block in Paris from where you can see into other people’s apartments.” Foley is having a lot of fun creating her characters who “come to me as voices in my head which seem real to me, even though they aren’t!” However, as with all her characters: “Once I’ve finished with them, I let them go.”
Both ‘The Guest List’ and ‘The Hunting Party’ have been optioned by See-Saw Films: the company which made ‘Lion’, ‘Widows’ and ‘Top of the Lake’. Foley is, unsurprisingly, delighted, explaining how the screenwriter for ‘The Hunting Party’ has introduced several new characters to account for the fact that, in the novel, a lot of the dialogue goes on in the characters’ heads: “I’m happy to hand things over to her, although I have a consultative role, which is a lot of fun. I knew I could trust the production company after they told me that they loved the Scottish setting and wanted to make a bit thing of it.”
Inspiration-wise, I already knew that Foley is (like me) a huge Agatha Christie fan, although she believes it’s important to read lots of different genres, so that all of them feed into your writing style. The book which she recommends to all aspiring authors is Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction’: “I re-read this every time I write a new book. Highsmith (the author of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’) is so generous with her advice.”
For the time being, Lucy Foley says, she plans to continue writing crime fiction, because she’s loving the experience so much – although, wisely, she will “never say never” to any genre.