In conversation with… author Emma Haughton

Thriller writer Emma Haughton tells us her latest novel and why Antarctica is the ideal setting for a murder mystery.

In conversation with… author Emma Haughton

Thriller writer Emma Haughton tells us her latest novel and why Antarctica is the ideal setting for a murder mystery.

In conversation with… author Emma Haughton


Thriller writer Emma Haughton tells us her latest novel and why Antarctica is the ideal setting for a murder mystery.

Emma Haughton grew up in Sussex, England. After a stint in Paris working as an au pair, she studied English before training as a journalist. During her career, she wrote for national newspapers including the Times Travel section.

Since then, Emma has published a picture book as well as three Young Adult (YA) novels. In 2021, she published her first thriller for adults, The Dark, set in an Antarctic research station with a killer on the loose. Her second, The Sanctuary, was published in November 2022.

We caught up with Emma to ask her a few questions about her work and why Antarctica is an ideal setting for a murder mystery.

Where do you find inspiration for your novels?  

Usually, it starts with a germ of an idea, something that catches my imagination. It can be a place, like Antarctica, or it might be some quandary, a dilemma, a really challenging situation or a mystifying predicament. 

Whatever the inspiration, it has to have the ‘itch factor’ - that delicious itch you get when you’re consumed with the need to know what happens next. The kind you’re desperate to scratch with another few pages or just one more chapter. After all, what do we want when we pick up a novel? We want to be carried off into another world, a world full of suspense and intriguing characters. We want to encounter situations we’ll probably – thankfully – never meet in real life. I’m always hoping my readers are asking themselves, how would I feel if this happened to me? How would I react? What on earth would I do? 

Do you prefer writing YA or thrillers for adults? 

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve found writing fiction for adults easier. At first, I assumed that writing for an older intended readership would mean more work to engage them, but that wasn’t the case. With a teenage protagonist, you always have the problem of giving them true agency to resolve the mess they find themselves in. In reality, most kids would just tell their parents when something goes badly wrong, or failing that, another adult, perhaps even the police – so you have to devise ways in which your main character is forced to face their situation and find solutions themselves.

Emma and her dog, Perkins (Credit: Emma Haughton)

Plus, YA fiction demands an overriding commitment to pace. Teens have got plenty else competing for their attention, so there’s no hanging around to smell the roses, or lovingly describing their scent. Sure, you can create scenes rich in atmosphere and detail, but you have to do that with flair and economy. Bore an adult reader and there’s a fair chance they’ll stick with you; bore a teen and they’ll dump your book fast. 

Aside from that, and the fact that you can be a bit more ‘adult’ in adult novels, there isn’t a great deal of difference. People read books to live vicariously, to step into another person’s shoes, to live in their heads and feel their emotions. It doesn’t much matter whether that character is fourteen or forty. 

What inspired you to set the novel in Antarctica? 

Around five years ago I had a rare night alone, so I turned on the TV and found myself watching a fascinating Horizon documentary on the new British Antarctic Survey Halley VI ice station – as you probably know, it’s an extraordinary-looking building consisting of eight modules on hydraulic legs, with skis on their base, designed to keep everything above the ever-encroaching Antarctic ice. An enormous blue-and-red segmented caterpillar surrounded by thousands of miles of frozen wasteland.  

The real star of the show, however, was the frozen continent itself. Given that for half the year, much of Antarctica is engulfed in 24-hour darkness, most of its 70 ice stations are completely inaccessible for up to eight months, leaving a skeleton team of staff to endure the long months of darkness and total isolation. No planes can fly in or out. Once that last flight leaves in February, you’re there for the duration; it’s easier, apparently, to get someone back from the International Space Station than rescue them from Antarctica in the middle of winter.

The Dark is set in an Antarctic research station (Credit: Mesa Studios/Shutterstock)

All this made my writer's brain light up like an aurora over the South Pole. Imagine being cooped up with just a dozen or so people for eight solid months, many in total darkness. What if something went wrong? What if one of the crew fell seriously ill? Or worse, what if somebody went completely off the rails?  

