A Shots eZine Special Report :
Harrogate Crime Writing Festival Report by Ali Karim
So July 2003 was shaping up to be very busy month in the Crime Fiction calendar. With Mike Stotter recovering from his back operation, the duties fell to me to report back from the first Harrogate crime writing festival. So packing my toothbrush, spare shirts, underwear, tape recorder, camera, warm-clothing and beer-vouchers, I headed North to that forbidden land cut off from the rest of Britain by that giant snake that straddles the pennines called the M62 motorway.
I arrived at the impressive Majestic Hotel on the evening of Thursday the 17th of July. The weather was scorching, and despite rumours that it always rains ‘Up North’ – there was not a cloud in the sky, just a big red sun which bathed the hotel in an orange glow. I heard that in former times the Majestic Hotel had been the largest and most prestigious hotel in all of Yorkshire, and when I checked in, it had the aura of days gone by and in some respects reminded me of ‘The Overlook Hotel’ from Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – except that it was located right in the center of historic Harrogate.
The Crime writing festival was held under the remit of the wider Harrogate festival which had a broad range of events reflecting the arts, be it dance, theatre, music, from all over the world. Even Dionne Warwick was in town, so it was looking like a fantastic weekend. I was also looking forward to meeting many of my favourite writers as well as having a few drinks with them during the weekend. My motto has always been ‘you never really know a person until you have drunk with them’ or words to that effect.
Checking in was a breeze as they had my reservation organized as I had paid a few months ago. Registration was painless and we got a goody bag with some books and magazines. The programming was excellent as there was little if any over-running of panels. The convention booklet was extremely professional with a story by Colin Dexter inside. I was also glad to see that the publishers had sponsored the event – Orion, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Harvill Press (now part of Random House) and Transworld all taking page adverts in the brochure as well as actually sponsoring panels. Armed with my goodies I headed for my room.
As I unpacked my case, my mobile phone-rang and my fellow Deadly Pleasures book reviewer – Sarah Weinman called me to see if I was ready for a drink, so without further ado, I headed downstairs to the bar clutching my beer vouchers. Incidentally Sarah Weinman’s report is available for download from the Deadly Pleasures website :- www.deadlypleasures.com/Harrogate1.htm
On the way to the main hotel bar I met up with Colin Dexter and we chatted about his presentation of the Sherlock Awards at Crimescene the previous weekend. As I hadn’t commented on his MC abilities, he indicated ‘Dear boy, you should have said that I did an excellent job’ followed by some ironic laughter. Colin Dexter is a funny character.
Ann Cleeves was at the Library Stand, and they had blue cards for readers to mark up their favourite reads of 2003 and pin them to the board, so I whacked a big one with the words ‘SHUTTER ISLAND by DENNIS LEHANE’ and then sneaked out before Val McDermid spotted me.
At the bar Sarah and I chatted about the Crimescene weekend and were soon joined by Simon Kernick, the author of the dark but funny London crime-novels ‘The Murder Exchange’ and ‘The Business of Dying’. If you haven’t read them yet – run to your local bookstore now! As they are seriously good reads if you like your crime fiction gritty and amoral.
The first event was ‘The Ghost of Morse’ but as we hadn’t eaten, Sarah, Simon and I went to a nearby Italian Pizzeria to soak up the beer with some pasta. We returned in time for the Opening Party. As we entered the ballroom, we were greeted with trays of champagne and finger nibbles. The room was buzzing. I spotted fellow crime-enthusiasts Luci, Donna and Bridget from the Internet group 4-MA (for mystery addicts). We chatted and mingled and then I went off to talk to some of the writers that have impressed me recently.
I first met up with Louise Welch who wrote the blistering ‘The Cutting Room’ that scooped several awards including the CWA Dagger for best debut crime novel. The book itself is an unsettling little tale about the dark-side of pornography. It gained (and rightly so) amazing reviews in most of the UK Literary Press :-
"Welsh's prose manages to be both tight and lyrical, suspenseful and poetic, compelling and occasionally oblique… Astonishingly, this is a first novel, catapulting Welsh straight into the superstar league, while establishing Rilke as a classic original." The Times
"In Louise Welsh crime fiction has one of its few real literary writers. The Cutting Room is a hugely commendable debut, assured and memorable. Crime fiction may have its prize-winner at last." Independent
"I was hooked from page one. Rilke is not Welsh's only great creation. The huge supporting cast of misfits and outsiders . . . are equally memorable. And Glasgow becomes a character in itself: it is oppressive, foreboding - a dark place for a dark tale." The Guardian
"This elegiac, elegant and atmospheric book is an original and compelling first novel." Daily Telegraph
Ali : Thanks for taking time out to talk to Shots eZine. To start could you tell our readers about the ‘The Cutting Room’?
Louise : I am really delighted to chat with you. The book is set in Glasgow and the main protagonist is an auctioneer called Rilke who in the course of his business comes across some very disturbing pornographic photographs and feels compelled to try and find out if these photographs are real. His quest, or search if you like, takes him all across the city and into the past and then further into now – where he discovers some disturbing things that are happening now.
Ali : Did you find it difficult to write about some of the more visceral aspects of the book?
Louise : Writing-wise is came easily at first, but sometimes when you are writing about something that is disturbing, it does disturb you as you write it. It’s like turning over a damp slimy rock, you can have bad dreams about what you might find in the darkness. I think I have an overactive subconscious, as I dream a great deal about what I write, and sometimes that is a bit unpleasant.
Ali : I was at Dead-on-Deansgate last year when they announced your Dagger Award at the presentation and you weren’t there, and no one from Canongate was present and Ian Rankin made a joke about their absence. So what happened?
Louise : Well basically I didn’t know. Winning the award was so amazing for me, as I hadn’t written a book before, let alone won an award before. The first thing I knew about it was when a Journalist phoned me up and asked ‘how do you feel about winning the CWA Dagger?’ I was a bit taken aback as it was the first time I heard about it…laughing….I would have loved to have gone to accept the award from Ian Rankin, but it could have been difficult as I had broken my leg at the time…..laughing…..Anyway it was lovely to have been at the London event and I took my mom and that was really nice.
Ali : But does winning the CWA Dagger award actually mean to you particularly in commercial terms?
Louise : In commercial terms it’s hard for me to know as basically I don’t how many copies have been sold since the award, but of course I think it has meant something in terms of sales. I know when I’m buying books If I was deciding between, say two books of which one had won an award, then I guess I would go with the one that won the award. Apart from the commercial effect. I think emotionally it is a fantastic endorsement. I am trying to write another book at the moment, and I did think that perhaps if did get one book published, I’d feel better writing the next one, but in reality you go through exactly the same journey and insecurity as you did on the first one! So you give yourself these wee presents in your head, like ‘hang on, you won an award so you can’t be that bad – people actually liked it!’ – so winning the award helps in that way also.
Ali : As you mentioned book #2, would care to tell us a little about it?
Louise : Well I’m actually working on two things at the moment. I’m very lucky as I have been commissioned to write a 25,000-word novelette, which is a short piece for a ‘Death in Literature’ series. It is an international series, which has the idea that you take a protagonist, a hero that is actually a writer and I have taken the Playwright and Poet Christopher Marlowe. So I am writing a short piece starring him, so you can see quite a ‘trip’ there and that’s very exciting. I am also engaged in a longer novel called ‘Torchlight’ which is about come cinema usherettes and again is based in Glasgow. It perhaps is a slightly more abstract Glasgow than the one I presented in ‘The Cutting Room’. Because I am working with female protagonists, it will have quite a different feel, and will be quite different, but at this stage I can’t say much more than that.
Ali : Thank you for your time and I can tell you that Mike and I really loved ‘The Cutting Room’.
Louise : Thank you for your interest.
‘The Cutting Room’ is published by Canongate books and more information is available from www.canongate.net
While I joined the queue at the Bar, I met Mo Hayder, who I had bumped into several times over the last few years. Shots interviewed her when ‘The Treatment’ came out in paperback last year and the article is archived at :-http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/The%20Mo%20Hayder%20Treatment.htm#top
Her long awaited third novel, Tokyo, is due out this year and I was keen to talk to her to find out what was new in her world, especially as the release day for book #3 was drawing close (-ish).
Ali : Hello Mo Hayder! Great to see you again. I was speaking recently to Martina Cole and she asked me to pass her regards to you!
