It could have been any kind of modelling shoot, with the blonde windswept on the beach. Except this is Mo Hayder and, as befits one of the most successful - and most violent - crime writers, she clambers out of the Thames, drenched to her tiny thighs, exclaiming “My bones!”
Where others could see only pebbles and broken bottles, there in her delicate hands are two coppery pieces of skeleton, one part of a jaw, with teeth, the other looking like a baby's pelvis. Human? “Nah, animal,” she says, stroking them with expert confidence.
“But it's interesting to find them - reminds me of Adam, who was found a little way upstream,” she says, talking of the boy's torso discovered nearly seven years ago floating in London's river.
That case inspired her latest and fifth novel, Ritual, which opens with its heroine, a police diver, finding a severed hand in Bristol harbour. It goes on to delve into a dark world of African human sacrifice, as practised here in Britain, in the grotesque and psychologically disturbing manner that has earned her so many fans around the world. It may surprise (and disappoint?) them to know that it does not feature hardcore violence against women or children, but replaces it with another taboo - race.
Hayder has been a sensation. Her debut, Birdman, published in 2000, was an international bestseller; her second, The Treatment, won the 2002 W.H.Smith Thumping Good Read award. Tokyo, her third novel, won the Elle magazine crime fiction prize, the SNCF Prix Polar, and was nominated for three Crime Writers' Association dagger awards. Pig Island, her fourth bestseller, was published in April 2006 and was nominated for a CWA dagger.
Exceptionally bright, friendly and chatty, Hayder is an excellent person with whom to strip off one's socks, drying them on the pub radiator while sipping a hot chocolate. But it will only be a few minutes before she says something that jolts you out of cosy. Suddenly you forget her other life, as Somerset mother, and you're plunged in murky waters. Take, for instance, her description of the quarry diving she did as research for Ritual.
“I could see the next section of the quarry, farther down, and it was like a siren call, I just wanted to go deeper. That image of what happens in diving accidents, when people just start swimming inexorably downwards ... I find it almost beautiful.”
Other writers famous for testing the limits of acceptability - and their readers' stomachs - such as J.G.Ballard, Patricia Cornwell, or James Ellroy, share the memory of being victims of or witnesses to violence while young. Their books are a kind of purging. But what of Hayder? She and her brother were brought up in a safe middle-class bubble, the children of a teacher and an academic, their mother especially sensitive to violence and keen to shield them from it.
“I have a really normal background. Like most mothers, mine wanted to protect our innocence. That was the last thing I wanted, I wanted to throw my innocence out the window.”
This she did with aplomb, leaving school at 15, exploring the seedier side of life in London, and then Tokyo, where she worked as a hostess in a nightclub. She felt herself as a kind of lightning rod for violence: suicides, murders and untimely deaths happened around her. When she then moved to Los Angeles to study film, she made cute Wallace and Gromit Claymation-style cartoons - in which the creatures pulled each other's heads off and ate them.
For the rest of the interview from The Times go here.