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Luke Jennings

The author of the Killing Eve books discusses his new novel Panic

The author of the Killing Eve books discusses his new novel Panic

“Writers of fiction are no longer handing down tablets of stone,” says Luke Jennings. “You’re creating worlds and characters that readers invest in, to the point that they’ll invent, twist and add things for their own purpose. You’re just starting something that people will run with in many different directions.”

The 69-year-old author of the three novellas that inspired BBC America’s hit series Killing Eve has witnessed this happening firsthand. In 2018 he was invited to join an online group chat about Villannelle, the female assassin whose brutal, conscienceless slayings drove those stories. Logging on at midnight, Jennings found he’d started a quasi-religion.

“We stan one soft assassin.”
“We truly do.”
“She validates us.”
“She’s saved us.”
“She’s our precious, perfect bean.”

To “stan” means to idolise. Jennings was surprised. “It was quite a strange experience,” he tells me. “I created Villanelle. She’s a psychopath. I did a lot of research into how psychopaths work. But these fans felt they had to protect this really quite appalling character because they were projecting.” Jennings shrugs lightly when I ask, “Projecting what?”

“I believe men and women, old and young have more in common than most people like to think”

“I think a lot of people hooked onto Villanelle’s power,” he says. “She does whatever the hell she wants and they wanted some of that for themselves. She’s a great antidote to the anxiety and exhaustion that goes along with trying to keep everyone happy. Pleasing the employers, the family, your teachers, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, whoever. Villannelle rather gloriously doesn’t give a shit about any of that. She’s a breath of fresh air.”

Talking via Zoom from his book-lined study, the author reminds me of an old-school psychologist: black polo neck, glasses, neatly trimmed greying beard. He absorbs my questions with small, punctuating expressions: a twitch at the corner of the mouth, a flickering crease of the brow. Much more careful and professorial in person than in his punchy modern prose. But then he’s used to keeping secrets. Former MI5 Director General, Dame Stella Rimington, acknowledged his “help with the research and the writing” of her first novel, Risk. Will he comment on that? A semi-quaver of a smile. “Absolutely not.”

He’s equally – and more unexpectedly – resistant to questions about his early career in dance. But I read online that he trained at the Rambert School as one of the students of the Expressionist and Integrated dance teacher Hilde Holger. “I did that until I was 30,” he says, “then I started writing journalism and fiction at around the same time.” When he wasn’t busy keyboard tapping as the Observer’s dance critic, he followed his journalistic nose into the lives of “outsiders, doing strange things.”

“I was curious about the night workers, the people who claim to have killed vampires, people who worked undercover in Northern Ireland and so on,” he tells me. “After several years, I was struck more by their similarities than the differences. The things that draw people out of the mainstream and into the backwaters, into these dark places, is not so unrelated as you might think.” He blinks sharply. “They have a determination not to live the life that is served up to them, but to turn against expectations and make their own. These can be lives which are very challenging and lonely – that’s both their strength and their vulnerability.”

Being a novelist is a little like that, surely? “Yeees,” he concedes. “If you take a conventional path in life then persistence will probably take you a fair amount of the way towards where you want to go. If you take the odder path you risk failure and complete obscurity, but you are nevertheless a player in the world in which extraordinary things can occur. As a writer, failure is the probability but there is a chance where you might do super well.”

Published in 1993, Jennings’ first novel, Breach Candy told the story of a recently retired ballerina. His second novel, Atlantic (1995) was longlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2010 he published what he describes to me as “a memoir disguised as a book about fishing,” called Blood Knots: a Memoir of Fishing and Friendship, about “childhood innocence, paternal love and his friendship with the charismatic, enigmatic” Captain Robert Nairac, who was later killed by the IRA while working as an intelligence officer in Ireland; it was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.

