The first copyeditor who read The Guilty One contacted my Little, Brown editor to ask if it was written by someone working in social work, psychiatry or the law. It is a terrible admission but I actually have no experience in any of these fields. I literally did make it all up and am therefore not a good example of the adage, ‘write what you know’.
My own experience is vastly different from the world of the book. I studied literature at university, and have worked in the charity sector, international development and higher education. I spent six years of my life in China and have travelled all over the world… but I have never visited Cumbria where one narrative of the book is set.
To make the world of the book believable therefore, I had to undertake a lot of research, which included visiting the infamous Old Bailey courthouse in London. I scouted out the location for the murder and the area where Daniel lived as well as the area around the courthouse. I researched farming and the Cumbria area where Minnie Flynn lives. I consulted social workers and criminal solicitors to learn more about the worlds of my characters.
Once my research was done and the characters were fully formed, it was just a case of getting it out, writing it and trying to make some sense of the story. When I was writing it, I could never have imagined that I would be able to get published, I just felt very driven to tell the story.
So why did I write this book? For me, writing is very much an act of discovery and I am often more surprised than anyone else about where it takes me. In this case, I began to have a very clear image of the book’s two main characters: Daniel as a child, and his foster mother, Minnie. I could see them and I could smell them. In the same way as you may dig something out of the sand, I discovered the story from working through that essential relationship.
I knew that Daniel was telling us the story, as an adult. I could see him in a suit in London, but it was after some time that I realised he was a lawyer, and a criminal defence solicitor. Similarly, I knew that Minnie was drinking so much because she was in terrible emotional pain, and it was after a while I realised that she had lost her daughter and her husband.
When I was working on the beginning of this book, there were a number of stories in the UK press about two young boys who had nearly killed another two children. The newspapers were vociferous, demonizing the boys, and invoking other famous children who had killed.
At the time, reading those newspaper stories, I felt appalled by the crime but also very frustrated. There seemed to be an issue that very few were discussing. This was why the children had committed this terrible crime, and, now that it had happened, what they needed to help them realise what they had done and move past it.
I then became interested in juxtaposing Daniel’s troubled childhood – which was heading for a similar life of violent crime before Minnie’s intervention – with that of a young client accused of murder.
This book is very much Daniel’s story – of being a young, damaged and violent child, but someone who grew to become a largely functional, caring adult. Sebastian, the young boy on trial in the book, is there to throw Daniel’s story into relief. There is a quote at the beginning of the book from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which reads: The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who caused the darkness.
For me, this draws out one of the main themes of the book: The causes of crime, and our responsibility for people who commit crime, particularly children. The question of Sebastian’s guilt or innocence is really irrelevant, as everyone in the book is guilty.
So perhaps the adage should not be write what you know, but write what interests you? Certainly, the journey that I undertook in writing this book was very satisfying. I can only hope that readers will share my fascination with these characters and their struggle.