When Murder becomes Muse: Inspiration from working with Prisoners
I was thrilled to see that Sam Carrington was going to be speaking at Crime Fest in one of the Spotlight Sessions and immediately highlighted it on my programme. I adore her novel Saving Sophie and it was one of the best debut psychological thrillers I read in 2016!
I was very impressed that Sam was giving a talk on her own to a smaller audience rather than appearing as part of a panel - how brave I thought, but then I remembered that this is a woman who sits in a room across from murderers for a living! So clearly chatting to a group of readers and bloggers would be a walk in the park!
I was also thrilled that the room was full - Sam's talk was scheduled against two panel events on Friday but there were at least 30 people crammed in to hear her speak -with some latecomers sitting on the floor. And I spotted the fabulous authors Elizabeth Haynes and Helen Fields sitting amongst the friendly crowd!
Sam began by briefly telling us a bit about her book and journey to publication, which has been pretty fast as she started submitting short stories in 2011 and began writing novels in 2013. You can order a copy of Saving Sophie here - if you are brave enough to admit to me that you haven't yet read it! We found out that she has always had a love for psychology and why we do what we do, so it seemed only natural that she would end up writing a psychological thriller herself. She was very influenced by Patricia Cornwell's novels as a reader.
Sam worked as a nurse and sometimes was present at Post Mortems. This interest in death (they're all like this at Crime Fest, the lovelier, gentler, softer the more you have to watch these authors....don't be fooled - such hidden darkness lurks inside their minds!!!) led to her taking a job within the Prison Service. Her role there involved working with individuals and groups of prisoners to help rehabilitate them. She had to design courses and then assess prisoners for their suitability of attending these courses. This meant putting them through a kind of screening programme which in turn meant being made fully aware of their 'offence account'.
Sitting in a room with a group of prisoners is one thing, delivering a talk to a room of 100 offenders is one thing. But Sam also sat in rooms with just one prisoner. No one else. Just her and a murderer!
It's amazing how quickly you can accept this as 'normal' and forget about the risks or danger you might be putting yourself in. I was forever setting of the panic button with my elbow or there was often another one ringing somewhere in the building - how quickly did help come? Rarely at all! As a prisoner once pointed out to me at the beginning of our one to one session!
But I think what is more frightening is how the offender tries to coerce you, manipulate you in a way that you don't always realise you are being manipulated. They want you to agree with them and you want to be supportive and empathic in order to work effectively with them but at the same time, this is just their side of the story. I needed to remember that I never ever heard the victim's side.
But then if I heard the victim's side I wouldn't have been able to do this job.
A fascinating job! What was the most interesting or revelatory thing about this job?
Not realising quite what the job involved and not really thinking through what it would really mean to be sitting in rooms with prisoners every day! Also I had only seen murderers on TV or in films until this point so I had many preconceptions about how they would look, speak and behave. Of course, they are nothing like this in real life. I will never forget the first time I came face to face with a prisoner. I thought I would know I was in the presence of a criminal but there was nothing evil looking, odd or dangerous about him. He just started talking about his circumstances and the events leading up to the moment when he committed the crime and then, he just said "and then I killed her." So normal. No change in intonation. No drama. Just matter of fact.
It shocked me. It was such a simple statement but it had such a huge impact on me. It was like a physical punch in the face.
The shock of meeting a prisoner for the first time has never left me.
In my time with the prison service I have worked with 6 lifers and several sex offenders. What is always shocking is the way they talk about what they have done; the normality of it. You don't need gruesome details about a crime for it to shock you. The simplest ways of saying things can be the most effective. I want to capture that in my writing.
Did you ever feel yourself feeling sympathetic towards the prisoners you worked with?
There was a particular course I ran which meant we learnt a lot about the backgrounds of men and saw how deeply traumatic and truly awful some of their lives had been. You do begin to wonder about how much of what path they take is a result of their background. But that's an enormous ethical and philosophical question that is full of moral and psychological issues!
