About writing

A shared Salt publication day!

BoA and GJ

My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.

I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it.  I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books.  Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!

Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!

The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self.  Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?

The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.

The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!

Have I hooked you yet?

Treading the Litten Path with James Clarke

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Alison Cassels introduces James Clarke

On Saturday, I had the great privilege of accompanying another Salt author, James Clarke, to Pontefract Library for an event to celebrate the publication of his important novel, The Litten Path, which tells the story of one mining family during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 5.  The book has received some excellent reviews in the national press.

James talked eloquently about how he came to write the book.  He said that he felt his generation was dispossessed, not by ‘baby-boomers’, but by the politics that prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (especially Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” adage) and the legacy of that period, from which he believes he and his contemporaries are still suffering today.

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James, warming to his theme

I’ve met Pontefract audiences before and I was delighted to see some familiar faces on this occasion.  After James had talked about how and why he wrote The Litten Path, and read a chapter from it (he chose Chapter 5, which describes the first conflict between the miners and the police), the members of his audience were invited to give their views.  What followed was an amazing discussion – one of the best I have ever participated in at any event.

James was fascinated by the fact that many of those attending not only remembered the miners’ strike but had been directly affected by it.  One woman described how her mother and grandmother took food to miners’ families who had none; another said her grandmother had lived in Orgreave Lane: the ‘mighty Orgreave’ colliery of James’s novel, where the most vicious pitched battles took place, was just down the road.

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People reminisced about how the strike had destroyed families, obliging some people to move away.  Others are still living in towns and villages which used to be prosperous, but are now depressed and poverty-stricken, never having recovered from the strike or been able to reinvent themselves.  Whole communities were dismantled.  ‘Scabs’ – miners who went back to work while their colleagues were still on strike – were still being shunned and pilloried by those who fought it out to the bitter end many years later.  A former teacher said she had taught at a local school between 1995 and 2010 and even at the end of that period it was not uncommon for strike-breakers to have bricks thrown through their windows.

The conversation moved on to the privations and hazards of mining itself – the illnesses, accidents and early deaths suffered by many miners.  Several of the audience said that, although memories of the strike were still raw, they believed that, eventually, some kind of catharsis would be achieved and these communities would rise anew – “even if it takes 200 years”.

Alison and Lynne, the librarians from Wakefield and Pontefract who organised the event, did their usual great job – and surpassed themselves with the cakes and other goodies they provided.  James and I would like to thank them very much indeed.  And huge thanks to all the members of the audience for their wonderful contributions.  If you are reading this, we want you to know how much we appreciated you.

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Passionate reading from James Clarke

Writing at Lincoln Central Library

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On Saturday 14th April 2018, I spent the afternoon at a Lincoln City Library event organised for me by the indefatigable Tina Muncaster and her colleagues (indefatigable, because we first tried to run this event on 3rd March, but were thwarted by the astonishingly heavy snow that had gridlocked Lincoln a couple of days before, when I was very kindly interviewed by Lincoln City Radio).  As Tina said, when she re-invited me, perhaps the daffodils would be blooming if we rearranged for April!  This turned out to be correct: the daffodils in Lincolnshire are magnificent this year.

Arriving in Lincoln early, I decided to explore the city.  I’ve been to Lincoln several times before, both as a child and later, but in the past I’ve always headed for the Cathedral and the steep streets that lead to it.  This time, I visited the waterfront and was amazed both by its beauty and its long history. (I particularly wanted to see the Fossdyke Navigation, which features in Gentleman Jack, my next novel.) I’ve already published a separate post about my explorations.

Nine people attended the event, with Tina and her colleagues joining in as their work permitted. The members of the audience – or, I should perhaps say, my fellow writers – were wonderful.  There was an almost equal balance of women and men, from a wide age range. I was particularly happy that Elise Harrington, of Lincoln City Radio, was able to join us.

Like the event in February in Spalding, this was not just about reading from the DI Yates novels and talking about them. Tina had said that she thought her library patrons would also be interested in discussing how a really bad character is created and so we planned a modified version of the Spalding activity. We therefore focused on Hannibal Lecter for the first part of the discussion and considered some published extracts depicting evil characters before I read a short passage about Peter Prance, taken from In the Family.

After a break, during which the Library served up tea and delicious biscuits and almost everyone bought a copy of one of the DI Yates titles (I’d like to say here how grateful I am for this), we got down to the business of creating some brand new nasties! The group worked in twos and threes. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone was fascinated by the task and completely absorbed by it, as I hope the photographs demonstrate. The villains created were imaginative and ingenious – they included a woman who was a housekeeper and ‘saw’ everything, a transgender sailor and a male villain with a ‘small man’ complex.

After everyone had shared their villains with the others, the event concluded with another short reading, this one from Fair of Face. By this time, it was 4 pm – and the event had been scheduled to run from 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm!

