Ruth Ware Talks Gothic Horror and Tech Terrors

Posted by Cybil on August 1, 2019
Have you ever thought your smart devices are spying on you? This is a thoroughly modern fear that Ruth Ware’s new book, The Turn of the Key, plays out in a classic British mystery setting, a mansion on the Scottish Highlands.

Ware’s novels do this a lot, juxtaposing past and present so we, as readers, wonder what it might be like to face our darkest fears and come out fighting, like the heroes in the novels of crime writing’s golden age.

In The Turn of the Key, Rowan Caine takes what seems like a dream nannying job, caring for children in a mansion for an impossibly high salary. But, of course, this dream job turns out too good to be true, and it ends when Rowan is accused of murder. Her tale is told through letters to her lawyer she writes from jail.

Ware spoke to Goodreads contributor Rebecca Renner about her passion for the gothic horror novels of yore, finding inspiration in real-life crime, and what it’s like to write a scene so chilling that you scare yourself. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: Rowan Caine, the main character of The Turn of the Key, is a live-in nanny. That sounds like an intense job. Have you ever had a job like that?

Ruth Ware: I’ve never had a live-in job where I was in someone else’s house. I suppose my kind of blueprint for the intensity of it was having my own kids, which I think everyone knows is a naught-to-60 experience where you suddenly realize you have to take care of this little person 24/7. Literally, nobody’s going to take this kid from me. At the end of the day, the buck stops here. But I quite liked the idea of someone who has done a lot of work in nurseries suddenly taking on this 24/7 career role, having it thrown into their lap, and the total disorientation that would come with it.

Truth be told, a live-in job kind of horrifies me a little bit. I really like my own space to retreat to at the end of the day. I love to be able to just switch off and relax and not have to think about work anymore. That’s really something I’ve tried to preserve in my writing life, because when you have an office job, it’s still difficult to switch off sometimes, but at least there’s that kind of clear divide. You take the tube home, the train home, or whatever, and you can think, “Right, I’m not at work anymore.”

I think lots of freelancers find that when they’re working from home, it’s really difficult to switch off, and the job kind of creeps out to take over your evenings and your weekends. I’ve tried very hard to maintain that separation and to keep “office hours,” so I can say, “I’m at peace now. I don’t have to worry about the job for a little while.” So I guess in the sense that all of my books are about my own kind of fears and fascinations. Maybe that idea of a sort of 24/7 job is a little bit my own worst nightmare.

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GR: Is that why you chose Rowan’s job? To give the story a sort of locked-room feeling?

RW: You know, I hadn’t thought of it until you said it. But it's certainly not something I would relish, that feeling of being in someone else’s home and not really having a place to retreat to and never being off-duty. Yeah, it does give that kind of claustrophobic sense of not being able to get away. She’s not locked in the house. But she can’t get away because she can’t leave these kids.

GR: That “locked room” idea is used a lot in gothic horror. Did you draw inspiration from any classic horror books?

RW: Well, obviously, the title kind of references The Turn of the Screw a little bit. I love gothic fiction. I studied it a lot during my degree. We had a whole module on it, you know, Dracula and all the more female-centered ones Northanger Abbey is sort of riffing off. I loved all of that. There’s nothing like a spooky mansion and someone opening doors that they shouldn’t. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. It was great fun getting to write my own version of that.

GR: To my American imagination—and I know this sounds silly—England is full of spooky castles and old mansions on the moors. Did you explore any of them for inspiration for Heatherbrae House, the mansion in the Scottish Highlands where Rowan takes her nannying job?

RW: The story is set in an imaginary town. But my mom’s side of the family is from the Highlands of Scotland. So in my head, it’s kind of set close to the area where we used to holiday as kids. And there are a lot of really beautiful old Victorian mansions that were built by Victorian industrialists that are really too big for your average family now. They were meant to be maintained by servants, and they have a lot of attics and servants’ quarters and stuff like that. I never got to see inside as many of them as I would have liked to! [Laughs.] But we’re very rich in stately homes, and I love that sort of thing. I love going around to tour the stately homes, especially when they’ve been dressed to a certain period. There’s one near us that’s been re-created as kind of an imaginary day in the 1930s. It’s been staged to look as if the family just walked out. And I love that—that feeling that you’re trespassing on a moment in time.

