Before lockdown, I joined Creative Conversations podcaster Yang-May Ooi for a preview of the William Blake exhibition. Blake was a visionary artist and poet – and features strongly in my next Helen Oddfellow novel. You can listen to our conversation here.
I had a cracking weekend of activities planned. On Saturday, I was going to lead a walk around Deptford and along the Thames, in the footsteps of Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Joseph Conrad and more. It was to be part of Deptford Literature Festival, a day of mostly free events, many aimed at families, to get people excited about reading and writing.
On Sunday, I had tickets for the Killer Women crime writing festival in London. I was looking forward to hearing about new releases, to talking to experts and meeting other writers.
Both festivals were cancelled with a few days’ notice. As a friend commented, literary festivals are not that crucial in the current context. But spare a thought for all the people who worked so hard to bring the events together. Literary festivals are also a great way for authors to promote their books, and many people with new books out, which they have laboured over for years, will see their time in the spotlight come and go.
With a suddenly empty diary, and the potential need for self-isolation in future, I did what I always do in times of crisis. I headed for my local bookshop and stocked up. My ‘stockpile’ consists of the new Hilary Mantel novel, The Mirror and the Light (which I have been longing for since I finished Bring up the Bodies, seven long years ago), plus Daisy Jones and the Six, which I’ve heard great things about, plus a copy of the wonderful reader’s quarterly, Slightly Foxed.
If you want me, I’ll be reading. And if you think that sounds like a good idea, contact your local indie bookshop. Most take orders and will arrange delivery, if you’re self-isolating. And don’t forget you can find your local through Hive. They face a tough time, as do we all. Let’s support each other.
Well, 2019 was a bit bumpy, wasn’t it? As always, I took refuge from the vicissitudes of the UK’s fortunes with a lot of good books. Looking over my list this year, it’s quite heavy on dystopia, with some unflinching real life reportage and a top-note of hope.
In no particular order, I enjoyed:
1. John Lanchester, The Wall. An all-too-believable future Britain, grimly keeping out the Others. Beautifully written, with the best exploration of cold and boredom I have ever read. Sure, it was bleak, but the humour and humanity kept me gripped to the bitter end.
2. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (and The Handmaid’s Tale). I began by re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which I first read more than 25 years ago, before diving into The Testaments. In both books I was most interested in the way she showed how oppressive regimes maintain their position by exploiting our fear and self-interest. Everyone thinks they would resist – but would we really?
3. Various authors, Refugee Tales III. The latest edition of stories from around the world, washing up on our shores. You can’t think of someone as other when you’ve listened – really listened – to their story.
4. Alan Moore, V for Vendetta and From Hell. Graphic novels are well outside my usual comfort zone. I read them for research for my next novel, and found them unsettling, gripping and immersive. From Hell in particular was a tough one, with far more horror (graphically depicted) than I usually read. But a forcible introduction to the genre.
5. Anna Burns, Milkman. God, I loved this book. The unmistakeable voice of the narrator, the absurdity of the humour, the all-enveloping claustrophobia within which horrors that would be tolerated nowhere else seem normal.
6. Toni Morrison, Jazz. I’d not read this novel until Morrison’s death was announced this year. The obituaries sent me back to her output, and I had my eyes opened to the formal inventiveness of her work, especially in this spiky, riffing, cut-up novel of life on the edges of New York’s Harlem.
7. Ali Smith, Spring. Third in the quartet of seasonal novels from Smith, and the one that takes her closest to the Refugee Tales project, of which she is patron. Her experience of visiting the detention centre at Gatwick comes through clearly in this novel of hope, redemption and the power of stories.
8. Kerry Hudson, Lowborn. I was lucky enough to catch Kerry Hudson talking about her visceral memoir at the Bookseller Crow independent bookshop in Crystal Palace this year. It will break your heart and re-make it, with a bit more space inside.
9. Diana Evans, Ordinary People. More Crystal Palace memories, just as I leave the place where I’ve lived for the past 17 years. An ordinary love story set among ordinary people in an ordinary London suburb. In extraordinarily clear prose, it explains why love is not always enough.
10. Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. This was the book that started my year – an astonishing conjuring-up of the stink and guts of war, and the misery that it inflicts on the non-combatants – the women, the children, the girls.
My general reading aim for next year is to read books that will help me understand the world – and in particular the country – I live in. The last few years, I’ve found myself struggling to understand the choices we in the UK have made. Time to listen harder, read more carefully, and learn better.
I’ll be back in south London in November to meet the fabulous book groups at Lewisham Libraries, who have been reading Unlawful Things.
I’ll be reading from the novel and answering questions, so if you’re in south London and have a burning question about Unlawful Things, do come along. Entrance is free.
Tickets available via
Journalists. Police officers. Doctors. Engineers. School teachers. I met a lot of crime writers at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival – and pretty much all of them had another string to their bow.
As someone who came to fiction writing late, I found it really heartening to discover that my fellow “new” crime writers picked for the Crime in the Spotlight strand of the festival were not the dynamic 20-somethings of my imagination, fresh from their creative writing MA. I wasn’t the elderly elephant in a roomful of under-30s, but typical of a group of professionals who’d spent 20 or 30 years working at one field or other, before translating that wealth of life experience to writing fiction.
For some of us, writing is a second job – I wasn’t the only working journalist who’s turned to fiction, and I met a teacher who manages to scribble down a novel during the six week summer holiday (respect!).
Others had begun writing after retiring from a career in medicine, or in the police force, or the army. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these professions that can bring you up close and personal with the grittier side of life tend to produce writers of crime fiction.
But the biggest surprise was Yrsa Sigurdardottir, the wildly-successful Icelandic crime writer I was paired with. I was amazed to discover that she doesn’t write full time – far from it. She’s an engineer who runs her own construction company.
Writing, she said, was like a hobby she turned to at the end of a hard day’s planning construction projects with her team. She says she takes a couple of weeks off when she’s nearing the end of a book, to get it ready for publication. Is it hard to go back to work again? Certainly not. ‘I kiss the floor of the office ,’ on her return to work, she said!
I get that. Working in the ‘real world’ means you engage with people, share the load, focus on clear, deliverable results. Writing a novel is about trying to choose between the endless possibilities in your own head, and what you hoped to achieve never seems quite to translate onto paper. Perhaps that’s why so many writers in the crime genre, which involves letting your imagination go to some pretty unsavoury places, are firmly rooted in the real world outside of fiction.
By the way, if you’re a crime fiction fan, I can heartily recommend the Bloody Scotland festival. It was tremendous fun, with a wide variety of events catering to every type of crime fiction imaginable. See you next year?
I’m excited to announce that I will be appearing at the prestigious Bloody Scotland crime writing festival next month, reading from Unlawful Things on Sunday 22 September.
The festival attracts lots of big names. This year the programme includes Ian Rankin, David Baldacci and Lisa Jewell, and many more.
The festival has a “Crime in the Spotlight” programme, which highlights new and upcoming crime writers. I was thrilled to be selected as one of this year’s 12 Spotlighters. I’ll be appearing alongside Icelandic crime queen Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who will be interviewed after my reading. Her detective Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a lawyer, is also an amateur sleuth with a record of digging up secrets from the past.
It’s great for a new writer to get such good exposure, and I’m hoping to introduce some crime fans to Helen Oddfellow. I wonder how the two fictional detectives would get along in real life!
Find out more about the festival here.