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Author Talk: May 30, 2018

Ruth Ware follows up her New York Times bestsellers IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 and THE LYING GAME with her highly anticipated fourth novel, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY. This Agatha Christie-style story revolves around the duplicitous actions taken by its main character, Hal, after receiving a mysterious inheritance letter that was clearly meant for someone else. In this interview, Ware explains how this book differs from her previous psychological thrillers; discusses the research she conducted into tarot readers, fake mediums and psychics, along with their techniques, all of which she found fascinating; and reveals the two writers who were the biggest influence on THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY.

Question: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY has it all: family secrets, an old Gothic manor, thrilling plot lines, page-turning pacing, flawed characters in a deeply human way. What was the genesis for this book? Did you start with a specific character, scene or idea?

Ruth Ware: I think the core of this book was the fact that I had written three novels about people who were drawn into crimes or deceptions through no fault of their own. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or witnessed something they shouldn't have. With THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY, I wanted to try something quite different and write a character who sets out to commit a crime. Because I knew that I wanted Hal to be a con artist, I decided to give her a career suited to deceiving people --- so I made her a tarot reader, but a cynical one who doesn’t believe in the power of the cards but instead uses her skills and intuition to claim a knowledge she doesn't have.

Q: The expansive estate and grand manor house at Trepassen, even in their disrepair, are quite impressive, and crucial to the story line. Is Trepassen based on a real place?

RW: Not exactly. It’s very loosely based on a real house in Sussex, near where I live, called Standen House, which is a very beautiful arts and crafts house. Standen House is in much better repair than Trepassen, although largely unaltered since the 1930s, but it has a slightly haunted, melancholy air, as it was built for a large, loving family of seven children, who gradually all died or moved away, leaving the house in the custody of the youngest daughter, who had not married. She left it to the National Trust in her will and it’s now open to the public, still furnished with the family’s possessions, as if they had simply popped out for a country walk one day.

The long tiled corridors, the echoing rooms and the orangery at Trepassen are all inspired by counterparts at Standen, and walking around the place I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be the one remaining sibling living there alone, growing older and frailer, with the house falling into disrepair around her.

But the Cornish setting owes a heavy debt to the novels of Daphne du Maurier --- there is definitely a large pinch of Manderley in the mix.

Q: The sibling --- and pseudo-sibling, in the case of Maud and Maggie --- dynamics greatly affect the events of the novel. Were you inspired by any real-life siblings or relationships?

RW: It's funny because out of all the siblings in the book, I think the closest sibling relationship is Maggie and Maud, who as you mentioned aren't really sisters at all. But I am very close to my sister, and I definitely relate to the unconditional loyalty that Maggie and Maud develop for each other.

I have no idea where the brothers came from, though. They feel very real to me, and I love their complicated mix of affection and exasperation for one another, but I’ve no idea what inspired that. Sometimes my imagination is a mystery even to me.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you already have experience with tarot, or is that something you researched specifically?

RW: Believe it or not, I knew almost nothing about tarot and had never had a reading, though I have always loved the look of the cards and been a little fascinated by their imagery. It was really fun researching all that. I bought books about tarot reading and symbolism, and had great fun picking and choosing how all the readings in the book would pan out. But of course, as I mentioned, Hal is a cynical tarot reader who doesn’t actually believe the cards have any mystical power and uses her powers of observation for slightly less-than-moral ends, so the other strand of research I did was into fake mediums and psychics, which was equally fascinating. I read about “cold reading” techniques, where the so-called psychic genuinely knows nothing beforehand about their mark but simply picks up information from their reactions and appearance, and “hot reading,” where the person conducting the reading researches their mark beforehand to give the appearance of insight. I also went and had a tarot reading myself. I did this after conducting all my research, so it was fascinating to see some of the things I had researched play out in the reading.

I also picked up some truly horrifying stories of people taken in by fake psychics. They were told to me in confidence so I probably can’t share them here. But suffice it to say, I would be very, very careful if anyone contacts you out of the blue.

Q: Mrs. Westaway herself is a bit of a shadowy figure. We only get to know her through the stories and recollections of others, and fleeting mentions in Maggie’s diary. Why did you choose to keep her mostly off the page?

