Monday 11 February 2013

Dark, Disturbing and Addictive - Tanya Byrne reveals her writing process for Heart-Shaped Bruise

By Claire Merle

Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne breaks the rules, drawing us into a psychologically compelling story where the protagonist is the villain. As an author, I am as intrigued by Tanya Byrne's writing process as her disturbed narrator Emily Koll. Today, I have the huge pleasure of welcoming Tanya to Demention to answer some probing questions about how Emily Koll emerged, how the voice and shape of the story took form, and how Tanya managed to create such empathy for a character that is essentially 'unlikeable'. 

Hi Tanya, thank you so much for joining us here on Demention. How would you describe Heart-shaped Bruise in just a few words to someone who hasn’t heard of it before? 

Heart-Shaped Bruise is the story of Emily Koll, Archway young offenders institution's most notorious inmate. Last year, the psychiatric unit is closed and Emily's journal is found on top of one of the wardrobes. In it, Emily explains why she did what she did and why she isn't sorry at all.

I read in an interview that you originally wrote the book from Juliet’s point of view, a teenager going into Witness Protection, and that Emily Koll wasn’t introduced as a character until you were working on a second draft. Once you took the leap and began rewriting the story from Emily’s perspective, how well did you know her as a character already? How much did the story change once she was telling it? Were there any big surprises?

I don't know where Emily came from. I wish I had a romantic anecdote about a dream or a girl on the bus, but all I can say is that one moment she was there, and there she wasn't. She's the one character in Heart-Shaped Bruise that I didn't question or fret over, she just was. I knew her take on events would be riveting, but I'd written a whole novel from Juliet's point of view and was reluctant to throw away all of those words, so in the second draft I alternated their POVs. I got about 40k in and realised that it was Emily's chapters I looked forward to writing the most, she made me laugh and scared me a little. Writing villains are so much fun because you can push them so much further and I really pushed Emily. I knew that I had to start again but the thought of doing all of that work again was unbearable. A friend convinced me not to, saying that no one would read a book from the villain's point of view, especially a debut. But I'm a contrary so-and-so, so as soon as she said that, I started again, determined to prove her wrong. I hope I have. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. I finished Emily's draft in three months and it was an utter joy to write. I knew then that I'd made the right decision.

Using a diary format is a very effective way of unfolding the story, and also preparing the reader to accept what Emily does. How did you come about this decision and how conscious was it?

I had to use a diary format, because the whole point of the book is Emily setting the record straight. I considered doing this in a series of newspaper articles and police interviews, but they wouldn't be as honest, as vulnerable. As Emily says in her first entry, she leaves pieces of herself all over London. She tells her psychiatrist, Doctor Gilyard, some things, her friends at Archway some things. She scratches things into walls, writes on the back of receipts, but the journal is the only place she keeps everything.

At what stage in the writing process did you decide to set a Heart-Shaped Bruise in a young offenders’ institution and how did this alter the tone and feel of the book? Was it a decision you felt immediately comfortable with or an idea you played around with before committing?

I knew I wanted to tell the story backwards, so it had to be set at Archway. If it started the day she was released, or during her trial, or even the day she finds out who her father really is, it would have been a completely different book. Any of those stories would have been compelling, but there's was something about Archway, about the inmates and the routine and the claustrophobia, that was a thrill to write after writing Juliet's point of view, which was much more 'normal' and included going to college and being at home and snogging her boyfriend.

I actually grew up in a little side street off Archway Road between Highgate and Archway. (Sorry had to slip that in – small world and all that!) I was curious, why Archway and why invent a fictional young offenders’ institution rather that one that already exists?

I hope it feels authentic! When my mother first moved to this country, she used to work around there - as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital - and my brother is an Arsenal fan, so when picking a location, it seemed obvious. There aren't many female young offenders institutions and I wanted to avoid comparisons with an existing one, so I made one up, which gave me much more freedom.

You have an unreliable narrator who has done bad things and technically isn’t that likable. But you manage to create great empathy with her and a sense that she is carried along by a tide she cannot really control. Can you give us any clues as to how you managed that?

Thank you! I guess I just tried to make her human. Actually, not make her human, rather show her to be human, which is. I think the most unsettling thing about Heart-Shaped Bruise is that you wonder, with the right people around her and enough support, if Emily would have done any of the things she did. That was the question I was trying to ask with this book, if we're all a couple of bad decisions away from doing similar.

The reader is drawn through the story by a strange compulsion to know what it is, exactly, that Emily has done to get her locked up in the psychiatric ward of a young offenders’ institution. When you wrote your first draft from Emily’s perspective did you know what she’d done and how the story would end?

Absolutely. It's the same story, but in Juliet's draft I told the story forwards and in Emily's, I tell it backwards. I think that's common for most writers; we know how a story begins and ends, it's just that annoying bit in the middle!

Do you have a favourite line or scene from Heart-shaped Bruise and if so, can you share it with us?

My favourite chapter, and the one I read out at events, if my emotions will allow it, is the scene where Emily burns Juliet's photo. It's such a despicable thing to do, and Emily knows it. She knows that's the point of no return and it broke my heart to write.

Thank you so much Tanya for joining us. For all of you out there searching for a book with a powerful voice, intriguing narrator and an addictive, provocative read, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy!


They say I'm evil. The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who shake their heads on the six o’clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me. And everyone believes it. Including you. But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. 

Who I could have been.

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time. 

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.


  1. Okay. I'm sold. And hey I live near Archway and for the record am very fond of the area. But I will still read the book. Looking forward to it.

    1. Heart Shaped Bruise is one of my favourite books of 2012: read it!

  2. Great post Claire, really insightful (and thanks to Tanya)