Posted in Author Interview

The Last Thread by Ray Britain #AuthorPost

I’m starting the week with something special this week. Ray Britain a former Police Officer published his first book in the DCI Doug Stirling series yesterday, The Last Thread arriving a little ahead of the original schedule. I will of course be reviewing the book very soon, but in the meantime I will hand over to Ray to tell you more. I’m sure I won’t be the only crime fiction lover who will be excited to read a book from someone in the know!


Accused of pushing a boy to his death in a failed suicide intervention, DCI Doug Stirling is suspended from duty. Attacked in the media and haunted by the boy’s smile as he let go of Stirling’s hand, he must look on helplessly as an incompetent colleague intent on destroying him investigates the boy’s death, supported by the vindictive Deputy Chief Constable, McDonald.

Weeks later, an anonymous call leads the police to a remote location and the discovery of a burnt out car containing the body of an unidentified man who has been savagely murdered. Short of experienced senior investigators, ACC Steph Tanner has no choice but to take a professional risk. Throwing Stirling the lifeline he needs to restore his reputation, Tanner appoints him as SIO to lead the investigation.

But with no witnesses, no forensic evidence and more theories than investigators, Stirling’s investigation has far too many ‘loose threads’ as he uncovers a complex, interwoven history of deception, betrayal and sadistic relationships. Was the victim connected to the crime scene? Is the murder as complex as it appears? Or is there a simpler explanation?
Still traumatised by the boy’s death and with time the enemy, does Stirling still have what it takes to bring the killer, or killers, to justice before McDonald intervenes?

Things are already difficult enough when DC Helen Williams joins the investigation, a determined woman who seems intent on rekindling their past relationship. And is Ayesha, the beautiful lawyer Stirling has grown fond of, connected to the murder somehow? Amazon


Interview with Ray Britain

Author of ‘The Last Thread’
ISBN: 978-1-9998122-0-1 (Amazon)

So, who is Ray Britain?

A fair question. I was a police officer in the United Kingdom with a varied career in uniform and detective roles and completed my career in a high rank, but the investigation of crime and the camaraderie amongst detectives remained my preference. As a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) I led complex crime investigations, some of which engaged discreet national capabilities. For many years I was also a police Negotiator.

Okay, so why the pen name?

For reasons of personal and family security I use the pen name of Ray Britain because, over the years, I locked up many criminals but not all of them seemed to understand it was their actions that led to their imprisonment. Also, as my career progressed I was increasingly involved in discreet, national law enforcement capabilities which I cannot discuss. (The Official Secrets Act still applies!)

You were a police negotiator?

Yes. The full title is Hostage & Crisis Intervention Negotiator. In the UK it’s a voluntary role, over and above the ‘day job’ – one’s day to day responsibilities – and often meant being ‘called out’ of a warm bed to support police colleagues faced with a variety of difficult situations.

Such as?

That’s one of the attractions of the role, you never knew what your next deployment might be. Often, it was negotiating with someone to surrender to armed officers and avoid being killed. More frequently, it was negotiating with people intent on taking their own lives. Less often it was to negotiate the release of hostages being held at gunpoint or other weapons. In the UK, except for a relatively small number of highly trained specialist firearms officers, police officers perform their duties unarmed. One of the few countries in the world still to do so, and long may it continue.

Tell us about your principle character, DCI Douglas Stirling?

Doug Stirling is a thoughtful, reflective character, notoriously private with an intriguing, untold back story. He expects his people to work hard but works harder still. Stirling is easily drawn to intelligent, interesting women which can cause complications if his private life conflicts with the demands of his professional responsibilities. Women find Stirling attractive and interesting but can be frustrated by his reserve and his avoidance of emotional commitment.

And the lead female characters?

There are four prominent female characters, all with strong personalities. The book contains adult themes but to say more would spoil the story.

Why did you write ‘The Last Thread’?

I’ve always wanted to write a book and the common advice is to stick with what you know. There were other reasons too. As a professional investigator, I’m often frustrated by the inaccurate and improbable representation of crime investigation in the many television dramas that enter our homes each evening. Whatever the complexity of the crime, they are solved within impossible time frames with the most sophisticated technology seemingly always available. It provides entertainment, of course, but frequently misleads and raises public expectation beyond what is always achievable, in reality. Like all aspects of the public sector, the police service is cash strapped and must operate within tight, and tightening budgets.

How accurate is your story to real investigations?

Very! From the need to work with limited resources, often with dated equipment and in accommodation that’s often inadequate or well past it’s ‘best by’ date, right down to aspects of internal and external political pressures that any SIO can expect to work with in leading his or her investigation.

What’s the story behind your latest book?

Everything is drawn from my professional experiences, or as observed through the investigations of colleagues. Apart from drawing on memories of my Father, my characters are fictitious but they are informed by some of the people I’ve had the privilege to work alongside.

So where can I buy The Last Thread?

It’s available as an eBook at both Amazon and Smashwords.

What was the best and worst part of writing?

