In her latest Trish Maguire novel, Gagged & Bound (Simon & Schuster), Natasha Cooper explores the full destructive power of the wrong words spoken at the wrong time and creates such menace it is impossible not to keep turning the pages. Natasha is also Chair for the 2007 Harrogate Crime Writers Festival. Here she talks to Chris High.
How are things shaping up for next year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival? Are you enjoying the experience of being Festival Chair, 2007?
Plans for Harrogate 2007 are shaping up well. As you probably know, special guests include Val McDermid, Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child and Harlan Coben. And we are in the process of finalising the programme now. Look for news on the Harrogate International Festival website. I'm thoroughly enjoying the chairing role, but I have two very hard acts to follow in Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. One of the joys is that everyone involved is such fun and so helpful. We had a great evening last Sunday with the programming committee coming to dinner in my house. Talk whizzed from one side of the table to the other, and some very good jokes were made.
How do you find being a part of The Unusual Suspects author collective helps with the promotion of your work?
Being one of the Unusual Suspects has been terrific. It's partly that the other Suspects have become such good friends, and partly that I've learned so much from them all. They're all great writers – completely different of course – and very good fun. Doing gigs as one of a group like ours is much easier than doing them alone, and the long trek back in the dark turns into a party rather than an exhausting flog.
You contributed a short story for Crimes Of Identity: The CWA Anthology. How important is it, do you think, for short stories to keep getting published in light of the reluctance for publishers to issue such collections?
This is a very difficult question to answer because, as a reader, I'd always been a bit reluctant to buy anthologies of short stories. But when I was sent a finished copy of Crimes of Identity, I fell on it with delight and realised what I'd been missing all those years. I thoroughly enjoy writing short stories, and in fact have another one coming out in the Sunday Express in February. The process is completely different from writing longer fiction. There's always an element of exploration in a full-length novel, however carefully I may have planned the synopsis. But with short stories I let the whole thing build in my imagination until it's complete, and then I write it very fast. It's exhilarating.
How did you find the experience of appearing on University Challenge? Was Jeremy Paxman as fearsome as he comes across on TV?
The first round of University Challenge was the most enormous pleasure. I had been terribly nervous, but once I'd got the first starter question for which I buzzed right, I felt much more relaxed. Jeremy Paxman was absolutely delightful: very friendly. And when I made my idiotic mistake in the semi-final, which was too silly for words because I knew the right answer perfectly well, he was very kind. He came over after the filming had finished and said: 'I thought you were going to die'. To which the only possible (and true) response was: ‘So did I … of shame’.
How did the idea for Gagged & Bound come about?
Gagged & Bound, which is primarily about three women being silenced in completely different ways, came out of three main preoccupations. The first is my fear of telling too much, or causing trouble by saying the wrong thing. This fear, I'm sure, has its roots in the fact that my mother suffered from manic depression, so that my siblings and I grew up knowing that if we said the wrong thing we might precipitate another catastrophic depression or even a suicide attempt. I've also always been interested in the long-term effects of things we all do when young. In the novel one idealistic young man does something for the best of all possible reasons but causes dreadful damage, the after-shocks of which continue for decades and involve many other people. And I've been riveted for some time by the difficulty the police have in bringing organised criminals to justice. Quite often they know exactly who is involved and what they've done, but there's not enough admissible evidence with which to convict them. That, too, has found its place in Gagged & Bound.
How much of Trish Maguire and Caro Lyalt is in Natasha Cooper and vice versa?
Neither Trish Maguire nor Caro Lyalt is like me. But in some ways Trish is the woman I would like to have been. She has long thin thighs for one thing. More seriously I'd love to have been a barrister if only I'd thought of it in time to work hard enough to pass the right exams. Trish is everything I admire in that she's clever and incredibly hard working, and she fights – and takes risks – for things in which we both believe. I work quite hard and write about the things in which we both believe, but I'm not the kind of up-front fighter Trish is. Caro is pure invention. Who would you like to see playing the roles on TV? This is a very tough question, and I'm not sure that I know the answer. But I've always thought that once George lost weight he looked rather like Colin Firth.
How much research do you have to do in order to write the Trish Maguire books?
When I wrote the first few novels in the Trish Maguire series, I had to do an enormous amount of research because I knew very little about the nitty-gritty of a barrister's life. But I have quite a few friends in that world and they've always been extremely helpful. I also have a range of law-student's textbooks, which are useful, even though the law changes the whole time and so my library is constantly going out of date.
Give three pieces of advice for the aspiring author.
1) Write about what really interests you (rather than what you already know) because you're going to be spending a lot of time with it. 2) Don't try too hard when you're actually writing; take it one scene at a time and think until your brain goes mushy, then relax and write the scene; then stop. 3) Have the speaker's character in mind whenever you're writing dialogue so that his or her particular speech patterns and idiom will make it clear to readers who is speaking even when you do not identify him or her. This is one of the most difficult things to get right.
What are you currently reading?
At the moment I'm reading Victoria Glendinning's wonderful biography of Leonard Woolf. I'm then going to read David Seabrook's Jack Jumps (Granta), which I'm reviewing for the TLS. Then it'll be John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, which I'm assured will be a real treat – even though it will definitely make me cry.
What’s next for Natasha Cooper?
The next Natasha Cooper novel is called A Greater Evil, and it will be published in early February 2007. It is about a sculptor, whose wife is beaten to death in his studio with one of his hammers...
For further information visit: www.lydmouth.demon.co.uk/us/natasha/cooper.htm