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For the past few years, I’ve decided to take a step back from the rather frenetic pace I had when I first began publishing. Of course, I haven’t given up writing – far from it! My new novella The Cellar came out in 2015, and I expect to publish a full novel in the near future. But, for now, I’m enjoying a bit of a break, helping my husband Alec run our farm and enjoying being a new grandmother. I am grateful for all the lovely comments you continue to send me about my previous books, and I hope you continue to enjoy them!
Chickenfeed was my contribution to the 2006 World Book Day Quick Reads initiative, and I was thrilled when it was added again in 2015 as part of World Book Night. I, along with other authors such as Maeve Binchy and Ruth Rendell, agreed to write a novella that would help ’emergent’ or ‘reluctant’ adult readers realise that reading a book doesn’t have to be a chore, it can be an enjoyable experience. I wanted to write a book where sophisticated readers would forget within a page that it was written in a different way from how I would normally write. Based on the true story of the ‘chicken farm murder’ that took place in East Sussex in 1924, Chickenfeed was a challenge to write because I had constantly to think whether certain words or ideas, particularly ‘inside head’ thoughts, were really necessary. But, I enjoyed it and I hope the books will be widely read by everyone so no one need feel embarrassed about being seen to be reading one.
I’m happy to report that all five of my books that were televised for the BBC are available in the UK as a DVD boxset. The boxset contains adaptations of: The Ice House; The Sculptress; The Scold’s Bridle; The Dark Room; and The Echo. You can order the boxset from Amazon.co.uk. (Please note your DVD player will need to be able to play Region 2 DVDs.)
My husband and I lived in Romsey for 12 years before we moved to Dorset, and as a child I was at school in Salisbury. It’s an area I know well. I enjoy using real places as the backdrop to my stories, which is why Hampshire and Wiltshire featured in the early books and Dorset in the later ones. After visiting Sierra Leone in 2004 with Medecins sans Frontieres, I decided to use it at the beginning of The Devil’s Feather. I was struck by how devastating the Sierra Leonean civil war had been, and how cheap life becomes when all social order collapses. The story’s quite frightening, but I hope you enjoy it.
I’m always asked why I chose not to create a series character like Poirot or Rebus, but I was never interested in creating a series character because I wanted to be free to tackle whatever I wanted, when I wanted, without being shackled to a particular person or place.
I do read other crime authors, although not in the same way as I did before I was published. Sadly, when you understand how a plot is constructed, there’s less suspense than when you don’t, and these days it’s a rare book that takes me by surprise. But, I love great characters… which is why ‘Hannibal Lechter’ stands out like a beacon from the last 20 years. I guarantee Thomas Harris’s startling and original creation will be as long-lasting, and spawn as many derivatives, as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Two things really. Reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a child. It’s all about baddies getting their comeuppance and wicked stepmothers being rolled down the hill. Then there was the James Hanratty A6 murder case in the 1950s (involving a man hanged for a murder that many thought he didn’t commit). To hang someone with the level of doubt that existed in that case, it was so dreadful. He was one of the last people to be hanged in Britain. I was only about nine or 10-years-old then. But I was absolutely fascinated.
I have always been fascinated by the challenge that crime fiction represents to an author. I wanted to know if I could carry an intricate plot for 100,000 words, and keep readers guessing, while I was portraying characters under considerable tension.
This is always very hard to answer because I become fond of all my characters, even the murderers! It’s quite hard to spend a year with people – which is how long it takes me to write a book – and not end up liking their good sides. From the author’s point of view, the most interesting characters to write are always the dark ones, so my favourites in purely creative terms are probably Mathilda Gillespie from The Scold’s Bridle, whose twisted voice comes through her diaries, and Fox in Fox Evil, whose even more twisted voice comes through his complex love/hate/abusive relationship with 10-year-old Wolfie.
It’s not sometimes…it’s always! It’s a much more exciting way to write. The challenge is to create a puzzle for the readers. My job is to keep them guessing for as long as I can. It’s like flying by wire. You embark with nothing, just a tightrope across a chasm. It’s a much more enjoyable way to write because I have to work it out along with the reader. If I don’t know who did it until half way, the reader is going to be fairly fazed as well. So it is very “suspenseful” for both the author and the reader.
I’m like a real policeman, I never know who the killer is when I start! I distrust everyone – never mind how ‘nice’ they are – and I only start whittling down the suspects when I’m half-way through. I’ve never read a real trial report yet where a convicted person explains why they killed, so I see no reason to write a book that says anything different. I know what I think…. but what do you think?
Quite a lot of my friends think I have written them into my books, but, if I have, they never pick the right characters. I always say to them ‘You’re absolutely right’ because they usually pick on the nice characters!
I write only for myself because anyone else would lose the plot if they could only read an average of 500 words a day!
I find prisoners tell you so much more about themselves than friends ever do. At the dinner parties I go to, the topics are wine, mortgages, and children’s education or summer holidays, and that can get a bit tedious after a while! However, I don’t use the actual stories the prisoners tell me — that would be extremely boring. I find I tend to use details of their personalities in constructing the motivations of my characters.
It’s a regular day. My two best working times are from early morning to about 1.30pm and then from about 5pm until 8pm or later. I have a lunch break and a rest. My husband Alec also has his office in the house. For many years now, we have been working in the same house. It works amazingly well. We’re both very disciplined. We take it in turns to make lunch and supper.
I concentrate on the trauma that exists within families and communities when a murder is committed, and explore the tensions that necessarily arise from it. Perhaps there is a greater sense of involvement for my readers. That is not to say my stories are unremittingly bleak. I have a great faith in the redeeming power of love. And that is also reflected in the way I write. I think all my books are good “reads” that reflect my own taste. My favourite books are always the ones I can’t put down.
I seem to be popular especially in Northern Europe, Denmark, Scandinavia, France, and Germany. They have their own thriller writers but readers in Europe seem to have a passion for the British variety. They love Agatha Christie, the Germans, particularly. I think it’s because they are getting quite a good view of English life through crime writing. As a crime writer you have to be very attentive to detail. I always say that if you want a good picture of English life in the ’30s, you’d do better to read Agatha Christie rather than, say, Dorothy Sayers. Sayers was sort of swinging between Oxford academia and the aristocracy of Lord Peter Wimsey. I am a great Sayers fan. But Agatha Christie was dealing with suburbia, little county towns and bank managers who weren’t all they should have been.
Essentially, I’m a workaholic who finds it physically impossible to do nothing. My philosophy of life is: Make the most of it while you’ve got it. Life’s fun…death isn’t!