Mo : Hi Ali and good to see Shots here supporting Harrogate. Well I must ask you to pass my very best regards to Martina Cole too. When I spoke to her recently she was wonderful, and I really didn’t get a chance to tell her that I saw her recently on Television, and she is so refreshing to watch. Martina Cole is exactly what the industry needs. She really knows what she’s talking about and she is writing from the heart about tough, tough issues.
Ali : So back to your work Mo. Firstly can you tell us what you are doing at Harrogate? And can you tell our readers what’s in store in book #3?
Mo : Well I’m doing a panel about ‘setting’ – specifically how and why writers are inspired by location, whether they think their story would work in any setting. This is a subject close to my heart because right at this moment I am writing a book set in Tokyo. So as I considered what I was going to talk about on the panel tomorrow, I realized that (unusually for me), I decided upon the setting before I decided upon the story. That is like coming at things from a reverse angle. In the past I have made setting fit around the story and characters that I wanted to write about. I am working on a book that is set in Tokyo. Initially I thought that I was going to write two stories, a thriller set in the underworld of modern day Tokyo, while in the other book (which was more of a historical novel) was set in what was the capital of China – Nanking when the Japanese army occupied the city and over the period of about six-weeks slaughtered around 300,000 people. That’s where our modern myths about real barbarism and mass slaughter come from. The occupying army carried out unspeakably hideous acts such as bayoneting babies, mass rape, and murder. I always knew that I wanted to write about that period, but was not sure how I would. Anyway back to setting. Eventually I went to China to look at Nanking, and met someone that made me realize that I could meld the two stories together. It was on a train journey through the province when I met this Japanese man who sat opposite me. So now the new book has in fact two stories running thorough it. One set in contemporary Tokyo and one set in China, in Nanking during the occupation in 1937.
Ali : So any idea when we are likely to see it?
Mo : …..hmmmmm Allegedly February 2004.
Ali : Many of your fans are pretty desperate for the new book as it has been a few years since The Treatment was released?
Mo : …mmmmmm I like desperate….actually it’s quite difficult for me as it has been a complex book to write but it will be out when it’s ready……which is soon…
Ali : Mo thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing the book soon.
Mo : A big thank you to everyone at Shots and thank you all for your interest.
With that I left Mo with Val McDermid and Louise Welch, and mingled with many of the assembled writers. Then Val McDermid who helped organize the programming for the event was asked to say a few words. Val welcomed us all to Harrogate, and told us about the various events that would be running during the weekend. She also explained the sterling work by Ann Cleeves who was organizing the library activities with the local community. She then handed the microphone to William Culver-Dodds who was the festival director. He explained a little of what was on offer with the rest of the festival. The final words were left to a local politician who told us to all spend a lot of money while in Harrogate. With a rousing round of applause, we all went back to the bar and mingled.
I think that staging such an event, especially one with an international dimension, as it features a link with Kathryn Kennison’s ‘Magna-cum-Murder’ convention in Muncie Indiana as well as the contingent of Scandinavians must be a supreme effort in terms of sheer management. So far it was shaping to be a really action filled affair.
I had a few drinks with Simon Kernick, and Peter Robinson and talked about Canada, as Simon lived in Toronto for a few years. Simon was a new convert to the world of Alan Banks. I have to state yet again my admiration for these books. Peter Robinson just gets better and better with each book and I am excited to read ‘Playing with fire’ the new one due out in January 2004. Peter is also the international guest of honour at Magna-cum-Murder this October, which is great honour and illustrates his stature within the genre. So after much talk of Canada and too much beer, I decided to head off to my bed.
The following morning I had breakfast with some friends from the Internet Newsgroup Rec.Arts.Mystery – Rik and Carol from Stockport, and we were soon joined by Sarah Weinman who looked pretty wrecked, as she had stayed up late in the bar with Simon Kernick.
The first panel was ‘Industry Forum : How to get published’ chaired by Margaret Kinsman who is a senior lecturer at South Bank University in London pioneering courses on the history of detective fiction, as well as running reading groups within the genre. Joining her were Maria Rejt who is publishing director at Macmillian and Picador, David Shelly who is publishing director at Alison and Busby, Broo Doherty who works for Gregory and Company as an editorial director and finally Ewan Wilson from Ottakars Glasgow who run a magnificent crime-section.
The debate was lively but also depressing, as Maria Rejt explained to the audience – ‘No one needs you, no one wants you’. This was a sobering thought to many of the would-be writers. From that opening position they explained the dynamics of how a book gets accepted and the part that literary agents play, right through to the promotion of the book when it struggles to find its audience. Broo Doherty explained that at Gregory and Company, they get in the border of 5,000 manuscripts a year, of which they may take two new writers. The real core advice was that although publishers now-days publish less books, but they are always looking for something new, something fresh. Ewan Wilson explained the importance in crime-fiction of a ‘sense of place’ as well as strong characterization. It was perhaps good advice to dissect a book to understand how a tale is told. The panel opened for questions from the floor. It was good to see many local would-be writers listening and taking notes. The final piece of advice was ‘Write in your own voice’ as what is popular now, may not be what the publishers are looking for in the future.
There was a short break in which we dispersed for coffee. I had a short chat with Philippa Pride of Hodder & Stoughton where she told me about her last meeting with Stephen King as Hodder had organized a competition when his tome ‘About Writing’ was released. She also gave me some personal insights into the writing and editing process which was most fascinating.
The next panel was a lighthearted ‘Whodunnit’ quiz focusing in on the works of Agatha Christie. Harrogate has a link to that golden age writer, as she went missing for a few days and was found in Harrogate.
The chair was the very droll Simon Brett. The two teams that flanked him consisted of Kate Mosse co-founder of the Orange prize for fiction as well as broadcaster and writer of fiction and non-fiction, Robert Barnard who this year was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Dagger of outstanding achievement in the genre, Natasha Cooper a past chair of the CWA, ex-publisher and novelist under her other names of Daphne Wright and Clare Layton, Simon Kernick the hard-boiled crime writer who paints a dangerous North London with his ‘The Murder Exchange’ and ‘The Business of Dying’ as well as novelist and actors Mark Billingham with his current DI Tom Thorne trilogy which won him a Sherlock Award for his bestseller ‘Scaredy Cat’ and Stella Duffy who works in the theatre and her play ‘Immaculate Conceit’ is currently being staged at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, but she also is the writer of the Saz Martin crime series.
The session kicked in with a wonderfully funny and deadpan introduction of the panel by Simon Brett. He had is work cut out controlling the panel at times, especially Mark Billingham who made no bones about the fact that he had read very little of Agatha Christie. Simon Kernick took the whole event very seriously as he had swotted up on the great lady and her work. The quiz was played for laughs culminating in Mark Billingham delivering a Hercule Poirot summing up speech complete with moustache, while Stella Duffy did the same as Miss Marple. A wonderfully funny event, that showed that the genre did not take itself too seriously. The real star was Simon Brett with his one-liners after each round of questions.
The next event was more serious as crime-writer Margaret Murphy (who has her new book ‘Weaving shadows out in hardcover and its precursor ‘Darkness Falls’ out in paperback) chaired ‘Scene of the crime’ – a look at setting and location. On her panel were Paul Johnston who previously wrote a crime series set in a futuristic Edinburgh in the year 2020, but was now working on a new series set in Greece featuring a PI Alex Mavros (‘A deeper shade of blue’ and the new one ‘The last red death’), Stephen Booth who writes police procedurals set in Derbyshire and features two cops – Diane Fry and Ben Cooper, Louise Welsh who wrote the Dagger winner ‘The Cutting Room’ and Mo Hayder who wrote two police procedurals set in South London ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Treatment’.
This was a very lively panel and provided great insight in how critical the landscape is within the crime-fiction genre, and that without a sense of place the reader can become lost. It was interesting that each of the writers cited ‘setting’ to be also most as critical as character when it comes to plotting a crime-novel.
After that panel I decided to see some of Harrogate and get some lunch. I ventured into the summer afternoon and walked along Harrogate’s picturesque streets. I had lunch at Betty’s Tearooms and then wondered back.
