Questions & Answers
Anatomy of a Scandal is very different from your previous novels. Was it a conscious decision to switch genres and how challenging was it?
I actually wanted to write Anatomy of a Scandal as my second novel but my debut was a women’s fiction novel about motherhood and perfection, set around a baking competition, and – not unreasonably - my previous publishers thought it was too huge a leap from a book about baking to one about consent. I wrote a second novel about love, loss and atonement, set on a remote farm in north Cornwall, but once my contract with that publisher had ended I jumped straight into this.
Anatomy is my most personal novel: one I was itching to write and that I’d been thinking about for two years before I started on it. But, though it’s darker in tone, I think there are strong elements of darkness along the same lines in my previous books. There’s a flick of the same theme in the first novel and it’s more explicit in the second so I was clearly making my way towards this. Anatomy of a Scandal was by far my easiest novel to write because I had such a clear sense of the story from the start, and because it was something I felt so passionately about.
How did you feel about the parliamentary scandals unfolding even as your book was about to be published?
Excited, but a little apprehensive. When the revelations about sexual misconduct in Westminster broke a fellow novelist, who’d read it, messaged me: 'This is getting creepy.' It was the fact that some of the details were mirrored in my novel: people have asked if I had prior knowledge. (I didn’t – and I think Simon & Schuster’s lawyers would have had something to say if I did!) Just after the novel was sold, in October 2016, an MP’s chief of staff was accused of raping a colleague in the Commons – and we’ve since had a slew of stories about sexual harassment, and two Cabinet ministers’ resignations. I think the fact that life is mirroring my novel only shows how credible and current the story is.
There are some strong women in this book, particularly Sophie and Kate. Was their polarised situation the starting point for you?
Kate, the prosecuting barrister, was my starting point. I knew she was going to prosecute a very charismatic government minister in a rape trial. But it very quickly became apparent that the minister’s wife, Sophie, would play a key role too. I’ve been fascinated by political wives who stand by their men ever since 1992 when Judith Mellor had to pose for a smiling photograph with her husband and children after it emerged he was having an affair with a young actress. How much worse would it be if you stood by your husband through a criminal trial? And how horrific if the crime was of a sexual nature and it forced you to question your marriage, your principles, your family life?
Given how easily and often these kinds of affairs come to light in real life, why do you think people, particularly those in the public eye, continue to make these mistakes? Is it passion, arrogance, sheer stupidity or something else?
I think, with public figures, it’s a sense of entitlement – or a narcissism that means they think they can get away with it. One female MP once told me that some male MPs could think they were invincible: they’d been given this mandate, and they thought they were always in the right. The nature of Westminster life – long hours, MPs away from home, subsidised drinking, young, keen staff and relatively powerful bosses – must facilitate affairs, sexual harassment or worse.
Of course, I’m writing about an extreme example – but you don’t have to look far to find examples of ministers or ex-ministers who have been misleading or sought to brazen out accusations. Most of us would hold our hands up and apologise straight away if we’d been caught making any kind of mistake. The disgraced ex-minister Stephen Crabb – who has admitted sexting a 19-year-old who applied for a job – has talked of MPs being 'risk takers'. I think there’s a strong element of that.
The responses from the politicians in the novel - many of them supportive and sympathetic to James - are depressing. How far off are we – still – of a common acceptance of what is and is not acceptable and how much is just lip service?
I don’t think we as a society have come close to recognising how entrenched sexual harassment is – and how connected it is to patriarchy. Recent comments by the likes of actor Matt Damon, or by male BBC presenters or MPs worrying that flirting with a colleague will no longer be permissible, show how far we have to progress. I’m 45 and I realise that from my mid teens I accepted that I would be wolf-whistled in the street, that I would have to be wary if I walked past groups of men; that, as an adult, I’d be vigilant if I walked down a dark road alone and would do so with keys clutched in my hand. I’d internalised that this was part of the experience of being a young woman, just as I’d internalised the fact that I wouldn’t contact the police if I was flashed at, or complain if touched by a male colleague. The #MeToo phenomenon seems to be a roar against this collective experience but I think we’re a long way from recognising how deep-rooted the issue is.
Sophie is aware that ‘James will be fine because he is the right type… and he has the prime minister’s patronage’. Do you see any changes happening in the ‘old boys’ network’ and its equivalents, or are they unavoidable in pretty much every society?
I think they are still pretty much unavoidable at present. You only have to look at the support for Toby Young – controversially appointed to the board of the new universities regulator despite concerns about his experience and suitability – to suspect that 'jobs for the boys' still continues. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a fellow Oxford graduate and former editor of the Spectator, for which Young is an associate editor, tweeted that there had been a 'ridiculous outcry over Toby Young' and he would be the 'ideal man for the job'; Young was appointed by Boris’s brother, Jo (also Oxford); while there was support from a third journalist-turned-Tory-MP Michael Gove (also Oxford). (Incidentally, both Toby Young and David Cameron are alumni of my Oxford college, which partly inspired Anatomy of a Scandal.)
