​Killing Eve creator Luke Jennings on psychopaths, catfish and trolls

Killing Eve creator and novelist Luke JenningsKilling Eve creator and novelist Luke Jennings
Killing Eve creator and novelist Luke Jennings

The bestselling author talks about the inspiration behind his new thriller, #Panic.

After the mammoth success of the Killing Eve series, author and journalist Luke Jennings is playing down how much of a difficult act it has been to follow, as his new standalone thriller, #Panic, is published.

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“I don’t think you can think of it in terms of ‘Will this be successful?’ It was just the next thing I wanted to do. I guess I’m following my instincts in that people who liked Killing Eve will find lots to like about this. It’s not the same imaginary world but these kinds of characters breathe the same air.”

His 2017 novel Codename Villanelle, adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge into the acclaimed TV drama about a Russian hit-woman-come-psychopath and the British intelligence operative pursuing her, starring Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, was followed by two further books in the series, which he wrote while the first series was running.

The inspiration for #Panic came about when Killing Eve fans invited him to join an online chatroom, which he did.

“That gave me the idea of this group of fans who lived in all sorts of different places around the world and knew each other, essentially online, and hadn’t met in real life. You had this highly developed social group where they were in contact every day, partly to talk about Killing Eve but partly to exchange details about their own lives.

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“There were all the usual issues that you get in online groups, of catfish and trolls, and I got very interested in that world and the relationship that TV fans have with people they follow.”

The novel sees four fans of a hit TV show – who are online best friends – venture to LA to save their screen heroine and star of the show, Alice Temple, after her make-up artist joins their chatroom and tells them Alice is in danger.

As the story begins, Jennings paints a vivid picture of the four friends and their very different, difficult lives – Jaleesa, a 22-year-old who ditched medical school in Canada to look after her father and uses boxing as an escape; Dani, 25, a trans woman who works in a UK fish bar on the coast; Ilya, a Russian army cadet who hates his military life; and Kai, a trans man, whose alcoholic mother only adds to his problems.

All, in their own way, feel marginalised; all are thrown together to save Alice and in the process find themselves on the run from the police and a far-right group called the Legion.

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“There are always going to be people who are part of some minority or another who aren’t understood by the people around them,” Jennings reflects.

“There are so many reasons why people become isolated and I don’t think it’s a new thing. I think it’s rather wonderful that they can get together and have a shared interest in something such as a TV programme or a TV star.”

Many of the fans with whom he interacted in the chatroom were LGBTQ+. “That’s partly a reflection of the show they were watching, but it’s also a reason they were isolated and, in some cases, misunderstood by their families and people around them. For minorities of all sorts, a chatroom is a place to find an escape and seek out like-minded souls.”

Jennings, 70, still checks into the Killing Eve chatroom once in a while, although he notes that when he first joined, he was older than many of the participants’ parents.

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“Obviously, I had inside stuff to offer, but I was the fly on the wall. There was give and take on both sides.”

He says he wasn’t particularly thinking of featuring the LGBTQ+ community within #Panic, but was inspired by the people he met online.

And he was keen to introduce the Legion, a far-right extremist group in the mix.

“I wanted the kind of antagonists that you could never quite engage with, who are elusive but induce a kind of paranoia. That’s what these right wing groups do, particularly in the United States. They form and reform – you can never quite put your finger on the threat that they constitute. They are ridiculous at the same time as frightening.”

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The book has been optioned by Amblin, Steven Spielberg’s production company, and is currently in development as a series, he explains. Could it be the next big thing?

“I’d love to know too. A series with a lot of diverse characters and some LGBT characters is currently a very tough sell in America where the tide has turned. Conservatism is making a big comeback in the world of TV and streamers.

“It’s a tougher thing to persuade networks than it would have been five years ago. The climate is much more conservative, much more censorious, much more hostile in many ways.”

But he admits: “I am holding my breath. I would very much like to see it happen, but I know how these things work. It’s always a long shot and you can’t bank on anything. I’m naturally a pessimist about these things.”

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He’s in touch with Waller-Bridge, but stresses it’s not up to him who would write the screenplay and that his involvement would be limited.

“I’m essentially a novelist and I’m happy to talk about casting and the individual characters, but I have to let my books speak for themselves and any TV series to have a life of its own, with new people doing what they want to do.

“It’s good to be involved in the early stages of a project like this, but you can’t overstay your welcome at the party.”

Married to an academic art historian, Jennings has two sons and a daughter and lives in London. He says the success of Killing Eve has only changed his life to a point. He still has to sit in front of a screen every day, and goes fishing with a group of friends in his free time.

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“It makes life easier when people know who you are and it’s a calling card,” he offers. “A lot of people have opinions about Killing Eve and want to talk about it.”

While Killing Eve was based on his first novel, by the time it was half way through, he had written two further Killing Eve books, which came out while the show was being broadcast.

Although he still occasionally joins the Killing Eve chatroom, he has ditched social media.

“I used to be on Twitter but it got nasty and very time-consuming. Eventually it becomes a liability. You can get linked in to God knows what and there are a lot of crazies out there. It was engulfing too much of my life.

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“There were some pretty weird people in that Killing Eve fan world, not the people who were prepared to declare themselves, but there were a lot of weird people swimming around the margins of that scene.

“And once you’re writing about psychopaths, that’s a subject that psychopaths are very interested in. I would get a lot of boasts of ‘Yes, I’m a psychopath, too’.”

So, after four seasons of Killing Eve, will there be any more?

“Well, let’s see. I’m very fond of those two characters. They’ve been very good to me. Who knows?”

#Panic by Luke Jennings is published by John Murray on April 27, priced £16.99.

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