Back at the Majestic Hotel I saw Jeffery Deaver with Kathryn Kennison and remembered me from last year when we recorded an interview for Shots following the launch of ‘The Stone Monkey’. We had a laugh about recording it in a basement at Ottakars Milton Keynes, and planned to meet up to talk about his new book ‘The Vanished Man’. By now I had missed Francis Fyfield talking to Forensic Pathologist Professor David Bowen, but it is hard to go to all the panels as there were such a diverse selection as well as people to meet. In the foyer I also met Prue Jefferys (PR-Manager for Transworld Publishing) who I have known know for a few years. I bumped into Prue a couple weeks back in London by sheer chance when we spotted each other in London restaurant, much to our mutual amusement. Prue has many writers to promote, and we share interest in the bestseller thriller writer Lee Child. Prue and Maggie Griffin (from the US) helped set-up interviews with Lee Child and they are archived :-
In 2001 ‘Without Fail’ http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/Lee%20Child%20Interview.htm#TOP
In 2002 ‘Persuader’ http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/leechild.html
I was looking forward to seeing Lee Child again, but this time on his own turf – the US, as he was going to be the toastmaster at Bouchercon Las Vegas. Prue passed her very best wishes to Mike Stotter as she hadn’t seen him for ages, but I filled her in about Mike’s back problems.
Prue and I then decided to listen to Val McDermid having tea with Denise Mina, especially as Denise is published by Transworld. The session was informal and appeared to have been sponsored by Yorkshire Tea, as the two crime-writers poured tea and talked about their influences, as well as how they started writing. It was very relaxed and they talked about how avid they were as readers, especially when they were younger. Val spoke about how much she enjoyed Jim Lusby’s book ‘Serial’, while Denise talked about Chris Simm’s ‘Outside the white lines’ – a seriously creepy debut. On the way out Prue and I met up with Selina Walker, a senior editor at Transworld who was with Edwin Thomas (‘The Blighted Cliffs’), so we sat with them for our own cozy chat over tea.
So after the tea, I went to the bar and had a glass of scotch to steady my excitement as we all knew that Jeffery Deaver was in the building. I left the bar reluctantly and went to hear him speak. The hall was full, but Sarah had saved me a place right at the front. Jeffery Deaver was introduced to us by Kathryn Kennison who is the organizer of Magna-cum-Murder which this year is being held 24th October – 26th October at Muncie Indiana. The two guests of honour are Peter Robinson and Jeffery Deaver, and the event is the weekend after Bouchercon. I had planned to go, but with my Bouchercon trip to Las Vegas, I was going to be short of leave and cash, which is a pity as I have heard such good reports of the event.
Kathryn Kennison spoke about Magna-cum-Murder and how they had sponsored Harrogate by bringing Jeffery Deaver over to speak, and then she indicated that Jeffery needed little introduction to the serious crime-fan and left him at the podium. I have heard him speak on several occasions and enjoyed his oratory and delivery as he has a magnificent sense of style. His speech was very amusing as he talked about his life, peppering it with gags. He talked about his less successful former careers as a journalist, folksinger and attorney, as well as his fist attempts at writing fiction. He got a great laugh about his struggles with poetry, as he was a professional poet. But people really wanted to know was what was in store for Lincoln Rhyme in his latest novel. Jeffery explained to the audience where his main man came from "I never intended the Rhyme books to be a series. I thought The Bone Collector, the first book, was an interesting concept. I wanted to write a very cerebral, Holmesian character who combats crime with his thought processes more than fast car chases and shooting. Basically, I thought, how is this for an ending: a completely physically helpless character is trapped in a locked room with the bad guy? How do I accomplish that? In the end I decided to go the whole way and make him a quadriplegic and introduced the element of assisted suicide, because if the bad guy doesn't get him he's going to get himself. The story kind of came out of that, but it has been a challenge in each book to pit him against characters who are not only mobile but masters of disguise, villains who can get close to him or close to the people that he cares about." The latest Rhyme novel, The Vanished Man, pits his hero against a master magician who uses the tools of his trade - quick costume changes, sleight-of-hand - in order to get close to his victims and kill them. Deaver is the master of ’twist’ and could be described as the Chubby Checker of crime fiction. On talking about his twists ‘One of the reasons I do multiple twists is that readers are brilliant. Readers are very, very smart, and they will catch on to something, so as long as I have one thing that gets by them, that's okay. I'm very fortunate that I get paid to do what I do. It's actually a treat for me to get paid to do what I do.’ The books have helped to make him a bestseller, assisted in part by a Hollywood movie of The Bone Collector which featured Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme.
Jeffery Deaver is amazingly modest considering he has 20 novels to his name, had 5 nominations for the Edgar award, an Anthony award, WH Smiths Thumping good read award as well as Ellery Queen Reader’s award for best short story. And now he appears in ‘cameo’ on a US soap opera, personally speaking I think he would make a magnificent Hollywood Villain such as ‘Ernst Stavro Blofeld’ in a Bond movie, except of course that he such a nice guy.
I was fortunate to have interviewed him last year :-http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/Jeffrey%20Deaver%20Interview.htm#top
After the Jeff Deaver session I joined a group of writers and journalists for dinner in rather quaint restaurant in downtown Harrogate. This was a real treat as our hosts were most gracious and the company quite eclectic, and of course we talked crime and mystery throughout our three courses.
Back at the Majestic, I had missed the midnight cabaret double bill of Stuart Pawson’s ‘DNA and all that’ and Simon Brett’s ‘Lines of enquiry’ – which was a bit of a disappointment, so I headed off to the bar. The bar was very busy as there had been a wedding nearby, but many of the writers came in and the serious drinking started. Robson Green was on hand with Val McDermid and it got quite loud at times. I sat with Mo Hayder and Selina Walker discussing the new books that were coming out, both UK and US. Simon Kernick soon appeared with a tray of drinks, and I gave him the nickname ‘Barfly’ as whenever I went to the bar, Simon was there clutching a beer. He is man after my own heart, and has the same crazy sense of humour that appears in his crime novels which are set in the dark heart of gangland London.
After a couple drinks too far, I went for my bed at around 2 am, but the party was going strong. Simon Kernick appeared to be in overdrive, and can that man drink (as well as write)!
After a late breakfast which I shared with Carol, Rik and Sarah Weinman, I went to the bar to read the paper, have a coffee and collect my thought. I was reading The Times book review column, when Andrew Taylor appeared and joined me for coffee. He was beaming at the tremendous critical response he has received for his latest opus ‘The American Boy’.
Ali : Hello Andrew. I’m just looking at the review in today’s Times for your book ‘The American Boy’ and if I may quote ‘Excellent work, as one would expect from a veteran thriller writer such as Taylor’ – would you care to tell our readers a little bit of background to your book?
Andrew : ‘The American Boy’ pivots on the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was partly educated in England, even though we tend to think of him as an American Author which indeed he is. His mother was English and between the years 1815 and 1820 he was at school in London, in the leafy village of Stoke Newington (as it was then). The idea that the Edgar Allan Poe had lived in the England of Jane Austin seemed so bizarre that I had to write a novel that used that in someway. So in fact, although he’s not a major character in the book, he does influence all the main actions in the book, so he’s the hidden, haunting genius that pervades this story of a great banking fraud, several murders and some very nasty crimes indeed.
Ali : I have heard that it has been re-titled for American release?
Andrew : There calling it ‘An unpardonable crime’ in the states, and it will be out next March. The reason why they re-titled it was that they felt that they had an awful lot of American boys and it might get confused in the market, as some readers might think it a teenage novel. Which seems a bit bizarre to me, but he who pays the piper calls the tune. Also the US title is a direct quote from a Poe story, so it had the right sort of ring to it.
Ali : So with ‘The American Boy’ now out, are you back working on a Lydmouth mystery?
Andrew : Yes I am working on the 7th Lydmouth Mystery called ‘The Dying’ which should be out next summer (2004) with a bit of luck. I’m actually not that far from finishing it, I’m glad to say.
Ali : And what are your thoughts about this first Harrogate Crime-writing festival that you are participating in?
Andrew : I have to say I am very impressed. As you know I do a great number of these festivals. But here I think we have a combination of two things that are working very well. One is the organization. Here in Harrogate they really know how to organize a festival and they know how to manage the mechanics and it shows, it seems to be running very smoothly and everyone is very friendly and helpful. The other aspect is the programming committee have done a wonderful job – They have lined-up a really interesting group of speakers and there are not too many panels, as I hate these really vast events where there are so many events all competing simultaneously, but here they have it just right. It is small enough to see the people who you want to see, but large enough to provide variety. I am 100% in favour of Harrogate.
