Book Talk: Suspenseful mystery of sisterly love

TOKYO Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:32am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Practical, bossy Beatrice has always taken care of her sister, Tess. So when she learns that Tess has disappeared, she goes to London to sort things out -- only to find out that she appears to have killed herself.

But Beatrice, the narrator of Rosamund Lupton's "Sister," refuses to accept the verdict. She digs into her sister's life and discovers not only that Tess was pregnant, but also that she was taking part in an experimental, and mysterious, medical trial.

Speaking in the form of a letter to Tess, Beatrice defies the expectations of those around her who see only a sister in denial and grows increasingly obsessed with her search -- an obsession that may endanger her own life.

Lupton, who said she was inspired partly by her close ties to her younger sister, spoke to Reuters about her book and writing.

Q: Why the letter form? Isn't that a little bit risky?

A: "Two reasons, actually. I was a script writer for years, so writing it from one character to another actually felt a bit like one half of a dialogue. It sounds rather cerebral but I found it quite a dramatic way to write a book because she's continually addressing her sister. I'm just used to writing in that way and it was a whole book that came, not a dialogue.

"And my sister and I went to different boarding schools when we were children, and we used to write to each other. I think there's a jigsaw letter in the book and also one with lemon juice, which are actually things that my sister and I used when we were writing to each other to avoid our house mistress, who used to vet our letters. I'm not quite sure what they thought an 11-year-old would be saying. So I'd get an envelope full of a broken up jigsaw puzzle and it'd be her letter. It's just something I'm used to doing with my own sister so I thought I'd use it in the book."

Q: How did you achieve the kind of pacing -- was it something you learned from scripts or TV pacing?

A: "I think with a script, where every word counts and every minute counts -- those are short, and you have to grab the viewer, whether it's in a cinema or TV, and you can't lose their attention. I think that was quite a good discipline. Also, I was an unknown writer and I was sending (the book) off to slush piles, so I knew that it had to so that when somebody finally picked it up, I didn't want it to be put down again.

"So I think it was wanting to write something compelling -- I love the kind of book that makes you stay up late, and as a writer you hope somebody will be gripped by it."

Q: There's a lot of theories about birth order and the effect that has on people, what do you think about that?

A: "From my own limited experience, older sisters -- the older sisters that I know -- do feel a huge sense of responsibility and protectiveness toward their younger sisters. I know I certainly did, even though she's perfectly grown up enough and mature enough to not need it. I think that's also what drives Beatrice in the book, that protectiveness and sense of responsibility. I don't think I could have done it the other way around. I'm not sure if that's just the characters or if I understood that because I'm an older sister and I know that kind of protective thing you have for your younger sister.

"The other thing about sisters -- and it may be a terrible generalization -- but quite often, on TV and things, they're portrayed as jealous and competitive and bitchy and trying to steal each other's boyfriends. There wasn't much celebrating sisters. So I wanted to write about that."

Q: When you started working on this book, did you know what the ending would be when you began? Do you outline?

A: "Yes, absolutely. I need a story with the right twist at the end. But the first draft that I did of the book, my plotting for the detective story was all over the place. It was very obvious who the baddie was, and red herrings that just didn't have a lot of interest. So I did a big rewrite and I got that structure much more securely fastened down. Then when I wrote my second book, which has just come out in the UK, I structured rigorously before I even began writing the novel. So I learnt the hard way, really."

Q: So why do you write books?

A: "I just love using loads of words, I like exploring the interior life of a character."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney; elaine.lies@thomsonreuters.com)

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