Hillingdon Libraries are running lunchtime author interviews during the seccond UK lockdown this month. Here’s the conversation I had today with Nathan Brown, about Silence is Also a Lie.
Like many thrillers, Silence is Also a Lie has a secret at its heart. Zara knows something that she does not tell Ash. Like a spring in a clock, that secret powers the motion of the plot towards a moment of revelation and on through the consequences that flow from it.
So the secret gives the plot drive – but it also created the major technical challenge that I faced when writing the novel. I knew when I started writing that there would be a critical dramatic moment when Ash would learn the truth about what Zara knew. But that left me with two key questions. First, where in the novel should that moment come? And second, what should the reader know about Zara’s secrets before Ash learns them?
I got both those things badly wrong in early drafts.
Mistake one: I kept thinking of the revelation as the pivotal scene. It was the first scene that I’d written, as a piece of dialogue in a play-writing class (there’s more about this in my blog on Beginnings). Possibly because that evening of writing had been such an important moment for me, I kept on wanting it to have a central role in the finished novel. I hung onto the notion that it was the key dramatic moment of the story; the turning point of the plot, to be set at the midpoint.
Mistake two: I wanted my readers to learn the truth at the same time that Ash did. I had a fixed idea that my reader should go on the journey from confusion to understanding with him.
As I wrote, it became clear that these approaches were creating really big problems. Some of those were to do with balance and pace: trying to set the revelation scene at the midpoint made the build up to it too slow, and the aftermath too rushed. But the main difficulty was this. If the reader was only going to learn Zara’s secret at the same time as Ash, then Zara would have to remain mute until the moment of revelation: if I was writing from her point of view I couldn’t keep the secret hidden, because she wouldn’t hide it from herself… So the opening chapters could only be from Ash’s point of view and in his voice, and Zara could only be seen through his eyes. I wrote a version like this, and it simply didn’t work: it gave no sense of Zara as a character with motivation or agency; she came across as vague and passive, and the mystery surrounding her felt too intangible to be engaging. And although she did have her own voice in later chapters, it just felt too late: as if the moment for getting to know her had already been missed.
The break-through came in a conversation with a member of my writer’s group which went something like this
Me: I want the revelation scene to be the turning point of the novel.
Me: I want the reader to learn the truth at the same time as Ash.
That conversation enabled me to shift what I had thought were fixed parameters. And in the next draft, the book really gained momentum. The moment of revelation came earlier and as one of a number of critical moments which built the action, not as the pivot of the whole plot. And, crucially, writing chapters in Zara’s voice from the beginning brought her to life as an active character, wrestling with the awful dilemma of how to weigh safety against truth and making her own difficult decisions. From having been very passive in the first draft, she now emerged as the character whose actions really drove the plot.
What are the takeaway lessons for writers? One, obviously, is the importance of good writing comrades! – without that conversation I would have struggled to realise that this story could be told and paced in another and much better way. Two: be ready to challenge the things you’re profoundly attached to, that feel like fixed points. They might not be immutable! Three: in writing mystery, there’s a critical tension between revealing and concealing that needs to be finely balanced. What I learned here is that if a mystery is too undefined, and too impenetrable – if you just drop vague hints of something weird going on without giving it any definition – then it will end up being more frustrating than intriguing for your reader. So think about when you need to let them in on the secret.
Silence is Also a Lie is not quite contemporary fiction. There’s a dystopian fantasy element to the novel, but it’s rooted in real landscapes and cityscapes, and I wanted to make those as authentic and specific as I could. So writing involved a lot of location scouting, both in London and further afield: identifying and getting to know the places where Ash and Zara live, meet and fall in love… Some of this exploration was done with maps and StreetView, but as much as possible I went to places in real life. I spent a lot of time tramping streets in London, and followed the story further afield to key places outside the city – most importantly to Little Gidding which gained in importance as I wrote: becoming a place of both emotional and dramatic significance in the novel.
Hampstead Heath and the surrounding streets
The Heath’s huge: he thinks of her running across it, in the dark, alone. Anything could happen to her.
They jog down the path onto the Heath and break into
a proper run, dodging puddles, walkers, dogs, other kids
on shiny bikes. They head into the wood: it’s quieter here,
and Zara speeds up; he matches her. Faster, faster: he counts
his footfalls, converting the number of paces to distance,
but all the time he’s aware of her, all the way through the
woods and out onto the slope that runs down to the ponds.
There’s a prehistoric mound here (he thinks it’s prehistoric;
he doesn’t really know) covered in dark trees, surrounded by
iron railings. They stop, stretch, and sit on the bench that
commemorates someone or other who loved this view.
“The dog needs a proper run. You OK to come to the park?”
