Interviews

Natalie Sammons, debut crime fiction novelist

Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.

Q: What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?

A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?

A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.

Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?

A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.

Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?

A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’.  I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.

Q: What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?

A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.

Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?

A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.

Q: Are you working on another novel now?  If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?

A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.

Q: What do you like to read yourself?  Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?

A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.

Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?

A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.

Noel Murphy: bookseller, publisher, reader extraordinaire

It would hardly be right to celebrate Crime Reading Month without including a post about a publisher! Noel Murphy is the Commercial Director of Granta, one of the UK’s most distinguished – and long-lived – independent publishing houses.

Noel is a graduate of University College London, where he read Philosophy. When he graduated, he had no career plan – just a burning desire to visit South America, inspired by his having read One Hundred Years of Solitude,by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His mother told him there was a vacancy at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon and he applied for the job, with the intention to save some money to fulfil his travelling dreams. He got the job but has still not visited South America.

After Stratford, he spent two years respectively running the ground floors of the Waterstones at Cardiff and Hampstead. Then he moved to Dublin, where he opened a new branch, and after that he worked at Waterstones Head Office for two years as Promotions Manager. He says the latter job connected him to publishing and enabled him to “jump the fence” to Bloomsbury, where he helped to develop its website in the early years of online bookselling. After that, he was the Marketing Director at Faber for six years.

For family reasons, he then moved to New Zealand and worked for a not-for-profit organisation, where he says he didn’t earn much but learnt a great deal. On his return to the UK, he made his only foray into academic publishing when he joined Yale as Sales and Marketing Director. After Yale, he worked as a freelance for a short while before joining Granta.

Noel is extremely proud of Granta’s fine frontlist and equally acclaimed backlist, to which he says “different editors have added lots of great books. As Commercial Director, I don’t have to worry about the books – I know they’re all going to be good. They’re also the kinds of books that booksellers like, which means that buyers will always give them a hearing. They’re therefore stocked by most of the big bookshops.”

He has spent his career working with and talking to booksellers, publishers and authors. To those wishing to embark on a career in bookselling, he says the good news is that it’s still not particularly difficult to get your first foot on the rung. What prospective booksellers need to know is that bookshops vary tremendously, so the choices they make depend on which part of the industry they want to work in and the type of readers they want to serve. Independent bookshops are very different from chains: new booksellers are “thrown into it” and have to pitch into doing most tasks from the word go, though they learn a lot in the process. The qualities of a good bookseller are, above all, to like people and to be happy to give customers recommendations (which implies keeping up with what’s being published and themselves reading a great deal). Booksellers aren’t well paid, but they do get to see new books and are given as many proof copies and reading copies as they can handle.

Noel’s advice to would-be publishers is to start out by working in a bookshop. It’s a really useful way of understanding the market. Working in publishing is very hard if you don’t understand what readers want. Publishers also need to be proficient in using Excel and other technical applications and to know how to produce accurate and detailed metadata and then deploy it – otherwise, the books they publish won’t achieve their potential. It’s also important to understand what books look like on the Internet. “Today people have grown up with Amazon and it has changed their perception of the book.” Most important of all is to gain an understanding of customers. To do this, some form of experience – e.g., taking a Saturday job in a bookshop – is vital.

His message to writers is that being a published author is a difficult thing to be and requires resilience – but don’t give up. Spend time in bookshops and talk to booksellers. When he was working in Hampstead, there were lots of local authors who came into the shop. Louise Doughty stands out in his memory as having been “really, really nice”. She liked books and would sign them while she was in the shop, and always talked to the staff. From this perspective, his “best author of all time” was Maeve Binchy (he says she is a “better writer than her packaging suggests”). She was always nice to everyone and never took anything for granted. He still has some postcards she sent him. “The staff in the shop would do anything for her.” Elly Griffiths is an author who has similarly won over booksellers more recently.

Noel describes his own reading tastes as ‘catholic’. He has recently been reading Timothy Snyder’s books about Ukraine – four in a row – which are “a bit bleak, though brilliant”. He’s also reading Station Eleven, a science fiction novel published in 2014, which he says is uncannily prescient. He enjoys reading crime fiction and likes Michael Connelly. He is also addicted to the L.A. Confidential series , by Curtis Hanson. A seminal book which made a huge impression on him was Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your Father?, partly because “Many other good books would not have been written if Morrison had not explored the subject first.” He has “not read as many classics as I should”, but he likes Thomas Hardy and enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights when he was young because “it appealed to my teenage angst”.

Of a career in books, he says the biggest pitfall is that “you can’t stop recommending them to other people”. It seems to me to be a very venial shortcoming.

The crime writers’ heroine: Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA

In a previous post, I described Agatha Christie as the ‘Queen of Crime’. This post features an interview with Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA, and the (often unsung) heroine of crime writers.

Q: Please describe your job. What does it entail? What do you like best about it?  What do you find most challenging?