I think change will only truly happen once we start to see more women in political positions and in higher positions of authority in companies; and once the gender pay gap – currently at around 18% - starts to shrink. (Something that may begin once new legislation requiring companies with over 250 employees to publish pay inequalities begins.)
But I’m not sure how you counter old school ties – forged through public school and university; through gentlemen’s clubs and even shared sporting activities. In my novel, James and the prime minister, Tom, have been best friends since Eton, and their shared adolescent experiences, their drinking escapades in a Bullingdon-type club, and their joint holidays in their twenties melds them to such an extent that James’s wife, Sophie, envies their closeness. I don’t see how we can sever ties as tight as that.
How did your experiences as a news reporter and political correspondent, together with your time at Oxford University, inform your book?
As a news reporter, I spent three chunks of my career working in the Houses of Parliament including over two years as a political correspondent for the Guardian. I knew from the start that James would be a junior minister in a Conservative government. He’s a person in a position of power, who is charismatic and persuasive, and so narcissistic that his reading of the truth is the only one he recognises – and the one he’s convinced others will believe.
I’ve certainly met charming men, and I’ve observed, and interviewed, charismatic, self-confident politicians, so this all felt quite straightforward to write.
I was working in the lobby in March 2003, when the Iraq war was debated, and was there when the whole question of whether the dossier into weapons of mass destruction had been 'sexed up', so I learned how important nuance in language is in politics. How the official line isn’t the same as 'off the record' or 'deep background'; how 'no comment' isn’t a denial. I was also there when two stories broke about senior politicians having affairs, and saw how the narrative played out, so all of this fed into the background of the novel.
My experience of court reporting – covering cases such as the trial of Roy Whiting who murdered five-year-old Sarah Payne and part of the Stephen Lawrence inquest - made me realise the dramatic potential of a trial. I shadowed a criminal barrister in a rape trial and sexual offences trial but I was already confident of the trial process, and the layout of the court.
Finally, I drew on my experience as an unsophisticated, provincial student who read English at Oxford in the Nineties and felt like a complete fraud. I wasn’t from London or the Home Counties, I hadn’t attended a famous public school, and when the boy in the room opposite me announced he went to Eton, I was cowed but also so incredulous I wanted to laugh.
I went to one of the most public school colleges – where David Cameron had studied six years previously – but though, initially, I felt like an outsider, I also felt, academically, that I belonged. I had a full grant and so I was funded to read novels for three years, to write features for the university newspaper Cherwell, to play in orchestras, to grow up in the most exquisite surroundings. It felt like an immense privilege and I wanted to capture that sense of awe, and that tentative awareness of belonging, as well as the fear of being an imposter.
How far did you draw on actual court cases to reproduce the trial scenes?
I watched an experienced criminal barrister in a sexual offences trial at the Old Bailey and then shadowed her in a rape trial at another crown court. I also watched the start of a rape trial at a second crown court, to get a sense of a different situation. I drew heavily on these court cases in my barristers’ examination and cross-examination of witnesses. In real trials, there’s a lot of repetition and pauses for legal argument that would make for tedious dialogue, but the level of detail and the explicit language, as well as the way in which evidence is broken down into bite-sized chunks, reflects the reality of a trial. I also toned down any flamboyant language and accusations of lying by my fictitious barristers, because I knew a judge would jump on them. A few American readers have been disappointed that my barristers don’t grandstand in the way US ones to but I wanted this to be as realistic as possible.
Your epigraph quoting Hilary Mantel: ‘He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.’ has resonance for your book and indeed for the cases of abuse coming to light every day in the media. Does it matter if justice is done for the wrong reasons so long as it is done?
I love that quote from Bring Up the Bodies – but it’s the point at which I think our sympathy shifts from Cromwell and we realise quite how ruthless he is. I wanted to muddy the waters, here. I don’t think justice should be pursued for the wrong reasons. Cromwell abuses his power in accusing men he knows didn’t have affairs with Anne Boleyn but who he hates for mocking Cardinal Wolsey. This novel is a plea against abuse of power in all forms.
Friendship and loyalty come up against truth in different guises throughout the book and you are careful to acknowledge the complexities of the various relationships and situations. Do you believe there ever should be such a thing as sacrificing truth for a greater good?
No (although I recognise this happens in the novel!) Ali is asked to make a huge decision – one that may be morally right but only because she knows her friend so well. I don’t think the truth should be sacrificed. A trial, ideally, should be about determining the truth.