Ali : Thank you so much for you time.
So I checked my watch realizing that the ‘Breakfast with Reginald Hill’ was winding up. The industry forum on writing for TV was due next, but TV writing did not really interest me, and I knew it would be mobbed as it featured Robson Green. I however had an appointment with Jeffery Deaver, so I went to the coffee lounge. I spotted Jeffery easily as he sat in a corner in his black attire. His colleague from UK publishers Hodder and Stoughton organized a tray of coffee and biscuits. It was a bit too early for beer.
Ali : Great to see you again Jeffery and welcome to Yorkshire!
Jeffery : Hello Ali! And great to see you again and a big hello to Shots readers!
Ali : So firstly how did you get involved with this Inaugural Harrogate crime-witting festival?
Jeffery : This goes back 18 months or so, as I am a friend of Val McDermid. I believe I was at Deansgate and she had mentioned that there was a new and exciting writers conference going on in Harrogate and she asked me if I would like to participate. Well I love Yorkshire anyway so I said ‘Sure, count me in!’
Ali : Well your talk yesterday was really good and very witty. I’ve heard you speak at many events, but how do you manage to keep them sounding fresh?
Jeffery :….hmmmmm…A good glass of red wine ahead of time usually helps…but seriously I have had a lot of practice….laughing…..yes the wine helps. But generally I have many topics that I can draw from, but that speech about my life as writer I do quite often, but perhaps not as detailed as last night. I have a much more detailed talk on how to write, and how I write, I also do readings, but these tend to be very pithy readings. For instance last night I did a short reading, just a snippet from my new book ‘The Vanished Man’. But what I do in an actual formal reading is that I never do more than 8 minutes tops. This means that I edit say three chapters down into one scene, I’ll edit, re-write dialogue so that I make the reading more of a performance because in writing books, you do just that, you write the book and put itout on the shelf. Being up in front of fans and potential fans and other writers is a whole different ballgame. You need to be an entertainer, you need to be a performer so I have to gear my performance to the audience and I love doing that as much as I love writing the books.
Ali : We loved your latest Lincoln Rhyme thriller ‘The Vanished Man’ but could you tell our readers a little about it?
Jeffery : Sure. I guess the best way I can describe ‘The Vanished Man’ is David Copperfield (not the Dickensian David Copperfield, but the American Magician David Copperfield) meets Hannibal Lecter. The idea came about from an incident a few years ago when I took my partners son to a circus. I don’t really like the circus too much, as the clowns scare me, and I don’t like the high-wire acts in case someone falls to their death right in front of me, which could be pretty awful. I don’t like big smelly animals. But I did see the quick-change routine – a husband and wife couple I believe from Eastern Europe or the Ukraine. They were amazing. They could change costume and an identity in three to four seconds. And I thought right there and then – that’s my idea and that’s my villain – Someone does that and uses other magic techniques too to get close to the victims, kill them and get away from the police. The book just sprang from that initial idea. I set it in the world of my quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme and his sidekick Amelia Sachs and I set them loose on what is principally a cat and mouse chase which takes place over two days. As the theme is magic, there are more twist’s and sleight of hand than any of my other books. The book is about twists and turns, so again it allowed me to really have some fun in moving the story around those twists and turns.
Ali : Also it seems to me that your time-frame is getting shorter as in ‘The Vanished Man’ the action takes place over just two days. Are we likely to see the next Lincoln Rhyme thriller to be set over six-hours?
Jeffery : ..laughing……..funny that you should mention that as I have in mind doing a real-time book at some point. I guess if you are on vacation and have nothing else to do, you could get through one of my books in around six-hours I guess. I would like to do a book that is a minute by minute recreation of the action, the thoughts, the dialogue – It’s a challenge, and it will be a few years before I do that, if ultimately I consider it good for the reader. I am not 100% convinced that it is, but it would be a real challenge for me and if I could pull it off, readers would be delighted I guess.
Ali : I would love to read that!
Jeffery ; I’ll let you know if I decided to do it!
Ali : Currently you seem to have organized yourself with an alternating rota of Lincoln Rhyme, Stand-alone, Lincoln Rhyme etc. So what are you working on for next years book?
Jeffery : The book due out next year is called ‘Garden of Beasts’ from my wonderful British publishers Hodder & Stoughton. It is a historical thriller that takes place in Berlin in 1936, over the course of two days, with a slight prologue only because in 1936, I had to get my character from Manhattan to Berlin with the US Olympic team. Hey, there were no jet-aircraft, no Concorde so I had to build-in an extra week for the SS Manhattan to sail to Hamburg. So apart from that which is dispatched in the book basically in a few paragraphs, the rest of the novel takes place over 48 hours. It is I guess a psychological and police thriller, but you can’t get away from Nazi politics if you are in Berlin in 1936. I will say that there is a cryptic Lincoln Rhyme aspect to the book, but beyond that I will not go any further.
Ali : Jeffery thank you for your time.
Jeffery : Always a pleasure and I appreciate the interest from Shots eZine.
After coffee with Jeffery Deaver and Hodder & Stoughton, I went off to the lunchtime panel ‘Bloody History’ sponsored by Transworld Publishers. The panel was chaired by BBC Radio 4 presenter and Crime-Fiction enthusiast Jenni Murray. Joining her were Jane Jakeman who is a novelist, writer and journalist with a PhD in art history from Oxford, Edwin Thomas who has just published his debut ‘The Blighted Cliffs’, Andrew Taylor – the award winning novelist who really excelled himself with his three book ‘Roth’ trilogy and the Fidelis Morgan - actress, performer, writer and now novelist of the Countess Ashby de la Zouche series which started with ‘Unnatural Fire’
This turned out to be a lively panel discussing the resurgence of the historical crime novel. There was a little controversy when Jane Jakeman and Andrew Taylor disagreed with Fidelis Morgan’s thoughts of the position of Women in the Restoration period. It should be pointed out that Ms. Morgan is somewhat of a scholar of that period. I was however most impressed by Edwin Thomas, who I first met the previous week at Heffers. His participation on the panel was most interesting as he too made a study of history, and used it to excellent affect in his debut ‘The Blighted Cliffs’, which was shortlisted a few years back for a Debut Dagger, and was now selling rather well.
After the panel I met up with Karen of 4-MA who arrived and joined up with her colleagues from the reading group, Bridget, Luci, Donna. We all went to the bar for a light lunch and were joined by the RAM contingent of Sarah, Rik and Carol. For desert we tried a Yorkshire delicacy ‘Fat Rascal’ – which is basically a large scone.
I went for a walk to work off that lunch and missed the first forensic panel which was about DNA and all that stuff. As an Industrial Chemist and Scientist I was pretty clued-up (pardon the pun) on these matters.
On my return I spotted Paul Johnston loitering around the Ottakars book stand. Paul had been seriously ill in the later part of last year and it was so good to see him in such good health and with a seriously good book ‘The Last Red Death’ about to be released. It was a follow-up to his Greece PI series debut ‘A Deeper Shade of Blue’. Simon Kernick and I interviewed him at Deansgate last year :-http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/pjohnston.html
For Johnston, writing was the family business. His father, Ronald, aformer merchant navy captain, wrote maritime thrillers in the seventies.Johnston remembers their house was always full of authors: "I canremember being up a treehouse - I had built a treehouse 60ft above theground in the garden - and suddenly I saw these people down below and itwas the old man and Hammond Innes." Everyone else's father was a farmeror an army officer, Johnston recalls, so writing seemed different andglamorous. "But it wasn't something I thought at that stage that Iwanted to do particularly."
After a stint at Melville College, Johnston was dispatched to Fettes totake his place alongside the future captains of industry and government.For some "obscure reason" he had got it into his head at the age of sixthat he wanted to study ancient Greek. Not a common study option "so Iended up in Colditz in north Edinburgh". He says now he had a reasonabletime there, yet one of his first literary acts was to blow the place upin Body Politic, his crime debut. Now Paul had been putting his energy into his new Greek PI series featuring Alex Mavros, so I decided to ask him a few questions.
Ali : Hi Paul and it’s great to see looking so well.
Paul : Thank you, and yes I do feel much better.
