Orange prize shortlisted author, Jill Dawson, is September’s Books That Built Me guest. As well as discussing six books that inspire her as a writer, we’ll chat about her latest novel, The Crimewriter, a pitch-perfect portrait of Patricia Highsmith as well as a compelling story of clandestine love, madness and murder. The infamous snails have a glide on part too….
Dawson has often drawn on real figures and events for her novels: With The Crime Writer she has surpassed herself –casting Highsmith herself as both subject and protagonist, it is at once an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, a nuanced and empathetic portrait of troubled, drink-addicted, creative outsider, and a though-provoking exploration of the tightrope walk between fact and fiction faced by novelists like Highsmith and Dawson herself.
I talked to Jill Dawson about how she came to Highsmith’s work and what it meant for her own writing.
I knew The Talented Mr Ripley first, mostly due to the Minguella film with Matt Damon and Jude Law, which I love – that scene of them in the jazz bar is so memorable and also the very sexy scene where Dickie Greenleaf catches Tom Ripley ogling him in the bath…. Then I started reading the early ones: Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness and swapping them with my sister, and discussing them and how addictive they were. Before I knew it I’d read all 22 of them and the story collections too; some of them several times. I do tend to obsess over writers once I discover one and read an entire oeuvre rather than reading more widely over a range of authors. I’d rather know one writer’s work in its entirety.
My favourite is probably Deep Water for its chiling depiction of jealousy turned to violent hatred. This is a novel where the protagonist’s wife Melissa tortures him by having affairs and he, while seeming calm and in control of himself, begins boasting that he has murdered her lovers. The characterisation is superb; he’s completely believable and Highmith makes sure we are strangely sympathetic to him, not least because he is the only one who notices that his little daughter is suffering, too. It’s also one of the places where Highsmith introduces her beloved cast of snails. (She kept them as pets).
I love her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction and recommend it to my Creative Writing students. It’s very insightful about her own methods and how hard she worked, and how many times she had to rewrite and rework things and I find that honest and consoling.
I loved The Crime Writer: my favourite kinds of books are those which combine a brilliantly plotted, un-putdownable story with a deeper layer that explores how author’s write, and the nature of fiction itself. I can’t wait until 20th September to discover how the books Jill Dawson loves meet the books she writes.