Here are some reading group questions for The Woman Who Ran, as well as Sam’s answers to the questions.
What parallels do you draw between the main themes of this book and Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall?
I have always adored The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and wanted to explore whether, 170 years on, the themes which made it, in my view, the most outspoken and controversial of all the Brontes’ work were still relevant. Predominantly those of gender relations, marriage (and ownership within the context of that), a woman working in a man’s world, but also whether or not it was still possible to decide to vanish in a world in which we leave such an indelible trail of digital breadcrumbs.
How much, if at all, do you think Gil’s fascination with Helen has to do with his estrangement from his daughters?
An awful lot! Whether Gil realises that to begin with is another matter. He certainly does by the end.
Do you think it would be easy to disappear from your own life and leave no trace in the digital age?
No. Not no trace at all. That was one of the things that interested me most. As someone who’s very active on social media and almost umbilically attached to their smartphone, would it even be possible? And how would you go about it? Your photograph could be found through Google, your likes and dislikes through Twitter and Facebook. Using your usual email would leave traces, so would visits to websites…
What do you think makes Helen decide to trust Gil? Should Gil have rung the police once he worked out who Helen was?
Helen doesn’t trust anyone at the beginning – least of all herself. She feels hunted but we – and she – don’t know who the enemy is, or where they are. They could, quite literally, be within. To begin with she writes Gil off as just another village busy body, then, when she discovers he’s a journalist she tries to cut him out, but he’s not going anywhere. If she refuses to confide in him he has said he will go to the police – or worse to the papers. So, really, she has no choice but to tell him as much as she knows of her story in the hope she can sway him. Gil, on the other hand, is torn three ways: is she telling him the truth or stringing him along? Even she can’t guarantee she’s innocent, so should he go to the police? Or is this the scoop that would restore his purpose in life?
Helen and Art’s marriage is a difficult one. Did you believe that she would stick with him – and go back to him? What did the book highlight about domestic violence?
Of course she shouldn’t stick with him; but she does, and she goes back, just as many women in abusive relationships do every day of the week. There’s a common misconception that domestic violence (or abusive relationships) only happen to certain sorts of people, that you have to be weak to stay. I wanted to put a strong independent woman into that position and look at how she got there, why she stayed (and indeed went back) and what happened when she finally found the courage to break free. I wanted to examine the role in this of her friends and family, and show that bruises do not have to be visible to do damage and leave a lasting mark.
What do you think the significance is of the little boy in Iraq?
In the simplest terms, the little boy haunts Helen. He’s the child she doesn’t have. The innocence she loses. By the end of the book you will know that Helen has PTSD and the boy, if you like, represents all she’s done and all she’s lost in being a photojournalist, in marrying and staying in her marriage, in paring her life down to simply her work and then losing even that. But he is also her inner strength. When she most needs it, he comes.