Here at Thrillers & More we love the Perfect series by Helen Fields. Recently Lilian read the Dutch translation of Perfect Death (Perfecte dood, Ambo|Anthos Uitgevers, translation by Ernst de Boer and Ankie Klootwijk) and earlier Danielle and Amanda read Perfect Remains (Perfecte resten) and Perfect Pray (Perfecte prooi). The Dutch translation of Perfect Pray was nominated Best Thriller Dutch Translation 2020 and earned 2nd place at Thrillers & More Best Books 2020. Time to ask Helen a few questions.
For those who do not know who you are: who is Helen Fields? How would your best friend describe you? Perfect
My friends are very kind, so they’ll paint a nicer picture of me than the reality. I guess I’m tough and confident, but I can’t abide fools. I’m outspoken and sometimes too direct, but I try to always be kind. I’ll step in where I see bullying, anytime, anywhere. I can be prickly too, but the reality is that I’m a bit of a softy who often ends up in tears watching the news. Once you’re my friend, I’ll do anything for you. My husband would just warn you about getting into an argument with me. I can be what he politely calls ‘persistent’.
You were a barrister for quite some time, and you run a media company with your husband. What made you decide to write a book?
I’ve always wanted to write, but my career often meant I worked up to 60 hours per week, so I had neither the time nor the energy to start. I had a career break after having my third child and I finally had time for a rethink about my life. I started writing then and haven’t stopped since. I still help out with the media company, and my husband and I have more adventures on the horizon. The great thing about writing is that I can do it anywhere, so I’m very lucky. Writing allows me to indulge my creative side, at the same as giving me the flexibility to do other things.
Was writing crime an easy choice for you? What is the appeal of writing crime novels?
Writing crime was easy because I was a criminal barrister, so I’ve spent plenty of time in prisons, with offenders, with the police and studying forensics. I worked at coroners’ proceedings and courts martial with the military, so there was plenty for me to write about. Crime novels was just a good fit, and I’ve always had a dark side. My novels are pretty gritty and gruesome, and that just works for me. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing…
There are so many crime novels out there; what makes yours stand out from others?
I’m not sure I can answer that. It’s really for readers to decide. Based purely on the feedback I get, I’d say it’s the way readers feel about Luc and Ava. It’s characters that makes readers commit to a series. I’ve been very lucky that my readers have engaged with the characters, not just the leads but also Sergeant Lively, Natasha, and the pathologist Ailsa Lambert. They love to hate Superintendent Overbeck (she’s my favourite). I’ve fallen in love with them, and all I can hope is that readers do too.
Luc and Ava are quite the team. At first glance they might seem like any other detectives working together, but they most definitely aren’t. Can you tell us some more about how they came to life?
Luc and Ava have a chemistry that even surprised me. I didn’t set out to write a sweeping love story but it seems to me now that the Perfect series is more about them than I considered. I write in a way that means readers can read any book as a standalone, but you get more from them when you follow the characters. I love Ava’s strength, and I love Luc’s inner gentleness. They work well together because they have a common goal. I get a lot of reader feedback that it’s time for me to finally get them together, but if I’d done that too soon, there wouldn’t have been a story. I imagined Luc first, and Ava just popped into my head because I need a counterbalance, someone willing to laugh at him but who also had his back. Sorry to use a cliché, but they really do “complete each other”!
Are they based on anyone you know? How do you create a character’s personality?
Luc is based on a fireman I was dealt with at an incident at the university where I was then teaching. He was so good-looking that a whole crowd of people literally stopped and stared. Not just good-looking, that doesn’t do it justice, but physically perfect, strangely so. I wondered then what his life must be like. If men were jealous of him, if women obsessed over him or felt as if they were in competition with him. If it was hard to just walk down the street. Luc was born then, but I didn’t write him for another ten years. Most characters are a mixture of people I’ve met who’ve made an impact on me. People I’ve really disliked in particular. I take their characteristics and build a new character around that. I like writing strong women and I have plenty of those in my life, so there’s no shortage of inspiration.
Do you already know how many books there will be in the Perfect-series, or do you play it by ear?
I’m currently writing book 7 in the ‘Perfect” series, but I’ve just finished writing a standalone set on a Scottish island called Mull with a new cast of characters. I’m finding I often have a crossover point though, so in the Mull book the journalist Lance Proudfoot makes an appearance. It’s fun to write like that, and it’s a bonus for readers of the series. I suspect Luc and Ava have more adventures in them yet.
When you write, do you plot everything in advance and then write it down, or do you let your characters lead you through the story?
