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Peter Lovesey Interview with ANTHEA FRASER

Written by Peter Lovesey

Anthea Fraser interviewed by Peter Lovesey on the publication of her fiftieth novel Sins of the Fathers, on April 30th from Severn House.

Congratulations, Anthea! Awesome is an over-used word these days, but it really does apply here. I can only gasp in admiration. Many of the books, I know, are about crime investigation, but you have a wider range than that, don’t you?


I suppose my books are still mainly about crime investigation, though in the switch from straightforward police procedurals to the viewpoint of those to whom it is happening, I’ve tried to portray the emotions involved both in committing the crime and solving it – whydunnit rather than who. Families in particular fascinate me, and the nuances between them.


You once wrote that your books tend to be about ordinary people leading uneventful lives who are suddenly catapulted into danger. Is that a common thread in most of your novels, the supernatural and romantic suspense included?


Yes, I think so!


Getting back to your beginnings as an author, I believe you were creating stories even as a child before you learned to write and announced your intention to become an author at the age of five.


The greatest influence on my writing was my mother, who was herself a published author. During the air-raids she used to leave her jewellery and furs to take their chances, but always carried her precious manuscript to the shelter with her! It was because of her that I was eager to write myself, and my ambition never changed! I recently came across a Schoolgirl’s Diary in which, at the age of nine, I’d noted: Today I wrote my first thriller The Old Clock Tower. Sadly no trace of this epic remains.


Did your education at Sandford School and Cheltenham Ladies’ College instil a love of writing? Were there teachers who encouraged you and books that inspired you at this time?


The headmistress of Sandford was somewhat eccentric, addressing her pupils as ‘lovey’ and was more like a grandmother than a teacher! She took a great interest in my writing and kept me supplied with an endless succession of what we called rough notebooks, which I filled with poems and short stories.

I can’t think of any particular teacher at Cheltenham who inspired me, though I always enjoyed English. But it was in the house library that I first discovered crime fiction, and overdosed on Agatha, Dorothy L Sayers, Leslie Charteris and many others.


And after school . . .?


I wrote continuously during my childhood and even composed poems and lurid novels in my teens that never saw the light of day, but I didn’t do any writing at all for the first few years of my marriage.


Bringing up your two daughters must have come first. But at some stage you took a course at the London School of Journalism. How did that influence you as a writer?


I read a short story in Good Housekeeping, and thought ‘I could do better than that!’ I knew I had to prove it, which was why I took the LSJ course in short stories (as they didn’t do novels) and it was invaluable in teaching me discipline. I had a personal tutor and no time limit and over several months received fifteen printed lessons on dialogue, plot, characterisation etc. When the children went to bed for an hour after lunch I’d seat myself at the kitchen table and do my homework. It must have been lesson 8 or 9 before we were actually asked to write a short story, and I had just completed one – The Man in the Raincoat, a ghost story – when, flicking through Honey magazine at the hairdresser’s, I saw they were holding a short story competition and promptly sent it off.

It was listed as a runner up, on the strength of which, and at the recommendation of the editor, Rosemary Gould of Laurence Pollinger wrote to offer me their services. The incredible thing was that my mother’s books had been published through Pearn, Pollinger and Higham before the agency split into three!


Your first novel, Designs of Annabelle (1971) was with Mills & Boon, who are notoriously difficult publishers to please, insisting that their authors keep to their writing guidelines. Did you write it specifically with them in mind? After this success did you have ambitions, as so many do, to become a regular Mills & Boon author – and perhaps make a fortune in the process?


Since the women’s magazines were the main market for short stories and all they wanted was romance, that perforce was what I wrote. However, after a year or two, Rosemary suggested I write a novel, and insisted it too should be romantic as that was what ‘my public’ would expect! I can remember asking if I could just have a little murder at the end, but was firmly refused! I didn’t want to become a regular writer of romance, and when M&B turned down one book because – horror of horrors! –the hero was divorced, I decided enough was enough.


Was the book ever published?


Yes, Robert Hale took it and it was also included in an edition of the Doubleday Romance Library.’


Laura Possessed, in 1974, was clearly a major advance for you, selling to America as well as in Britain. Would you like to say how it came to be written?


Just as I’d decided on a break from romance, another competition gave me a chance. It was for the best crime novel by a woman, to be published in both hard and softback here and in the States. So I wrote another ghost story, Laura Possessed, which was apparently on the short list until the last ten days. The sponsors asked to see the short list and three of the four took it (Hodders didn’t!) but it was taken up by Milton House Books.

