Every week we feature a Q&A with one of our Crime Cymru authors so they can tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, B.E. Jones talks about the inspiration behind her latest novel, Wilderness.
Can you tell us about your work in progress?
My latest novel, Wilderness, is due out in paperback, from Little Brown, in April (but available in e-book now). It tells the story of a dream holiday that turns deadly in the wilds of North America’s national parks. It should be the road trip of a lifetime for Liv and Will, but, shattered by the discovery of his affair, it becomes a last chance to save their marriage. Or does it? What Liv hasn’t told her husband, is that she’s set him three challenges along the way, giving him three opportunities to prove he’s really sorry and worthy of her forgiveness.
And if he fails? Well, it’s dangerous out there. There are so many ways to die in the wilderness, and if it’s easy to die then it’s easy to kill. If their marriage can’t survive, maybe he can’t either. Who will make it back to New York alive?
Is it a standalone novel or could there be a series or sequel?
Well, no spoilers, but I’d love to see some of the characters return in another book. I can’t say which ones, obviously, but I’m very excited for their future beyond the novel as it’s just been optioned for a TV series by Firebird pictures. A script is already being drafted and I’ve met with Elizabeth Kilgarriff, former commissioning editor at the BBC, who has worked on programmes like Luther and The Bodyguard. She’s excited to work on a psychological crime drama with a dramatic international setting and I’ve already seen an early draft of the pilot episode. It’s a weird experience for a writer as adaptations never slavishly follow the novel, but the characters are already jumping off the page in ways I didn’t expect. I think it’s in safe hands.
What prompted this story?
A few years ago, I took a road trip through some of America’s breath-taking national parks, including Yosemite in California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Monument Valley in Utah. The experience was an amazing but unsettling one as, until you’ve driven through these vast places, and hiked among the scenery, you can’t really appreciate how huge and isolated they are.
Though you’re probably never more than a few miles from a ranger station, just steps from the tourist trails there were great heights to fall from, places with no phone signal to lose yourself in and creatures that want to bite and even eat you. (We never did see a bear in Yosemite, but they were there, oh yes, sneaky, snuffling, sandwich sniffing fellas).
Being a crime writer, and having a slightly skewed perception of everything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be a great place to get away with murder, far from prying eyes, where the landscape can turn on you in instant if you don’t respect it. It would be a great place to get rid of someone and blame it on an accident, a trip, a slip, a rock fall, an injury where you can’t call in the paramedics. We did have a lovey holiday though and my husband made it back alive, honestly!
Who are the main characters?
The two main protagonists are Liv and Will, a seemingly happily married couple who move to New York when he lands his dream job managing hospitality for a snazzy new hotel. Liv, a struggling writer, finds the whirlwind of the city everything she’d always hoped it would be, until she discovers some unexpected text messages on her husband’s phone.
Throw ‘the other woman’ into the mix, a selection of PR friends and colleagues with secrets, and a police officer with obsessions of his own, and everything is bound to unravel.
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how and where?
I think a sense of place is crucial in all my novels. In this case it’s the cinematic backdrop of the beauty spots we’ve all seen in a hundred films and documentaries, but I think being there helped me describe so much more than just the landscape.
For example, in Arizona the humidity is so low you don’t sweat, the liquid evaporates from your pores the minute it hits the air, leaving you covered in a fine film of salt at the end of the day. The red sand of Monument Valley is so fine, almost like flour, that it sieves into the lines in your skin through your clothes. I still have trainers that emit little puffs of red dust, years after I brushed them off and brought them home. And there’s some sort of insect that lives in the depths of the Grand Canyon that emits an ominous sound like an electrical discharge, humming constantly. Details like that help create the experience of the characters so the readers can feel the heat on the back of their grimy necks, squint into the glaring sun with Liv and hopefully feel her mounting dread in the pit of their own stomachs.
Do you think of the twists first then the story or does it change with each book?
Usually, I see a fully formed scene in my head that sparks the idea of a story. It’s often one that will form the end of the novel and I work backwards, asking, what would have to happen to bring the character to that point of crisis? For Wilderness, it was standing at the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite, staring across to the sheered granite egg of Half Dome and the toy landscape of the valley floor hundreds of feet below. I imagined a figure in a bright red coat, falling like a disappearing drop of blood. Then, back in our cutesy wooden cabin, there was a mesmerising relief map that showed the national park in one tiny corner. The other three quarters was a tangle of green with just the word wilderness blazoned across it, unmapped, unexplored. A book title was born and a story began to take shape, of a young woman in a moment of crisis, lost in a wilderness of more than one kind.
How does the sense of location impact on the characters?
In Wilderness the location feeds directly into the characters’ choices, because a great location shouldn’t just provide ‘set dressing’ for a crime, it should play an active role in the impetus of a mystery, a murder usually, that probably couldn’t take place anywhere else.
Olivia knows they are travelling into the unknown, where they will be away from prying eyes. As she states in her opening lines to the reader, it’s not as if she’s forensically planning to kill her husband, it’s a case of there being opportunities and ‘contingencies at hand’.
I suppose it comes back to an idea I’ve always found fascinating, namely, how much of what we consider moral and decent is simply down to how we think it will be perceived by others? What would we do if no was watching and there was a good chance of never getting caught? In the deep woods and high desert, Liv has to ask herself if she’s as civilised as she likes to think she is. Remove the idea of punishment, and would we revert to some wild instinct for self-preservation? What if the most dangerous thing on a picturesque road trip was sitting beside you in the car – a loved one perhaps, released from their civilised city routine, betrayed and broken, who wants to bite back?
What’s the biggest challenge your characters face?
For Liv, it’s trying to decide if her marriage is worth saving, but also if his betrayal has changed them irreparably. Lots of novels focus on a scorned wife taking revenge for her husband’s infidelity by cutting up his clothes, shaming him on social media, taking the dog in the divorce settlement, then they just move on in a ‘you can’t mess with me’ way. But few books deal with the long term emotional and psychological damage, especially if you love the person and they insist they’re sorry.
Liv has to decide what her options are and what she’s willing to sacrifice. With her world turned upside down, it becomes the challenge of ‘Could she? Should she?’ find an alternative to ‘stay or go’, as much as ‘Will she? Won’t she?’ commit the ultimate crime of revenge.
If you’ve done research, is it difficult not to overload the reader?
I was a newspaper journalist, a BBC TV news journalist and a police press officer before I became a novelist, so I’ve lived most of my research first hand. All of my previous novels feature reporters, police officers and even a press officer, in psychological mysteries so it can be hard to make sure you’re not too bogged down in the ‘realism’ of a story.
It’s important, obviously, as readers quickly pick up on something that’s not authentic, but you have to make sure the story and the pacing doesn’t get stuck in details – like the fact that, in real life, you’d wait three weeks to get some forensics back not 24 hours, and no detective would wander around a crime scene in their own clothes, hair uncovered, cross contaminating everything in the chain of evidence!
With Wilderness, the locations were so fascinating, I wanted to cram in loads of information about every place Liv and Will visit, especially about the native American cultures. But, at the end of the day, it’s not a travel feature. I had to keep reminding myself that the reader probably cares more about whether or not someone is going to die soon than whether or not that’s an American Eagle Liv can see soaring overhead or if Will’s enjoying the Navajo fry bread dinner special.
It’d be great if I inspired someone to travel to the places in the novel, though once they’ve read it, they might decide it’s safer to stay at home!
Wilderness is available online now from Little Brown and Amazon etc and will be out in paperback on April 4, 2020.