A: I’m the central point of contact for the CWA and co-ordinate all the different elements. I implement strategy decided by the Board and make day-to-day decisions on anything from website copy to competition process for the Debut Dagger and the Margery Allingham Short Mystery competitions. I liaise with members, external organisations and individuals, and the other officers and board members, as well as our hard-working admin and accounts departments. I’m the lead editor of the CRA Newsletter.

I enjoy the communication with our members, helping them with questions, benefit awareness and encouraging them to make the most of their membership. That’s very rewarding and it’s especially good to meet face to face, at the Daggers, Chapter meetings, festivals and above all the annual CWA conference.

I also enjoy encouraging would-be authors through the Debut Dagger competition and overseeing our Criminal Critiques service and carrying the torch for the CWA at events such as CrimeFest and Harrogate. There is a lot about the job I absolutely love!

The most challenging aspect is keeping up with all the emails, especially when there are big projects that need to be seen through, such as organising material for the AGM, proofing Dagger shortlists or writing reports. There is always more to do and my assistant, Fiona Veitch Smith, is invaluable, as is Joint Vice Chair Antony Johnston in particular.

Q: Why did you want the job? What was your inspiration?  What was your previous job?

A: Well, I was asked in early 2016 by Martin Edwards, who was Vice-Chair at the time, if I could help out when the former director resigned. I’ve always worked freelance and had capacity at the time, and I’d been an associate member of the CWA through my editorial consultancy since 2012. In a past life, Martin had been a client of the PR firm I freelanced for and he knew a little about my organisational skills as well as my love of writing and editing – skills he thought the CWA might be able to use.

My editing work continues on days when I’m not working for the CWA and until the pandemic I also continued as a copywriter and marketing consultant for private companies. Working in the publishing industry was a dream come true; I feel I have finally found myself in the sphere I wish I’d discovered much earlier in my career.

Q: When you were appointed six years ago, you quickly transformed the CWA, which had perhaps been quite a fractured organisation previously. How did you manage to achieve this, and in so short a period of time?

A: I can take no credit for improvements the CWA has made in the last six or seven years or so. It’s been down to a board, comprising almost all volunteers, appreciating what needed to be done to make the CWA a cohesive and accessible organisation offering many benefits to all members. Membership has shot up since 2010 and it was a matter of putting a structure and people in place who could manage that growth and keep the CWA relevant and useful to authors, enhancing existing benefits such as the social networking through the Chapters and introducing new ones, especially online. This process continues as our dynamic Board find different ways of addressing this central issue, while always bearing in mind our responsibilities to crime writing in general, especially through the Daggers, and our members in particular.

Q: It seems to me that running an organisation for authors who, although they co-operate, are also essentially rivals, must bring its own peculiar difficulties. How do you manage to be equitable?

A: Interestingly, no crime writer I’ve met through the CWA has mentioned viewing their fellow writers as competitors. They generally appreciate that what helps one, helps all and that contributing to the popularity of crime writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, is a good thing for all crime writers. I have personally found the CWA to be a warm, friendly and welcoming organisation and the members delightful. I enjoy reading as many of their books as I possibly can! I encourage everyone to write articles for the CRA Newsletter and blog, and the CWA Debuts web pages, and love to help anyone who submits these or events for the websites. Yet my job is to help all members, whether they’re interested in those opportunities or not, and together with our excellent CWA team I’m very keen on doing exactly that, with everyone offered the same courtesies and friendly service.

Q: What are your future aspirations for the CWA? Where would you like it to be in the next two years?  And next five years?

A: I’m not sure this is really for me to say, as it’s more for the board and the members themselves. I’d hope it continues to grow, attracting more members while offering a high quality of service to all. We appointed a PR company a few years ago now, Cause PR, and they have helped us to raise our profile within the industry, together with our hard-working Library Champions and Bookseller Champions. The stronger we are, the more good we can do for more writers.

Q: Are you a crime fan yourself?  Do you have favourite crime authors? Outside the crime genre, who are your favourite authors?

A: I am a huge crime fan! However, this is where I prefer to be equitable, as you describe it, and not name any live crime writers. My tastes are very wide; I enjoy everything from historical mysteries to psychological noir, 1930s spy stories to cutting edge cyber thrillers. I enjoy a gentle touch of the supernatural. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Ian Fleming and later Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell and PD James. Nowadays my favourite-author list would spill over many pages and many CWA members feature there.

Outside crime, I love Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Paul Torday and Joanne Harris. Tolkien has always been a big favourite together with many of the classics, and Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett books also have a space on my furniture and floors. (Bookshelves are inadequate to the book-holding task!) I buy history books and sometimes get round to reading them. Alison Weir and Helen Castor are amazing!

Q: A few personal details. What do you do to relax, apart from reading?

A: I live in Chorley, Lancashire, though I’m from Yorkshire and still get teased, Wars-of-the-Roses style, from friends at both sides of the Pennines. My other work as a developmental and copy editor takes up a lot of time, but I love helping writers to achieve their full potential. For leisure, I both play tennis and watch it on TV, which accounts for almost all my viewing, and I’m secretary of my local drama group. I write poetry, one-act plays and short stories, and struggle with several novels I dare show no one. Beyond tennis and stories, as a history graduate I don’t get more satisfaction than looking round a castle or historic monument, though rambling in the hills is something I could wish I had more time for. Next week I’m walking the Tolkien Trail with a book-loving friend, so that’s a perfect leisure combination!

