Why Write a Novel About HER?

06/07/2012 15:58 BST | Updated 05/09/2012 10:12 BST

Why did you write a novel about her? About Myra Hindley, a woman who killed children? It's the question I'm most frequently asked about my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, and is both hard and easy to answer.

The easy answer is that my imagination was caught by an idea. I was already buzzing, having just finished an Arvon course with two of the writers I most admire, Marina Warner and Edmund White. I drove from Lumb Bank, Ted Hughes' former home, across the theatrical M62 motorway, which climbs slowly up across the moors towards Yorkshire. When I got to my friend Alex's house, I mentioned the creepy feeling of seeing the turn-off for Saddleworth, where Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried most of their victims.

"Do you think she's still alive?" he asked.

The answer was "No", and then astonishingly, as if from nowhere, "But I know there's a novel in it."

That was the beginning of over five years of writing and research. An idea, you see, is not enough. You have to live with these characters, inhabit their actions in a process of emotional absorption that runs parallel to your own life. At the start it was difficult and I referred to Myra Hindley as 'M.' Her own name seemed too familiar, as if I was condoning what she had done-her collusion in the murder of five young people in the early 1960s, her use of her own femininity to lure them. Later I discovered that Ian Brady himself called her 'M.'

The material was dark and disturbing, and many people can't understand why a writer would persevere with it. But that's the point. Unless we look, really look at the terrible things human beings do to each other, we have no chance of understanding how and why they happen.

I spent many years as a freelance journalist, starting off with light-hearted stories that gave me a chance to have fun and show off my writing skills: I went off for the weekend with a Cardiff rugby club, penetrated a football dressing room, interviewed a woman who gave gourmet food to her cat and short shrift to her husband.

But I was also drawn to bleaker, more difficult topics, such as prostitution, bereavement, suicide and Satanic ritual abuse. The last nearly cost me my sanity as a journalist. I did lengthy, heavily researched pieces that were paid for by newspapers but then never used. They'd say they didn't believe it or the piece was libellous, ignoring the fact that I'd worked with their own lawyer to make it legally watertight.

Only one big piece got through, for Guardian Weekend magazine when Deborah Orr was its editor. She was brave enough to hear the lawyer's argument that the article tended to suggest the parents in a particular case were guilty - and to publish it anyway.

Ever since the Orkney case, there has been a consensus in newspapers that Satanic Ritual Abuse doesn't happen and that parents are always innocent. It's a position that saves a lot of legal fees. I think something similar is happening in the beleagured publishing industry. Publishers know that there will be many who object to the idea of treating Myra Hindley and Ian Brady as human beings, which is what fiction, after all, requires. They don't want the aggravation.

Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were human beings. Depraved, corrupt, cruel, but human beings nevertheless. Exploring their humanity seems to me a legitimate aim of fiction. More legitimate than taking the callous acts of serial killers and sensationalising them for entertainment, as so much of popular crime fiction does.

My novel uses the Moors Murders only in a few flashbacks. The rest tries to create the normal world that the fictional Myra Hindley would have come out to and to show how she would have acted in normal situations. A self-appointed critic at the recent Glasgow launch of the novel lashed out at me for making Brady and Hindley "cool". Had he read the book he would have known I do not. 'My' Hindley is selfish, hedonistic, a petty pilferer and a love cheat. 'My' Brady is what I know him to be from my correspondence with him, a deeply angry man with great nostalgia for the Scotland of his childhood.

Brady and Hindley killed innocent young people - a 16-year-old on her way to a dance, a cheeky kid who hung around the market, a little girl at a Boxing Day funfair. The juxtaposition of such life, such joy with what happened to those young people is unbearable to contemplate.

But we have to. We are humans too.