Interview with Janet Emson
S. E. Moorhead is the author of Witness X which was published by Trapeze on 6 February 2020.
She kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Witness X.
Fourteen years ago, the police caged a notorious serial killer who ritually murdered two women every February. One of the victims was the sister of Kyra Sullivan, a neuropsychologist who works for a technology company.
When questions arise about whether or not the police caught the right man, Kyra, in an effort to get to the truth, creates a machine which can read memories directly from the brain.
Can she persuade the police to let her use the mind-reading machine on witnesses, or even the convicted man, to find out what really happened? Will she be able to discover the person behind the murders, and if so, at what cost? And how far will Kyra go to ensure that justice is served?
2. What inspired the book?
I’m obsessed with the idea of truth – is there an objective truth? Or can we only ever see things from our own perspective? Many factors influence the way humans understand and remember things – denial, biases, prior knowledge, or just that we see part of the story and put our own interpretation on it. And then there are people who lie to deliberately cover up the truth.
I often think about how life would be easier, but also much more painful, if we were able to see things as they really are. In particular, it would make crime solving much more efficient – police could build up a more accurate picture of events much quicker, solve crimes faster, and even save lives.
I know I sound idealistic, but part of being a writer is having the power to create a world where things are how you would like them to be. Imagine a world with swift and accurate justice, where people would be safer because predators would not be able to remain hidden.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
I see myself as a US Marine Corps Writer – Improvise, Adapt, Overcome!
Improvise – I make things up.
Adapt – when my characters show me more of themselves and I have to be true to them, or another strand or event of the story presents itself wishing to be written.
Overcome – when I find a major plothole and I have to find a way to fix it!
I do have a basic plan, but I discover the story as I write, a bit like Michelangelo said – the idea is there, locked inside, all you have to do is remove the excess stone.
I have pitstops at regular intervals, like reaching different plateaus on a mountain (and sometimes writing a novel does feel like a huge climb!) where I review and check the structure.
4. Having been through the publishing process, is there anything about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?
How long it all takes! How difficult it is to get into traditional publishing, and how some amazing writers are left out in the cold. Also, it’s so fragile – one minute it all seems to be going so well and the next you can find yourself back at square one, no agent and no contract – such a rollercoaster! I’ve also been deeply impressed by the writing community – so much shared wisdom and kind support. Writing Twitter is one of the best places to be on social media.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I’m obsessed with story, so I love films, theatre and reading. I enjoy Lego and jigsaws – I think they both stimulate the brain in the same way as writing a book does – they help you escape, there’s a whole picture and the smaller details, there’s often a story behind the image, and the dopamine hit when you complete it! I love listening to podcasts – pretty much always about writing and books – while I walk my lovely Black Lab, Seamus, and of course I love to read in the bath, one of life’s greatest pleasures (sometimes even with a cold glass of Guinness!)
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
I think it would have to be an etymological dictionary. Each of those words is like a doorway to another world and so I could pick a few each week and let them brew in my mind’s teapot, see what they might inspire or stimulate.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Possibly I would like to be asked what specifically warranted me to write the sort of book that I have written.
I grew up in a household that was both scientific and religious, where both areas were held to be important and so I am very interested in the natural world and the supernatural world. I particularly love the intersection between the two – and for me this means the morality of technology.
I grew up in the 80s when there was an increasing interest in serial killers and this made a lasting impression on me. My elder brother went on to study forensic science (useful for research!) but as young teenagers we were often found with a case file magazine in hand, or a pathologist’s memoirs. These days I am more interested in forensic psychology but back in the day there were a lot of gory photos!
I’m a proud Liverpolitan and there’s always been a sense of working for justice in my city, not only for people who are in need, but with the Toxteth riots, Hillsborough and the Justice and Peace movement here, so the fight for justice is in my blood and it is a theme I return to again and again.