Q: Do you have a message for struggling new crime writers who are just starting out?

A: Keep going. Take the time to learn your craft and develop a professional business approach too. Above all, enjoy your writing. Keep perspective.

The author’s reader

Annika, best test reader!

Readers are, of course, the most important component of an author’s life: without readers there would be no point in writing. There are, however, two kinds of reader. As well as the wonderful readers who pay authors the compliment of spending time on reading their books after publication, most authors also have personal – or test/beta – readers, who read the book on behalf of the author to make sure that it ‘works’.

I’m particularly fortunate in that Annika, my chief test reader, is German. Although she speaks English fluently, it is not her mother tongue. As she says, “I read every word because it’s a foreign language and otherwise I would not understand the full meaning of the sentence.” She proof-reads the books at the same time, and sometimes goes back and reads a passage twice because she has been struck by something odd about it. She checks for inconsistencies in the narrative, often double-checking with other passages in the book she’s reading and in the DI Yates novels that have preceded it. For example, in one of the early books she thought the timescale didn’t work, so she went back and took notes of all the events that were supposed to have taken place within a certain time period, to make sure they were feasible. “The characters did four or five things on a single day, before lunch! I remember thinking they had squeezed an awful lot in.” I altered the timescale of the events she mentions. She adds, however, that there have been occasions when the narrative didn’t seem quite right to her and then when she went back it was actually ok. She also checks practical details – travel arrangements, which flights go from which airports, whether the time it takes to get from A to B is doable.

Her favourite DI Yates novel is Fair of Face – “because it’s so unusual”, but she says she likes all of them, for different reasons. She reads more books in German than in English, because it’s more relaxing for her, but when she reads crime it’s mainly in English, because most crime fiction available in German is translated from English and she would rather read it in the language it’s written in. It takes Annika about two weeks to read one of my books, reading approximately two hours a day. She estimates that she spends about twice as long on them as an English reader would and probably a third more time than if she were just reading them for pleasure.

Annika usually reads the Yates novels in typescript and she checks details in previous novels from the typescripts she worked on originally, because it’s quicker for her. “I often think I should read them in print, to see what you made of my comments! They’re suggestions only, you’re bound not to agree with some.”

I asked her if she learns anything from them – do they, for example, give her a feel for what it’s like to live in Lincolnshire, a county that she doesn’t know well? She says the books do give her an idea of what the area I write about is like, but “I can’t tell if it’s realistic – in that if I went to live there, I don’t know if it would be like that”. (I don’t think it would – on the whole, I don’t write about people with a similar lifestyle to hers.)

She says that all authors should have a test reader to look out for inconsistencies. She adds that I’ve improved – she’s finding fewer mistakes in the more recent novels than in the early ones.

Annika’s own tastes in reading are eclectic. She likes Jan-Philip Sendker, a German author who has described evocatively what it’s like to be a westerner in Asia. “The quality of language when I’m reading in German plays a higher role for me than when I’m reading in English. But I don’t like high-flown or pretentious writing and, generally, not ‘classical’ authors – I don’t like Goethe or Schiller. For this reason, poetry often doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. I liked Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing, but I didn’t like his other books nearly as much when I tried them.”

There are exceptions to her preference not to read books in translation. “I really loved The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I read in German.” That is a point on which Annika and I can agree wholeheartedly!

So, without Annika, I’d miss out on a very shrewd aspect of the editorial process; my editor similarly values the fact that Annika’s unique skills and linguistic viewpoint work in tandem with his scrutiny and together they are a formidable team in support of DI Yates!

The power of poetry: exposing crime and reforming norms

Annie Lloyd-Hyde is a poet who has written several humorous and thoughtful books of contemporary verse. However, Girl Good Enough, her most recent book of poems, and Misogyny for Beginners, a collection which is still in draft form, are much more hard-hitting. In them, she explores the related themes of female inequality and male abuse.

Asked why she has chosen these subjects, she says there has been so much in the media recently about the abuse of women and how the police often react to reports of domestic attacks that she felt compelled to write about it. However, she has long been aware of the differences in the way men and women are viewed and how biased male treatment of women can be. “I have always had a great sense of fairness and justice. The way women are routinely treated has always niggled me.”

Annie trained as a primary school teacher and remembers listening to arguments about the inherent differences between girls and boys. Girl Good Enough is about heightening awareness of sexist behaviour, some of it unconscious, and the nature/nurture conundrum. When she was teaching, she says she consciously tried to approach both sexes in the same way, although she believes teachers can never be sure they have achieved this. She has read about a teacher (based on the Isle of Wight) who was convinced that he taught all his pupils in a scrupulously equal way; however, when he came to analyse his behaviour, he acknowledged that there were some differences in his approach.

