By Leslie Lindsay
A riveting, well-written psychological suspense from debut novelist Jane Robins, WHITE BODIES explores the intimate bond of twins. Callie and Tilda are adult twins living in London. Callie is the quiet, reserved, ‘observer’ of the two; she doesn’t date much, she works in a bookstore. She has a strange fascination with her sister, eating bits of her hair, fingernails, paper she’s touched.
Tilda is gregarious, gorgeous, an actress. She has always been the ‘popular’ one, even as children. Yet, something strange is brewing under the surface. When Tilda starts dating Felix, they seem like the perfect couple: young, good-looking, wealthy, and completely in love. Callie is not happy with the union. Felix seems to have a strange emotional and physical hold over her sister. Callie starts researching controlling me on-line and finds herself swept into the web of unsavory individuals, mostly women who are abused. Yet they have dark, sinister plans they hope to implicate Callie. She will stop at nothing to protect her sister. WHITE BODIES is multi-layered, literary, and highly complex. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s popular film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. I found the psychology behind the characters’ motivations absolutely fascinating.
Jane is an acclaimed nonfiction writer in the UK, uniquely qualified to write WHITE BODIES. Her historical true crime has been yielded as ‘vividly characterized, wonderfully atmospheric , and thoroughly gripping.’ (Evening Standard, Books of the Year).
I’m thrilled to welcome Jane Robins to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’m interested in the ‘hook’ that draws writers (and readers) into the story. You have a wonderful one with:
“The evidence suggests that Felix showered.”
How did this first line come to you? And what prompted the story?
Jane Robins: I had so many first lines! Like titles, I find them difficult, and spend days trying out different versions. I’ve just opened an old file, to see what my first line was in that draft – and this is what I found:
‘If you wish to take this to the next stage, tell me now.
I stare at the message on the screen. All I need to do is click, and he will be gone forever. How sweet it will be – his death, and then the silence. Never again will I have to listen to his arrogant voice barking orders at my sister, or watch as he makes his claim on her, wrapping his beefy arm around her shoulder in a grotesque imitation of caring. I have come to loathe the small things – the slant of his ice-blue eyes, the way he stands with his chest so proud, and the force with which he slams the door of his hideous car, my sister inside, before he drives her away. It has not taken long to make my decision – I will click. I look at the keyboard and my finger, which is trembling. Not from fear, I think, but exhilaration.’
As you see – everything was different! Including the plot, the personality of the characters and the whole tone of the novel – which is more breathy in this earlier incarnation. I just try stuff out – and see what I like. ‘The evidence suggests that Felix showered,’ was much further down the text until a pretty recent draft. Then I thought – I know – I’ll see what that looks like at the top – and I liked that it seems understated, but actually the reader knows that a criminal death is imminent.
It was a similar process with developing the plot. I started out by thinking – what if the STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN plot was brought into the internet age? And then I kept adding more ‘what ifs’, until I was satisfied that I had something truly exciting and original to work with.
A GOOD HOUSEKEEPING “GREAT READ”
“A deliciously creepy psychological thriller.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
L.L.: WHITE BODIES is loosely based on the classic Hitchcock film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Yet, you’ve modernized it to include the Internet. What intrigues you about old films and also the anonymity of the Internet?
Jane Robins: I love those films where the viewer is drawn in by questioning the motives and behaviour of characters who, in turn, are all at odds with each other, and questioning each other – and Hitchcock did that brilliantly. In contrast, so many modern films have a strong action element – and as soon as the car chase starts, or ‘the running’ – I’m bored. When my son and I try to decide what movie to watch in the evening, I’ll always ask ‘how much running in it?’ and generally a lot of running will put me off. CHARIOTS OF FIRE excepted, of course.
As for the Internet. It’s so much part of modern life that you can’t write a contemporary thriller without at least mentioning it. In White Bodies I decided to take the Internet, and use it as a plot device. Then, once I’d started writing, I realised that I could have a lot of fun with it.
L.L.: There’s a good amount of unsettling psychological pathology under all of your characters, but especially Tilda, Felix, and Callie. What, if any research did you do to get it ‘just right?’
Jane Robins: I love reading articles about psychology, and do it all the time – for pleasure. So I think a lot of that material is lodged in my brain, and I draw upon it. Also, two of my non-fiction books are works of historical true crime, and I spent ages – a lot of it in the wonderful British Library in London – reading accounts of the personalities of perpetrators, victims and witnesses of horrific crimes. I was particularly fascinated by witness statements to the police from people who were essentially in a pre-Freudian age. For me, part of the attraction of writing this sort of book is to apply a novelist’s eye to characters, rather than a quasi-medical one.
L.L.: I understand you’re also a former journalist. How did that experience shape that of a novelist, particularly in this [psychological suspense] genre?
Jane Robins: Actually, I had to unlearn a lot of journalistic habits. The journalist in me wants to get to the point too quickly for a suspense novel, and to state everything too explicitly. I have to remind myself to slow down and ‘show not tell;’ although it’s a myth that ‘telling’ doesn’t work well in fiction – it has its place. As a journalist, I bashed out articles (I’ve worked on a Daily National Paper) and pressed send. As a novelist, I read and reread my text, and beat myself up over the inadequacy of what I’ve just written, and go for a walk to think about it, then delete and rewrite. It’s all so time-consuming!
On the plus side – writing is second nature to me, as I’ve spent many thousands of days over the past decades doing little other than writing. I never agonise over getting started, or having writer’s block. Experience has taught me just to get on with it. Write anything, and even if it doesn’t end up in the final version, you’ll get something out of it. Also, my journalistic past makes me respect spare, fluid prose, tight structure and the dreaded deadlines.
L.L.: There’s a scene toward the end of the book in which Callie and Tilda are entwined in a slightly incestual moment. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s definitely creepy and unsettling. I think Tilda says something about them being ‘in the womb’ during that moment. Can you talk about how you wrote the dynamic of twins and why they seem so fascinating from a literary stand-point?
Jane Robins: I suppose I liked the intensity of the image of two people so close and yet so different. Callie really feels that biological bond, and it’s part of her obsessive nature to invest it with a huge amount of meaning. Also, she doesn’t know where she fits in the world, and being a twin helps her feel more secure and less alone. I think this excerpt explains how I felt about the twins relationship; it’s also from that early draft I just opened up on my laptop (which I haven’t read since 2015!):
‘I am tempted to say that Tilda and I understood each other because of the closeness that was forced on us, and began in the womb, but that’s not true – our personalities are too different. It’s better to say that we recognised each other in an intense way, like recognising night or grass or sky, something that would make you die if it was taken away.’
I enjoyed giving Callie something so intense to focus on. She’s quite melodramatic about it – and I loved writing in that voice.
L.L.: Jane, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
Q: Am I working on another novel?
A: Yes! In my next novel, I’m minimising the Internet as much as I can – but I’m sure I’ll come back to it some time.
Leslie, thanks for such great questions! It’s been a pleasure.
For more information, to connect with Jane Robins via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHITE BODIES, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The Economist, The Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK,Rebel Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2006), The Magnificent Spilsbury (John Murray, 2010), andThe Curious Habits of Doctor Adams (John Murray, 2013). More recently, she has been a Fellow at the Royal Literary Fund.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Touchstone and used with permission. Image of ‘first line’ from , image of ‘Strangers on a Train’ from Wikipedia, British Library from library archives, all retrieved on 10.21.17 image of of twins in womb from ]