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GR: So Heatherbrae House is big and spooky, but it’s also a smart house. Why did you decide to use technology in that way for your novel?

RW: One of the reasons was, prior to writing the book, there had been a lot of pieces in the newspapers about the growing phenomenon of smart-house abuse or digital abuse. There was a case in the U.K. in 2016 where an estranged husband was convicted of listening in to his ex-wife by her home hub, and it’s becoming more and more of a problem. I’ve read several articles about it in the sphere of domestic abuse, where one partner has all the passwords. They’re the one who installed the system. They understand how it works. They know all of the permissions. And the other partner often doesn’t fully understand it or doesn’t have all the access rights. And it can end up a very scary and controlling situation.

It was something that was highlighted a little bit in the podcast–turned–TV docudrama Dirty John, which shows someone who has installed cameras in their home ostensibly as a security measure, but it actually ends up being used as a surveillance measure against them.

But it does seem to be more and more of a problem. Part of the issue is that the law’s taking a little while to catch up with it. And it can be very difficult to prove. Because how do you demonstrate that your ex is turning up at certain places and in certain times because they’re listening to you. And I guess anything that feels like a new way of messing with peoples’ heads is always interesting to explore as a crime writer. But I wanted to do it a little bit differently and leave it a little bit more up in the air about what was actually going on.

GR: A pattern that I’ve noticed in your books is that all of your protagonists are women. We have Leonora Shaw in In a Dark, Dark Wood, Hal Westaway in The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Lo Blacklock in The Woman in Cabin 10. Mystery and suspense novels have a strong history of female writers, with greats like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith among their numbers. But they didn’t always choose women to be their stars. Why do you?

RW: It’s true. I think there are several different reasons for it, really. One is probably the fact that although crime, especially psychological crime, is a genre that is dominated by women, like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, many of those women had male detectives as their protagonists.

I think Christie got pretty fed up with Poirot. Towards the end, she’s writing in letters that she finds him insufferable. And I think, to a large extent, that’s why she moved on and wrote Miss Marple, as a repost to Poirot in a way. It’s not only men who have working brain cells. Women are looked down upon and ignored, but actually, in their own way, they can outsmart any man.

Miss Marple is someone who is routinely overlooked and dismissed, and people think she’s fluffy, that she’s just this little old lady sitting in the corner of the room, not really understanding what’s going on. And actually, that’s her strength as a detective, because people do underestimate her. So they tell her things or they say things in front of her. Or they just plain old don’t think she’s going to catch them. And, of course, she outwits them every time because she’s Miss Marple.

I don’t think anyone needs me to level the playing field on that score. We have amazing female detectives and amazing women writing fantastic female protagonists. Certainly I enjoy putting women at the center of their own stories and making them both the emotional heart of the story and the intellectual part of it as well. You know, my protagonists are always trying to figure out what’s going on. They’re trying to save themselves. They’re trying to outsmart whoever they’re dealing with. But there’s a more emotional side to it as well, I suppose. While I would never rule out writing a male protagonist—I might do it one day—but I feel like I know about what it’s like to be a woman alive right now, with social media and everything else that goes on, and I don’t feel like I’ve finished saying what I have to say about that. Until I do, I would have to have a reason for deciding to tell someone else’s story.

It certainly feels like we’re being reminded every day that a lot of the gains we’ve made over the last 50 to 100 years are maybe more fragile than we thought they were. The promise of equality keeps receding, in pay and in jobs and in everything else. You couldn’t be alive last year without seeing the #MeToo movement unfold and hearing all of these stories come tumbling out, that maybe the idea we have achieved equality and autonomy over our own bodies, it’s a bit more of a pipe dream than our mothers and grandmothers would have hoped. Perhaps that’s why we’re increasingly writing novels that explore that.

GR: The Turn of the Key is written in the form of letters. Did you find it challenging to tell a story that way?

RW: Yes! [Laughs.] It was really great, but it did also provide a kind of technical challenge.

We’ve seen a lot of deliberately unreliable narrators that are playing with the reader. I was interested in doing something where the narrator had a visible agenda.