Annie grew up in a household of daughters and says that her father supported them completely in their wish to build careers. “He went to university himself and expected us to do the same.” However, her mother didn’t work outside the home until her daughters had left for college. She probably would have liked to, but at the time it was a mark of respectability that middle-class women ‘chose’ to be housewives.

Annie can’t recall extreme instances of discrimination in her own career, though she is sure that unspoken preference was given to male teachers, which discouraged the aspirations of their female counterparts. On one occasion, she applied for a deputy headship and then pulled out because she thought she wouldn’t stand a chance against the male candidates. “Male teachers in primary schools are revered, because they’re in a minority and the view is that boys need male role models.” She perceives a correlation between male over-confidence and female lack of self-esteem and says there are many jobs in which sexual discrimination is much more overt than in teaching.

Misogyny for Beginners is not about the nuances of discrimination which Girl Good Enough captures: it is about the direct and terrifying physical attacks that take place in many homes. One of the poems is dedicated to Sarah Everard. Annie has shown the poems to people who’ve expressed an interest in them and says they strike chords with her readers. Some of the responses have been surprising, even shocking: one woman said that the type of violence described in one poem had happened to her, though she had never discussed it with anyone before. There are women who dread their husbands’ return from football matches; if the husband’s team has lost, he goes home and batters his wife in a fury. Annie is even-handed, however, in her depiction of domestic abuse. One of the poems is about a man suffering from being brutally attacked by his wife. “Men who go to the police to report a violent female are often laughed at, just as women who report their partners are not believed.”

As for what her advice would be to young women trying to make sense of the worlds of the workplace and home they are about to negotiate, Annie says that the sentiments expressed in Girl Good Enough could be their yardstick. “Don’t feel you have to be perfect in everything or have never to say no. Always look for equality – by which I mean, someone to share the tasks fairly.” This is Annie Lloyd-Hyde’s philosophy in a nutshell. She doesn’t believe that women are superior to men, just as she doesn’t believe men are superior to women; nor is she searching for some female-run Nirvana. True equality between the sexes: that is all she asks for.

She has kindly agreed to share drafts of two poems from Misogyny for Beginners with readers of this post:

There’s no place like home

There’s no place like home

No place you’d

Least like to be

A claustrophobic web

Of tension

Unpredictability.

Home

A trip-wired

Trap-laid

Survival course

Malice in Wonderland

With GBH

Flying words

Flying fists

Frightened mother

Who insists,

“It’s only because he cares.”

Bringing you down

I’ll savour bringing you down

Feeling your happiness

Darken and fade

That sparky confidence

Once flying so free 

Now a captured bird

Caught in a sea

Of my casual derision.

My caustic comments

Designed to erode,

Your self reliance

Your easy mode

Of being

Your dress too tight

Your love of food

Seeing your judgement

Distorted, skewed

And friends kept away.

And if I sense you plan to escape

Feel you can take no more

I’ll turn on the charm

Seek your forgiveness

Beg on my knees

As god be my witness

For I’ll change, start afresh

I’ll pursue and persuade

And be assured

Those bruises will fade.

Poems © Annie Lloyd-Hyde

A privilege, indeed, to fly with Kevin Taylor, Chief Pilot, Lincolnshire Police Drones

Kevin Taylor is the Chief Pilot of the Lincolnshire Police Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) Unit. He has worked as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) flight instructor/assessor, training staff at all levels, from beginners to advanced remote pilots. He specialises in the training of military and emergency services personnel. He has himself flown both manned and unmanned aircraft and is qualified to fly both aeroplanes and helicopters. He has put in more than 1500 flying hours in more than twenty aircraft types. He acts as test pilot for the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) and the Light Aircraft Association (LAA). This involves testing new lightly manned aircraft. Kevin himself owns a light sport aircraft and flies regularly.

Kev began his career as a radar engineer in the Royal Air Force, then joined the Special Constabulary in 2003. He serves as a Special Sergeant in the Lincolnshire Police RPAS Unit. He has overall responsibility for the safe delivery of RPAS operations, including all aspects of training and safety standards. He is experienced in all the operational areas of police RPASs and has carried out hundreds of live deployments in Search & Rescue, Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear incidents and Offender and Event Crowd Dynamics. He is also experienced in Beyond Visual Line Of Sight flights. He has received multiple commendations for his operational RPAS flying. He has also worked with the UK defence industry to develop autonomous RPASs. He has pioneered police use of RPASs in relation to criminal activities.

I asked Kev to contribute to my series of blog posts to celebrate CRM because Lincolnshire Police have very kindly been following this blog for several years. They also helped to influence the plot for Chasing Hares.

Q:  Do police drone pilots train from scratch or have they already been flying drones as a pastime?