RW: Partly it was practicality. The story is about Hal’s journey of discovery, not Maggie’s experiences at Trepassen, so I didn’t want to include too much from the diary, and that meant limiting the scenes with Mrs. Westaway. Also, many of the climactic scenes that I would have liked to feature were impossible to include in the diary. But partly I loved the idea of a character like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, who is a hugely looming, influential presence in the novel but who we only see through the recollection of others. I really enjoy books where a pivotal character exists mainly off the page, and we see different, distorted flickers through the lens of different observers.

Q: Like in THE LYING GAME, the narrative in THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY alternates Hal’s story in the present day and the diary entries from that fateful year --- 1994 --- at Trepassen. What draws you to weave the past into the present? What does this allow you to do with the narrative?

RW: Hmm…I don’t know, this is a good question! I guess one answer is that unlike some crime writers, I’m not actually very interested in the crime itself --- the gun, the body, the poison, or whatever. What matters to me is not so much the pebble that is thrown into the pond but the ripples that emanate from that pebble and the effect they have on other people. I suppose by putting the crime in the past, it enables the effect of those ripples to be more pronounced and allows me to concentrate on that part of the narrative.

I also love writing about secrets --- and the thing about secrets is that the longer you keep them, the bigger they become.

Q: How was writing THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY different from writing IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 and THE LYING GAME? How has your writing evolved with each book?

RW: I’m not honestly sure, is the answer! This is probably something that the writer is worst-placed to comment on, because we are too close to the picture to see. I think THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is probably darker and more gothic than my earlier books, which are a bit more fast-paced and action-packed. But the theme of female friendship and loyalty is a constant.

Q: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is chock-full of plot twists and turns and red herrings that keep the reader guessing until the very end. Do you outline your books to keep that all straight, or does it come to you as you go? How do you organize the plot for your novels?

RW: I generally don't outline --- or not very much. I have an idea of the structure in my head and sometimes if my editors ask me to I will jot that down, but it's not usually very extensive --- a page or two at most. I also have a couple of paragraphs of notes at the end of the manuscript with jotted-down notes for things that I think should happen, or stuff that I need to go back and fix (or, in the case of MRS. WESTAWAY, dates of birth and relative ages of all the characters, since that was important to the plot), but in general I hold 90 percent of the book in my head. I am always in awe of writers who have complicated charts with timelines and Post-it notes and index cards. I feel like I’m winging it most of the time!

Q: It must be exhausting to publish a new book every year! How do you stay balanced with your writing and touring schedule? Do you take any time off between books, or is it right back to the grindstone?

RW: I usually jump right back in --- as soon as I finish one book, I begin the next (often the very next day). Not so much out of a sense of duty, although I do have contracts and deadlines I need to meet, but more because I always get a sense of huge deflation when a book comes out, and I find the best way to combat that is having another one on the boil all ready to go. That said, this book is the first time I didn’t do that. I was traveling and touring so much that it was all I could do to complete the edits on MRS. WESTAWAY; I just didn’t have time to begin a new book. Mostly, though, the two fit pretty well together. I get long stretches of time when I can hunker down in my writing cave (it’s not a cave, I should probably make that clear), and then I get to break for fresh air and remember why I do it all.

Q: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you are a fan of Agatha Christie novels. What else do you like to read? Do you read other novels while working on your own?

RW: I love Christie, but actually the biggest influence on this book were two other writers: Daphne du Maurier (who I’ve already mentioned) and Josephine Tey --- anyone who has read her novel BRAT FARRAR will probably see some common themes and elements with THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY. Plus, Hal is no Tom Ripley, but I was definitely thinking about Patricia Highsmith’s mesmerising con-man antihero when I was coming up with her character.

I love to read anything and everything, and I do read while working on my own books, but I find I can’t read crime or psychological thrillers, at least not while I’m in the early stages of the idea. It’s partly to do with finding the voice of my character --- I have to learn to be silent for a little while, to listen to what my narrator is trying to say to me, and it’s hard to do that while you’re immersed in someone else’s character. But it’s also a practical issue --- if I’m already committed to a story, I don’t want to find out that someone else is writing on the same subject or has used the same twist. If I’m halfway through the book, it’s too late to turn back, so I would rather simply not know! For that reason, you’ll often find me rereading old favorites that I know backward already, or wallowing in nonfiction or comedy or something completely unrelated. I just finished a volume of David Sedaris’ essays, which is basically a perfect counterpart to writing crime.