The best part is getting the story out of my head and onto the page, plotting its twists and turns and the red herrings to make it interesting for the reader. The worst bit is editing and proof reading! However, it allowed me to strip out irrelevant stuff and, hopefully, made it a better read.

How did you approach the cover design?

I wanted something that was moody, hinted at the sinister theme of the story line and made the reader curious to find out more. I found a local photographer I could work with and, together, we constructed the image you see. I hope you like it as much as I do.

What do you read for pleasure?

I like good crime fiction that reflects real world and is grounded in reality. Some plots are so fantastical that I don’t complete the book. I like biographies too as other people’s lives interest me.

What is your e-reading device of choice?
A Kindle.

What are you working on next?

I have several story lines and plots already mind-mapped out and will resume writing once I’ve got ‘The Last Thread’ out to market. As an Indie author, I’ve found there’s a lot of work involved in getting your work published to market and in marketing your brand. Having said that, I’m finding it a fascinating and stimulating experience.

What motivated you to become an indie author?

The ease of getting your work out there, rather than writing endlessly to mainstream publishers which seems to be the experience of many. But, there’s a hell of a lot of work after that in getting yourself noticed.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I really enjoy walking, the higher, the better. My first love is the Lake District with the French Alps a close second. In the winter, I try to get away skiing with some friends. And reading, of course, is a wonderful pastime.

How long were you in the police for, and where?

For over thirty years in a police service in the Midlands region of the UK. Police services in the UK are typically based on traditional county lines.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Only to say thank you. I hope your readers will try the book and do please leave a review.

Thank you so much for taking the time out to visit Cleopatra Loves Books.

To find out more here are all the links you need!

Amazon UK

Posted in Author Interview

Being Very Brave – Author Post by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of those Faces

‘You must be very brave.’

I’ve been a stand-up comedian now for about 15 years and I’ve long since lost track of how many times somebody has said that to me. It’s one of the four responses that comics get when people find out what you do for a living. It’s by no means the worst; for example, my heart sinks when a sentence starts with ‘I’ve got one for ye…’ – not least because invariably what follows is tremendously offensive to someone’s race/gender/disability/sexuality or occasionally, all of the above. You’re more often than not left with the choice of fake laughing along and dying a little inside or sticking to your morals and risking a slap in the chops.

That risk aside, there really isn’t much bravery involved. It’s just talking nonsense to people and, with the noticeably exception of one gig I did in the Philippines, those people aren’t armed.

Doctors, nurses, soldiers, firepersons, police – basically anyone who has a job whose uniform can also be used by a stripper, they all have to be considerably more brave than we do on a daily basis. So do strippers come to that. (side-note: I once did a gig in which there were male strippers in the dressing room beside ours, those poor boys had the soul-crushed thousand-yard-stares of Vietnam vets. Forget Magic Mike, the reality is a lot more Tragic Terry.)

Another one on that list is ‘have you been on TV?’ People then do this face when you explain that you haven’t been. I then have to explain to that face my other job. You see ‘I’ haven’t been on TV but I’ve got rounds of applause on Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week. As well as being a stand-up, I’m one of those even rarer beasts; a TV comedy writer. Odder still – I’ve also written a whole load of kid’s television. If you look closely, you’ll notice my name on about an hour of CBBC output most days. I get a kick out of all writing, whether it’s sweating over a one-line zinger that sums up Brexit or figuring out how a tiny blue bear with a limited vocab can cope with an apartment flooding with custard.

The only downside of TV writing is that you’re never in control of it. Even when I’ve worked on sitcoms, producers, broadcasters, and once – and I wish I was making this up – the guy who answers the phones, they all get to have a say. In hindsight, maybe this was what pushed me to write a novel. Who doesn’t like the idea of having total control? Even the phone-answering guy likes that and he didn’t like much.

So I wrote a novel. Actually what I did was I wrote lots of short stories as logically, I figured that’d be a sensible place to start. Rome wasn’t built in a day and presumably the novel of the same name wasn’t either. One of those short stories was about a guy who visited elderly residents in hospital and just played along with whoever they thought he was in an effort to keep the patient happy. It was a nice idea that lacked an inciting incident. I was about to give it up when a thought struck me – what if one of the patients attempted to kill whoever they thought that fella was? This sparked a whole load of questions and in an effort to answer them, A Man with One of Those Faces was born. I’m proud of it. In fact, I’m more proud of it than anything I’ve ever done.

I didn’t know it at the time but I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d written a crime thriller set in my hometown of Dublin that, seeing as it was written by me, has a fair bit of comedy in it. Comedy and crime do not go together. Never, ever. No way, no how. Upon reading that blanket statement, names like Christopher Brookmyre, Carl Hiassen and Colin Bateman might pop into your head to refute it – well shush, you’re wrong. How I know this is, I did what I was supposed to, and wrote letters to every literary agency in Britain, which is where I live. Most of them came back with a hard and fast no as soon as they’d spied the words crime and comedy appearing within three paragraphs of each other. I even tried taking the word comedy out of everything but they could clearly smell it off me. As far as I could tell, none of these agents had actually read any of the novel. They were that certain. A couple of agents had it recommended to them by a well-respected author and they read it. The first agent absolutely loved the sample. I mean so much so that when he had to pass on it because it contained comedy and crime, he did it with as much discomfort as if he’d been passing a kidney stone. Honestly, I felt sorry for the poor fella by the end.