A: In Lincolnshire Police, drone pilots are police constables who work mainly as responders and attend a vast array of incidents. If an incident can benefit from the use of a drone, a drone officer will be deployed to assist. A drone is just one of numerous tools available in a police officer’s kit bag and drone flying should be described as a skill, rather than a role. In some ways, it’s like carrying a taser: the training has some similarities. The initial training course consists of five days’ training followed by a practical test which the trainee must pass.  Once an officer is trained, s/he must pass an annual requalification test.  If prospective drone pilots are already interested in drones before they train, it is useful, but not essential.

Q: What, very briefly, is the history of police drone use in the county? How many officers are involved and how has this field of policing been expanded in Lincolnshire?

A: Lincolnshire Police started its drone journey in March 2017. The first operational flight took place in September of that year. On average there are now 350-400 deployments per year. The target is to have five officers at each of the four main bases: Lincoln, Boston, Grantham and Skegness. Currently there are twelve officers and six more in training.

Q: Would you explain the particular value of drones for police work in a place like Lincolnshire or, indeed, anywhere.

A: Lincolnshire has the perfect landscape for drones. In terms of geographic area the force is one of the largest in England and Wales, covering 2,284 square miles. The population of this area is 736,700. Policing such a large area presents challenges: Lincolnshire has vast areas of open countryside and, as such areas are difficult to search on foot, effective air support is vital. Drones can now play a pivotal role in addressing this challenge. The running cost of a drone is negligible when compared to the other options available, such as crewed helicopters. Drones are also used to manage large events such as Christmas markets and can assist with crowd dynamics, acting as an extension to the CCTV camera network.

Q: What incidents stick out in your mind as memorable examples of success? (Not just nabbing the villain, though that is very interesting, of course; perhaps the successful rescue of someone vulnerable or the way in which a traffic incident has been helped by drones.)

A: There have been many incidents that have resulted in a positive outcome for the whole team. We are not allowed to discuss one of the most unusual ones, owing to reporting restrictions, which is a real shame. All drone pilots will have a personal set of memories of occasions that got their adrenaline pumping; one of my own was using the drone to discover an unconscious male in a ditch following a road traffic collision. It was in early 2018; his was among the first lives to have been reported as saved by a police drone in the UK and this incident alone demonstrates that the investment in drones by Lincolnshire Police was worthwhile.

Q: What do you find particularly frustrating in your line of work?

A: When we first launched the drones initiative there was some scepticism. There was criticism that drones were just glorified toys. However, the clear and powerful images produced by the drones once they became operational soon converted the sceptics to supporters. There aren’t too many frustrations, but it may not be a surprise to hear that if I had better funding I could achieve so much more. That said, the Chief Officer Team has been very supportive of drones and can see they provide value for money. The results speak for themselves, although we can’t always put a financial value on all that we do.  

Q: Do you read crime fiction? Would be your advice to a writer like me to up her game in presenting police work?

A: I’m always on the go, so sitting down and reading a book is something I don’t have much time for. I would say that policing is moving with the times and that technology plays a large part in the way criminals operate today, so the police need to use it, too, to keep up. I guess a crime writer would benefit from understanding the technology and tools at the disposal of a current, modern-day police force. Drones constitute just one small part of contemporary technology that benefits the police and public, not only in Lincolnshire, but worldwide. Besides operating drones, we play a considerable role in education and enforcement. Drones technology is constantly evolving and the regulations have also evolved quickly. Lincolnshire is a very RAF-centric county, with a busy airspace, and we contribute to the effort to ensure that all airspace users can share the airspace safely. In July, we’ll be inviting the public to the Lincolnshire Police HQ to learn more about how to fly drones safely and to understand a little more about how we use them.

All pictures © Kevin Taylor

A Q & A with Nick Clee, the founder and editor of Bookbrunch

More than most industries, publishing and bookselling depend on the oxygen of publicity for survival. They rely on the support of friendly journalists who present them faithfully and without exaggeration or malice. The industry is lucky to be represented by Nick Clee, a distinguished news publisher who understands it inside out. Here, he kindly responds to my questions.

Q: Before you founded BookBrunch, you were the editor of The Bookseller, so you moved from a very established old-school type of publishing to something much more dynamic – and perhaps, nowadays, more resilient. Did you set out to do this? What was your rationale when you first set up BookBrunch?  Has it evolved in the way you thought it would?

A: I left The Bookseller in 2004, and went freelance – in those days, still just about a feasible pursuit. In addition to journalism, I wrote a couple of books. I had delivered the second of them when Liz Thomson, editor of the recently defunct Publishing News, phoned me to ask whether I’d join her in a new, online venture, which had private backing. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but I had a space in my schedule and hated to turn down jobs. We had no coherent mission statement for BookBrunch: we simply intended to provide a news service, selling it on our long experience of the trade.

Q: Did you get a lot of support from the industry in the early days?

A: In the internet era, you can get known fast, particularly in a trade such as the book industry. People signed up enthusiastically.

Q: Are you a journalist by profession? Has your whole career been spent in journalism? Is there a reason why you have focused your efforts on publishing industry news for so many years?

A: I fell into it. I got a job as maternity cover at The Bookseller; twenty years later, I was still there. I’ve been very lucky.

