Writers in conversation: Ava Marsh and Marnie Riches

We’re running a new, occasional series of writers in conversation. Ava and Marnie are both crime, sharing a common interest in the mental health aspects of their psychologically-led fiction.

Marnie Riches: So … we both write about women who get embroiled in a violent underworld. What was your motivation behind selecting a call girl as your heroine?

Ava Marsh: Well, part of it was to do with plot. When I learned a bit about the world of high class escorting, it became clear that call girls have a unique insight into the private lives of some very rich and powerful men. And that could lead you somewhere very interesting in story terms.

But I was also intrigued by why someone would cross that line. Escorting is very taboo, and in some ways it takes a lot of courage or desperation for an educated, intelligent woman to take that step. So writing the novel was largely about what had driven Grace to that point.

I imagine you had similar feelings about George? How did you unearth her psychology and why she gets sucked into that world?

Marnie: George was rather different for me, as The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die started out as a semi-autobiographical short story about a time when my mother and I were petrol bombed in our council house. I didn’t know quite what to do with the story. I knew it was strong. It was only later, when I had decided to write a crime novel that I realised I could use the story as a jumping off point for something longer. George was an ideal character – I too had wanted to do a PhD in pornography at Cambridge University. Some of her story is my story, but I wanted to develop a character who was so much more extreme than me – had faced even greater hardships and who also faced the problem of racial discrimination at times, because George is mixed race. I wanted to explore the sort of woman you might get if you mix intense adversity with intelligence and drive.

Why did you decide to make Grace a psychologist?

Ava: You know, I can’t really explain that. I was asking myself what job she’d done in the past. I had a sense that something had gone terribly wrong there. All of a sudden the words ‘forensic psychologist’ popped into my head. I had to Google it to check it was a real term, an actual job, and not something I’d just made up. So there it was, a gift from the muse.

I was interested in the mental health parallels in our novels. Both our main characters have had issues with mental health in the past – Grace has had a breakdown and attempted suicide, and George has OCD. Was that side of things intentional on your part, or did it just seem right for the character?

Marnie: I had been toying with the idea of making George extremely untidy, as I had a few friends at college who were messy as hell. I am, however, prone to borderline OCD behaviour when under stress. It occurred to me that if George had a messy home life, she might rebel and become fanatically clean in a bid to impose order on her world. That worked better! There is also the classic imagery of those involved with wrongdoing continually seeking to be clean, as is the case of Lady Macbeth with her hand-washing to rid herself of her blood and guilt. George’s psychology clicked into place once I’d decided on this quirk.

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Why do you think that Grace has become vulnerable to the charms of her dangerous ex and yet Stella is so mentally tough? What was the character arc there?

Ava: Grace/Stella reflects a universal issue I find very intriguing. How, in the face of irresistible sexual desire, do you find the strength to say no? Why is it that so many of us risk happy, fulfilling relationships, or even our careers, to the temptation of sex? I think most of us can find instances when we’ve been drawn to someone against our better judgement.

Grace is a deeply moral person, but there is this facet of her personality, her compelling sexual desire, that she cannot easily control. So escorting is both the logical conclusion to that, and a way of punishing herself for that very flaw.

It was interesting that George is a very sexual woman too. Was that intentional?

Marnie: Yes. It was. I wanted to write a heroine’s heroine and for me, that meant creating a woman who was unafraid of and unapologetic for her own sexuality. If she wants to fuck, she fucks. If she doesn’t, she says no. I wanted her to be unashamed of her body too, so she’s a well-rounded woman. She has hang-ups but she’d never try to conform to magazine standards of beautiful or groomed, although she’s reputed to be very beautiful by the men in her life. George has had a love-starved childhood but has a huge capacity to fall in love. But the sexual magnetism that she feels with her lovers – that’s the kind of innate chemistry that many of us draw a veil over because we’re shy or feel we shouldn’t or avoid acting upon because we’re in relationships. George doesn’t care about maintaining a respectable veneer. She acts on her instincts. She’s true to her passion.

What about Stella? She seems to actively enjoy some of her sexual encounters and seems to seek the closeness offered by physical union with her clients. What was your thinking behind her sexual prowess?

Ava Marsh: Yes, that was very much what I liked about George. Not subscribing to that women should play hard to get crap.

Grace is much the same. She is a very sexual and a very passionate person, but in her case, this has led her into trouble. Escorting is ideal for Grace, in many ways. She can enjoy the sex with clients, where it’s good, but avoid any kind of commitment or emotional entanglement. In theory. That all starts to crumble when she meets Ben – and Alex too. And as soon as she starts to feel anything, that’s when she gets scared.

I’ve only read the first book in your series so far (plan to amend that soon) so I don’t know where George ends up, in terms of her love life. How have you progressed that side of the story?

