An interview with LUKE JENNINGS by IONA RANGLEY-WILSON
When I knock on the door of the address Luke Jennings has given me in Highgate, the housekeeper who opens it seems to deny his existence. She must have misheard me, because she returns a moment later and lets me in, but it does remind me, ironically, of the secretive world of his books: an MI5 officer living in leafy North London might well be suspicious of strangers who come knocking on their door.
Of course, I am no longer talking about Luke Jennings, but Eve Polastri, the creation of his Codename Villanelle books. You might know her from BBC America’s Killing Eve.
Luke is a British author, journalist and dance critic. His past novels include Atlantic (1995), which takes place on a cruise ship in the post-war years and was nominated for the Booker Prize, and Beauty Story (1998), a novel about a young actress disappearing from a castle. The Codename Villanelle series started in the form of short Kindle eBooks in 2014. A compilation of four of these form the first 2018 novel, which was followed by the airing of the TV Series by Killing Eve: No Tomorrow in 2019. Killing Eve: Endgame is scheduled for release in 2020.
Series One of BBC America’s Killing Eve was adapted for the screen by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and premiered in 2018. It starred Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri and Jodie Comer as the psychopathic assassin Villanelle in an obsessive cat-and-mouse chase, and won the BAFTA for Best Drama Series, with a nomination for the Golden Globe.
In a Vogue 73 Questions video with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the interviewer asks how Phoebe would condense Killing Eve into an easily-digestible soundbite. She looks at the camera with mock ferocity and responds, “Um…Murder, Murder, Hair.” This does a pretty good job of summarising the series’ strange appeal, which lands somewhere between an evocation of horror at violence and a carefree glamorisation of wealth, clothes, sex, beauty. Both book and TV series manage to catch the dual meaning behind thriller – to thrill being something which induces both fear and excitement. Do we envy Villanelle or does she repulse us? Murder, Murder, Hair.
It’s a strange concept, and my first question to Luke is where this idea even came from. Why did he choose to write a thriller when his previous novels hadn’t been thrillers, and why the two female protagonists?
“I don’t really like drawing the line between thrillers and other books,” Luke tells me, “and I don’t think the Codename Villanelle books are formula thrillers, in fact they were very much intended to reverse that idea, to respect the conventions of the thriller but turn the whole genre on its head a bit. But that’s not what I set out to do: I just wanted to write the book that I would want to read.”
“I’d had the character of Villanelle in my head for a long time,” he adds. “A character you could have a lot of fun with but that also makes you ask some very awkward questions. I wanted to see how sympathetic you could make a really bad character and how bad you could make a sympathetic character. How outrageous does her behaviour have to be before you fail to be on her side?
“I thought it would be fun to have a cat-and-mouse chase between two protagonists and to see where it led. All manhunts and murder hunts become a kind of quest, more than a question of just finding a person. The more the seeker seeks, the more invested they become, the more their quarry becomes the object of their obsession. What starts off as an intellectual interest begins to seep, like ink on blotting paper, into every corner of Eve’s life and thoughts. And Eve and Villanelle are both more interested in each other than the people around them, the people they’re working for, who tend to underrate them. Obsession is like addiction. You don’t see it coming. It’s incremental. It builds up. And that’s what I wanted to show for both of these women. It builds up until it’s actually guiding their actions. And the whole cat and mouse pursuit starts becoming much more complicated than that, it starts to become a kind of courtship.”
In the Killing Eve, Codename Villanelle world, obsession extends beyond the page and screen. One Villanelle fan account on Instagram holds the bio “your favourite female assassin” followed by a cutesy love heart emoji. An image of Villanelle leaving a Paris hospital in children’s pop-art pyjamas, having just snapped the neck of a fellow patient, is captioned “How could you not love this Angel.” Other captions include “precious”, “she’s so cute” and “admit it…you’re in love with her psychotic face”, followed by the dribble emoji. I ask Luke if he finds it strange having fans who idolise this sociopathic character.
Luke tells me that he doesn’t, explaining that the people who are passionately interested in Villanelle tend to be young women, and particularly women from the LGBTQ+ community. “Because she doesn’t care,” he says. “She does what she likes, she lives exactly as she likes, without anxiety, without any of the pressures on her that seem to overwhelm a lot of young people today. I think it’s that nonchalance that they like because it’s so desirable at a time when that’s the last thing that most people feel. She has no anxiety, and she thrives, she prevails, she’s stylish, and she’s powerful. And so for a lot of fans who live difficult lives, Villanelle’s attitude and style are quite inspiring. She has in a sense beaten the system in that she has the beautiful flat, all the money she could ever spend, the wonderful clothes, the admiration of everyone who sees her. And in life of course these things come at a cost. And she doesn’t pay the price. Most of us would not kill other people in return for all those things. She doesn’t care, she likes it, it’s fine by her, so she wins. And in a bleak way that winning is appealing to the generation of Killing Eve fans.”
“And how did you go about researching the psychology of sociopathy?” I ask.
“I read the books. And I read them very much without a particular gender for the person I was thinking about. There’s an American psychologist called Robert Hare who has written some very key textbooks that FBI profilers use, about the specific attributes that psychopaths have. I talked to one police specialist who dealt with psychopaths and she said that they’re mostly just assholes. They’re not admirably complex, they’ve just got a lot missing, and they’re just horrible. But I looked at all these attributes and I thought, if you spun them in certain ways, could they be not virtues but strengths? Mindhunter is about the development of the FBI behavioural profiling, and it’s fantastic but all of the subjects are men, and so what we’ve taken as attributes of all psychopaths actually tend to be the attributes of male psychopaths. And female psychopaths are slightly different, I think. One example was Idoia Lopez Riano, or La Tigresa, and her modus operandi was to entrap policemen with offers of sex, and then kill them. And she did this to twenty-three men. She was amazing looking, the sort of person who could have been successful in everyday life: she had a strong personality, a commanding appearance, she was cool, fashionable, all of these things. And yet that’s what she chose to do. There’s this notion that all psychopaths are losers and they’re not – it’s no accident that so many male psychopaths are CEOs of huge corporations.
