Killing Eve: Author Luke Jennings reveals how runaway success was born as he returns to Yorkshire
“I went there on a scholarship and spent four years there,” he says. “I loved the fact it was set in this fantastic countryside. I spent as much time as I could outside. I was a cross-country runner and I was a fisherman and there were lakes in the school grounds and rivers nearby and I spent nearly every free moment cycling to rivers with a fishing rod.
“I didn’t want to be at a boarding school but the moors and the rivers made up for that in a way. I’d grown up in the country in Sussex so I was very much a country boy and Yorkshire was a fantastic place and still is.”
This was back in the late 1960s.Today, Jennings, who is appearing at Raworths Literature Festival in Harrogate, on Sunday, is a successful writer and journalist.
He’s best known for his Codename Villanelle stories which were the inspiration behind the smash hit TV series Killing Eve, starring Sandra Oh, who plays MI5 officer Eve, and Jodie Comer, who plays Villanelle, a female assassin.
His latest novel #PANIC is a genre-defying thriller and an empowering tale of young adults embracing their identities in a world that has tried to marginalise them.
“It’s definitely a mash-up of genres,” he says of his new book. “I was trying to give a new group of people an adventure, people whose stories are normally pushed to the background or marginalised. I thought it would be fun to give them a straight up adventure, a road-trip, as well as an on the run kind of adventure. In a sense it’s a very conventional adventure story and I wanted readers to think "will they make it and will they find the truth?’”
What’s particularly interesting about Jennings’ story is he trained to be a dancer.
“I very much wanted to perform but knew I wasn’t an actor and was looking for a world that had nothing to do with the world of my upbringing and the world of Ampleforth College. So this was something I could come to completely fresh. I spent 10 years touring and doing shows and it was an adventure. It was a very tight-knit community and I made some very good friends,” he says.
At the same time he was interested in the storytelling traditions behind ballet and dance.
“I’d always written for myself. I had ideas for stories but it never occurred to me that I could earn a living from these stories and for a long time I thought I would be a choreographer, but I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I got injured and took that as a sign it was time to move on to other things, so I started writing speculative articles for newspapers and magazines and that process evolved into becoming a freelance writer for all sorts of titles like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.”
He wrote several books that he says were politely received but “didn’t sell many copies”, though writing fiction was always in his mind.
“It’s a longshot that anything will be picked up and either become a hugely successful novel or have a life beyond being a novel, but there’s always that chance you’ll write something that will make an impression.”
Much of his journalistic work had an espionage backbeat to it and this fed into the characters Eve and Villanelle.
“I was getting very bored with conventional spy thrillers and pulp fiction in that the heart had fallen out of it, it seemed to me. It had got very gadgetry and very stereotypical. The idea of these pale eyed loners were all variations on a theme and it had been done well but it had been done, and it was time to turn the whole thing on its head somehow.”
Which is when he started playing around with the idea of having two female antagonists. “This idea of these two characters facing off against each other just came to me in a rush,” he says. “The most important thing was this backwards and forwards relationship between the two main characters. The idea of who, essentially, was chasing who? That was the question I needed the reader to be asking all the time. The premise is one I thought worked well in the world of work with two women who are essentially bored. They’re under-appreciated by the people who employ them and they become more interested in each other than in what they’re supposed to be doing, that’s really what it’s about.”
Codename Villanelle came out in 2017 and was turned into a BBC TV series that became a runaway success. “I always knew it was a good idea and I was very pleased to see that it worked. I met Phoebe Waller-Bridge [writer and producer] and she turned out to be on exactly the same page about these characters. It was good to have the validation that she brought to it. She came at it from a slightly different perspective with ideas of her own and really made the whole thing jump off the screen,” says Jennings.
Despite the show’s success, he says it hasn’t dramatically changed his life.
“There’s a huge difference between the characters being famous and you being famous as a writer. So I’m still me with my interests but Villanelle and Eve are out there enjoying the celebrity thing. In a way I do what I’ve always done, which is I get up in the morning and go over to my desk and start to type, so there’s not a huge difference.”
Luke Jennings is at Raworths Literature Festival, The Crown, Harrogate, on October 22, 11.30am. For tickets visit RAWORTHS LITERATURE FESTIVAL – Harrogate International Festivals or call 01423 562 303.