So that was how Laura saw the light of day, but actually I’d written the basis of it years before in my teens. So once again my success was due to a ghost story, and as The Exorcist was currently popular, I was advised to stick with the supernatural.


Do unseen forces hold a particular interest for you?


Yes, I admit the supernatural fascinated me and still does.

Due to the success of Laura, I was asked by the Society of Women Writers and Journalists to give an hour’s talk, nine months hence, on the supernatural, with questions afterwards! Since I knew nothing at all about it, I spent those months researching possession, witchcraft, time travel, etc, and that research stood me in very good stead for another six books!


But I believe Breath of Brimstone was placed with another publisher. Why was that?


Collins declined it because it featured the devil! However Dodd, Mead, Corgi, FA Thorpe, Severn House and Soundings later took it!


A Shroud for Delilah in 1984 was another breakthrough book, your first with Collins Crime Club, and introduced Chief Inspector David Webb. It had terrific reviews. Booklist called it “a superbly crafted, riveting, page-turner of a book.” Would you care to say something about your long association with Collins?


When interest in the supernatural began to wane, Rosemary suggested I switch genres, and as I’d always loved crime fiction, it was the natural choice. Actually, all the paranormal books had a crime element in them, so I was probably always leaning towards it.

I had written about a third of A Shroud for Delilah without any police involvement at all, because everything I knew about procedure was gleaned from TV. And then I had another incredible stroke of luck. At a dinner party I was seated next to a real life detective inspector and my husband Ian promptly told him I was writing a crime novel! He invited us both to spend a whole day with him at Snow Hill police station, and promised he’d answer my questions. He could hardly have expected I’d arrive with a list of 86, but I also took a tape recorder and he talked into that, enlarging on the questions as he went. He then gave me a copy of the list of instructions for new detectives arriving at a crime scene – gold dust! Throughout the whole of the Webb books he gave me his phone number as he moved around the country and was an enormous help. Once I phoned him and said ‘I have to get the murderer into the house, even though it’s under surveillance. How can I do it without making the police look stupid?’ And he said, ‘Give me ten minutes. I’ll get the boys in and see what we can work out!’ And they came up with the ingenious solution that the radio battery gave out at the cruial moment! Naturally I always gave him a copy of the book, to thank him for helping me with my enquiries!

I was very happy during my years with Collins, and Elizabeth Walter became a personal friend, inviting me to her home for lunch on several occasions. She was very fond of Ian.


Between 1987 and 1999 you wrote a wonderfully inventive series of twelve books based on the lines of the old counting song “Green Grow the Rushes O” and featuring David Webb. It must have been a challenge fitting a police investigation around each of the quotes from the song, particularly as most of them are Biblical in origin. Would you like to say something about the way you plotted and wrote the books?


I never set out to do a mini-Sue Grafton! The verses of the song had always intrigued me, particularly, for some reason The Nine Bright Shiners, and I wrote that with no intention of doing any others. Then I suddenly thought: suppose The Six Proud Walkers were members of a family? So I wrote that, and gradually more and more ideas came, until eventually I realized I’d have to complete the set. I admit that Eleven that Went up to Heaven proved quite a challenge!


You served as secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association from 1986 for ten years and yet still managed to write more than a book a year (thirteen, I believe) in the same period. Was this the most demanding time of your writing career?


I thoroughly enjoyed my ten years as CWA Secretary, and am grateful that it was pre-email! Somehow everything seemed more personal and friendly then – but perhaps I’m just getting old! It was good, though, to meet members and hear speakers after every Committee meeting, when all the Committee members stayed on for the general meeting. I don’t know that it made too many demands on my writing – in fact, it was my lifeline after Ian died.


I particularly remember how bravely you soldiered on.


I couldn’t write for a year but I had to keep going with correspondence, Minutes etc, and then Liza Cody, bless her, literally bullied me into writing a story for the CWA anthology, and that got me back into the swing.


Ian was a warm and witty man well known to all of us crime writers, always at your side at conferences and social occasions. Would you like to say something about his involvement in your writing career?


I remember the very kind piece you wrote for Red Herrings after 

he died. He thoroughly enjoyed everything to do with the CWA, especially meeting people whose books he’d been reading for years, and on one occasion had a long chat with Penny Wallace. Her father, Edgar Wallace, was one of Ian’s favourite authors, and Penny kindly sent him one of the Sanders of the Rivers series.

