Nicci French – a writing partnership
For the keynote speech of the Festival of Writing 2015, we meet Nicci French: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, whose thrillers are routinely called, “dark, nerve-tingling and addictive.“ As a partnership, the pair have just turned in their 19th novel. They met whilst at The New Statesmen, both as journalists, and quickly married, had children, and began to think about writing together. Writing felt like something that was shared in their relationship and they began to think about about writing something about recovered memory, which became their first novel, The Memory Game.
Their method is to work out the story and the deeper story – the spine, the beating heart – and the voice together, before writing. They thought it would be easier for them both to write in a shared first person voice. Once they feel sure they have the same book in their heads, they begin to write their own chapters, one after the other. One writes the first chapter, edits or overwrites it, writes another chapter and emails to the other, chapter by chapter. In the writing, there is no separation of labour. They both must do all the research, because they don’t know who will be writing what.
There are rules for their collaboration. If you think it needs changing, change it. Don’t lecture the others. If one removes a spot of pretty writing, you can’t just put it back in. And they don’t tell which one writes which portions or chapters. They both own it, whether they wrote it or not. The work they do is for the sake of the book. They are very different writers with different styles, but it was also an interesting experiment for them – could they write this way? Could they write together – and stay married?
Their process of working together enabled them to find their voice. Becoming Nicci French was a way of their exploring the world together. They’re interested in dread, in when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. Taking the feelings that everyone knows and turning the ratchet up. Nicci French is interested in the thin ice, small mishaps that turn into disasters and what’s going on under the surface of an ordinary life.
Why is the thriller so popular with readers right now? There is an uneasiness in our lives, though we’ve never been so safe. We are living through the death of authority; we no longer believe in doctors or the church or our leaders. Nobody will rescue you. Post-war Sweden is the most prosperous and safest nation ever, but why are their writers writing so many thrillers? There is an unease, an anxiety. You can go into therapy or write a thriller. Thrillers are interested in ways that people can rescue themselves.