How Writing Fiction Masters Fear

When novelist Harriet Lane received a serious diagnosis, she started telling stories that let her meet anxiety on her own terms.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Harriet Lane, author of Her—a book The New York Times Book Review recently said belongs “on the shelf alongside Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon”—never thought she’d write a novel. Then a mysterious illness started to impair her sight. Without fully knowing why, she quit journalism and started writing thrillers.

Her begins with what appears to be a chance encounter: Emma, an exhausted single mother, is grateful when a stranger returns her missing wallet. An unlikely friendship develops—Nina, the good samaritan, just wants to help out. But as Lane pits these two characters against one another, in dueling sections of first-person narration, we learn that Nina’s interest in Emma isn’t incidental—and she may have something sinister in mind.

In our conversation for this series, we looked at an ambiguous Phillip Larkin poem that requires the same active, alert participation Lane looks for in suspense-driven prose. Lane discussed the appeal of anxiety-inducing narratives, why some readers love to be scared, and how fiction can help writers master their own day-to-day fears.

Harriet Lane’s first novel was Alys, Always; her nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian, Vogue, The Observer and other publications. She spoke to me by email and by phone from her home in London.

Harriet Lane: Philip Larkin is a good fit for teenagers, who tend to recognize themselves in his spectacular square-peggishness. Certainly when I was an adolescent his poetry felt like a balm, even as it filled me with gloom. I liked the saddest, most hopeless poems best of all: not the despairing fury of “This Be The Verse” but the moments when, overcome with the grotesquerie of life, he seems almost to swoon away from it. Yes, I thought, as I sat in the big wooden library, popping yet another ink cartridge into my pen. Yes, that’s how it feels.

Then I’d go and have a cup of tea and a jam tart in the dining room: the backstage clatter of roasting tins as the kitchen staff attended to supper, the gossip about who had chucked whom, the boisterous cheering when a third-former dropped a tray, a long pale streak of milk all over the floor.

Larkin is the poet of post-war shabbiness and missed opportunities, of sputtering gas fires in rented rooms with damp towels slung over the backs of chairs. At my English boarding school in the 1980s—where I always seemed to be cold, hungry and misunderstood—these things resonated like mad. Larkin’s pose was that he was perpetually on the very edge of things, appalled by cut-price crowds and “teashop behaviours,” the “soft horror of living.” He was plainly frightened of people; and, endlessly surrounded by other adolescents, I (often lonely and yet never satisfactorily alone) knew all about that sort of thing.

I’m older now and less scared of people but Larkin’s economy—the bleak precise nature of his vision, his ability to sum up a life in a few devastating details—still speaks to me. And yet, predictably, I’m increasingly drawn to the moments where he seems almost to weaken, to give an inch, to gesture in a mysterious unresolved way towards hope. Is that what is happening in the “The Trees,” with its beauty and sadness and feeling for the passage of time?

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

There’s a lovely tension in this poem. Larkin resists it, the idea that trees symbolize rebirth and renewal: They only “seem” to suggest a fresh start. It’s an illusion. The “looking new” is nothing but a “trick.” Though the final line—“begin afresh, afresh, afresh”—is sort of irresistible (just the sound of the words themselves: so beautiful, so evocative), there’s the sense that he’s not buying it. This ability to undercut what he’s saying is very Larkin.

At first you think: Huh, trust the old miseryguts to see the endless death in the spring. But when you look closer, you notice it’s all of a piece: resignation and melancholy, yes, but also his joy in description. “The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said”: Of course! That’s exactly what new growth looks like. And “unresting castles” is such a lovely image, so accurate. There’s a sheer sensuous delight in the words themselves, even if the poem is constructed to suggest you shouldn’t trust them.

I didn’t really spend any time in parks until I had children, but then, when life started shaping itself around regular trips to the swings, “The Trees” floated back to me, a poem I’d never quite forgotten. My kids are much older now and I’ve passed the poem on to them: we chant it as we walk home from school, past the ponds and the walled garden and the babies’ playground, as the green bubbles out. It has become part of the spring for us, like the crocuses and the longer afternoons. Gloomy old Larkin. I’m amused that I’m handing him on, along with all that celebrated misery.

My novels Alys, Always and Her are strongly rooted in our corner of north London, and both books have scenes set in this particular park, Waterlow Park. There’s something very satisfying about having this reality to draw on, creatively.

As a writer, I seem to be interested in anxiety—and there is a real friction to this part of London. We’re sandwiched between two very different neighborhoods. Up the hill is Highgate—a more middle class, picturesque part of London. And down the hill, we have the slightly rougher, dogs-on-strings bit called Archway. Aren’t all cities like that? You walk a block one way and everything changes. In any case, there’s a certain tension to the geography that serves the kind of stories I want to tell. I like going out at dusk and peering into all the lit-up windows. If I’m lucky I might get an idea that way. My characters are always doing that sort of thing, too. Usually, though, their motives are slightly more sinister.

