Interview: MJ Arlidge

MJ Arlidge wears several hats. As well as being the creator of the hugely popular series of crime novels featuring DI Helen Grace, he has worked as a TV producer on the likes of EastEnders, Monarch of the Glen and Undeniable, and is a screenwriter on Silent Witness. He also created the critically acclaimed TV drama Innocent, which was broadcast on ITV in Spring 2018. Sounds like he has enough on his plate, but he’s just created A Gift for Dying – a standalone thriller with an unusual premise, which adds to a body of work that includes Eeny Meeny, Love Me Not and Liar Liar. Let Matt take up the story…

Tell us a little about A Gift for Dying?
AGFD is a serial killer thriller with a twist. A devious, sadistic killer is at large in Chicago, picking off his victims at will. The police are at a loss to explain why or how this is happening – in fact the only person who seems to have any insight into the crimes is troubled teenager Kassie, who inserted herself into the lives of two of the victims on the day they went missing. She claims to be able to foresee death – just by looking at you she knows when and how you will die – but can she be trusted? Or is she deliberately manipulating the police in order to stymie their investigation? It falls to experienced forensic psychologist Adam Brandt to interrogate Kassie’s claims, but little does he know how fateful his engagement with this trouble young woman will be…

What made you write a standalone? Did you approach it differently to working on a Helen Grace book?
Having written eight books in the DI Helen Grace series, I wanted to set myself a new challenge. I wanted to write a book set in the US, with new characters, a new setting, principally just to see if I could do it! Of course, my approach was very different and much more research-heavy than usual, as I had to interrogate the US criminal justice system, its mental health provision and much more besides. Fortunately, this meant I had to go on a week-long research trip to that great City of Chicago.

Where did the idea for the plot come from?
This is an idea I’ve been mulling for ten years. I’ve always wanted to write a story about someone who claims to know exactly how and when you’ll die. Yes, the book is a thriller, yes, it will satisfy crime junkies, but it also does something else. It asks the simple question: if you could find out for certain when and how you will die, would you want to know?

Why set the book is Chicago? Were there any issues with setting your book in the US?
I wanted it to be US set, as this is a story that demands scale. I felt NYC and LA had been done to death, whereas Chicago has been only sparingly used – surprising really given its amazing historical importance in the US – the first skyscraper was built there – and its rich and bloody history (see Al Capone).

Your portrayal of Kassie is very convincing. Was it hard to get inside the head of a troubled teenage girl?
Absolutely not. I enjoy writing female characters and Kassie was surprisingly easy to inhabit. Not sure what this says about me…

The book has a very cinematic feel to it. Is there some overlap between screen writing and novel writing or do you see them as different skills?
Yes, there are definite overlaps, definite similarities. You have to have great characters, a great concept and a punchy hook. The differences are largely to do with the process of writing and the experience of reading. You have much more creative control writing a novel, whereas a TV show has to take account of the opinion and talents of your cast, your director, your producers. Despite the growing popularity of tablets and smart phones, screen viewing, be it movies or TV, is still often a group activity, shared with your partner, your family or friends. Reading is a solo experience where the author talks directly to you. That is its enduring power and strength.

Are you a precise plotter who sets aside time each day to write or do you prefer to see where the muse takes you?
Boringly, I’m a precise plotter and methodical worker. I do a solid nine-to-five. A lot of writers knock off at 2pm and take the dog for a walk, but that’s not for me. Obviously, you get less creative as the day goes on, but you can always be editing what you’ve done. I think the unusual aspect of how I work is that I plan for as long as I write. Two or three months planning, two or three months writing. I have to know exactly what happens in every chapter before I start writing – this leads to fewer narrative cul de sacs along the way.

Are you a crime fiction lover? Who are your favourite authors?
Totally. I love Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Thomas Harris, Harlan Coben, Graham Greene, JG Ballard and Patricia Highsmith. Everyone knows Highsmith’s Ripley novels, but if you haven’t read The Cry of the Owl, you really should.

I witnessed your cocktail making prowess at Morecambe & Vice, Would you care to create a cocktail for CrimeFictionLover?
I would love to create a CFL. What would you want in it? And does it have to be blood red?

What’s coming up next for you?
I am currently plotting Helen Grace 9 and working on a sequel to last year’s ITV drama Innocent. I’m keeping busy!

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