Marnie: I like the way Stella has a no holds barred attitude to using her body. She seems happy to flout taboo, which is always good in a strong heroine. In The Girl Who Broke the Rules, George is older and is finding that her relationship with Ad is going stale. That innate fizzing attraction comes into play but I won’t say what happens because it will be a spoiler …

Staying on the theme of mental ill health, though, my Chief Inspector Paul van den Bergen suffers terribly from health anxiety. I felt it was important to have a believable male character who suffers because of the job he has and his past relationships.

Tell me more about Alex. I would have liked to see more of him in the book. Did you intentionally write him as good or bad?

Ava: I think I always had a sense of his nature, a mix of both. As he says to Grace at one point, you’re a good woman who thinks she’s much worse than she is, and I’m a bad man who thinks he’s better. But what I liked about Alex is his self-awareness. He knows he’s sold his soul to the devil, and he’s made his peace with that. He’s a powerful, dangerous and very intelligent man, but he’s also no fool, and unlike Harry, has the balls to see himself for what he is.

Alex is in many ways a mirror for Grace. He shows her that the only way forwards is to forgive herself. The irony is that by giving her back to herself in that way, he risks losing her.

I’m interested that you go into the head of your bad guys. I’m a strictly first-person writer, so I don’t have that luxury. Do you enjoy being able to explore other viewpoints?

Marnie: I absolutely do! One of my primary goals in my crime thrillers is to explore the psyche of my bad guys, because I believe that violent psychopaths are a product more often than not of nurture, rather than nature. Obviously, there will always be characters that tip the wink to Fred West, who suffered a traumatic brain injury which may have had something to do with his violent proclivities, but I am interested in the childhoods of my murderers. Abuse often begets abuse, and there is a grey area between good and bad that I am keenly interested in. How forgivable are criminals, when their actions are seen in the context of the tragedies and hardships they may have endured? The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows, which comes out March 2016, explores what it would take to make a moral person behave immorally.

What about Grace’s relationship to her father? How important is that to her rebellion?

Ava: I think there’s two primal wounds there – the early death of Grace’s mother, and her father’s coldness and narcissism. I’ve been up close and personal with that kind of narcissism and it is deeply damaging. I saw a lot of that in your brilliant portrayal of George’s awful mother too.

For me, it’s easy to see the pathway from narcissistic parenting to depression/breakdown and a very shaky sense of self-worth, and part of Grace’s story is not only self-forgiveness, but to find the strength to reject her father’s evaluation of her.

Did you enjoy writing George’s mother? Was it familiar territory for you?

Marnie: I enjoyed writing George’s mother because I have come across women like her throughout my life. She is an amalgam of every needy, jealous, selfish mother I have ever observed. I am an only child and at times, have a confrontational relationship with my own mother, but I wanted to create a toxic character in George’s mother, where her sociopathy was distilled to the nth degree. Everyone knows a woman like her! And I have been estranged from my own father since I was a teen. I think crime fiction should reflect real life unstintingly. If it doesn’t make for uncomfortable and thought-provoking reading, the author is doing it wrong!

Ava: So agree, Marnie. I think we all dig deep into the treasure trove of our psyche when we write a book – or at least we should do. That’s probably the best thing about being a writer – you can turn all the crap in your life into gold, recycle it onto the page. And in turn that’s cathartic – you get more perspective, more distance from the things that have gone wrong in your life. It’s a win-win situation.

Anyhow, it’s been fabulous chatting to you. I like the way your mind works, and I loved The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a pacey, intelligent read. Good luck with the last book in the series!

Marnie: And you, Ava. Untouchable is a really boundary-pushing story in the crime genre, exploring sexuality and criminality. A great read!

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Ava Marsh grew up in Margate, Kent. A former broadsheet journalist, she gave it up to work in the charity sector and write dark and rather risqué thrillers. She now resides in Battersea, London, and spends her spare time running, kayaking, and hanging out in cyberspace. Untouchable is her first novel. Find out more at avamarshbooks.com

Marnie Riches grew up on a rough estate in Manchester, aptly within sight of the dreaming spires of Strangeways prison. She swapped those for the spires of Cambridge University, gaining a Masters degree in Modern & Medieval Dutch and German. She has been a punk, a trainee rock star, a pretend artist, a property developer and professional fundraiser.

Having authored the first six books of HarperCollins Children’s Time-Hunters series, her George McKenzie crime thrillers for adults were inspired, in part, by her own youth and time spent in The Netherlands as a student. Her debut crime novel, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die won a Dead Good Reader Award – the Patricia Highsmith Award for most exotic location in a crime novel – and was a Kindle top 100 bestseller. Her new novel is The Girl Who Broke the Rules. She also writes contemporary women’s fiction. Find out more at www.marnieriches.com