If you were one of my fellow crime writers on Saturday, I’d like to thank you very much indeed for sharing your creative ideas and for so obviously enjoying yourself. And double thanks to Tina Muncaster and her colleagues: they’ve kindly said they’ll invite me to Lincoln again and I shall jump at the opportunity. Thank you also for my beautiful bunch of tulips, the first I have enjoyed this year.

Finally, I’d like to thank Sharman Morriss at Spalding Library, both for hosting me there and also for setting in train a series of Christina James events in libraries around Lincolnshire. I’m next at Gainsborough Library and then, shortly afterwards, at Woodhall Spa, a stone’s throw from the River Witham I wrote about in my previous post.

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Bookmark, marking a moment for Fair of Face

Window on the world of Bookmark

Last Monday dawned squally.  As I drove to Spalding for the first signing session of Fair of Face, the leaves were being snatched from the trees, victims of whatever the latest Atlantic storm was called (I’ve lost track!).  As I approached Spalding, the rain arrived. (Lovers of pathetic fallacy, take note!)  However, once inside Bookmark, I was safe, as I knew I would be, enveloped by its usual high standard of hospitality, warmth and the provision of many interesting people to talk to.

Last year, when Rooted in Dishonour was launched – the staff at Bookmark have, magnificently, given me events for all my novels – the café was closed for refurbishment.  This year, I was delighted to find it open, with an enticing range of treats to choose from.  My husband, never behind the door when it comes to food, indulged in a farmer’s breakfast and, a few hours later, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake. I confined myself to a cheese and tomato toastie (not as modest as it sounds: Spalding helpings are generous!).

I was there until 3 p.m., signing copies of Fair of Face.  Several old friends, readers I have met since In the Family was published in 2012, came in to see me.  I met new readers, too, some of whom wanted to buy all the DI Yates titles, starting with the first – though I made it clear to them, as I do to all new readers, that each novel is a standalone. As I’ve said before, I think it’s cheating to expect readers to have to read all the previous titles in order to make sense of the latest one.

On Tuesday, a radio programme followed the Bookmark signing session: Carla Green interviewed me on Radio Lincolnshire at lunchtime, asking some particularly searching questions about Fair of Face, and generously promoted the events at Spalding and Stamford (see below).

I was back in Bookmark on Thursday evening to give a talk and two readings to members of Bookmark’s reading group and some of its other customers, too.  An author’s dream audience, they were extremely lively and engaged and, if any of them is reading this post: Thank you very much indeed for a magnificent evening – you were brilliant in your response!  And huge thanks to Sam Buckley, Sarah Halgarth and all the rest of the staff at Bookmark for welcoming me again and working so hard to make great successes of both occasions there.

This coming week the wonderful Chris Hamilton-Emery, founder of Salt Publishing and the equally wonderful Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, have organised a blog tour for Fair of Face. Here’s the tour and I hope to ‘meet’ some of you there.  I’d like to thank all the bloggers who have so generously contributed their time and their oxygen to this.

There are several other events in the pipeline:

  • 4th November.  Signing session. Walkers Bookshop, Stamford.
  • 18th November.  Readings and workshop {‘Fair of Face but dark at heart’), Wakefield One.
  • Date tbc, February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Lincoln City Library.
  • 17th February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Spalding Library.
  • Dates tbc: Readings and workshop, University of Winchester

Review in Lincolnshire Life

There will be other events and reviews, too, which I’ll announce here when I have more details.  If anyone reading this is organising an event to which I could contribute, I should be very happy to hear from you.

Last but certainly not least, if you have bought Fair of Face, I should like to offer you my sincerest thanks: authors are not authors without readers and I want you to know that I feel greatly honoured knowing you have spent several hours of your precious time reading my book. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Murder comes to Pontefract again, baa gum.

The Pontefract Fleece Force

The Pontefract Fleece Force

Saturday November 5th was a cold, squally day, a fitting atmosphere for Bonfire Night. I was probably feeling the cold more than most, having just returned from some time away on business, first in Quito and then in Charleston, South Carolina (more about both on these pages very soon). The temperature in each of these places was around twenty-five degrees.

I was in Pontefract, a historic Yorkshire town, scene of gruesome murders during the Wars of the Roses and, almost two centuries later, in the English Civil War. Pontefract library is a light and airy building with lots of glass and invitingly-arranged bookshelves that fan out from the centre as well as lining the walls. I’d been very kindly invited by Alison Cassels, the Officer for Reading at Wakefield Library Services, with whom I have several times participated in crime fiction events in West Yorkshire; she had asked me to speak about Rooted in Dishonour, which will be published on 15th November, read one of the chapters and then host a more general literary event, which included asking the audience to name their favourite novels and take part in a short ‘whodunnit’ play written by Ann Cleeves.