She glances at him, meeting his grey-blue eyes. No, she
thinks, yes, no. “Yes,” she says, and they carry on to the
park, climbing to the view point that overlooks London. The
towers in the city are grey on grey in the misted air; it’s the
sort of view that Sophie would have photographed.
…a carpark under trees, a white house and a small brick church in an
overgrown graveyard. “Ash,” Zara says again, and he feels a
sudden lift. It’s OK; it’s the right thing to have given her.
I was at a very early stage of writing the first draft of Silence is Also a Lie. I was relishing the world building. The plot was messy but taking shape. I was still not quite sure who my characters were: I knew their names (Ash and Zara); I knew some of the big critical things that had happened to them in the past. But what they loved, wanted, needed; what made them tick – all that still felt thin and uncertain.
In writing other novels, I had used physical props as a way to get into the heads of my characters. So, writing a fantasy, I had walked round for weeks in my M&S brown corduroy coat, which became the stolen coat of a kid on the run in a cold and hostile country. Working on a contemporary story, I wore an amethyst and silver ring bought when I was 17 at a market in Greece, which became a critical clue to my main character’s mother’s hidden past. Both had helped me to walk in my characters’ shoes: to imagine what it was like to be them, to inhabit them.
I hadn’t thought about using this approach for the characters in Silence is Also a Lie. But my best friend has a dog called Lulu, and looking after her one day, walking her round the block near my house, I thought: ‘Oh. This is what Ash does. He walks his dead sister’s dog.’
It was a transformative moment for the book. It enabled me to imagine Ash in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. It gave me a sense of the physical routines that marked his life: walking the dog, before and after school. I could imagine him in his room, doing homework: the dog lying on his bed and starting up every time he moved. I felt how Lulu became somehow symbolic of Sophie for him, so he can’t contemplate giving her away, feels responsible for her, even sees his sister’s character reflected in all that life: in Lulu’s eagerness and energy.
As well as that, Lulu became a character in her own right (the only one in the novel based on someone real). She nosed her way into the story and stayed, her presence enlivening and lightening scenes otherwise shadowed by grief and danger. And as I worked and reworked the story, she ended up having a major impact on how the latter stages of the plot unfolded.
If it wasn’t for her, Ash reflects at one point, none of this would be happening.
Love story, mystery, and political dystopia – Silence is Also a Lie is all three, and each aspect of the story came to me separately, one after the other. With each, I felt the story gaining shape and focus, but it was only once all three were in place that I felt I had a coherent plot and could begin writing.
I started with a vague aspiration to write a love story. I had just finished writing a novel about the relationship between a brother and sister, and knew that I wanted my next story to have the different emotional heartbeat of a romance. The names Ash and Zara came to me early, as did the idea that their relationship would play out in the shadow and aftermath of Ash’s sister’s death. But in the beginning, that was all. I had no notion of what their story would be.
Inspiration came in a playwriting course run by the writers Bernard Kops and Tom Fry, which I had been attending for some time. Each class followed the same pattern: we were given 45 minutes or so to write a scene, and then what we had written was handed to the two actors who attended each session, and performed by them, ink still wet on the page. It was, I suppose, the pressure of that exposure that made the classes some of the most intense writing experiences I have ever had: often terrifying, occasionally inspiring (I came to love them, and profoundly miss them now that they have stopped). Though there were often set themes or prompts for our writing, we were free to follow our own paths, and I started using the classes to explore possible stories for Ash and Zara. About four weeks in I wrote (out of the blue: I hadn’t thought of it before I started writing) a scene between Ash and Zara which rapidly becomes an argument, as Ash learns that she has been keeping secrets from him about his sister, Sophie’s, death. As the actors finished reading it, Tom said, ‘Ooh. That’s story,’ and I knew immediately that it was. The scene felt like a moment of condensed energy that held all the DNA of a story. I could instinctively sense how that mystery – of a girl staying silent about something utterly and absolutely important to the boy she loves – could generate a tangled backstory, and a forward-driving plot full of tension and conflict.
But why would Zara not have told Ash what she knew about Sophie? There could have been so many answers to that question, and I spent weeks turning over possibilities: this could have become a psychological thriller, or a crime novel… But I have always been attracted – as a reader and a writer – to works that connect individual stories to the big narratives of history and politics. And this was late 2014 and early 2015: that moment in the UK when right-wing voices on immigration, national identity, membership of the EU and so on, were increasingly audible. There was a sense of something different and disturbing in the air. What, I wondered, would a fascist government look like, in 21st century Britain? And then – what if the events of this story happened under such a regime? – if Zara belonged to a politically proscribed group? – if keeping under the radar by staying silent about what she knew was necessary for her survival? Setting the novel in this near future dystopia gave the story shape, a clear drive, and an added urgency.
So here it is: love story, mystery, and political dystopia: each thread an essential part of the woven whole. You can read chapter one here.