Q: How do you gather information for BookBrunch?  Do prospects mainly come to you with items they want you to publish or is it the other way round? Do you have ‘roving reporters’ to cover events etc?

A: I have to admit that most of our stories arrive on a plate, by email. (By the way, I’m now joint editor with Neill Denny, another ex-Bookseller editor. I work two days a week and he covers the other three; Lucy Nathan is reporter; and Julie Vuong contributes twice-monthly interviews or features.) We try, on our limited resources, to get out to conferences, launches and so on. Occasionally, we commission features – but the budget is limited. 

Q: What is the business model? How do you get paid?

A: We carry some paid advertising, but get almost all our income from subscriptions. Our salaries are very modest.

Q: What kinds of support are you able to provide for authors?

A: We have discounts for freelancers and for Society of Authors members. Not all authors are interested in trade news, but some are.

Q: How did you survive during the pandemic? Were you forced to change the way you operate? If so, are you more or less back to normal now?

A: The pandemic was/is an awful thing, but looked at only in commercial terms it turned out to be not unfavourable for our business. Subscriptions went up. It hit networking on the head and is still doing so, in my case – I remain cautious.

Q: Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you think the publishing industry will look like in five years’ time?

A: I’m not qualified to talk about the academic publishing world. In general books, we appear to have reached a relatively stable balance of digital and print formats. If further disruption is imminent, neither I nor anyone else can foresee what will cause it. The pandemic confirmed to us – because it hastened them – things that were already apparent; among them were the decline of the High Street, an alarming trend for publishers as well as retailers.

Q: Do you enjoy reading? If so, what kinds of books do you like?  Do you have a favourite author? Do you have other hobbies?

A: I read a lot of crime fiction, ranging from American noir to police procedurals to psychological thrillers. A favourite recent example is Simon Mason’s A Killing in November. In literary fiction, I go for writers who are interested in the domestic: Katherine Heiny has been a delightful discovery this year. My favourite author is John Updike.

I play tennis, and follow sport. I’ve been lucky enough to make horseracing my work as well as a hobby: my second book was a racing history and I’m writing another racing book at the moment.

The gold of reader loyalty

Val Poore

Were I to say that readers are not unimportant to writers, I’d be providing you with an extreme example of litotes. Readers are an author’s lifeblood. If a novel has no readers, it barely deserves to be called a book, just as a portrait kept forever in the dark is scarcely a picture. I feel blessed that as a crime writer I have been ‘discovered’ by some loyal readers who have subsequently read and reviewed all my books. No one has been more staunchly supportive of my work or sympathised more with what I have set out to achieve than Valerie Poore. Recent posts of mine have featured Fraser Massey, a fledgeling crime writer and Mickey J Corrigan and Sarah Stephens, two established writers whom I’ve never met in person.  Similarly, I have never met Valerie (a couple of times, on my way through Holland, I tried to visit her on her vintage Dutch barge in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam there are two links here – but, sadly, on those occasions she was not there). I know she supports other authors as well as myself. I have asked her to write a short post on why she is so generous with her support for others – and how she finds the time to do it!

For several consecutive years, I’ve looked forward eagerly to each of Christina James’ nine crime novels. If I remember correctly, In the Family, her first DI Yates book, was also the first crime fiction I’d ever read from a novelist who wasn’t already widely known in the genre. I was a detective novel fan of old and had read most of the big name authors: PD James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, to name just a few. But at some point, I found the plots becoming ever more harrowing and disturbing – so much so that I stopped reading crime fiction for quite some time.

As a result, I was somewhat hesitant to start down the detective novel path again, but after meeting Christina James on Twitter and enjoying our interaction, I decided to give In the Family a try. To my delight, the book ticked all my mystery-solving boxes and I can say with some conviction that Christina gave me back my taste for crime (so to speak). It was an extra benefit that having ‘met’ her on Twitter, I could also continue to interact with her and support her writing on social media.

Since then, I’ve added several other, mostly independent, authors to my list of favourite crime fiction writers, nearly all of whom I’ve discovered through Twitter and book bloggers. And even though I’m not a crime writer, it’s still the fiction genre I read the most, so I love being able to support their books as a reader, reviewer and tweeter.

So when Christina asked what motivated me to help other authors through social media support, the answer came easily: it’s because I was an avid reader long before I became an author myself. Without exaggeration, I can say I’ve loved immersing myself in books my entire life and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading. I also appreciate others’ excellence in writing, so if I read an author whose prose, dialogue, plot development or even turn of phrase I admire, I instinctively want to tell the world about them and share my enthusiasm.

As a student and young adult, I could talk books for hours with my friends – I studied English and French literature, which helped, of course. These days, that appreciation is more easily conveyed through social media, as I no longer have the time to linger with fellow readers to the same extent; nor do I live in an environment which would tempt me to do so. My home for twenty years has been on an old barge in the Netherlands among folk whose passion is restoring historic vessels. Welding, not reading, is what lights their fires. And although I’ve written about these colourful neighbours in my memoirs, I cannot talk books with them.

