What’s the scariest thing that happened to Ruth Ware?
Ruth Ware began her writing career with a series of young adult fantasy novels, before moving on to the gripping, uneasy psychological thrillers that have made her an international bestseller. Her ingenious plots frequently play out in closed and claustrophobic settings, against an escalating background sense of dread and paranoia, and her style has been compared to that of Agatha Christie. But with her most recent novel, The Turn of the Key, the influence of Henry James’s classic ghost story is more keenly felt. I was intrigued to talk to Ruth and find out what frightens her. Over to Ruth.
- Were you scared of the dark as a child? If not, was there anything else you were frightened of?
I don’t remember being particularly scared of the dark – or of spooky things. I was quite a logical kid and good at reasoning away stuff like ghosts and witches. What scared me was real threats – burglars, scary dogs chasing me, people driving too fast and my parents getting in an accident – that kind of thing.
- What scares you as an adult – if anything? Do you notice any lingering fears from childhood?
Basically the same stuff. If I’m alone in the house at night and hear a weird noise, I don’t worry about ghosts, I worry about a break in!
- What’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?
One of the first flats I lived in in London was below a crack den and we had quite a lot of sketchy visitors ringing the wrong bell. One evening I was home with a girl friend and we saw a man in a balaclava pass in front of the living room window, and then pound on the front door. The scariest thing was that he was wearing a mask and gloves, although the weather was warm. When we didn’t answer he starting peering in the windows and trying to get in. We ran into a back room and hid, and dialed 999. He was shouting death threats and stuff through the letter box, and trying to prise open the door. He ran away as soon as the police showed up, and when we went to the door we found a note saying “Sean Cafferty, I’m going to burn your house down, you ****ing paedo”. The police officer looked at it, laughed and said, “He obviously got the wrong flat.” I was like yeah, duh, but what if he only finds that out after he’s torched the place? Luckily he never came back!
- Do you use writing to help deal with your fears and concerns about yourself or the world?
Yes definitely, all my books are rooted in some kind of fear or phobia of my own! It’s very cathartic getting to resolve all that on the page. A little bit of that scary balaclava man went into the beginning of The Woman in Cabin 10, for example.
- Why do you think readers enjoy being frightened?
I guess it’s a safe way to explore our fears, safe in the knowledge that they’re almost certainly going to be resolved to some degree. Very few crime books end in a totally nihilistic way.
- Do you get scared by fiction? If so, what’s your favourite scary book or film and why?
I do like chilling fiction, but I don’t like being grossed out. Like, The Exorcist, for example, I watched it expecting something genuinely terrifying but actually i wasn’t particularly scared, I just found it kind of disgusting – all the suppurating sores and grim stuff with crucifixes. But I love really uneasy, psychological stuff. Shirley Jackson is the mistress of this, I think. The Haunting of Hill House still terrifies me, right from the first lines!
Two brief things here. The first, without wanting to give anything away, is that one of my remaining interviewees feels very differently about The Exorcist to Ruth. But we’ll come to that in the next post. The second point is just to echo Ruth’s comments about The Haunting of Hill House. The first paragraph alone is rightly lauded as one of the best in literature.
But today, I’m most interested in Ruth’s answer to question 4. When something scary, or even terrible, happens, there’s always a part of you as a writer thinking how can I use this? There’s a saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy – but I think that sum can also equal story, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Ruth channels her fears into her work, or that she turned what must have been a terrifying experience for her at the time into one for her readers later.
With The Whisper Man, I certainly wanted to explore my own fears, but a strange thing happened along the way. At the very start, I imagined the principal fear would be of child abduction, but as I wrote I realised that other worries – superficially less dramatic, perhaps, but in their own way equally frightening – were coming to the fore. The tension between wanting to help and teach my son and the need to let him become his own person. The times it was hard to cope. And the constant concern about whether I was doing the right thing, or even how to know what that was. The question, in other words, that nags at the heart of anybody with a child: am I a good parent?
I still don’t have an answer to that, but it scares me more than ghosts or serial killers, and it strikes me that the question I’ve asked is another obvious one: of course most writers use fiction to explore things that have happened in their lives, their interests, and their fears. But it can often be even more interesting to notice the worries that sneak up on you from the side while your attention is elsewhere. Your subconscious is full of surprises. Writing is a great way of letting them loose.
A massive thank you to Ruth for taking the time to answer my questions. Next post, I talk to AA Dhand.