I never expected to write fiction. It really wasn’t on the horizon. I used to be a journalist and that scratched the itch to write, which was always very strong. Then, several years ago I started to lose my sight. It was all quite sudden and mysterious. At that point, I was freelancing—for The Guardian mostly—and so I rang all my commissioning editors and told them, I can’t do this for you now, but I’ll be back in touch when we know what’s going on. That moment really never came.

So I parked the journalism while we waited for a diagnosis. It turned out that I have this weird rare autoimmune disorder affecting the optic nerve. Today, I’ve got no sight in one eye; the other one’s okay but I have to take lots of drugs to keep things stable. Every day is slightly hand-to-mouth.

For the first year. I was full of fear, full of horror. Every morning you wake up, and it’s like a bereavement—you go through it all over again. You think: Oh my god. This is my life, and it isn’t the life I was meant to have. This isn’t what I was expecting.

I didn’t miss the journalism as such. I didn’t miss the research, or the interviews. But I missed the writing. Not writing felt like a huge loss: physical, like an ache. So after a few months I fumbled my way into a local creative writing class, a little lunchtime workshop that fitted into my children’s school day. I was so scared that first session. I guess I was worried I’d be found out, that it would be embarrassing. It was, to begin with. I felt like such a fraud, such an idiot. The whole sensation of sitting around making things up felt pretty preposterous. And then, almost immediately, it felt brilliant. Things opened up for me emotionally, somehow. Some joy came back into my life. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a bigger project or a new career—just about the pure fun of sitting in that room and having the freedom to scribble a page or so, once a week. It felt good.

A few months after starting the course, I had an idea that I couldn’t argue with. It was such a complete idea, set in a world I knew well: set in the world of newspapers, in my corner of London. There weren’t any excuses for not starting it immediately. I thought—well, why not just give it a shot?

So I started writing. Just secretly at first. I wrote without really stopping to think about it—I think if I had stopped to think what I was doing, I would have lost my nerve. Writing fiction, to me, feels a bit like the moment in those Roadrunner cartoons where he runs off the cliff and the bridge builds itself underneath his feet. You see the planks of wood flying up, supporting him, but if he stops—that’s it, he plummets. If he keeps going, though, he’ll reach the other side.

And so I wrote myself a purpose. I wrote myself back into the world. To find this fantastic new freedom—which is always how the writing feels to me: it’s a tremendous source of fun—has been an amazing surprise, one of the great true surprises of my adult life.

I certainly didn’t think about it at the time but looking back over Alys, Always and Her, I can see that these stories must serve some therapeutic purpose. In my books I get to create anxiety on my own terms. I can moderate fear and pass it on to other people. This creative, oddly communal form of anxiety feels very different from the kind I have in the back of my mind always—the fear about what will happen to my sight. There is something delicious—that’s the only word I can use to describe it—about recreating apprehension on the page.

In my everyday life I have no control, really: who does? But on paper, I hold all the cards. Fiction provides you with a way to shape a world, to exert the kind of power and agency our real lives so often lack. I seem to be drawn to characters— duplicitous or manipulative characters—who specialize in this sort of thing. Frances in Alys, Always and Nina in Her are both extremely skilled at shaping the world around them, and getting what they want from it. Nina’s whole life is about that control.

I’ve always loved writers who make me anxious, who get under my skin: Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson. I admire the way they resist the temptation to spell everything out. I like books that leave a little space for the reader. I want to be moved by books or films or paintings, and often I find I’m drawn to work that puzzles me or makes me feel uneasy. I love the sense, when I put down a book or step out of a cinema or a gallery, of being changed somehow, of having my atoms shaken up a bit. The feeling you’ve knocked heads with someone else. Being unsettled by a piece of art, being thrown or haunted by its mystery or ambiguity, is a very powerful experience for me.

In films like Hidden or Nightcrawler or books like The Legend of a Suicide or The Little Stranger, you become an active participant in the drama: you’re left with a question mark at the end, and it’s your job to fill in the blanks, to draw your own conclusions. That’s an exciting and occasionally quite a scary feeling.

Some people find this frustrating. They want everything spelled out. They want good or bad characters; they want a moral; they want to be told what to think. I find all that a bit of a turnoff. I don’t want to spoil Her for people who haven’t read it, but the ending is quite ambiguous. You get to decide. The clues are there, if you care to look for them, but they take different readers in different directions. Some readers can’t stand this; others love it. When I hear from a reader who says the book stuck with them, that the ending made them want to go back and start over again—well, that’s a good day. If I’ve got under someone’s skin, if the book stays with them for a while, then I’m happy.

And so we come back to “The Trees”: the beauty of the words, the accuracy of the descriptions, the openness of the meaning. It’s both precise and mysterious. That contradiction forces you to engage, to make up your own mind. Larkin. He’s everywhere, still. Yes. Yes, that’s how it feels.