By Leslie Lindsay
In today’s cyber-media-crazed world, we have so much access–not just about the world around us, but are able to delve deep into the inner workings of the seedier sides of life through chat rooms and voyeuristic opportunities into the black market, sex trade, drugs, and so much more. It’s disturbing, to say the least.
In a compelling debut, sold at frenzied auctions in 30+ countries, THE WIDOW (New American Library, Hardcover; Feb 2016) is destined to become an international bestseller. The Wall Street Journal calls THE WIDOW, “One of five contenders for this year’s biggest thriller.”
Just how well do you really know someone? What secrets live within a marriage and what might be buried under that glossy veneer? Fiona Barton’s stunning debut delves right into the heart of those questions, a haunting domestic thriller with a fascinating examination of the darker sides of marriage and addiction.
Jean Taylor is the widow of a man who may be a killer. The worst kind: a pedophile. Though never convicted, Glen Taylor was the prime suspect in a horrific crime captivating people across England. Now, a week after his death, investigative journalist Kate Waters appears at Jean’s door seeking answers.
We all want answers—and they come to us in the form of an interlocking narrative, in past and present voices—some of which may be more truthful than others.
Today, I am humbled to sit down with Fiona Barton and have a cup of tea while we chat all things THE WIDOW.
Leslie Lindsay: Thank you for taking the time to pop by, Fiona. I am so taken with THE WIDOW. I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities, the opportunities, the fall-out. What was obsessing you enough to sit down and write this story?
Fiona Barton: As a journalist, I spent a lot of time in court. In the big cases, I would find myself watching the wives of those accused of notorious and terrible crimes and wondering what they really knew–or allowed themselves to know. I wondered: how do you cope with the idea that your husband–the man you chose to live with–may be a monster? THE WIDOW grew out of that fascination and has taken me on an unexpected journey.
L.L.: Would you describe this story as one about an abduction, or one about truth as we see it? Is it a little of both? Can you speak to that, please
Fiona Barton: Both, really but it started in my head as a story about a marriage with secrets. I was interested in what people really knew about those they imagined they knew best and how they coped when everything they believed was turned upside down. The crime came later and I chose the abduction of a child because I wanted an act that exposes our most basic emotional responses.
L.L.: As a writer, I often hear a voice, see an image, or become fixated on a character’s name before I even get writing. Was there a particular image, name, or voice that kept calling to you in THE WIDOW?
Fiona Barton: Jean. She was always there. I could hear her voice from the start. She is the widow in the title and the phrases she used, her thoughts, her distress, her disbelief had been echoing in my head. Hers was a compelling presence and when I finally stopped thinking about it and finally wrote it down, tapping away on an old laptop in a flat in Colombo (my husband and I were volunteers in Sri Lanka with VSO at the time), I felt chilled, despite the 30 degree heat. Jean was saying the words I had written in my head for her but it was as if I was hearing them for the first time.
I remember straightening hunched shoulders after a lost couple of hours, realizing it had got dark outside and feeling slightly tearful. Ridiculous, but it felt such an act of faith, writing that first chapter.
L.L.: I had to chuckle a bit when I read the setting of THE WIDOW being Southampton, England. My oldest daughter is completely taken with the Titanic and somehow—at least once a day—I read or hear some reference to the ocean liner. Can you describe the city a bit more for readers?
Fiona Barton: Southampton is a large port and university town in the county of Hampshire on the south coast of England. Its main claim to fame is the fact that the ill-fated Titanic set sail from its dockside – and members of my family live there. I chose it because I wanted to set the book in places I know personally so I can walk the streets in my head rather than on Google Earth.
L.L.: There’s a part in THE WIDOW where Kate Waters, the reporter is writing down the story after her interview with Jean. “She was a plunger, not a planner, when it came to writing[…]some of her colleagues sat with their notebooks, marking quotes[…]underlining points[…]numbering paragraphs[…]others, ‘the real talent’—she acknowledged to herself—wrote the whole thing in their heads over a coffee or beer and then threw it down on the page in one beautiful, flowing draft.” This is really a long way of asking: are you a planner or a plunger?
Fiona Barton: I am an unashamed plunger. I do write in my head before I put my fingers on the keyboard but I don’t make copious notes. I sit at my laptop and plough on and then review. Feels a bit dangerous at times – like walking a tightrope – but adrenaline is a great motivator.
L.L.: I’m sure much of the inspiration for Kate’s character came from your own experiences working for The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Are you still working as a journalist, or are you focusing primarily on fiction?
Fiona Barton: I stopped working as a journalist in 2008, when I went as a volunteer with VSO, to work with reporters in Sri Lanka. Since then, I have continued training and supporting journalists in exile and working under physical threat in their own countries. It has allowed me to work with some incredibly brave and committed reporters all over the world.
L.L.: Writing is such a fun—but timely pursuit. And then you add in all of the self-doubt, the outside work, family obligations, well it’s a wonder a book ever comes out in the end. What were some of your writing “demons?” What can writers do to overcome them?
Fiona Barton: My main challenge was finding the time to write. I was brilliant at making a million excuses not to sit at my desk and write – my job, my family, the need to sort out cupboards – but two things happened to get me on track. The first was a proper deadline. As a former journalist, I found I needed one and the thought of missing one is the stuff of nightmares. That is not to say that I don’t skid up the finishing line occasionally…
The second was a placement in Myanmar (formerly Burma) for six months. In exile from my everyday life, I found a rhythm, getting up early to write before the day started.
Obviously, going to Myanmar is not an option for everyone but what I brought home from that trip was the idea of writing in bed. It is not laziness or decadence (honest!) but if I get up, I get distracted immediately so I stay put, fresh from dreams, and try to write for at least two hours.
L.L.: What can we expect from you in the future? Are you writing more fiction?
Fiona Barton: I am deep into my second book with Kate Waters, the reporter, back as a narrator. I never thought of writing a series – The Widow was a story that came to me – but there has been such a response from readers to Kate and journalists in general that I have explored her character further. And Bob Sparkes makes an appearance…
L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?
Fiona Barton: See above…[there’s] no time for anything else!
L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
Fiona Barton: Hummm…I’m not telling…
L.L.: Fiona, it was a pleasure having you. Thanks for the lovely chat.
Fiona Barton: Thank you, Leslie
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Author Bio: Fiona Barton lived for many years in London where she worked as a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at The Daily Telegraph, and as chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards. Since leaving her job in 2008 to volunteer in Sri Lanka, Barton has trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world. Born in Cambridge, England, she now lives in southwest France with her husband and is currently at work on a second book.
[Special thanks to L. Jaggers at Penguin RandomHouse/NAL. Author image credit: Jenny Lewis. Cover image and author image used with permission. Myanmar image retrieved from on 4.14.16]