“So I discovered in the course of all this that the making of a psychopath is not just A + B = C. It’s a complex series of opportunities and disadvantages, any of which could have led that person in different directions. Psychiatrists also now say that it is possible for psychopaths to fall in love, and for that love to be a version of what the rest of us know. They can live decent lives, they can recognise their condition and adjust for it. So it’s all quite ambiguous.”
The female characters in the book are matched by female screenwriters of the series. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the head writer for Series One, Emerald Fennel for Series Two, and Suzanne Heathcote is set to take over for Series Three. I ask Luke whether this decision was a deliberate one.
“When Codename Villanelle was optioned I went to see the producers and they had a list of possible screenwriters, and I felt very strongly that the screenwriter should be a woman. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was then not a name people knew at all. She’d just done Fleabag at the Edinburgh Festival as a one woman show. I watched it in London and I thought she had the kind of fearlessness that I wanted. We met up, it turned out she’d read the stories, and she wanted to do it!”
It’s hardly surprising that Luke’s books were so quickly snapped up for TV adaptation. The books are very fast-paced – focusing, in a fitting way, given the psychopath subject – on the immediate and the visible far more than anything emotional. They have a screenplay-like feel. Following Villanelle’s first response to a text-assassination summons, she is described as “out of there without a word, and in less than a minute is swinging into a northbound stream of traffic on her Vespa.” Condensing time and detail into swiftness and motion, the line could easily describe a glimpse of a TV scene: Villanelle drives a Vespa to an assassination in Tuscany in the very first episode of Series One. I ask him if he always wanted his books to be adapted for film or television, or if the suggestion was a total surprise to him.
“No, it wasn’t,” he tells me. “I thought right from the start that these would make good TV. So the novellas I wrote were episode length. I always thought of them as episodes as much as chapters. I deliberately wrote them in a very visual way, describing what you could see at any moment, so they would serve as a sensory inspiration to anyone who might read them, and hopefully make them think that they would make good TV. I tried to get them on the desks of people who were involved in TV.”
“Was that part of the reason you chose to write them as eBooks?” I ask.
“Yes, it was, actually. I’d been down the conventional publishing route numerous times before. There are huge disadvantages to eBooks, obviously, but the advantage is that you write them and they’re out a week later. There is no eighteen month hiatus while the publishers sit on their hands. I wanted something that I could immediately refer people to, so I started writing these stories of about 15,000 words each. People are much more prepared to read something of that length, something that they can read on the train on the way home. I made them fast-paced because I wanted them to be exciting. They’re quite short, but they’re very pared down, so there’s no fat on them, no wasting time on the things that writers like to include but readers tend to ignore. So they’re not particularly contemplative. You learn about the characters from what they do.”
The books – at least in terms of their size and language – are designed for fast consumption, and yet their content challenges commonplace conceptions. Perhaps their simplicity allows us to better swallow this idea of a strangely admirable sociopathic female assassin, like washing a pill down with water.
So the Codename Villanelle books were designed for the screen. A series adapted from a book with TV in mind must be different from the condensing-into-screenplay-form of a long novel. With less plot to erase, the adaptation would surely be more straightforward. And yet the Killing Eve series diverges somewhat from the original books. I ask Luke whether this is something he struggled with. “Did it challenge your artistic integrity, or change the way you viewed your own work? Or was it something you came to embrace?”
“No, not at all. A novel is the work of one person; a TV series the work of two hundred. You can choose to like or not like an adaptation of your book, but you have to understand that it’s going to be very different, because of the difference between the two media. Television devours incident, whereas in a book you can say what’s happening in your own time. The thing I wanted to see at the centre of the TV series was that central relationship between Eve and Villanelle. That was the important thing. I was involved in story-lining the first series. I went a long way along the road with the TV makers and Phoebe who was writing it, and we had a long time to do it. We had about eighteen months to get it right, to talk about those characters and their relationships, and how we were going to take stories from the book and turn them into stories that you could see and hear on the TV.”
“Even if the series diverging from the original book isn’t something that bothers you, do you think it still had an affect on your plans for Villanelle?” I ask him. “Perhaps subtly changing the paths of your sequels, No Tomorrow and Endgame? Or did you stick fiercely to an original plan?”
“No, because I wasn’t really involved in the second series. As a writer you can’t track the TV series and the TV series can’t track the book. If you try, either the TV series or the book inches ahead, and one spoils the other. So in Killing Eve, the TV series exists in the universe created by the book, but you don’t see the same series of events, just the same central characters.
“The series wasn’t called Killing Eve until quite a long time through the creative process. It didn’t really have a name at all, and then BBC America wanted Eve to be an American, and the psychopath could be British – they had no problem with that. They also wanted Eve’s name in the title. So I came up with Killing Eve. None of us knew exactly what it meant, but it sounded right.”
So Villanelle, the creation of Luke’s eBooks, takes on a life of her own through television and ‘fandom’, and Luke is happy to let her lead the way, to watch his character develop in a fictional world that has ceased to be entirely his own. As the Talking Heads might ask, “Psycho Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
IONA RANGLEY-WILSON reads English at Magdalen College. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
Artwork by Alex Haveron-Jones