Ali : You were on the Landscape and Settings panel last night. Would you care to tell us what your impressions are of the event?
Paul : It has been excellent, and the organization has been very professional but most importantly there have been many members of the public attending, which is the whole point of an event like this. They have also managed to get many big-name authors so it has been very good.
Ali : Your second Alex Mavros book ‘The Last Red Death’ is due out in August, would you care to tell our readers something about the book?
Paul : The Greek series features an Greek private investigator called Alex Mavros. In the first book of the series ‘A deeper shade of blue’ which is just out in paperback, there was fairly restricted location in that book as it was set more or less exclusively on a small island. I have tried to expand that with ‘The Last Red Death’ so most of the action takes place in Athens or on the southern mainland which is an area of Greece that I have known for many years and have been enamored with. It has a rich and bloody history which is very interesting for a crime-writer, and I have tried to tie-in elements of the ancient past, elements of mythology and a lot of stuff from WW2 which also appeared in ‘A Deeper Shade of Blue’. I think that the effect of the Second World War even fifty years after, still hasn’t been fully worked out in most parts of Europe. So there is a link to ancient history and mythology, and the fairly recent history all linking back to today’s contemporary world with a terrorism angle.
Ali : Are you starting a series based on colour, as we had Blue, now Red are we going White next?
Paul :….laughing actually the original title I had for ‘The Last Red Death’ didn’t have a colour it, and I was having second thoughts about it anyway. So it seemed to be a good idea to have colour in the title, but in fact, after you have done blue and red, it gets rather difficult as the other colours are green, yellow and orange that don’t grab the minds eye. So I’m not sure if the colours will continue. In the Quintilian Dalrymple series there is some reference to the body, which I quite liked. I think it is good to have a series tied to a theme or motif, and I think readers like it also, but with the new series I am not sure how that is going to go along. If you go on as long as someone like Ian Rankin with the Rebus books it does become difficult. He had some titles that were Rolling Stones tracks, but by no means all, as after about four or five it really does becomes hard.
Ali : Well as you write in a pretty noir style, book #3 could perhaps have ‘Black’ in the title.
Paul : ‘Black’ yes I could see myself using that at some stage, but the thing about black is that the Greek word for black is Mavros which is in fact the name of my main protagonist – Alex Mavros…..laughing…
Ali :…laughing….my Greek is not that good….laughing….
Paul : …..laughing…..I gathered….laughing…I imagine using black in the title could cause a bit of a problem…laughing………..
Ali : …..Imagine what the Greek translation would be like….laughing….Mavros’s black adventure perhaps……laughing….a real noir tale….laugh….not at all politically correct…laughing…..
Paul : ..laughing…….well it is a bit of an in-joke for me as ‘The Last Red Death’ is being translated into Greek at the moment, as the real life Greek terrorists that have been plaguing Greek society for the last twenty five years are what I very loosely based some of my terrorists on…very loosely I add, as they were still at large and I don’t want a bullet in the back of the head. They got caught last year which was a bit of a relief, and they are on trial at the moment so my Greek publisher is very anxious to get this book out on the shelves….It might be fair to say that he’s for once keener than I am to get this book out……
Ali :….laughing…just make sure that they don’t have your address…anyway thanks for your time and good luck with the new book both English as well as Greek editions.
Paul : Thank you for your interest.
After leaving Paul to his book buying, I noticed that Denise Mina was free from the signing table so I decided to ask her about her work.
Ali : Denise you have been active here for the last few days. Can you tell me your impressions of this festival?
Denise : It has been fantastic, great atmosphere and a load of readers, it is brilliant as everyone is staying in the same venue and you get to meet people in corridors which really makes It all the more interesting. It is often the informal things that make conferences good or bad. Harrogate has been fantastic and I would defiantly come back again.
Ali : I really enjoyed ‘Sanctum’ which was quite a departure from your Garnethill Trilogy. Now that it is out in paperback would you care to tell our readers something about it?
Denise : It’s a first person story about a man who is obnoxious, and is a doctor but never works. His wife has just been found guilt of murdering one of her patients and he is going through her papers in her study to try and find out whether or not she did it. He just doesn’t believe that she did it, so that is the basic story.
Ali : So what are you working on currently?
Denise : I am working on the first of a new series about a character called Paddy Meehan who is a girl journalist working in 1981 starting up her career and she gets involved in the investigation of a child murder. It turns out that she knows one of the boys who did it, and gets involved in that. It’s going to move through real time, so you’ll follow her career and her life.
Ali : And when is it due out ?
Denise : Well I’m on page 250 and it is due for publication next April.
Ali : I also heard that you have a short story coming out shortly?
Denise : Yes it’s called ‘Carol’s Gift’ and will available free to download as part of the Save our Short Story Campaign which is being spearheaded by Val McDermid. In fact the web-details are :-
http://www.saveourshortstory.org.uk/My Short Story ‘Carol’s Gift’ is available at :-http://www.saveourshortstory.org.uk/anthology/Carols_Gift
There will an anthology published of all the stories, but by registering at the website, you will get two free short stories a month.
Ali : Thank you for your time Denise.
Denise : Thanks for the interest.
I spotted Chris Simms appear in the lobby and quickly introduced him to Denise Mina, as she loved his debut novel ‘Outside the White Lines’, which I would recommend to anyone who wants a fast, tough read. After leaving them chatting I went and had a cup of coffee with the glamorous Stella Duffy.
Ali : Hello Stella, that was a wonderful Miss Marple you did at the Agatha Christie quiz….laughing…..So tell me what are your thoughts about this festival?
Stella : Hi Ali and I am having a lovely time here. Its really well organized, everyone seems to know where to go, and the green room is very nice and full of chocolate biscuits, and there is a delightful home audience. I was a bit worried that the Harrogate audience might be a bit stuffy, but they are not, they are being very warm and generous.
Ali : Apart from your play, you are under deadline for a novel?
Stella : Well two actually. One I’m on the last edits for Virago and it’s my first crime book for ages, a standalone called ‘Parallel Lies’ which is due out next July. The second is also for Virago plus I have agreed with Serpents Tail to do a fifth Saz Martin and I haven’t decided if it starts with Saz alive or dead!
Ali : Thank you for your time and good luck with your play play ‘Immaculate Conceit’ at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and we look forward to your new books too.
Stella : Thanks Ali
I then went off for a quick beer and spotted a very red-faced Martyn Waites who had just come from having a swim in the hotel pool. I bought him a beer and we talked about his new book for Simon and Schuster.
Ali : Hi Martyn, what do you think of this event?
Martyn : I think it’s smashing, I am having a wonderful time, it’s probably the wrong time to ask me after a long relaxing swim…laughing….
Ali : We’ve heard some very good feedback about your new book ‘Born under Punches’ would you care to tell our readers something about it?
Martyn : Sure, I’d be delighted. It’s all about the legacy of the coal miners strike in 1984/5 and centers on one small town just outside Newcastle and you get to see what the knock-on effects of the actions of one generation on the next. I tried to avoid it being a dull, boring and worthy book. It is firmly a crime novel, there’s gangsters in it, sex, drug and violence that make up the mix.
Ali : But I assume there is a political undercurrent?
Martyn : Yes, it is unashamedly political because I don’t think you can write about that period in the context of the miners strike without politics becoming involved. The centerpiece is a large confrontation between the police and striking miners which is taken from the testimonies of the disturbances at the battle at Orgreave – which is taken word-for-word from some of the statements of the people that were there. Most of the literature that was published at the time was done from the perspective of the police and of the right-wing media. What I wanted to do was to try and put the position of the other side which seldom gets aired. It’s timely as next year is the 20th anniversary of the miners strike. I think we are going to see a slew of things coming out about the whole period, because people have had time to take stock of that time and those times have had a huge knock-on effect to us today. The book however does look upon those events in a very personal and human level. Basically ‘Born under Punches’ is about people.
Ali : Thanks Martyn and good luck with the book.
Mark Billingham appeared and joined us, and we had a laugh about Martyn’s red face, which remained just this side of beetroot. I left them to their beer, and wondered back to the bookstall and spotted Margaret Murphy browsing the mountain of Ian Rankin novels that had been delivered (by what must have been a Chinook, by their sheer number). I had recently just started to read her books, so I decided to ask her about her work.
