That’s the U.S. cover up top here. I’ve put the U.K. version down below.
I was lucky enough to get an advance copy. My review is posted online at New York Journal of Books here.
Yes, it’s a novel.
It features a unique detective. And a ticking clock, of sorts.
Does that make it crime fiction? Does that mean it can’t be a novel?
Susie Steiner says she was going for a “combination of literary riffing and relationship-led meandering, with a strong narrative drive.”
She nailed it.
Check out my full review (you’ll learn the meaning of the word ‘gurn,’ if nothing else) and then come back here to read more about how Susie Steiner approaches her work. She answered my questions via email from her home in North London.
Question: Did you know when you started writing that the underlying theme of “family” would be one of the driving forces to Missing, Presumed? And, by the way, do you agree?
Susie Steiner: I always start out with the broad arc of the story, without knowing much of the interweaving detail, so of course the final book ends up being quite a different beast from the original twitch of an idea. Yes, I think one theme is family and – despite my best efforts – I seem to go back to this motif over and over (my first novel, Homecoming, is about the relationship between grown children and their parents). I blame my unconscious/upbringing.
Question: Manon Bradshaw acknowledges that she isn’t sure how she feels about human contact. But she’s a cop whose job requires plenty of precisely that, at all levels. Was there a specific flash of inspiration for her character and this particular paradox?
Susie Steiner: I think Manon expresses ambivalence about most areas of life and it’s her ambivalence that has made readers respond to her so warmly. She is a chequered character – far from perfect. She wants to get involved, to be in a relationship, but she also doesn’t like most people and is reluctant. Who can’t relate to that?
One of my all-time favourite films is Broadcast News, starring Holly Hunter as Jane Craig – a fiercely clever, brilliant news producer who sets impossibly high standards both for herself and others. There were lingering shots of the character sobbing uncontrollably during moments alone, not because she was weak, but because life can be such a struggle. I loved that so much – her complexity, the way she was brilliant but needed someone. That was definitely an inspiration for Manon.
Question: Did you plot this out before you wrote? It seems so carefully crafted in terms of plot and resolution—clues, details, dead ends, etc.—that I’m guessing you had it mapped out first. Was there a real life case that inspired it?
Susie Steiner: Numerous cases fed into it, because I am an avid newspaper reader. And everything I’m reading/watching feeds into the book I’m writing. The plot became complex through multiple rewrites – I revise for about a year, and enjoy the revising more than creating the initial draft (which always comes out as a rather crude version, a bit like an undercoat). So no, it wasn’t all plotted in advance, but neither do I just drive hopefully out into the dark.
Question: Like Tana French and a few other writers, you seem to have expanded the concept of mystery or straight police procedural by wrapping it into a novel. Thoughts on this? Character first and foremost? Do mysteries need more real-life weight around the core puzzle?
Susie Steiner: I’ve been slightly wrong-footed by being wedged into the crime/police procedural genre because it didn’t feel as if I was writing a procedural at all. I’m a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and I was aiming at that combination of literary riffing and relationship-led meandering, with a strong narrative drive. For me, that’s the most enjoyable kind of novel. I tend to read contemporary literary fiction rather than mysteries, in general, but always love the ones which cross genres – which give you the best bits of each. And I get very frustrated by literary novels where nothing happens!
Question: So many perspectives rotate throughout Missing, Presumed and yet there’s an honest, straightforward flavor to each of the perspectives. How did you choose? Did you purposely avoid deploying any ‘unreliable narrators?’
Susie Steiner: In earlier drafts, I had more PoVs – everyone I needed to feed in the different elements of plot. And writing those PoVs is helpful in creating subsidiary characters. But there were too many and they had to be culled, so I whittled them down to the characters I felt I really knew, who were distinct and pleasurable to be with. I think when you’re reading back over your manuscript, you can sense that ‘Oh yes, it’s nice to be back with him/her.’
Question: Clearly, from the acknowledgements, you did your research. What are the pros and cons of approaching fiction as a former reporter?
Susie Steiner: There are a lot of pros – as a reporter, you are used to interviewing experts and translating their expertise for the general reader. Your training is in debunking, in sifting the interesting from the anodyne. And this all comes into play when sifting research. You don’t want to overload your novel with info for the sake of it. Also, I felt quite confident approaching the police, who proved very open and supportive. I can’t think of any cons. I wasn’t a very brilliant reporter, in truth. I much prefer making it up.
Question: That whole frenzy after “Crimewatch” airs its piece on the Edith Hind case; did the police officers you spent time with talk about the pros and cons when cases blow up like that?
Susie Steiner: Yes, all the Crimewatch info came directly from the murder squad: the way TV appeals tend to bury them in false leads, the way they observe the family members who give press conferences, to see how they behave; the way every false lead has to be followed up, however nutty.
Question: I’ve seen online that you are a Scrivener fan. For those writers daunted by the commitment, care to tell us why we should give it a whirl?
Susie Steiner: I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. I only started using it for the final drafts of Missing, Presumed but they were very crucial drafts when intricate plotting took place. Scrivener enables you to split the manuscript into scenes, so that you’re not dealing with an unwieldy 90,000-word document. You can move scenes easily, see the structure of your novel in the binder, and play about with shifting structure about. I love it. I’ve written the whole of the next book in it.
Question: What writers inspire you? Who are you reading now?
Susie Steiner: Right now I’m reading an Australian novel called Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, which was nominated for the Bailey’s prize here in the UK. It’s funny and accomplished and I’m learning a lot about turn-of-the-century whaling. I’m inspired by literary writers who achieve beautiful things both at sentence level and at an emotional level. One of my all-time favourite books is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and I adored Eligible, her take on Pride and Prejudice. I loved Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and recently marveled at The First Bad Man by Miranda July.
Question: Is Manon (one hopes) coming back? What’s next?
Susie Steiner: Yes, she’s back and she’s even more ambivalent than ever (said in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice).
Susie Steiner’s Website