It was a long time since I’d last visited Pontefract Library and I enjoyed going back. A small flock of helmeted sheep occupied the ‘Fleece Station’ and busied itself with a murder scene just outside. The corpse had been already removed, having first been outlined by Eweno Hugh, the soco. I noted the chalked heels and deduced that the victim had been female. I heard that DI Tup, who had been protecting some productive grass from persecution by local thieves, would soon be on the case. I felt quite at home. Furthermore, as the Ann Cleeves playlet was set in Shetland, refreshments included shortbread and Tunnock’s teacakes, a treat that I’ve rarely seen since I worked in Scotland some twenty years ago.

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The audience consisted of about twenty-five people, a few of whom I’d already met at events in Wakefield in previous years.  They were truly one of the liveliest, most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered.  They gave Rooted in Dishonour a wonderful debut and asked so many questions that the event lasted two hours, instead of the hour that had been scheduled. If anyone who came on Saturday is reading this, I’d like to thank you very much indeed.

Huge thanks also to Alison, Lynne, Liz and Lynne and their colleagues, who made me feel as welcome and special as they always do.

Rooted in Dishonour’s launch event will take place at Bookmark in Spalding on Tuesday 15th November, the publication date; I’ll be signing books in the afternoon and talking about the novel and giving readings in the evening.  More details may be found at http://bookmarkspalding.co.uk/.  On Saturday 19th November, I’m signing copies of the novel from 11 am – 2 pm at Walker’s Bookshop in Stamford (http://www.walkersbookshops.co.uk/) and on Saturday 26th November, starting at 12.30 pm,  I have a signing session at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge (http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/heffers), as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival.

With Alison Cassels

With Alison Cassels

I’m also hoping to be able to spend rather more time blogging and catching up with many good friends on the social networks; they have been very, very kind to me on Twitter and Facebook whilst I have been caught up in work. Many sincere thanks to them all.

What really happened?

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I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.

Participation? Always, at Wakefield One!

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Monday was a horrible day in West Yorkshire. Torrential rain and high winds were battering the city when I arrived at Wakefield One for my afternoon of reading and discussion with some of the lovely members of the reading groups run by Alison Cassels. My husband dropped me off opposite the library complex and I got soaked – and nearly blown away – just crossing the road.

Nevertheless, I felt both philosophical and optimistic. As I’ve already noted, every event for The Crossing so far has taken place when the weather outside has been appalling, and every one has been a success. I knew that the gallant and stalwart members of the Wakefield reading groups would not let me down by preferring their firesides to the library.

Alison, as impeccable in the welcome as in the organisation!

Alison, as impeccable in the welcome as in the organisation!

Reader, I was not wrong! An extremely lively audience arrived punctually, some having regaled themselves with hot soup in the café to start with, and we all enjoyed a couple of hours of reading, writing and sleuthing, handsomely fortified by the Christmas cake, mince pies and stollen and tea and coffee supplied as generously and thoughtfully as usual by Alison and Lynn.

Lynn, quietly making it all happen (and she tweets!)

Lynn, quietly making it all happen (and she tweets!)

After listening to and providing feedback on the readings as only Wakefield audiences know how to do, when invited to take inspiration from the first chapter of The Crossing, each of the group members wrote a short sketch of an event that had happened to them and had stayed with them vividly, one that might be used as the opening scene of a novel. I hope the photographs capture the lively and committed participation that has come to be the hallmark of Wakefield One events: some read their own sketches, others asked their immediate neighbour to read for them. Everyone was spellbound by what was on offer. The accounts were fascinating and included bell-ringing for the first time and soaring unintentionally upwards on the rope, riding to London on The Flying Scotsman, walking to school through the snow in the Arctic winter of 1947 and the tale of how an uncle had pawned his wife’s hard-saved-for furniture to buy a red sports car. Novels in the making, every one – and the quality of the writing was of a very high standard.

The afternoon was rounded off by a quiz prepared by Alison. She’d found the photographs of twenty famous crime writers and asked the group to put names to them while I signed some books. It was a brilliant idea, and quite a hard task: no-one got more than half of the answers correct. (I’m going to ask Alison if she’ll let me have the quiz to post on this blog, as I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it, too!).

The time slid away very rapidly. Braced by a final cup of tea, we ventured out into the cold again before we were trapped by the notorious end-of-day Wakefield traffic bottlenecks. I’d like to thank everyone who took part: the reading group members for giving me so much support (as they always do; it was also good to see several new faces this time), Alison and Lynn for arranging it all so impeccably, the Wakefield Libraries tweeter who, together with them, ensured that the event gained plenty of publicity, and Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books for supplying copies of The Crossing for sale. I hope to see you all again soon!

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