Ali : Hello Margaret, so have been having a good time at Harrogate?
Margaret : It is been absolutely brilliant. What has been so thrilling is that so many readers have turned up to support the event. It’s not just publishers, it’s not just agents, it’s not just editors but the whole festival is focused for the reader. And they have come from Harrogate but also from all over the UK, US/Canada and Europe.
Ali : Ayo is one of our reviewers at Shots and a big fan of your work and loved ‘Weaving Shadows’ and ‘Darkness Falls’, but for those not familiar with your work, would you care to talk about your books?
Margaret : Both books center around Barrister Clara Pascal and in the first book ‘Darkness Falls’ she is abducted right at the start and it’s really how she deals with that situation, particularly as she is a person, who as a lawyer is used to arguing, disputing with discourse, but has had that on strength taken from her as she is not allowed to speak by her abductor. As the book develops she has to question some of her own principals and the ways in which she has defended people in the past. So it is as much about the process of law as it is about her abduction.
Ali : When you started ‘Darkness Falls’ did you consider that your character Clara Pascal may become a series character?
Margaret : It was planned like all my other books as a stand-alone, and I was developing ‘Weaving Shadows’ as an idea and I was considering who was going to the women here? As there had to be a female central character. It seemed to me ideal to place Clara because firstly as you have a person accused of a murder, and you didn’t know (nor did I) if this person had committed the crime, and secondly I needed someone shaky about her own feelings about defending someone who could be guilty of committing that crime. So the role was made for her, and for me it was interesting to she how she had coped after her ordeal in ‘Darkness Falls’ as a character. I like to look at how people survive a violent crime, and that is true in all my books. The aftermath really interests me, and as I hadn’t really explored that in ‘Darkness Falls’, I got the opportunity to do so in ‘Weaving Shadows’.
Ali : And will that be the end of Clara, as you move back to stand-alones?
Margaret : No, in fact I am starting a series, but I didn’t know this until about two weeks ago. My editor and my agent weren’t too keen on developing Clara as a series character, so I went along with that. So I have actually written another novel which is a stand-alone. But then my US publishers got interested in my two Clara novels, but only if they were part of a series. So I said ‘This can be done’…..laughing.
Ali : I was speaking last night to Mo Hayder and she really loved ‘Weaving Shadows’.
Margaret : Mo has been a real supporter of my work, which is very gratifying for me.
Ali : And were all waiting for her third book…..
Margaret : But it is definitely in the pipeline! So we’ll just have to wait for it.
Ali : Margaret thanks for your time.
Margaret : Thanks for the interest.
The hotel was getting very warm so I went outside and saw that Kathryn Kennison was sitting and chatting with Jeff Deaver and Peter Robinson, so after agreeing to pose for a couple of photographs, I asked if she could tell Shots a little bit about Magna-cum-Murder.
Kathryn : Well Peter Robinson will be the International Guest of Honour this year and Jeffery Deaver is Guest of Honour at Magna-cum-Murder which is being held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Ali : So how did Magna-cum-Murder become involved with this Harrogate event?
Kathryn : Well Jane stole my thunder as I was coming to the UK to see if we could stage a Magna-cum-Murder event in the British Isles in July 2003. I met Jane at the CWA annual conference in Durham where she was announcing this conference. Obviously I was not going to teach the master how to suck eggs, so I asked if I could be involved in some way, and perhaps Magna-cum-Murder could sponsor the American guest of honour, so that’s how I became involved, purely through Jane’s generosity in allowing us to contribute.
Ali : Well I must thank you for organizing to have Jeffery Deaver over here. His speech last night was magnificent.
Kathyrn : Thanks for your interest.
More information on Magna-cum-Murder is available at :-http://www.magnacummurder.comOr email Kathryn direct at : email@example.comIt looks like a great convention running from 24th October – 26th October 2003
After that brief chat I wandered back in the bar and sat with Natasha Cooper as she had a new Trish Mcguire novel out ‘A Place of Safety’ but also writes under her ‘real’ name Daphne Wright as well as Clare Layton. Her other books include Creeping Ivy, Fault Lines, Prey to All and Out of the Dark. Natasha Cooper is also the author of the Willow King series and writes psychological thrillers under the name of Clare Layton of which Ian Rankin remarked 'A gripping psychological thriller writer'. She is active in the CWA and was a past chair.
Ali : Hello again, Natasha, Daphne or Clare, could one of you give me your thoughts on this new festival?
Natasha : I think it’s great, a really lovely atmosphere. It is very well organized so that there are no competing strands, so the audience is being split. In some of the bigger conventions it is always a bit of a dilemma as to which panel to attend and which to miss due to clashes. Here you don’t have that problem.
Ali : Could you tell us what you have in store for Trish in the new Natasha Cooper novel?
Natasha : The new one is called ‘A Place of Safety’ it has a double time frame, as part of it is set during the First World War. Trish gets embroiled in the case when her head of chambers asks her to do a little private research for an influential friend who is a power and money behind a private art gallery displaying a collection of masters that were lost after the First World War. Trish through this request, gets sucked into looking into the past and finding out how this collection arose and what it is that is worrying the big cheese. She gets involved in some rather dark and nefarious things
Ali : So what was the research like delving into the world of Art?
Natasha : I found that world very interesting, as I am fortunate to have some friends who are art historians and they were very generous with their time and I learned a lot of riveting things one of which is that if you are faking an old master, it is critical to have the right sort of paint but also the canvas, because science now can identify things so easily now from the paint and canvas. So what you do is buy a book from that time and cut out the flyleaf and that is the only way you are going to have the right paper for the time of the painting.
Ali : Thanks for that, so now what is happening with Clare Layton has she left the country…laughing…..?
Natasha : …laughing……Well Clare is chuntering along, but as Natasha Cooper has taken me in all sorts of directions and taking off, as the new book has been reprinted three times before publication, so I have been involved with that. So Clare Layton will certainly become involved again, but Natasha Cooper is at this moment absorbing quite a lot of my time.
Ali : Thank you for your time Clare, sorry Natasha!
Natasha : Thank you too.
At this time I realized that I had seen Val McDermid throughout the weekend but not really had time to talk to her about this event. I spotted her walking up to the green room and she agreed for a chat over coffee.
Ali : Well you certainly have been busy this weekend, but could you tell us how this event was conceived?
Val : Harrogate wanted to have a literary element within the mainbody of the festival. The Harrogate Festival has been established I think for nearly 40 years, and the way to go would be Crime-Fiction as not only is it very popular, but it’s reputation has grown in term of literary status, and I think they wanted to reflect that.
Ali : And the link with Magna-cum-Murder?
Val : That really came about when Kathryn Kennison approached us as she wanted to establish a transatlantic link with their convention, by sponsoring an American Author to come over and we ended up with Jeffery Deaver which is a wonderful way to kick start the festival.
Ali : You a great selection of writers, including a group from Scandinavia, so how did that come about?
Val : Well last year at the Edinburgh book festival I did a panel with some of the Nordic crime-writers, and we are increasingly getting more writers translated and they have become more popular in the UK. I also wanted the festival to have a genuinely international flavour so it wouldn’t just be ‘introspective British crime fiction – aren’t we fabulous’ – kind of thing. I wanted a looking-out approach, so hence we have with us Karin Fossum, Pernille Ryggand and Leif Davidsen plus of course Jeff Deaver from the US. I want to be able to reflect the international nature of crime and mystery fiction in years to come.
Ali : Also you have Robson Green and a panel about TV writing?
Val : Yes but that was just a bit of calling in personal favours, but seriously we wanted to try and encompass all of crime-writing not just novels and books, so that includes forensics, industry forum and TV adaptation as people are genuinely interested in these areas. On the TV side many readers wonder how a book gets selected, how it ends up on TV and what are the hoops it has to jump through to get it on TV, so we spoke to various movers and shakers in the business and because Robson did ‘Wire in the Blood’ last year he was in a position to do me a favour.
Ali : At this stage do you think you will stage a Harrogate 2004 – next year?
Val : At this stage I think we will be in a position to stage an event next year.
Ali : Excellent news and my last question. How do find the time write novels such as the remarkable ‘A Distant Echo’ as well as do all the other things such as Harrogate, save our short story and the like?
Val : Simple answer – there are two of me…..perhaps I was cloned…..laughing…seriously there are times in the year that I have block out events and the like, as those are allocated to writing time.
