What lies behind The Good Liar? The answer I’m tempted to give is highly unsatisfactory: everything, and nothing. I need to navigate somewhere between those two extremes.
To deal with the “everything” first of all. On one level, The Good Liar is a summation of everything that’s ever happened to me: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations, the experiences, my childhood, my adulthood, my career, the people I like and those I don’t. In that sense it’s like every other novel that’s been published.
So far, so routine – so unhelpful. In another sense the book emerged from nothing: I find it impossible to link a single experience to any of the events. But hang on, that’s not true. There was a starting point. Let me explain.
In 2014 I decided to do an online novel-writing course with the London-based Curtis Brown Creative, to see whether my abilities could match up to my lifelong urge to write. The course was based on each student’s novel-in-progress. I decided I wouldn’t use or re-hash any of the abortive, unsatisfactory efforts I’d made while pursuing a career each of which was mildly embarrassing, even to me. So I needed a new idea.
It began with a character. Just one person. No plot, no scenes, no messages (I dislike messages). I began writing about him with no idea where he would take me and the rest somehow rolled out of all the nooks and crannies of my mind onto the page, in I hope a moderately coherent fashion.
A relative of whom I’m very fond, on my father’s side of the family, found herself in difficulty four or five years ago. She’d been a widow for some years and was lonely. She sought companionship – not necessarily romance, not even primarily romance, but someone to be with – and went on to the internet, where there are numerous websites, some reputable, some less so, that offer an introduction service to people of all ages.
My elderly relative found her ‘match’ and duly met him, a charming man (let’s call him Roy; it’s not his real name). She took to him immediately and he apparently to her.
It was not until he’d moved into her house in Dorset that I actually met him. Roy was imposing, bluff and ever-watchful. And he told lies all the time, regardless of whether he stood to gain by doing so. If there was a choice, he would dissemble, and generally badly. If he’d been a good liar it might have taken me longer to find out.
Not entirely by chance I met Roy’s son. I found out from him the history of broken relationships, dubious and disastrous financial gambles, threats of domestic violence and children by extramarital liaisons. Perhaps the most egregious example was his wife. Roy spoke tearfully of her, describing how she had died of cancer many years before. In fact she had divorced him owing to his emotional cruelty and now, having recovering financially and emotionally, was living contentedly in what had been the family home.
I was spared my next ethical and moral consideration: whether and if so how to break this to my relative. She was no fool herself and had independently come to the conclusion that there was something rotten in the relationship – or rather in Roy himself.
I volunteered to apply the coup de grâce. I sat down with Roy one morning and talked him quietly through the issues, persuading and cajoling by turn. When challenged with untruth after untruth he shrugged as if to say: so what? He actually did say: what are you going to do about it? Eventually, with the power of sweet reason and a little money, I convinced him to go. I’ve never heard from him since.
There were two things that made me use this as my starting point. The first was Roy himself. I was fascinated by his reflexive, opportunistic, lazy lying – not a series of carefully constructed, layered ‘cover stories’ but just what came to his mind at any given moment. If a lie was consistent with what he’d said before, all well and good. If not, so what? He was an impressive man otherwise, with bearing and intelligence. A dose of integrity, or even just an ability to convince more readily, would have seen him lead a much more successful life than the string of failures he’d left behind.
The other dimension was the situational. My research uncovered the – invisible to most of us – huge activity in elderly dating. It’s big business and I guess that should be no surprise. The yearning for one final spin of the wheel, the sense of loss and the need for companionship and belonging are all understandable.
Some find this amusing in a patronising way. I could see the sinister side, embodied in Roy. Vulnerable elderly people are in danger just when they should be safest. Those less sceptical than my relative – on whom the fictional Betty is not based – run the risk of living out their final years in misery.
This provided the basis for the first chapter. Within a week or so the whole plot, its characters, its scenes and its endings were in my head. I don’t know where they came from. I’m sure the real Roy’s life was much more mundane than that led by the fictional.
The Good Liar is just a story, a figment of my imagination. That’s the main thing. It represents a jumbled but I hope at the same time coherent set of likes and dislikes, attitudes, preoccupations, reflected and refracted views (by no means all my own), all held together by a skein of imagined people and events. It’s not a polemic, or focused on an outcome. It’s not a record of what happened in reality. I hope it’ll resonate in some hearts, that it will entertain, shock or provoke thoughts. Possibly all of these things. But that’s really up to you.
Nicholas Searle has spent more years than he cares to remember in public service working for Her Majesty’s government in the UK, and New Zealand, before deciding in 2011 to leave and begin writing fiction. He currently lives in Yorkshire, in the North of England. The Good Liar is his first novel.