I don’t do much planning, although I wish I did. I have a very rounded picture of all the characters before I start which helps, and I know what motivates them and what sort of crimes they’ll commit. I know what form the main action scenes will take. Everything that happens in between, I make up as I go. It makes writing a very stop-start process, and I have to do more editing than if I planned properly, but it means my writing is an adventure for me each day.
Do you have certain rituals while writing? Does it have to be quiet, or do you have loud music playing?
I have music playing while I write, but it has to be tracks I’m familiar with and love. I have a playlist on a loop most of the time. If it’s too quiet, I get bored. I write in cafes quite often, so I don’t get stuck at home, and there’s natural background noise. I like people watching and it often gives me inspiration.
Once you have finished a book, do you have to take some time to distance yourself from the story before you can start another one?
I agree the content of all my books in advance with my publisher, and I’m usually in a contract to deliver a certain number of books, so there’s a process of putting ideas together, writing outlines, maybe a sample chapter or two. That usually takes place between books, so I have a natural pause. But I never stop, not really. I’m always working on an edit or new concepts or a first draft.
If you were to write a book completely out of your comfort zone, what kind of book would it be? And about what?
It would be speculative fiction. There’s a book I’ve been meaning to write. I’m trying to be brave and get stuck into it, but the subject matter is broad and important, and it’s very much out of my comfort zone. I think I just need to take a deep breath and jump in.
Do you ever get stuck in a story and if so, what do you do to get un-stuck?
I do get stuck, more often that I like to admit. Often, I simply move on to write a later chapter in the book I’m more confident about, then come back later when my head has cleared. I talk plot problems through with my husband who’s pretty helpful, so I’m lucky to have someone on hand like that. Usually if I get really stuck it’s because of external factors. I can’t write if I’m over-tired or too stressed, so sometimes I have to resolve other problems in my life first.
Is there anything you would not write about?
As a mother of three, I find it hard to write about cruelty to children. Within the context of some novels, it’s hard to completely avoid but I’m extremely hesitant to do it. My own children buzz around me constantly, even when I’m writing, and I worry so much about keeping them safe that it almost feels like tempting fate to write a book where something happens to a child. I think that’s the one thing that would give me sleepless nights.
What is the last book you read? Has your taste in books changed in the last ten years?
The last book I read was The Devil May Dance by Jake Tapper, which is a thriller set in the golden age of Hollywood and explores a murder against the backdrop of the Rat Pack, particularly Frank Sinatra and his alleged mob connections. Great read – very unique, very unusual. These days I read a lot outside the genre I write. It’s hard to read crime when you write it all day, and I’m always worried about stealing phrases or ideas. I absolutely love historical fiction so that’s often my go-to for a good book.
Is there a book that made you think ‘…I wish I wrote that’?
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It was a relatively simple core concept, but it was genius. The voice through which the story is told is captivating. The fact that the writer managed to avoid a neatly wrapped up ending without causing a riot among her readers was a masterclass in avoiding the obvious. I thought it was perfect and unique and beautiful. Not an easy thing to achieve when writing about the killing of a teenager.
Who is your favorite author? Who inspires you?
My favourite authors change regularly, but Stephen King’s books got me through the difficult teenage years and taught me how a well-written book can invade your thoughts long after you’ve closed the pages. In terms of the classics, it’s Thomas Hardy, and I named my first son after Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd. I’m constantly amazed by how skilled my fellow authors are, and frequently jealous of their brilliance.
Would you ever consider writing a book with another author? If yes, who would that be?
The dream (this one isn’t achievable) would be to co-write with Margaret Atwood. I love books that shape our perspectives, start conversation and open our eyes, and Atwood does that without once sacrificing entertainment or lecturing to us. In the real world, I have an idea for a thriller about a couple who kills and I’d love to find a male author to write that with (very much hoping David Baldacci reads this 🙂 )
If you could sit down, have a coffee and a chat with someone you admire (dead or alive), who would that be and why?
That would be JRR Tolkien. I cannot even start to fathom the mind of a man who created his own universe with a complete history, folklore, languages and maps, and whose vision was so strong that we are still obsessed with those stories. If I could climb into his brain and explore for a while, that would be everything.
What do you do when you are not writing?
My children take a lot of my non-writing time. They’re all at important points of education, so when I’m not at my desk, I’m at theirs helping with biology, drama, French or whatever – it never stops. There really aren’t enough hours in the day right now. My husband and I are planning a house build in Belize where we’re working with an architect to design an eco-house. That takes every spare minute, when we can find them.
Any guilty pleasures?
Food and friends. Taking an hour out, locking myself away and just giggling on the phone with a mate. I also buy myself the odd packet of biscuits or treats that I stash in the bottom of my wardrobe so my children can’t find them, otherwise they’re all gone before I can get to them! (Don’t tell them)