Ali : Well good luck with the rest of the festival as well as ‘A Distant Echo’, but what’s next for you in novel terms?
Val : I’m working on the next Tony and Carol book, called ‘The Torment of Others’ which should be out next June, plus I have the 6th Lindsay Gordon novel ‘Hostage to Murder’
Ali : Thanks for your time Val and see you in the bar later.
Val : My pleasure and thanks for the support from Shots.
I left Val to catch her breath as I wandered back downstairs to meet a bit of a legend, Alexander (‘Sandy’) McCall Smith, the man behind the amazingly popular No1 Ladies Detective Agency novels that I had just got into. I had heard about them for a couple years, but I am no lover of the Cozy sub-genre, preferring my crime-mystery fiction to be hardboiled and noir in tone. Sarah Weinman told me that I ‘had’ to read them so I tentatively bought one, and read it in one sitting and the following morning bought the rest, including ‘the Full Cupboard of Life’. They are remarkable books, great fun and a total contrast to my normal reading. My 11-year-old daughter is reading them now, so it is fun to be able to pass my books down and get my daughter to tell me about them too. For those not familiar with his work Alexander McCall Smith, he was born in Zimbabwe in 1948 and was educated there and in Scotland. He is married with two daughters and is professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the author of over fifty books. These range from specialist titles such as FORENSIC ASPECTS OF SLEEP to THE CRIMINAL LAW OF BOTSWANA and THE PERFECT HAMBURGER (a children's novel). He has published several collections of short stories including Heavenly Date and Other Stories and Children of Wax (African traditional stories) and 2003 will see the publication of a new series featuring the unfortunate Professor Dr von Igelfeld.
In 1999 THE NO 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY was published. Its heroine, Precious Ramotswe, the founder of Botswana's first and only detective agency run by women, soon captivated readers and the book received two Booker Judges' Special Recommendations and was voted one of the "International Books of the Year and the Millennium" by the Times Literary Supplement. The sequel TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE, was voted one of the Guardian top ten fiction paperbacks of the year 2000. But it was in America that the series (now five titles) really began to take off and with the US mass-market publication in 2002 of the first three titles, success was instant. As a BookSense pick (independent booksellers), and Amy Tan's book club choice on NBC's Today show, THE NO 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY entered the New York Times Bestseller list and there are now over half a million copies of the series in print in the USA alone. These novels have already been published in Canadian and German editions and translation rights have been sold in French, Italian, Danish, Portuguese (Brazil), Japanese, Greek, Spanish, Finnish and Dutch. The books will be the subject of a BBC documentary, filmed in Botswana and featuring the author, in Summer 2003.
2004 will see the start of a new series of novels, set in Edinburgh, with a new heroine, Isabel Dalhousie. A BBC television adaptation is already underway.Professor McCall Smith is also Vice-Chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom; a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO; the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the British Medical Journal and Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Roslin Institute.He was at Harrogate to talk about ‘Sleeping Crimes : The Somnambulist and the Law’. The session was very well attended, which again illustrated his popularity.
The talk was very funny as it was based on one of the only text-books on the subject, written by McCall Smith himself. His talk examined the issues when someone uses ‘Sleepwalking’ as his way of ‘getting off the hook’ at court.
Basically this type of defense does not work as McCall Smith pointed out. It was interesting to listen to him speak as his manners are gentle like the world he portrays. He took some questions from the floor and cracked quite a few jokes. I asked him if it were possible ‘Sleep-Write’ – i.e. write a novel while asleep, which amused him no end, although he hadn’t come across this in his work, I assured him that I had as a book reviewer.
After the event his signing was mobbed, as many got their No1 Ladies Detective Agency books monographed. After the signing he agreed to a short interview. We sat and drank some bush tea and had a chat, especially as he was new to the Crime-Fiction genre. Due to my own academic background – I still find myself referring to Alexander McCall Smith as Professor, despite him insisting that I call him Sandy. Unfortunately a combination of an academic education and visions of Olivia Newton-John (another ‘Sandy’ from the musical ‘Grease’ which my children play repeatedly) prevent me becoming too informal.
I was fascinated at him being able to have a demanding academic job and write such beautiful books, when we exchanged business cards he was also fascinated at my own work in Industrial Chemistry and my love for Mystery and Crime-Fiction. I really enjoyed talking to him after immersing myself in Precious Ramotswe’s world of Botswana not to mention Mr J.L.B. Maketoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Since its first publication in 1998 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' has received two Booker Judges' Special Recommendations and was voted one of the 'International Books of the Year and the Millennium' by the Times Literary Supplement. It was a real honour for me to talk to Prof Alexander McCall Smith.
Ali : Professor Smith, it is a great pleasure to meet you at long last. Firstly do you appear at many crime-writing events?
Prof McCall Smith : No I haven’t done a crime-writers event before, in fact this is my first big event. I gather from some of the other writers that there lots of lots of these type of event. I do attend readings and smaller literary events, but this is a very interesting gathering.
Ali : Well the curious thing is that your No1 Ladies Detective Agency books have embedded you firmly into the crime-fiction genre. Your books appear now in the ‘Crime-Fiction’ shelves. Have you been surprised at this?
Prof McCall Smith :I didn’t ever think that I would find myself in this category, in so far as I never set out to be a crime-writer, in fact I feel myself a bit of a fraud when I am referred to as a crime-writer. I suppose the first book in the series ‘The No1 Ladies Detective Agency’ I viewed as a novel about a woman, who just happened to be a private detective. I used that as a vehicle to introduce all sorts of people and characters into the book, and soon I found myself rather caught up in all that. I don’t go for the classical ‘who-dunnit’ mystery in that sense. But it does seem to me that crime-fiction is quite a broad church so that it can even encompass my work, in which nothing really dramatic happens.
Ali : Your early years were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and your work does evoke a really nostalgic look at those times and places. Would you care to comment?
Prof McCall Smith : I spent my childhood as you well know in Zimbabwe, and I think anybody who has any experience of Africa becomes very drawn to it, as it is such a spiritual part of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is so beautiful and beguiling that even if you live the rest of your adult life (as I have done) outside of the continent, you never really lose that feeling for the place, and this is very important to me and I really look forward to my visits there. I go to Botswana quite regularly and the sense of place and the feeling of place is really quite important to me in the way that I write.
Ali : Have you been surprised at the success of your books in America of all places?
Prof McCall Smith : Yes I was and I had no idea that they would do as well as they have done in the United States. I am very gratified at their success and really don’t know how to explain it. There are various explanations given to me why the books have become so successful. One of which is that these books are not about violence and aggression, as people maybe looking for something other than violence or aggression, the other explanation is that these books are about the very small things in life, like drinking bush tea, and cake becomes very important. People ask me if they can have more about tea and cake in the books as the characters often indulge in cake and tea.
Ali : I do get a little misty-eyed, especially when it comes to the little orphans that Mr J.L.B. Maketoni brings home from the Orphan Farm. You manage just to stay on the right-side of sentimentality. What are your thoughts on using sentimentality?
Prof McCall Smith : One has to be careful in using sentimentality, and I would hope that I avoid using it too much. I think what you have to do is to stand back a bit, and make sure that you control yourself when you are writing it.
Ali : You have another life in the Academic world, and publish non-fiction, so how did you come to writing fiction? And have you always been a writer?
Prof McCall Smith : Yes I have, I have always been a writer of fiction. For many years I wrote quite a lot of children’s book, short stories and other things. More recently I have been concentrating on these novels and my writing has always been a very important part of my life.
Ali : Africa is facing a terrible situation with poverty, and more specifically terrible problems with the political situation in Zimbabwe as well as the tragic AIDS crisis, which you do touch up in your books, but they don’t take-over the plots. Have you any thoughts how far you can continue with the series and keep AIDS in the periphery, when it seems to dominate the lives of most Africans today?
Prof McCall Smith : Yes you are quite right, the AIDS epidemic is a serious threat to many if not all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Botswana it is particularly serious as the infection rate in the 15 – 49 age group it is in the upper 30%’s and that is devastating the country. The government is committed to fighting AIDS both in terms of prevention via health education as well as providing anti-viral drugs. I think however people really want life to go on as far as possible in the face of this epidemic. So in Botswana people just want to carry on ordinary life and we must also respect that, and we must not just throw-up our hands and say nothing about that society and no one can be cheerful, as that is not helpful either. So I think ordinary life must go on, and one can mention it as a serious illness in the background, and I do, but do so carefully because there are lots and lots of people writing about the AIDS epidemic, and it’s not really my job to do that. I would not be able to add anything useful about it in reality.