At Dick Francis’s Diamond Dagger celebration at Saddlers’ Hall, Ian happened to be standing near the door when Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray arrived. Someone called to Dulcie, who veered off, leaving Michael and Ian facing each other. With his usual charm, Michael came forward with his hand out and said, ‘Michael Denison’. Ian took it, and answered ‘Ian Fraser’, to which Michael replied ‘Of course!’!! Ian dined out on that for years!


In recent years you created a favourite character of mine, Rona Parish, a journalist and biographer whose projects frequently lead her into unravelling crimes. Was this a deliberate attempt to get way from police investigation?


I’d written sixteen of the Webb books and wanted a break. So I wrote a couple of stand-alones, Past Shadows and Fathers and Daughters, and thoroughly enjoyed the change of scene and characters. I’d not actually intended the final Webb book, The Twelve Apostles, to be the last in the series, but after a couple of years’ break forensic science had moved on, I’d lost contact with my Superintendant (as he was by then) and it would have been almost impossible to get back into the routine. So I embarked on what started out as a third stand-alone, but decided almost at once that I was missing the comfortable feeling of writing a series and that the background and characters in this one could ‘have legs’. Which was how the Rona Parish series took shape. And this time, after ten books, I did take the conscious decision that the series had gone as far as it could, and took care to tie up any loose ends.


Does this kind of story require different plotting skills?


My main concern was that Rona shouldn’t just keep stumbling over dead bodies, but that each case she was involved in was a feasible involvement, causing occasional resentment from the police rather than the Murder She Wrote formula, where they would gratefully exclaim, ‘How lucky you happened to be there, Miss Fletcher!’


You have said you enjoy writing in series because you are already at home in the places you are writing about and looking forward to meeting your characters again, but there are also more than twenty not in series, including five under the pen-name Vanessa Graham. You describe certain of them as romantic suspense. Is it difficult to reconcile romance and crime?


No, I didn’t find it particularly hard. I was reading and enjoying Mary Stewart’s books at the time, and she was my inspiration!


Although you sometimes use fictional names for the places you use as settings it is no secret that Broadshire, where David Webb is based, is the real county of Wiltshire and Erlesborough is the market town of Marlborough. Your Rona Parish books and the stand-alone novels range more widely and a strong sense of place is a constant feature. Does the setting make the stories more real for you?


Yes, the setting is crucial and I sometimes work on that before the characters or plot. I have a very visual imagination and can see the places I describe and follow my characters as they go from one point to another. I was very much influenced in this regard by the Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. The ‘old brownstone’ became so familiar and, most importantly, was exactly the same in every book, so that the reader felt at home there and could find his way from room to room. Although Broadshire was a made-up county, I was careful to use names for the towns and villages that fitted in with the locality, and drew copious maps, both of the county and of the individual towns and villages as they featured in the series. The town plans showed police station, shops, churches and characters’ houses, so that I knew which direction they turned in as they came out of their gate. The same, of course, applied with the Rona Parish books.


Your fiftieth novel, Sins of the Fathers, begins with a marvellous twist guaranteed to intrigue and involve the reader for the rest of the book. Without giving too much away, can you say if this was also the idea that sparked the novel?


Some time ago I had an idea for a short story to be called Away Day in which a young man received a first-class rail ticket in the post, with no message or explanation and which, when he went on that journey, caused him to be framed for murder. The story never got written but the germ of it remained so I reworked it for Sins of the Fathers. At first I’d intended the whole book to be set in Scotland, but soon realized that the lead-up had to be in real time.


It’s a beautifully plotted book, if I may say so, and demonstrates that your writing is as inventive as ever after fifty books. Finally, what has experience taught you that would be helpful to a new writer wanting advice?


I don’t know that I’ve any new advice to offer, just to read as much and as widely as you can. Personally I’ve never done ‘drafts’ but start every day mercilessly editing what I wrote the day before, to ensure the same ‘tone of voice’. In the early days I planned the whole book in advance, detailing events chapter by chapter. Then came the time when I was in such a hurry to start writing that I couldn’t be bothered to plan and jumped straight in. It was unnerving at first, and I kept finding a character I’d intended to kill in Chapter 3 was still around several chapters later, but it all worked out in the end and that’s basically how I write today.


Anthea Fraser

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