When you write, you’re always trying to persuade someone of something. You’re always putting up a perspective or making an argument. Sometimes it’s not clear who the narrator is speaking to. So I was interested in doing something where it was very clear from the outset that the narrator was trying to persuade somebody of something, and that they had their own agenda, and that they were going to use the facts and frame the truth in a way that supported their version of events.

It’s very convenient for me to make it into letters like that, because it immediately lets you know that the writer doesn’t have a contract with the person they’re writing to in the same way the narrator in a book has a contract with the reader, where you feel like you’re getting an insight directly into their mind. Whereas when you know someone’s writing a letter, it’s immediately very apparent that they’re writing to someone with all the constraints that that implies.

But the flip side of that was obviously the constraints. And I did find myself thinking, “Could she realistically say this?” Obviously, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief because by the end of it, she’s written basically 100,000 words to her lawyer, and I found ways of getting around that in my own head and ways of getting around it in the narrative, especially very early on when you’re conscious that she’s writing to someone. I did find myself wanting to say stuff, and then thinking, “No, she just wouldn't write that in a letter to a lawyer.” But it was interesting. I think it made me approach stuff more creatively, and it was certainly interesting to write someone who was wearing their agenda on their sleeve a little more than my other narrators.

GR: While you were writing, were you thinking of any other books with this kind of narrator—a narrator with an agenda?

RW: I don’t know. I suppose I was looking to a certain extent at other epistolary novels, like Dracula, or ones that use newspaper articles and clippings and stuff within the narrative, but I think that was trying to do something fundamentally rather different. Bram Stoker knew he was writing a fantasy story, which is sort of inherently unbelievable. In a way, he sort of tried to present it as documentary evidence to make it feel more real. What I was doing was a little bit different. I was sort of trying to pull the reader into the narrative a bit more to make them feel like they were complicit, to make them feel like they were testing my narrator’s case. So, in a way, I think Stoker did it because he wanted you to believe him more, and I did it because I wanted you to doubt my narrator more.

But yes, there are other people who have done it brilliantly in different ways. I’ve definitely tried to learn lessons from what they’ve done, but there’s not that many modern writers writing epistolary books. It’s gone out of fashion a little bit.

GR: Why do you think it’s gone out of fashion?

RW: Partly because we’re no longer a letter-writing society. We write emails now, and by their nature they tend to be shorter and chattier and, you know, just differently framed. And people have written books in emails or books in blogs and so on, but longform letter writing is an unusual thing compared to when Les Liaisons Dangereuses came out, and it was completely believable that people would be writing back and forth to each other multiple times a day with multiple pages in each letter. And that’s accepted, because that’s how people conducted their lives then. Nowadays we’re texting back and forth, and that doesn’t make for such a great, readable novel.

But because my character is in prison, where she doesn’t have access to the internet, she, by force, has lots of free time on her hands.

GR: : You said in a previous interview with us that you don’t outline. Do you think that adds to the element of surprise?

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RW: I’m quite mixed up when people ask this kind of question. Because I don’t outline in the sense that I don’t write stuff down. I don’t have a kind of formal plot that I map out, and I definitely don’t outline to the extent that some authors do. I know it’s quite different to have a chapter break down, and they know what’s going to happen in every scene, and I don’t do that, partly because I think I would get bored [laughs] if I knew what was going to happen in every single scene. You know, I need to have a bit of surprise. It does surprise me that stuff that I had never thought of before gets into the novel.

I almost always know quite a lot about my character when I start out because my books are very character led, and it’s impossible to put someone into a situation without knowing how they’re going to react to it. And in the case of The Turn of the Key, I obviously knew my narrator was in prison. I knew why she was there. I knew what she’d done and some of the ways in which her own behavior hasn’t helped her case. So all of that, I didn’t write it down, but I knew it before I started writing.

But yeah, there was stuff that completely surprised me. There’s—I don’t think this is a spoiler—there’s a scene where she goes back up into the attic. I hadn’t really planned that, and when I wrote it, I got really scared. [Laughs.] I think because it’s quite hard to scare yourself when you write, because the essence of being frightened is not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s that thing of knowing if there’s something horrible around the corner but not being quite sure when it’s going to leap out and get you. And the writer, because you’re in control, it’s very difficult to pull that off, because you know when the curtain’s going to be ripped back; you know when the bogeyman’s going to jump out of the cupboard, because you’re going to be the person opening the cupboard. But because this was a surprise to me—the elements in the scene and a lot of the descriptions were a complete surprise—I did get really scared. I found myself shutting down my computer and going downstairs to pour myself a hot drink, because [laughs] I kind of completely spooked myself. I was like, “My God, where did that come from?!”