You clearly have a huge wealth of stories and scenarios to draw on - more than what you can include in one book! How do you decide what to use in your writing?
You can't use it all - it's overkill. I try not to use whole chunks but just select bits. There's a balance between how much to put it and in my first novel I included everything which is why it is now at the bottom of a drawer and has never seen the light of day!
My job was about rehabilitating the prisoners so I ran the risk of forgetting about the victims which is so dangerous. In my writing I'm interested in the why and the psychology rather than the actual crime. I want to concentrate on the psychological thriller aspect and continuously up the ante for the character.
The session ended with a range of comments about nature v nurture and some recent scientific research examining the comparison between the brain scans of psychopaths and 'non psychopathic' people.
Can prisoners be helped?
Upbringing and society does affect the courses people take but you can help them with their decision making. The way the men I worked with thought about things, viewed things and interpreted things was very different to the way the rest of us might consider a situation or circumstances. Society, psychology and childhood have a huge impact on people and their behaviour but there are ways of attempting to help people try and understand why the decision they made and the course of action it led them on are wrong.
And then we were stopped - Sam had overrun her slot by ten minutes! Seriously it didn't feel like it! I think we would have all sat there much longer and Sam ended by shuffling her notes apologetically and saying she hadn't talked about half the things she meant to! It didn't feel like that - it was a fascinating insight and talk about Sam's writing and how her murderers had become her muses! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks so much Sam for a brilliant spotlight session!
I will be banging on the door of the bookshop to be first in the queue to buy Sam's new novel which comes out in November - sooooooooooo long to wait!! - unfortunately I can't find a cover image anywhere but listen to the blurb - Oh my word!!!
BAD SISTER by Sam Carrington (Nov 2017)
You can change your name, but you can’t change your past . . .
Stephanie Cousins is scared for her life. Her psychiatrist wants to help Stephanie through her fears, but Connie Summers will never truly know her. Stephanie’s history has been wiped away as part of the witness protection programme.
Stephanie isn’t even the girl’s real name.
But, then, Connie Summers isn’t Connie’s real name either. And that’s not all the women have in common. Secrets and mistakes have led them both to this point, and no one is more surprised than Connie by the similarities. As Stephanie tells Connie about her troubled relationship with her brother, Connie is forced to recall the circumstances surrounding her own brother’s tragic death. Just one thing in a myriad of memories she’s trying to put behind her.
When a mutilated body is discovered with Connie’s name written on its bloody hand, both women are caught up in the aftermath.
The body could be a message or it could be a threat.
Or, just maybe, it could be a gift.
You can read my reviews and interviews with Sam from 2016 by clicking on the links below:
Bibliomaniac's Review of Saving Sophie
Bibliomaniac Q&A with Sam Carrington
Bibliomaniac's stop on the Saving Sophie Blog Tour Dec 2016
I am a writer from Devon, but in a previous life I was a nurse in the NHS. After working hard to gain my Psychology degree (whilst attempting to bring up three children and work full-time) I left to work as an Offending Behaviour Programme Facilitator in a male prison.
It is my experiences within this field and my interaction with prisoners which inspired my psychological suspense/crime fiction.
Having come to a crossroads in my life, I decided to be brave and take a road which was risky, yet more desirable. With lots of support and back-up, I left work and concentrated on my writing. I began with short stories. Some of those stories, aimed for the womag market, have been published in women’s magazines, some in anthologies and some I self published in two collections.
But, novels were always what I really wanted to write. And so, with the advice 'write what you know', firmly in my mind - I began my journey writing psychological suspense novels based around crime. I finished my 'first' novel during 2014 and then immediately began the second. It is this novel that will actually be my first!
I titled it Portrayal, and when it was in its early stages I entered it into a competition - the 2015 CWA (Crime Writers' Association) Debut Dagger Award.
I was shocked and extremely happy when it was longlisted (one of eleven).
It's this novel, now with the title, SAVING SOPHIE which helped me gain my agent, and a publishing deal.
You can follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 and don't forget to search this blog for my other posts about CrimeFest 2017!