Q&A with Claire S. Lewis - No Smoke Without Fire.
Thank you so much Jane, for inviting me to Q&A on your wonderful website and for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts in response to your fascinating and perceptive questions.
No Smoke Without Fire explores humanity’s darker side, how do achieve balance in your plot between noir and lighter moments?
You are so right that No Smoke Without Fire explores the darker side of humanity. At the core of the plot there’s a family tragedy and a rape that together propel the damaged protagonist, Celeste, on a journey that will not have a happy ending nor bring redemption to any of the characters. The novel touches on bleak themes of patriarchy and female oppression and explores ideas of victim shaming and the ways in which false, repressed and recovered memories can alter perceptions of morality and the truth. So, there are undoubtedly dark elements to the novel. But as you suggest in your question, I have tried to create a balance between noir and lighter moments. For example, death is ever-present, not least in the sense that Celeste’s online business venture (CelestialHeadstones.com) involves delivering memorial flowers to headstones in graveyards. On the other hand, she is a florist and the scenes in the florist shop, Seventh Heaven, provide opportunities for vivid colour and brightness which contrast with the mournful descriptions of cemeteries. Even on Celeste’s visits to graveyards, I have tried to give a contrast of shade and sunlight. Some of these take place at night, when ghostly shadows of the statues of black angels seem to trip her up. Others take place in glorious spring sunshine when her heart is lifted by the sights and sounds of nature bursting into bloom and teeming with new life. The relationships between the characters also provide a balance in the plot between noir and lighter moments – the opening scenes at a Cuban nightclub and scenes at Celeste’s flat where she enjoys flirtation and fun and light banter with her friends, contrasting with the darkness of oppressive and abusive encounters between Celeste and her father and teenage boyfriend in the flashback sections, for example, or the sinister scenes involving Celeste’s stalker. I have quite a visual imagination, and I find the use of colour very effective in creating this balance. In the opening nightclub scene and the florist scenes, I focus on the colour red – Celeste’s red dress, the red mood lighting on the dance floor, the vivid red of the Valentine roses – whereas black and grey tones help to create an atmosphere of melancholia or menace in other scenes. Settings can also be used to create light in the narrative, and I hope that the descriptions of the beautiful city of Cambridge and picturesque towns in the Surrey hills, have this effect in No Smoke Without Fire.
This story, falls into the noir crime genre, what are the positives of writing this type of literature? Are there any negatives?
Characteristics such as the presence of violence; complex characters, plot lines and timelines; mystery; moral ambiguity and ambivalence – these all come into play in the noir crime genre and can be found in No Smoke Without Fire. The positives of writing this kind of literature include the fact that characters are generally drawn in a way that is more nuanced, not two-dimensional, reflecting the real complexity of human relations in situations of conflict. The writer sets out the interplay between the characters without dictating moral judgements on their behaviour. Readers are left to ponder and come to their own conclusions – or not. Like crime in real life situations, in this genre there is no simple black and white clear-cut line between right and wrong or between the goodies and the baddies. Again, in the real world, many crimes are never fully solved or only become solved after many years of investigation. There may always be a lingering doubt about the justice of a conviction or an acquittal. Even where the jury reaches a conclusion on innocence or guilt, the ‘standard of proof’ for such a ruling is not 100 percent certainty – the prosecution must prove its case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. So fiction in the genre of crime noir which has the characteristic of moral ambiguity and allows the reader to ruminate on the rights and wrongs of the situations and the ‘truth’ or ‘integrity’ of the characters, is perhaps more interesting and a more authentic reflection of real life than stories which leave no room for doubt as to which character is the hero and which is the villain. I like the ‘smoke and mirrors’ aspect of the noir crime thriller in part because it feels truer to real life than the type of ‘whodunnit’ thriller in which all the loose ends are tied up neatly at the end. As for the negatives of writing in this style of fiction, one down-side may be that because the protagonists of noir fiction are a mix of good and bad, and a mix of selfish and altruistic motives etc, none of them are particularly likeable? Perhaps there are no heroes or champions or characters to engage or fall in love with? On the other hand, because the characters are nuanced and flawed this makes them in one sense more true-to-life and relatable.