“Fishing,” he tells me, “is just worms and mud to most people.” But to Jennings it’s a “99 per cent imaginative pursuit. You spend all your time thinking about what’s happening beneath the surface of water that your eyes can’t penetrate, trying to project your vision beneath it. There’s a parallel with the conscious and subconscious mind. So fishing is a psychically exploratory activity, even if that isn’t how it feels when you’re standing in your wellies in the rain…”

Luke Jennings – The writer advised Dame Stella Rimington on her first novel and had an early career as a ballet dancer

He began writing the Villanelle stories six years later. Codename Villanelle was published in 2017, No Tomorrow in 2018, and Die For Me in 2020. Writing in the Observer he explained: “I’ve always been a thriller fan. At school I read and reread the James Bond novels and remain an Ian Fleming devotee. But the genre has got stale. Say what you like about Bond and his womanising, the man had style. Today’s male thriller heroes are, almost without exception, humourless bores. All those Special Forces fuck-ups and wry, loner cops. All that embittered whisky drinking and late-night jazz. All that technology fetishism. Why not turn the genre on its head, I wondered. Why not have some fun?”

The story exploded into the mainstream when Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge turned Jennings’ stories of Villanelle and the detective pursuing her into must-watch TV. Driven by two powerful, complicated female protagonists, the show was widely regarded as part of a feminist revolution in mainstream entertainment, and many viewers were startled to discover the characters had been invented by a man. Jennings thinks that’s irrelevant.

“I believe men and women, old and young have more in common than most people like to think,” he says. “You should be judged on your work. If it feels patronising or inaccurate then of course people have a right to feel injured.” He shrugs. “It’s up to us to get it right. To create characters that are not glibly conceived. And characters do need time to become themselves in your mind.” He doesn’t mind that many people think his characters are Waller-Bridge’s creations. “I wrote the books, she wrote the scripts. Her Villanelle is almost precisely my Villanelle.” He smiles. “But then the fans extracted their versions and sent all the characters in completely different directions.” Online you can find fanfic about vampire Villanelles and saintly Villanelles and – inevitably – Villanelles having a lot of sex. “All this was happening while I was writing the books,” nods Jennings. “So the characters existed in so many parallel universes. I felt sometimes that I was only writing one of many Villannelles.”

Jennings’ new thriller, Panic, was inspired by the Villanelle chatrooms

“Lots of the fans were very keen to tell me stuff about Villanelle and Eve,” he chuckles. “I was told I was not quite right about these characters I’d invented. Some of the fans were determined that she could do no wrong. ‘And the murders?’ I’d ask. ‘Well, no one’s perfect’, they’d say.”

Jennings’ new thriller, Panic, was inspired by these chatrooms. It follows a group of characters (based in Russia, America and the UK) who are all obsessed with a TV sci-fi show called Pandora. They’re trans, gay, outsiders. Yearning to fit in socially and yet also driven by an impulse to stand out and be special. In Pandora a female alien has travelled across the universe to make a connection with a female earthling. As in Killing Eve, there’s a sexual tension between the two leads, although Jennings writes very wittily about the bad relationship between the two actresses playing the parts. The role of the alien is taken by an entitled British actress called Alice who treats her staff like slaves as she struggles to maintain her career at 38. It’s an age when, Jennings writes, most actresses get stuck with the mum roles – “bashing plates on tables for brattish teenagers” – while their husbands dash off to save the world in the company of younger women with big guns and bigger tits.

But off-screen Alice is being beaten up by her husband, who also produces the show. Her make-up artist joins the online chat community and fulfils the fans’ fantasy of involvement by inviting them to LA to rescue Alice from domestic abuse. “I’m interested in classical ideas of metamorphosis,” Jennings explains, “in lives that are dramatically changed. That’s what I wanted to put these characters through. A process by which they got their wish and find their lives are turned upside down.”

In the world of Panic, all the world’s far-right communities have united under one banner. They’re called “Legion”. “The internet has made right-wing thuggery a global phenomenon,” Jennings says. “But it’s called different things in different places. I had this nightmarish idea: what if it’s one thing? So that everywhere you went, there they were with their insignia and their rallies?” He says that his fictional Legion combines aspects of the more “ridiculous” groups: “North America’s neofascist Proud Boys and bits of Russian skinhead stuff. But also some of the more dangerous groups, those with pretensions to some kind of cerebral world view. To me those people are very frightening… because people that smart must surely know somewhere inside themselves that what they say isn’t true?”

And yet membership of these groups relies on everyone maintaining and contributing to the fake narrative. Just as writers of fan fiction collude with the original author. “Like playing a ouija board,” says Jennings. “Everyone swears they’re not moving the board because they want to believe in it. But they all know on some level that they’re all moving the board.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail 

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Arts & Culture, May 2023

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