I caught up with Lara Dearman to discuss her brooding and atmospheric debut, The Devil’s Claw (TDC). She tells me how folklore, and her own childhood have informed her writing. If you like Ann Cleeves you’ll love Lara’s work. Book two, Dark Sky Island, is coming soon.
The sense of place and setting seems to me to be absolutely key in TDC, almost like a character in and of itself. How important was it to you whilst writing?
The location is absolutely key in The Devil’s Claw and it shaped the story in many ways. The physical setting – particularly the sea and the cliffs – provided a dramatic backdrop to some of the action in the story, and the smallness of the island really helped to build Jenny’s feelings of claustrophobia, of being ‘trapped’ on Guernsey. My memories of growing up on Guernsey also play a large role in The Devil’s Claw – Jenny certainly shares a lot of my childhood – exploring the bunkers left after the German Occupation during the second world war, walking on the beaches, swimming in the bathing pools. I incorporated a lot of what I love about the island into Jenny’s experience.
In TDC, a key component of the storyline focusses on island myths and folklore. Was this real or made-up and can you tell us more about ‘Fritz’?
All of the myths and folklore in The Devil’s Claw are real and the stories can be found in the book Guernsey Folklore by Edgar MacCulloch – my dad has an original copy – the same one Jenny references in the book. It’s also true that there was an element of the Nazi party who were very interested in the occult. With Fritz, I tied his interest in the Occupation of Guernsey with an interest in folklore, particularly the peculiar amount of Devil sightings there seem to have been on the island! I really wanted readers to be able to understand Fritz’s motivations, no matter how unhinged, because it’s so important for me as a reader to have some idea as to why a killer does what he/she does.
I love Jennifer: was this the first piece you’d written with her in or did she exist before TDC?
This was the first piece I’d written with her and she was by far the hardest character to write! I think it’s something to do with her being a similar age to me, and sharing some (but certainly not all!) character traits. It seems it’s much more difficult to get to know a character who is ‘close’ to you than it is a deranged serial killer. At least, that was my experience. Not sure what that says about me!
Did you set out to write a series? If not at what point did you realise you would be?
I did set out to write a series. I was very inspired by Ann Cleeves and her Shetland series, as well as Peter May and his Lewis trilogy – I feel like Guernsey and the Channel Islands as a setting really lend themselves to at least a few books.
What comes first for you: plot or character? And how do they evolve?
For my first two books, I would definitely say character. I’m not sure I ever really believed authors when they said that their characters ‘had life of their own’, or words to that effect, but I’ve really found that to be true. I can’t always predict what a character is going to do in a given situation until I’m writing it. However, with crime fiction in particular, plotting is key. I have found in the editing of my second novel, that I could definitely have benefited from more planning and plotting in the early stages. That’s not to say I would always stick to the plan – I’m sure my characters will have their own ideas!
Have you always written?
Yes and no. I loved English at school and wrote a lot as a teenager (bad poetry, short stories). I enjoyed writing at university, although I was studying mostly politics and economics, I still liked the process of research and putting together a paper. I then stopped altogether for a few years after I went into a career in finance and then gave up work to be a stay at home mum. I’m a firm believer that you need to exercise whichever side of your brain you’re relying on in order for it to be useful. When I worked for a private bank, I was able to confidently write a term sheet for a complex financial product. Now I struggle to help my eleven year old with her maths homework, but I can write pages of prose at a time – there’s no way I would have been able to do that a few years ago. Practice makes perfect!
Are there any books and/or resources that you found useful?
Val McDermid’s Forensics is a firm favourite, as is Stephen King’s On Writing. I use the Internet a lot to research facts as I go. I’m very lucky to have a friendly police source in Guernsey who helps me with all the procedural stuff.
Do you have any advice for writers starting out?
Reading widely, particularly books in a similar genre to your own is key, I think. Over the last couple of years I’ve gone back to all of the classics – Ruth Rendell, PD James, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith. Reading the greats is the best way to hone your own skills.
What are you working on now?
Book two, Dark Sky Island is currently with the copy editor, so hopefully within the next couple of months there should be proofs available. And then onto book three! I’m really trying to stop myself from writing just yet, instead I’m focusing on the plotting and dutifully filling my notebook with scribbles.