Meet Sarah Hilary Author of Fragile

Switching from writing a popular crime series to a standalone crime thriller is a big step for an author to make and one which this week's Thriller Women interviewee, Sarah Hilary, has done brilliantly with Fragile

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Find out which 1960s film inspired Fragile's setting, how she created the gothic suspense in the novel and the Japanese author Sarah loves who is giving the late Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money.

Book cover of Fragile by Sarah Hilary

TW: Congratulations on the publication of Fragile! It's your first standalone thriller. What inspired you switch from your popular DI Marnie Rome series and write this story?

SH: Fragile is a story that was living inside my head for a long time, even while I was writing Marnie and Noah. With my sixth book in that series, Never Be Broken, I felt I'd reached a breathing space in Marnie's story, if not the final end to the series. The voices of the characters in Fragile had been getting louder and more insistent, so it was good to let them take centre stage in what I'd always known would be a standalone story.

TW: Nell in the novel is a former foster child with a secret. How did you create the suspense and tense, gothic atmosphere in Fragile?

SH: A lot of it is down to the fact I was writing in the first person for the first time. Nearly everything on the page is filtered through Nell's eyes and, as you say, she's damaged and secretive. She's also very young (only 18) so there is a romanticism to her observations, which lends itself to the gothic feel. Then there are the settings, most especially Starling Villas, which is a strange, narrow old house in modern-day London. A house full of secrets and unexpected dangers, a time capsule of a kind; houses like that always come with ghosts. But it is Nell's longing – and her fear – that gives her strange new home its atmosphere. My influences were Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Servant, a 1963 film with Dirk Bogarde. The front door of Starling Villas is modelled on the house from The Servant, with its white plaster wreath and its window of wrinkled glass.

TW: What attracted to you about writing crime thrillers and if you were to write in another genre, what would it be?

SH: I grew up reading crime fiction and thrillers. There's something about the darkness of that world and the absolute, unflinching light which its authors shine on our worst behaviours (and our best) ... Something of the Greek myths, too, in its heroes and villains, and its quests. I've no real desire to write in another genre, although I do have an idea for a Japanese ghost story that I'm working on. I grew up with Edgar Allan Poe, and I was delighted to discover a Japanese author called Edogawa Ranpo (a pen name, chosen because it's how the name 'Edgar Allen Poe' sounds when spoken by a Japanese speaker) whose stories are at least as disturbing and imaginative as Poe's.

TW: Your debut novel Someone Else's Skin won the Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year award and was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. How did this help you in your career and did you feel under pressure to live up to this with your subsequent novels?

SH: Every author feels under pressure, I think, with every new book. Winning Crime Novel of the Year for my debut was extraordinary, a true privilege and honour. I remember the thrill of being longlisted, then the shock of being shortlisted. I certainly never expected to win, especially when I was up against so many of my writing heroes. But the crime community is a very special place. I was cheered and congratulated, and I think that's the thing which made the biggest difference to me: realising I'd found my tribe. I still have the same fear, though, each time I sit down to write something new. Fear and excitement, I should say, as starting a new book is my favourite part of the process.

TW: You teach crime fiction. What are your top three tips for aspiring crime authors?

SH: 1: Read, as widely as possible. 2: Write every day, even if it's just notes or a diary entry. 3: Embrace rejection in the early stages, because you don't know how good a book you can write until you've been told to get better.

TW: Which authors do you like to read for pleasure?

SH: I'm a huge fan of Laura Lippman whose new book, Dream Girl, is astounding.

TW: Tell us about your writing day.

SH: I'm a lark, not an owl, so for preference I'm up at 5am and writing by 6am. When I'm working on a new book I need to build it as I write (because I don't plot) so it's vital to get a minimum of 2,000 words down every day in those early stages. By 4pm, I'm useless.

TW: What are you working on for your next book?

SH: My next book is another standalone, this one involving cliff edges, new builds, and nightmares.

Quick fire questions:

TW: Favourite way to relax?

SH: Reading in the bath.

TW: Worst cliche in a crime novel?

SH: The charismatic serial killer. I love Hannibal, who doesn't? But the truth is at once more banal. and more disturbing.

TW: Your favourite fictional detective?

SH: Fred Vargas's Adamsberg. In a close tie with Saga Norén from The Bridge.

TW: If you could live anywhere where would it be?

SH: In a cabin in the woods, with the sea nearby.

Thanks Sarah!

Photo of Sarah Hilary author of Fragile

More about Fragile

Everything she touches breaks.

Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperate to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong.

So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands.

But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees that he is hiding secrets of his own.

But is Nell's arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be - and how easy they can be to break...


Next week's interviewee on Thriller Women is Holly Watt talking about her latest novel The Hunt and The Kill


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