Former journalist Fiona Barton’s 2016 debut The Widow was a bestseller. Her new dark thriller The Child (Bantam Press, £12.99) begins when a paragraph in an evening newspaper reveals a decades-old tragedy. Most readers barely give it a glance but three strangers do. For one woman, it’s a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened to her. For another, it’s the possibility that her darkest secret is about to be discovered. And for journalist Kate Waters it’s the start of a hunt to uncover the truth.
What was the inspiration for The Child?
The inspiration came from exactly the same place that Kate finds it. As a journalist, always looking for stories, I tore interesting items out of newspapers and magazines – my hairdresser hated me! – and shoved them in my handbag for later. They were often just a few lines but it was the unanswered questions that drew me in. The Who? or the Why? One of the scraps of paper lurking in the bottom of my bag many years ago was about the discovery of a baby’s remains. Like Kate, I wanted to know who the infant was. Who had secretly buried it? And who else knew? I suppose it was the desperation of the act and the human tragedy behind it that fascinated me. The newspaper cutting is long gone – discarded in one of my ritual handbag clear-outs – but the idea stayed, waiting for its moment to be unearthed.
Following the success of your debut novel The Widow, was it daunting to write another psychological thriller so soon after the first?
Not sure daunting does it justice! I felt huge pressure fuelled by the legendary second album paranoia. The thing is, no one knows you are writing the first book so you can pootle along, letting it all cook in your head, move sentences around a hundred times and leave it for weeks on end. But book two is a whole other story (in every sense). The success of The Widow meant there were expectations for the second book from the first word and it has created a completely different writing experience. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed writing The Child but I confess I wept when I wrote the final scenes. They may have been tears of relief. I would like to go off to lie down in a darkened room for a while but book three looms.
The story is told through characters on the outside of the police investigation. Why did you choose to write it this way and why do you think it works for this novel?
I had no plans for a journalist narrator when I wrote The Widow. The voice in my head for the first book was Jean Taylor’s but gradually Kate Waters made her presence felt, doorstepping me, demanding extra chapters from her perspective. And using Kate as my investigator has given me greater freedom to probe into a mystery. Reporters are not bound by the same procedural rules as police but can ask the same questions. So she has stayed for book two, leading her own, sometimes flawed, investigation.
Why was it important for the story to be told from the perspective of three women?
Women because it is essentially a story about mothers and daughters – a subject very close to my heart – and I chose to write from different perspectives because it is what I have always done. As a reporter I wanted to hear all sides of a story and I can’t shake the habit. In The Child, I took it a step further, using a first person narrator and a lot of interior thought in my book to bring the reader right inside the heads of each character, hearing and seeing what they hear and see. And believing what they choose to believe. I love the layers of truth and doubt this can bring and I hope it allows the reader to live the story rather than watch from the sidelines.
Journalists have a bit of a bad reputation, as Kate alludes to. Did this influence your depiction of her character?
I set out to give a clear-eyed account of what it is like to work as a journalist. Part of it was to make my story authentic but also because I am offended by the casual stereotyping of my profession as weasels or criminals. People I know well have said to me “Of course, all reporters make it up” as if it is a truth universally acknowledged. They don’t. There are some bad apples, as there are in any walk of life, but the vast majority of journalists I have worked with do an essential job with dedication and integrity. Okay, stumbling off my soapbox… The reaction of readers to Kate has been fascinating. Some see her as manipulative, some as manipulated by other characters, and others as a feisty investigator determined to find the truth. Everyone has a different opinion but at least it has started a conversation about the reality of a reporter’s life.
Joe, a trainee journalist doing work experience, assists Kate in the novel. He could be seen as superfluous to the story – why did you want to include this character?
Having Joe Jackson, an online journalist, as Kate’s “work experience child” allowed me to prod her reaction to 24/7 news. It has been a seismic change for reporters of my generation and I wanted to explore her rage and fears. And Joe made me laugh when things got a bit dark.
Will Kate Waters return in later books or will you be focusing on different characters?
She is still there in book three, elbowing herself to the front of the story but who knows after that.