As it turned out, my wildest imaginings weren’t that much of a stretch – I discovered numerous real-life tales of people who succumbed to the physical and psychological stress of spending all that time stuck at the frozen ends of the earth. A cook at McMurdo, the large US base, attacked a colleague with a claw hammer. An Australian staffer who became so violent he had to be locked in a storeroom for months. A drunken Russian engineer who stabbed a welder in a fit of rage over, wait for it… book spoilers. Medical crises too, including an American physician who had to treat her own breast cancer, and a Russian doctor who removed his own appendix while out on the ice. 

How did you do your research? 

Much as I would love to go to Antarctica, the Covid lockdown and the certainty that I’d never get within sniffing distance of a real Antarctic research station meant I had a lot of research to do. I knew that the location would be the backbone of the story, and I wanted to get it as true to life as possible. My aim was to reach the point where I could imaginatively place myself in that location, and know instinctively what it would feel like to be there, what you’d see, hear, smell, sense around you. I had to immerse myself in everything about Antarctica until it all felt familiar, even though I’d never actually set foot in the place.


I gorged on books, online articles and YouTube documentaries. Newspaper articles proved useful too, particularly when it came to some of the more dramatic events that have occurred out there since the ice stations were first built. Luckily there’s a wealth of first-hand accounts online. Antarctica may well be at the ends of the earth in every sense, but many doctors, scientists and technicians who endure those long winter months of darkness and isolation blog about their experiences – I’m forever in debt to all those people who took the time to describe their stay out on the ice. Reddit also had some brilliant AMAs (ask me anything) threads where other people quizzed ice station staff on everything I desperately wanted to know, but would never dare ask. 

Writing the book proved to be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever attempted. Not as challenging as actually enduring an Antarctic winter, for sure, but mentally inhabiting such a bleak and claustrophobic environment for so long was demanding in its own way. But eighteen months later The Dark finally emerged into the light, complete with its own fictional ice station and crew of thirteen. Which yes, indeed, turns out to be very unlucky for some. 

Tell us about The Dark  

The story follows the journey – literally and psychologically – of Kate North, an A&E doctor who is flown into a remote Antarctic ice station as the emergency replacement for the previous doctor, who died in a climbing accident on the ice. Kate has recently been knocked out of her orbit by a personal tragedy. So when she’s offered the opportunity to be an emergency replacement at the UN research station in Antarctica, she jumps at the chance. 

The Dark (Credit: Hodder & Stoughton)

The move seems an ideal solution for Kate: no one knows about her past; no one is checking up on her. But as total darkness descends for the winter, she begins to suspect that Jean-Luc’s death wasn’t accidental at all. And the more questions she asks, the more her new life on the ice starts to unravel. 

You used to be a travel writer. Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited? 

I’ve always wanted to go to one of those idyllic-looking beaches around the Seychelles. You know, all golden sands, turquoise sea and palm trees dipping the water. But it’s a long way, and I worry the reality would not live up to the hype.   

But I have an exciting trip planned for next January, sailing from Southampton to Perth – a journey that will take five weeks. I’ve sailed across the Atlantic a couple of times, which I always think of as something of a historical voyage, given it was once the only way to get to New York. So I’m excited to take another historical journey, from the UK to Australia, in the ‘footsteps’ of all the people who once took the boat to emigrate to a new land.  

It will also be the first time I’ve ever set foot on the continent of Africa, leaving only South America and Antarctica itself on my bucket list. 

What's next for you?

My second book for Hodder, The Sanctuary, has just been released in paperback. Set in the Mexican desert, it’s about as far away from Antarctica as it’s possible to imagine. Hot as hell, full of huge cacti and terrifying wildlife. Like The Dark, it’s another ‘locked room’ mystery, with a cast of intriguing characters inhabiting an isolated clinic far from civilization. 

The Sanctuary is Emma's second thriller (Credit: Hodder & Stoughton)

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin? 

I just had to check my research that there aren’t any penguins near the South Pole. Antarctica is largely a lifeless desert, but there are Emperor and Adélie species on the margins, including a huge colony of Adélie penguins around the ominous-sounding Danger Island. So I am going to go with the Adélies as my favourite species of penguin. They look like really gutsy little birds

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