GR: Is that when you know you’ve written something good? When it scares you?

RW: I usually think it’s a very good sign. But at the same time. I think it’s very hard as a writer to judge. You can usually tell how people are going to take it in the sense of whether you intended a scene to be scary or moving or whatever, but to know whether you’ve got that punch in the gut, for other people, it’s such a subjective thing. I know how a scene affects me and makes me feel better, but I still find it quite difficult to know whether I hit that note for other people until the book is out there. And some of the books I’ve found the hardest to write are the ones that other people like the most. So I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between how much you enjoyed writing a scene and how effective it is in the end.

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It’s always a good sign when a character walks off and starts doing things of their own accord. I think it shows they’re a living, breathing, three-dimensional person for you as a writer, and that’s probably a good sign that they’re going to appear that way to other people.

GR: Without giving anything away, are there any parts of this book that you loved writing the most? Which are your favorites?

RW: I love writing spooky stuff. I really enjoy all that kind of atmospheric stuff. I don’t think this is a spoiler, but there is a poison garden in the book, which is a real thing. There are real poison gardens in the U.K. I don’t know about the U.S. But they’re basically ornamental gardens. They’re like herb gardens, but everything in them is poisonous to some degree, sometimes very, very poisonous. That’s not to say they’re exotic plants. They’re usually things we all have in our gardens, hellebores or laurels. Suddenly, when you see them all together, you realize how powerful nature is and that anything that we can come up with as human beings, nature is already probably doing it. And so I decided to put a poison garden in the book for various reasons. I really enjoyed writing that. I really enjoyed letting my characters explore it. I wish I had had more time to explore the art of it, but it wasn’t really the center of the plot, and it wasn’t relevant to the case Rowan was supposed to be outlining to her lawyer. But it was great fun to write. I loved researching all these pretty plants that we have around our gardens that are secretly lethal, which is a great metaphor for a crime writer, all these things that look pretty and innocent, and we have them in our flower borders, but actually they could kill you.

GR: What are some recent books that you've really enjoyed, ones you’ve been recommending to everyone?

RW: Recent ones. Hmm. I just read Riley Sager’s Lock Every Door, which I really enjoyed. It made me laugh, because obviously mine is The Turn of the Key and this is Lock Every Door, so it seems like the theme of the summer.

At the moment, I’m reading Lisa Jewell’s new novel, The Family Upstairs. It’s really spooky. It’s got a dark, atmospheric undertone to it, and I’m loving that.

GR: We talked a little about classics earlier. Do you have any recommendations for those?

RW: The Turn of the Screw is amazing. I would highly encourage anybody to read that. And my book isn’t a retelling of it. So don’t worry. Neither of them will spoil what goes on in the other. [The Turn of the Screw] is short, and it really shows how you can kind of pack a punch into very few words.

The other book I always come back to as a great example of a really scary book, because it terrifies the wits out of me, which doesn’t happen often, is The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.

Oh, and one book I read kind of as research actually was Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, because I was really interested in the idea of someone using a novel to make a case, and the premise of Dolores Claiborne is that she’s walked into a police station and she’s confessing to the police. It’s all continuously told in Lori’s voice as a monologue, which I loved. It’s an incredible book, and it’s an incredible feat of storytelling, the fact that [King] just starts with this woman’s voice and just carries on. There are moments when the police are kind of trying to interrupt her, and she’s like, “You shut up. I’m going to tell this my way!” I didn’t use the same device as [King] did, but it really showed me that you don’t need to have anyone else’s version of events to make a story. I didn’t need to have the lawyer writing back. I could rely on one person to carry the story through.

GR: I love that kind of story. Unreliable narrators seem so much truer to me than “just the facts” kind of narrators.

RW: Because we are all unreliable narrators at the end of the day. Everybody has an agenda. We’re always choosing what tracks to present, but not all books go so far as to show the workings of how that happens.