You use flashbacks to give clues about the protagonist’s past, why do think this style of plotting works so well for psychological suspense?
I think the use of flashbacks is well suited to psychological suspense because it allows for the character to be gradually pieced together in a way which mirrors the way in which criminal trials gradually build up a picture of a defendant or of a crime scene by delving back into the past to gather evidence about a suspect and interviewing a number of witnesses. In the case of Celeste, I have portrayed her as a person who is very private about the tragedy in her past life when she was teenager and the sexual abuse that she suffered in the boathouse on the night that her little brother died. Seven years on, she has buried these traumas deep within her soul and she is trying to live a normal life as a single working young woman of twenty-four. If I had only the present timeline to tell the story it would be difficult to understand the reasons for which Celeste seeks revenge and for which CelestialHeadstones.com is so dear to her heart. The glimpses of Celeste’s backstory moving through her past allow me to gradually build up a picture of her troubled home life as a child (alcoholic mother, dysfunctional and aggressive father) and her sexually submissive relationship with Ben as a teenager, which helps the reader to understand the complexity of her character and perhaps to empathise with her behaviour and motivations in the main plot. The flashbacks also help to create the moral ambivalence that is characteristic of noir crime.
The plot has different timelines and an unreliable protagonist, do you plan your story in detail before writing? Can you give us an insight into your writing process?
I am not very good at planning which I find rather boring. I tend to launch straight in rather than plotting and mapping out scenes in detail before embarking on the writing. My starting point is a story idea – some situation or news item that sparks my interest and which I feel could be the basis of a good plot or the opening scene of a story but without really knowing how it will all play out. For No Smoke Without Fire (or ‘In Loving Memory’ as it was – in part ironically – called when I first thought up the idea and throughout the writing process) I did write a synopsis with an outline of the plot and an ending. As I write, I imagine the story spooling out like a film in my head and I think about what scene should be revealed next. My lack of planning does usually result in me having to do quite a bit of rearranging of chapters once I have more or less completed a first draft. In the case of No Smoke Without Fire for example, I did not write my backstory flashbacks in time order the first-time round. Instead I started with a date rape scene which was very central to the character development of Celeste. However, my editor advised that it was better to drop these backstory chunks into the main narrative in a chronological order as I already had a number of viewpoints and the lack of chronology in the flashbacks could be rather confusing for the reader.
Do you know how your story will end when you start to write? How easy is it to create an unexpected outcome for your characters? Have you any insights into the best way of creating a shock ending?
The ending I had in mind when I started to write the story is not the ending that made it to the final cut. The ending in my synopsis was inspired by my favourite Audrey Tatou French film ‘He Loves Me, He loves Me Not’, but I realised that in the novel form my planned ending would not work structurally and, moreover, I realised that the character of Celeste that I had written in the first half of the book was too sympathetic to allow for her transformation into an all-out psychopath as I had originally intended! When rethinking my ending, I wanted something that brought together all the characters in the novel as well as to some extent coming full circle to the opening page, whilst also being an unexpected outcome. I hope that the ending I have created is both a shock ending and one that will give pause for some reflection and pathos – but that’s for the readers and not for me to judge! As for insights into the best way of creating a shock ending – that is an interesting and difficult question. Obviously, the ending needs to follow naturally from what has gone before rather than being tacked on. Clues should be planted earlier in the story which once the shock ending has been delivered make the reader feel that there was a certain inevitability about it, so that on reflection the ending becomes believable as well as unexpected.
What surprises do you have in store for your next story?
My next story is also in the genre of psychological suspense and is set in post-pandemic north London and Tuscany. I am playing around with the idea of a ‘book-within-a-book’ along the lines of ‘Nocturnal Animals’. So, in addition to the uncertainty as to who did what, there will be an added uncertainty as to whether the secondary line of narration is intended to be true or imagined or a mixture of both.
Thank you again, Jane, for this lovely opportunity to take part in your Q&A!