Ali : And the fifth novel ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ has just been released, would you care to talk a little about it?
Prof McCall Smith : It is continues to tell about the lives of Precious Ramotswe’s and Mr J.L.B. Maketoni and the various other characters and like in the four previous books, nothing really happens of great consequence, just a series of misadventures. Mr J.L.B. Maketoni is asked by to do a parachute drop for charity to help the Orphan Farm, and this gives rise to considerable concern, but upon reflection there is one major development, but for those who haven’t read it, I really can’t reveal it, for fear of spoiling the surprise!
Ali : As the stories within your books are told via a series of anecdotes or vignettes, can you tell me something about your writing process especially in terms of plot?
Prof McCall Smith : I have a general plot, but all sorts of things come out as I write, including many of the anecdotes which I have no idea where they come from, so I guess they emerge from the subconscious, and from there emerges a book.
Ali : Professor Smith, it has been a real privilege to talk to you, and welcome to the world of crime-fiction!
Prof McCall Smith : Thank you for your questions and I must now look at the Shots website!
I left Prof McCall Smith to some journalists from the BBC and went to the bar for a beer. The afternoon had been a flurry of interviews so I had missed the The Harvill and Vintage Crime Writers Forum from Norway.
So after the refreshments I went to see the BBC recording of a Front Row Special for Radio 4.
Presenter Mark Lawson chaired a panel discussion with special guests Val McDermid, Jeffery Deaver, Alexander McCall Smith, Peter Robinson and Leif Davidson. Discussing among other subjects, how to create an original investigator, the moral responsibility of crime writers in the way they portray violence, and the nationalistic differences in crime fiction.The show was most entertaining and you can listen for yourself as it is archived at :-http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/frontrow/frontrow_20030725.shtml
After that interesting talk and recording, I went for dinner and arrived back just when ‘Two Friends in Conversation : Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin’ started. This was the busiest panel, as it was totally jammed. It just goes to indicate the popularity of these two crime-writers. They just sat and talked while sipping Scotch. They talked about their early careers and writing, and generally talked about life. They then opened it up to the audience and there were many eager people on hand to ask questions from these two kings of the genre.
After the event even I was staggered at the Anaconda like queue for signing books. These are two very popular writers.
I went for a quick drink and then it was the late night cabaret with Fidelis Morgan’s troupe of writer/performers ‘Rogue and Vagabonds’ featuring Martyn Waites, Mark Billingham, Maureen O’ Brien and Stella Duffy. This consisted of a series of performances from each of the writers work. We even got a snippet from Mark Billingham’s fourth book, but the finale from Fidelis Morgan’s ‘Rival Queens’ was worth the price of admission alone.
They finished off with an improvisational challenge, where they had to act out a short play using suggestions from the audience. I contributed the location ‘Septic Tank’ – which I thought was suitably anal from a fan of the genre.
Then it was back to the bar, where we found Simon Kernick beer in hand, a group of wedding guests in big hats, Jane Gregory in fine singing voice. I chatted to Ian Rankin about our similar music tastes especially with that great band of the 1970’s ‘Hawkwind’. I eventually found the table with the RAM & 4-MA gang and we had a laugh when I spilled a huge tray of drinks……all that Guinness…..so after that I decided that 2 am was far to late for a man of my age to be partying, so I left the others in Simon Kernick’s capable hands and crept back to my room.
Sunday morning came too quick for my liking, but I got up and met the 4-MA and RAM crew for breakfast. After that I joined a member of the Finish Whodunnit Society and had a chat about the works of Henning Mankell.
I then noticed Philippa Pride of Hodder who I last saw on Thursday night, and she told me that he had a shocking time as she had been to the hospital as she had got an eye-infection. Her eye looked red and she was on antibiotics, poor Philippa, but of the events that she attended, she really enjoyed the event and I was glad that she was feeling better.
I then had a chat with Steven Maat from Dutch Publishers A.W. Bruna and he had some interesting things to tell me about Dutch Publishing.
Ali : Hello Steven, so tell me what have you found interesting about the Harrogate Festival?
Steven : Well first to meet the authors all in one place and hear them talk about their work has been most fascinating, as well as seeing how the bookselling and publishing business works in the UK.
Ali : The Dutch market is very important to many British writers who are published in Holland. Are you involved in the translation process?
Steven : Yes we are as we mainly mainly publish British and American authors such as Simon Kernick and Peter Robinson and I must say that British crime-fiction currently is of very high quality so we are hoping publish more and more.
Ali : Great news…and about this Techno-Thriller I’ve been working on…….
So after that brief chat I went and sat down with the prolific crime-writer Anne Cleeves who was winding down with a cup of coffee, after being active since the start of the event.
Ali : Ann can you tell me about your involvement in the festival?
Anne : I led the mysterious words forum, which was the out-reach program that went out into the local community using mobile libraries and into village halls promoting crime-fiction. Harrogate has got quite a snooty image so it was a way of trying to break that down and make people welcome to the festival. So we went out to them rather than wait for them to come to us.
Ali : So what was the reception to the out-reach program?
Anne : Wonderful, especially from the schools, as they really enjoyed having a real writer working with them on creative writing workshops.
Ali : I liked the recommendations board you had, and I know you work in Libraries…
Anne : Yes that idea comes from my work in the libraries, and it is a standard technique, as a reader is more likely to read a book when another reader has recommended it, than through a newspaper review or blurb. An example has been Alexander McCall Smith book’s, which really have only been promoted by word-of-mouth.
We chatted about Anne’s own work which I am not too familiar with, but found a couple of interesting sources of information on her work :-http://www.twbooks.co.uk/authors/anncleeves.html
With that we all moved to the closing event which was a recreation of ‘The Weakest Link’ quiz with Val McDermid act as Anne Robinson.
The contestants were (in the order of winning) :-
JANE GREGORY 1st
FIDELIS MORGAN 2ND
STELLA DUFFY 3RD
IAN RANKIN 4TH
PETER ROBINSON 5TH
MARTYN WAITES 6TH
MAUREEN O’ BRIEN 7TH
The questions were a mix of crime, general knowledge and odd bits of trivia. The organizers had done a sterling job, with Val McDermid in full black leather, tartan, orange wig and face paint. The TV Rig-up was excellent to listen to contestants talk after ejection.
Val had some killer one-liners, and the whole thing was hysterical and a very good way to wash up a weekend. I liked the way Val told Peter Robinson not to over use the phrase ‘Bank’ to promote his Alan Banks series, which I though rather droll.
I really enjoyed myself talking to various writers and professionals and I felt I learned a great deal. I then saw Prue Jefferys and Simon Kernick who were waiting for the RAC, as Simon’s car had a fault on his immobiliser, even with my limited skills with car-locks I couldn’t get the car started.
Back in the hotel I thought I’d give the last work to Ian Rankin as he is one our biggest selling crime-writers.
Ali : So what have been your thoughts with regard to the first Harrogate crime festival?
Ian : Well the sun’s been shining which is always a plus, and the Majestic Hotel has been a great venue, and the whole event has been really well organized, and I am a veteran of many such conferences, and this is the best organized I can remember.
Ali : Last year I really enjoyed ‘Beggars Banquet’ your short story collection, why do you think that the short story format struggles so much?
Ian : I love writing short stories and I think you would think that they should be more popular than they really are, as people have a few minutes on a train, they can read a short story, but I just don’t know why they’re not as popular as they really should be. I believe if you keep writing good short stories then hopefully the audience will appear for them. Val McDermid is spearheading this campaign ‘save our short story’ and I have given her a short story for the anthology.
Ali : Thank you for your time Ian.
Ian : God bless.
So with a blessing from Ian Rankin, and a weekend of memories about the world of crime-fiction, I hit the road.
Shots eZine would like to thank all the authors for their time, for The Harrogate Festival Committee for organizing such a large event so professionally, and allowing Shots access to the various events.
Mark your diaries for next year July 22nd – 25th 2004 – Harrogate is where you need to be.
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