Smart Homes, Poison Gardens, and Henry James: An Interview with Ruth Ware

Smart Homes, Poison Gardens, and Henry James: An Interview with Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware

Are you attached to your Alexa? Do you control various aspects of your home from your smartphone? Prepare to be creeped out. Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, tells the story of a nanny in a smart home that turns downright harrowing. Bookish chatted with Ware about her newest novel, the pitfalls of smart homes, and the allure of poison gardens.

Bookish: What about The Turn of the Screw by Henry James inspired you?

Ruth Ware: Well I feel terrible admitting this, but I actually hadn’t read The Turn of the Screw when I started writing. I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about governess and ghosts, but that was about it. When I started writing The Turn of the Key, it was about a nanny being tormented by a smart house and the inspiration came more from various articles I’d read on smart house abuse and some horror stories I’d heard from friends about nannying. It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental. It’s no spoiler to say that I loved it; it’s tense and utterly terrifying! Of course at that point I realized how many themes our books shared, and clearly the title is an acknowledgement of that fact.

Bookish: This is an interesting epistolary novel, because the vast majority of the book features letters from the protagonist to another character who never writes back. Were you tempted to write responses from Mr. Wrexham, or did you always know the correspondence would be one-sided in this way?

RW: Hmm… it’s a good question. I can’t remember really even thinking about it as a should I / shouldn’t I decision. I think I was always more interested in a one-sided correspondence, partly because it allows the reader to imagine they’re being addressed, rather than feeling like a bystander. And partly because it sets up obvious questions about perspective and reliability. How much can we trust the writer when we only have one side of events?

Bookish: It’s fascinating how a smart house basically takes the place of a haunted house in this novel. How did you decide to fill the house with cameras, microphones, speakers, and panels instead of ghosts?

RW: Fear of technology you can’t control has been with us for ages—it goes right back to when people first started imagining the possibility of artificial intelligence. From the creepily subservient HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey through to Philip K. Dick’s humanoid robots, who look and feel just like us but have their own very different motivations, people have tried to imagine what it would be like to encounter a technology with its own agenda. The funny thing is though that many of the films and shows we watch today have their roots back in the 1960s, when a battle with technology meant your TV showing static during your favorite show. AI turned hostile was a distant imaginary bogeyman. Now that AI is an everyday thing, we’re much more comfortable with it, and we’re letting it into our lives in so many ways. I’m as welded to my smartphone as anyone, but I was really interested in peeling away the familiarity and exploring the creepy side of that technology, from the kind of stuff many of us have experienced—an over-engineered hotel light that won’t switch off —right through to more extreme forms of dysfunction.

Bookish: There’s a fear of surveillance permeating this book. What drew you to this theme?

RW: Being watched is a really universal fear, and it’s one that’s changed so much over the years. It’s no longer enough to look over your shoulder and see if anyone’s around before you adjust your bra, now you have to wonder if there are any cameras trained on you. At first it was surveillance outside the house. Then in shops and offices. Now we have the fear of surveillance inside our own homes, with devices that can be hacked or abused. However, as with most threats, while we worry about strangers accessing our webcams or listening into our home hubs, the truth is that statistically we are more at risk from people we know. There have been a number of articles in the press in the past couple of years about the phenomenon of smart abuse, where one person is digitally savvy and uses home technology to control or even in some cases terrorize their partner. Some of these cases have ended up in court—the first prosecution for smart abuse in the UK was in May 2018, when a husband was convicted of spying on his estranged wife via their home hub. It’s a growing problem, and one that can be very hard to prove or police. Fortunately I’ve not experienced any of this personally, but I’ve definitely had that moment in a fitting room where I’ve wondered, is this one of the states where it’s legal to film people getting changed?

Bookish: There are many descriptions of the architecture of Heatherbrae House in this novel. How did you decide what the house would look like?

RW: Setting is always really important to me when I write; I have a very visual imagination and I can’t write a scene until I’ve imagined the backdrop to that scene. I suppose I had just written a book about a crumbling, run-down gothic mansion (The Death of Mrs. Westaway) and I wanted to write a setting that was creepy in a very different way—characterized by an excess of money and luxury, rather than the reverse. So I just tried to think about the kind of house you would build if that was your agenda—total comfort. As I wrote and the house developed, it also came to symbolize the themes of the novel: how people, like houses, can have a sleek, moneyed veneer, but what is beneath that when you scratch below the surface is something quite different.

Bookish: The poison plants in this book reminded me of We Have Always Lived In the Castle. Were you at all inspired by that novel?

RW: Until you said it, I hadn’t made the connection, but I adore We Have Always Lived in the Castle and yes, I’m sure there probably was some kind of subconscious association there. But outside of literature, I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of poison gardens—there are quite a few in the UK and Ireland, and they are often added to big country houses as an additional tourist attraction. I am not sure why I decided to include it —maybe because so much of the book was about the power of technology, I wanted to show that the natural world can be quite as deadly as anything human beings can dream up.

Bookish: What other creepy books have you read and loved recently?

RW: I recently read Riley Sager‘s Lock Every Door which has a fabulous gothic setting: a super-lux New York apartment block. (It’s another “be careful what you wish forz” book!) Louise Candlish‘s Our House is another book about what happens when your home turns from a place of refuge into somewhere you can’t feel safe. And for atmospheric settings, I really enjoyed Erin Kelly‘s Stone Mothers which revolves around a crumbling, disused asylum—the ultimate creepy location.

Bookish: What can readers expect from you next?

RW: Another book of course! But it’s too early to tell you what it’s about—I’m still figuring that out myself. 

Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and The New York Times, and she is published in more than 40 languages. She lives on the south coast of England, with her family.

Elizabeth Rowe
Elizabeth is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. She is based in San Francisco and can frequently be found at Philz with her nose in a book. Her current obsession is the My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and she thoroughly embarrassed herself when she met him shortly after the release of volume four (and she has the photos to prove it).


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