A dozen years ago, Mo Hayder's first thriller, Birdman, was plucked from the slush pile and became a bestseller in the U.K. She opted to produce a book around the time many of the people she knew began having children. "I had a burning urge to write," said Hayder, who was then in her 30s. "My friends' biological clocks were ticking, and my writing clock was ticking away."
Birdman introduced readers to police detective Jack Caffery, who tracked murderers in London before joining Bristol's Major Crime Investigation Unit in England's West Country. Hayder's fifth novel featuring Caffery, Gone, won this year's Edgar Award for Best Novel. In the suspenseful story from the "maestro of the sinister" (New York Daily News), a crime that at first appears to be a routine carjacking is actually the abduction of the 11-year-old girl who was sitting in the vehicle's backseat.
Garnering the Edgar "is a huge honor, it really is," said Hayder. The only downside was that it required the reluctant public speaker to get up on stage and address a roomful of people. "I blame Dickens for this and Byron to a degree," she said. "They set this trend that writers have to be larger than life and have to speak and perform."
Despite having a bone to pick with Dickens, Hayder was brought up in an academic family and taught to respect the classics. She was firmly steered away from reading material like crime fiction. "If you were reading a thriller, it was the sort of thing you would hide in a brown paper cover," she said. Knowing she wanted to write but undecided as to what kind of book, it came as somewhat of a shock to realize her preference was to craft the once-forbidden thrillers. "Pretty much everything I was drawn to had a dark trajectory to it," Hayder said.
Dubbed the U.K.'s Thomas Harris, Hayder has earned a reputation for gruesome violence in her gritty thrillers. The contrast between the dark subject matter and her angelic looks has often prompted people to ask why a nice girl like her is writing "such evil stuff." (She deliberately chose the androgynous "Mo" as a pseudonym.) Getting older has a distinct advantage for Hayder in that the question is becoming less frequent. "It doesn't seem like such a huge disparity for people anymore," she said. "I can actually see a bit of change in people's attitudes."
Although writing violence-filled novels doesn't scare Hayder, researching them does. "You're finding out about reality, you're finding out about things that are actually happening to people," she noted. "Curiously, I find that once I've written about it, the nightmares go away. After it's out on the page it almost loses that power over you."
Before becoming a novelist, Hayder, who lives in the picturesque Cotswolds, worked as a barmaid, a security guard, a filmmaker, a hostess in a Tokyo club, an educational administrator and an English teacher in Asia. She has an M.A. in film from the American University in Washington, D.C., and an M.A. in creative writing from Bath Spa University in the U.K.
Along with the page-turners featuring Caffery, Hayder is the author of three stand-alone novels. The most recent, Hanging Hill, centers on a policewoman and her estranged sister as they're drawn into an underground world of sex and violence after the murder of a teenage girl. Writing stand-alone stories serves a special purpose for Hayder. Like the sorbet consumed between courses during a lavish meal, she said, "they refresh the palate."