My solution, then, is to share my reading discoveries on social media where I can promote and interact with the authors whose books I enjoy. But there’s a spin-off benefit too: I now belong to a community of readers and authors, many of whom reciprocate by reading and sharing my books too. Promotion, I discovered, is reciprocal. What you give is what you get, a further reason (as if I needed one) to share and share alike.

So, there you have it: someone who loves crime fiction and promotes it, brilliantly! I should add that Val is a writer of memoirs other than those of her experiences on the canals of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, for she has lived in South Africa, too. I’m adding the link to her fascinating blog so that you may wander with her if you wish! I’ve also provided two links to my posts about my visits to the Oude Haven, if you’re interested. I’ll finish with a photographic flavour of her watery life and her books about it:

At the wheel of her vintage Dutch barge
My review of this is here

Pinter’s Plea for Peace

Dr Frances Pinter

It may seem strange to publish a piece on peace (if you’ll forgive the wordplay!) to celebrate Crime Reading Month. However, taking the big picture approach, the worst murders are committed during wars – as the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated yet again. Wartime atrocities emphasise that peace is vital and, as Dr Pinter says, generations who have grown up knowing only peace lose – dangerously awareness of the calamity of war. On the smaller canvas, classic crime fiction always ends with a denouement in which normality is restored – as peace follows war.

Dr Frances Pinter, who is currently Executive Chair of the Central European University Press [CEUP], is probably best known by readers of this blog for her outstanding – and continuing work to promote Open Access models that work for academics, readers, librarians and publishers equally. Frances is passionate about achieving the fair dissemination of knowledge and equally committed to working towards world peace, and particularly the maintenance of peace in Europe. These two ambitions are, of course, not unrelated.

When Frances was writing her PhD in the early 1970s, she came into contact not just with academics but also with practitioners in the study of conflict and research into peace. These were very new academic disciplines. Frances, who was totally committed to the concepts, found herself meeting all kinds of unusual academics. She understood that there was not sufficient understanding of the processes that needed to be worked through to achieve the satisfactory resolution of conflict – something she learnt while studying the conflict in Northern Ireland for her PhD which included pub crawls with the IRA. As a result of many studies that she and others later published, we now have a corpus of vital information on the subject – although politicians are not good at deploying it.

Frances founded her own publishing company at the young age of twenty-three. This happened by accident: she was still working on her PhD when she “ran into someone whom I thought would write a wonderful book and decided to try my hand at publishing”.

Although for a short time she subsequently took a job as an academic, she carried on with the publishing and loved the whole process. She also decided that she would make a much better publisher than an academic, but if she wanted to expand her publishing activities and therefore leave academia, she “needed to find a way to have enough money to eat”. Her solution was to take out a mortgage, buy a large house in Oxford and fill it with tenants. It was a period of high inflation, so she was able to keep on borrowing against the increasing value of the property and use the money to invest in the new publishing company, which was originally called Frances Pinter Publications and then simply Pinter Publishers. She gave the company her name because she wouldn’t then have to carry out a search to see if another company was using the name she chose – which would have incurred an unnecessary expense. She became a successful medium-sized Social Sciences and Humanities publisher.

The company was twenty-one years old when George Soros invited Frances to work for his foundation. He had contacted her to suggest that it would be a good idea for the Social Science and Humanities classics of the West to be translated into all the languages of the post-Communist countries; and could she do it? Although Frances saw instantly that this would change her whole life, she accepted the offer and sold Pinter Publications.

Working from Budapest for the Open Society Foundation, she began the translation programme. This turned out to be just part of the work required. Soon she had set up the Centre for Publishing Development, whose mission was to help the new private publishing sector that was emerging in thirty post-Communist countries. She visited all the countries that were being supported and worked in all of them. Budapest acted as the hub for the programme; each country had a publishing officer and Frances worked through them. She ceased working full-time for the Foundation at the turn of the millennium, but continued in her capacity as adviser for a few years afterwards.

All these activities were either directly or indirectly focused on peace. Frances says her family history – some were victims of the Nazis in the second world war – has played its part in her recognition of the most profound importance of peace. Sometimes this made her prescient. She knew when she was working in Eastern Europe in the ‘90s that some of the West’s approaches to bringing ‘democracy and capitalism’ to the East would backfire. Former Communist states were presented with an ideal, but the reality they observed – generated by hubris and hypocrisy – was far different and generated an enormous amount of resentment. “We were rich and they were poor and much that has happened since stems from this. It pained me terribly – I could see the parallels with the resentment felt in Germany after World War I that led to the rise of Hitler. It got worse after the financial crash of 2008. Transitional and developing countries suffered far more than we did.”

