Dead Woman Walking: a grim fascination
Fourteen years ago, in Rheindahlen, Germany, a tethered hot air balloon broke free of its moorings and sailed into the sky, taking with it a five year old British girl who just happened to get caught up in the ropes.
Whilst children are killed in freak accidents every day, something about this one shocked parents like me to our core. We couldn’t exactly see it happening to us – most of us don’t take our children anywhere near hot air balloons – but knowing that for some time after the balloon took off, the child was still alive, barely injured, and yet beyond the reach and help of anyone, was deeply chilling.
It was only a matter of time before the incident inspired a story. Ian McEwan did it to great effect in Enduring Love, 2004, when a similar hot air balloon accident kicks off a story about dangerous obsession.
For me, in the meantime, the incident did nothing to resolve the mix of unease and fascination that hot air balloons have always inspired. I love watching their graceful, silent progress across the sky. The Bristol balloon festival is something to behold. At the same time, they quietly terrify me. It’s not so much the fear of plummeting from a great height, although there is that. It isn’t even that their flight relies entirely upon elemental power that we cannot, ultimately, control, although that’s pretty scary. There is just something about the great, billowing, unpredictable mass of them that gives me the colly-wobbles.
In the summer of 2015, I faced this particular demon. My family holidayed in Tanzania and I was persuaded into taking a hot air balloon flight over the Serengeti National Park. We arrived at the take-off site in the dark, guided in by bursts of flame in the black sky as the balloons (four in total) began the slow process of inflation. We climbed into baskets just before dawn, sixteen of us in four compartments. It was tense. I clutched my son, he clutched back, as the burners fired up, the balloon roared its determination to be off, the ground crew yelled and the pilot broke into a sweat.
And then we were up and it was jaw-droppingly wonderful. The vast plain spread out before us. We watched herds of zebra thundering across the landscape, saw hippos settling back into the water for the day, felt we could almost stroke the giraffes that were reaching into tree tops for their breakfast.
Going up high, seeing miles of the African countryside was amazing, but floating close to the ground was even better. I loved the fact that our balloon was totally silent, that a family of warthogs snuffling about in the bush had no idea that we were only fifty feet above them.
And I got to thinking: suppose people in a hot air balloon witnessed a terrible crime. What could they do when they are in the sky? And suppose the perpetrator of that terrible crime has the means to bring down the balloon? How could they fight back?
In my new book, Dead Woman Walking, this is exactly what happens. Twelve passengers and a pilot are taking a pleasure flight over the Northumberland National Park early one September morning. As they drift low over an old ruined house, they see a murder being committed on the ground. They’re horrified – who wouldn’t be – and horror quickly becomes terror when they realise the killer is holding a gun. He is determined that his dreadful deed will stay hidden, even if it means killing another thirteen people. He raises his gun, aims and shoots.
Imagine the panic on board. A wicker basket cannot withstand bullets. His shot hits its mark and the pilot dies instantly. The twelve passengers have to learn, very quickly, how to fly and land a balloon, as the man with the gun is following their course over the landscape.
And that’s just the start.
Dead Woman Walking is the story of a woman who should have died but who, against all expectations, survives and flees. When she reaches a place of apparent safety, she stays on the run, and only towards the end of the book do we fully understand who and what she is afraid of.
Because whilst stories can begin with a simple idea, mine rarely stay simple. As I get to know my characters, themes and ideas offer themselves up for exploration. So Dead Woman Walking became the story of two sisters, close in age, close in temperament, close in inclination, and yet living lives that are worlds apart. The two are almost mirror images, one the negative of the other.
One aspect of the book that fascinated me as the story unfolded was how two sisters, brought up identically, can take such widely disparate paths in life. How extreme do events have to be to force them apart? And is it possible for the two ever to come together again?
I’d like to say that my flight over the Serengeti, or that writing Dead Woman Walking, has cured my fear of balloons, but my grim fascination remains. After reading the book, I wonder how many people will share it.
Watch the trailer for Dead Woman Walking here.