Ruth Ware's new novel, The Turn of the Key, is available in the U.S. on August 6. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Shiloh (new)

Have you ever thought your smart devices are spying on you? ...

...Not until now... LOL. Thanks.

message 2: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Nice interview! Thanks for spooky reading recommendations. I loved the novel way (no pun intended) Ms. Ware combined Gothic storytelling with modern technology, a new to me combination.

message 3: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Welch Loved this book! Looking forward to her next one.

message 4: by Kim (new)

Kim Russell I'm currently reading Turn of the Key with The Pigeonhole and enjoying it.

message 5: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I really enjoyed this book. I love the style of writing. Can't wait for the next one.

message 6: by Tag (new)

Tag Goulet I love this interview and can hardly wait to read the book! An author of Ruth Ware's talent who even frightened herself with her own writing is someone worth reading!

And to the Goodreads editorial staff: I love that you remove the various "uhs", "ums", etc. that typically happen in conversation. It makes a piece so much easier and enjoyable to read. Thank you!

message 7: by ANDREW (new)

ANDREW Suspense is instrumental to her style

message 8: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Specht I'm currently reading this and I LOVE it! It's very spooky, and the juxtaposition of old Victorian Gothic and modern day technology combine to really throw the reader off-kilter. Can't wait to finish!

message 9: by Daria (new)

Daria I've read a couple of Ruth Ware's books and have enjoyed them immensely. I'm really looking forward to reading "The Turn of a Key." Thank you Goodreads and Ruth Ware for the lovely interview.

message 10: by Maria (new)

Maria Thank you so much, Goodreads, for this awesome interview. I love the opportunities you provide for us to "get to know" authors. When I read "In a Dark, Dark Wood" I was so instantly sucked in and had trouble putting it down. I've also read "The Woman in Cabin 10"... also extremely hard to walk away from until I finished. I can't wait to read Ruth Ware's new novel... making sure to have proper lighting of course! You don't want to read her books with any shadows around you!

message 11: by Ann (new)

Ann Lewis Great interview and good to have some author recommendations too. Ive read of them. I was sucked into Ms Wares writing with The Woman in Cabin 10 and have since read In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Lying Game, and have just purchased The Death of Mrs Westaway. The new book will be added to my wish list too!

message 12: by Jim Owens (new)

Jim Owens Hope there's No spying..

message 13: by Lori (new)

Lori Johnson The idea of a book narrated through letters doesn't really appeal to me. Then I remember it is a Ruth Ware book and as strange as the letter thing sounds to me, there is no doubt in my mind I will love it!

message 14: by Dawn (new)

Dawn Wow! Such a pleasure to read this interview with one of my favorite author’s in Modern Mystery writing! I have enjoyed every book she has written so far! I admire her technique with strongly developing characters and dark settings and extremely difficult conflicts filled with suspense and curiosity! Thank you Ruth Ware and Goodreads!

message 15: by NuBest (new)

NuBest Tall Pretty good story. The idea of a book narrated through letters doesn't really appeal to me. Thank you so much!

message 16: by Yvette (new)

Yvette Thank you Cybil for reaching out to me and sharing this interview. I'm always curious about what the writer has to say about his/her own book. I found it particularly interesting that Ruth Ware does not use an outline as a platform for her books. I can understand her need to be somewhat surprised as the reader. Can't wait to get my hands on The Turn of the Key! It seem to be... a curl up in bed on a stormy night... kind of book.

message 17: by Mohammad (new)

Mohammad Javad I don't know what is the subject. I want to know. Gothic ..horror... historical fiction... I want to sit please … hello Donte … hello Homer … The other names are very di...di...difficult... Thanks whereamisitplease...

message 18: by Janelle (new)

Janelle I'm extremely confused by the ending. If someone can email me @ I would love to discuss.

message 19: by Ainee (new)

Ainee Beland This is a lovely interview; I have enjoyed reading and getting to know of Mrs. Westaway; in the book title: The Death of Mrs. Westaway. I am thinking to read this latest book: The Turn of the Key and yes, I did think of The Turn of the Screw which was a very difficult read for me; I did not grasp its meaning. Too high for my small mindedness way of seeing the world or not seeing it at all.

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