Like Frances, I was the child of the generation that was shaken by the Second World War and vowed it would never happen again. She observes that, inevitably perhaps, we were followed by a generation of Europeans who didn’t think about it so much. “Suddenly, people ARE thinking. Now is one of the saddest periods of my life – to see what we were building in the West unravel.” In this, she includes Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. During the referendum, she reminded British politicians that, fundamentally, the EU was a peace project, created to maintain peace in Europe. Every politician under the age of sixty-five scoffed at the idea that Europe might engage in another war. “They knew the facts but didn’t feel the weight of them. Now they bloody well should. Europe has been deeply destabilised because so many people didn’t understand.” She feels that pro-Brexit comments are frivolous. Britain has weakened its power to promote peace in Europe by standing outside the EU.

Frances visited Kiev a few times in the 1990s, during the period in which Judith Heneghan’s novel Snegurochka is set. One of her abiding memories is the very keen desire of the Ukrainian people to have the books she was offering them translated into Ukrainian, even though everybody could read Russian.

On a positive note, Frances believes that the current generation of young adults is again engaged in searching for profound truths. Recently, in Vienna, she met a colleague of Linda Kinstler, a young American journalist who has written a book entitled Come to this Court and Cry. The book describes Kinstler’s quest to establish whether her Latvian grandfather was really working for the Nazis or the Russians. “The truth is shrouded in secrecy, but all the time she is digging into it.” Truth leads to peace.

Ukraine: an author’s evocation of Kyiv (Kiev) in the 1990s

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts both touch on the war in Ukraine and feature interviews with an author and a publisher who have a marked affinity with the country. In today’s post, Judith Heneghan talks about Snegurochka, her debut novel for adults (she was already a prolific children’s author when she wrote it), which is set in the Ukraine of the 1990s, shortly after the breaking-up of the Soviet Union. The novel was published by Salt in 2019.

Q: Snegurochka is set in Kiev in the 1990s. Briefly, could you describe what it’s about.

A: Snegurochka is the story of a young English woman, Rachel, who lives in newly independent Ukraine in 1992 with her journalist husband and their new baby. Isolated, unable to speak Russian or Ukrainian, she develops a crippling fear of the balcony at their apartment. The city below is distrustful of foreigners and reeling from economic freefall, but her own needs create dependency and soon she is caught in a frightening endgame between the elderly caretaker, a money launderer and the boy who lives upstairs. Each is defined by their past, but Rachel doesn’t know how, until it is too late. All she wants is to keep her baby safe.

Q: It is a very powerful novel. Does it draw on personal experience?

A: Yes, I am drawing on personal experience, in that I lived in Kiev (as we called it back then) with my journalist husband and our new baby.  This allowed me to use my own memories of places and public events. However, the characters are all invented; we were far too boring. I have placed made-up characters and their problems in some real environments with many fictitious scenarios and outcomes. I think this is how much fiction is written – it’s a potent mix of experience and imagination. I am drawing on my memories of how hard it was to make friends, to find nappies, to navigate a city where people still carried the legacy of famine, invasion, suspicion and, of course, Chernobyl. 

Q: Have you visited Kiev again since you wrote the book?  Had it changed?

A: I did visit at the end of 2018, although I chose not to go back before then, while I was writing the novel, for fear of recent changes diluting my memories of thirty years ago. And it was such a joy to find that what I loved about Kiev remained – the exquisite churches and monasteries, the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the cobbles and cafes and the over-priced (still) Bessarabsky Market. However, what had made it a difficult place to live had changed. Now people seemed open, welcoming, happy to smile, to talk to strangers. Young families were everywhere. There were, also, new memorials and shrines to those who had lost their lives in Crimea and Donbas since 2014 – another layer of history now ran through the city’s streets – but the atmosphere was vibrant, forward-looking, hopeful. 

However, one theme of the novel is the way we as foreigners might think we know a country and a people. My impressions in 2018 were superficial, and of course any place is much more complicated than that.

Q: You must feel particularly horrified by the war in Ukraine. Are there people (especially writers, but anyone) there you are in touch with? Are they safe?

A: The war is utterly horrifying. I think most Europeans feel this, and of course when one has lived in a place that is being bombed, there is more to imagine, and perhaps it is less easy to forget.  But the journalists we mixed with back in 1992 have all moved on, and I had very few Ukrainian friends because of the language barrier. So no, I’m not in touch with people there now. I watch the news, feeling helpless, as do we all.

Q: If the novel were to be made into a film, who would you choose to play Ruth? And Lucas?

A: Absolutely no idea! Lucas is described as looking like the Marlboro Man, if anyone remembers those ads…

Q: Are you working on a new book now? If so, can you describe it very briefly?  

A: I am working on a new novel, yes. It is set in the Catskills, in Upstate New York, in a small, hippyish commune-style community on the verge of folding. It has young strangers in it, and a river, and mountains and pickups and dogs…

Q: Who are your own favourite authors – both classical and contemporary?

A: Oh, I feel a list coming on… in no particular order, Elizabeth Strout, A M Homes, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor… less contemporary (and the loves of my late teenage years) John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy.

Q: I understand that you teach creative writing. What would be your top three tips to would-be authors?

A:

  1. Learn the conventions so that you can break them.
  1. The scene is the queen (unless… see above).
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan.
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