The other agent rejected it with more ease. This time, because it was “too funny and too Irish”. Now that was a new twist. I knew people hated comedy with a passion but the Irish now too? Surely not everyone in those big parades they hold all around the world in March is doing it ironically?

It was at this point, I was getting disheartened and my English wife was getting really annoyed. Refreshingly, it wasn’t me she was annoyed at.
‘Right, what was it exactly that guy said again?’
‘Too funny and too Irish.’
‘Brilliant. We’re going to take that sentence, replace the word “too” with the word “very” and we’ve got our sales pitch. We’re publishing this book ourselves.’
‘Ah hon, I don’t want to self-publish.’
‘We’re not self-publishing, for a start – there’s two of us.’
And she was right. Publishing is just one of the many activities I’ve discovered are much more fun to do with the wife than on my own. Don’t get me wrong, people still do the face. The ‘you’re self-publishing?’ face is the exact same as the ‘you’ve not been on TV face’.

Here’s a couple of facts. My book has been edited by one of the best editors in British publishing, a gent called Scott Pack. He’s a lovely man who has also started cheerleading for the book in a manner I’m pretty sure isn’t in the job description. An award-winning designer has done the book’s cover; I know that as the award was won for our book’s cover. If I come across as a tad defensive pointing this stuff out, it is because I am. Being written off from the get-go does kind of get your back up. Remember that whole pride thing? I did warn you.

So, to bring you back to where all this started, being ‘very brave’. On August 30th, I turned 41, which isn’t relevant, and I did a stand-up gig in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, which is. You might well wonder how I could fill that room. The answer is I didn’t, Sarah Millican did. I was lucky enough to be supporting her. That’s the final response you get from people when they find out you’re a stand-up ‘do you know…’ In answer to that – yeah, most professional comics know most other professional comics, at least to say hello to. I’m lucky enough to be one of the people who gets the joy of supporting Sarah on tour. She likes the company; she certainly doesn’t need the help. She is the most hard-working and supportive person I’ve ever met. So much so, she insisted that I bring along a box of my soon-to-be-published books to sell in the show’s interval. It’d seemed like a good idea right upon until the day of the gig. On the day itself I think we all got a bit nervous. I felt like a plank carrying my box of 22 books in from the car. Sarah gave an encouraging “I’m sure people will buy a couple” speech in the dressing room. Barry the lovely tour manager reckoned it’d go brilliantly. That’s tour managers for you, 90% of the job is being able to say everything is fine in a convincing manner when it quite clearly isn’t.

I did my set, which went OK, then I gave my fairly garbled sales-pitch about how I’d written a novel and I’d be standing outside in the interval if anybody wanted to buy one. I then brought on Sarah who proceeded to rock the house as only she can. I know that because ten minutes before the interval, I was standing outside in the lobby, with my pile of books and my sharpie clutched in my sweaty hand, listening to the steady stream of roars of laughter and rounds of applause. I was also considerably more terrified that I’d ever been on stage. These people had seen me do comedy and I’d told them the book was crime, they were going to put two and two together. Everybody hates that combination. I had the letters from agents to prove it.

I bloody love this book and I wasn’t going to be able to look at it, as people streamed by with awkward nods and fleeting eye contact. I started to feel like I’d somehow let the book down. It’d be like the awkward morning after a one-night stand. The audience and I had enjoyed that 15 minutes of verbal rumpy-pumpy but nobody was ready for the long-term commitment of a book.

I was stood beside the merchandise stand, which was being manned by the lovely Sean. Right then I hated him with a passion. There he was with his entirely relaxed demeanour, his tour programmes and his selection of humorous tea towels. Of course he looked relaxed, the only problem the stand has had on the 200 dates of the tour is managing the queues. People love tea towels, why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d brought a work of comedic crime fiction to a tea towel fight.

As the doors opened I was all set to bolt when Sean pipped up, “Merchandise over here or buy a signed copy of Caimh’s book over there.” What a prick! I stood there with a rigamortis smile on my face and a pair of nervous underpants that must’ve been fearing the worst.

Then something unexpected happened. A woman came up and bought a book. She asked me to sign it and I nervously did so while answering her questions. She first asked was it funny? I begrudgingly said yes. I’d already started the inscription. I should’ve asked for the money up-front. Rookie mistake. She then told me how delighted she was as she loved crime fiction but it was always so serious. How come there weren’t any funny ones? I then gave her some excited recommendations from the Chris Brookmyre back catalogue and she took a picture of the three of us, me, her and the book. Pic finished, I put the book back on the pile and she reminded me she had paid for it and it was hers now. Embarrassed, I gave it to her and sent it off out into the world. Only then, did I notice the queue. I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t mistakenly blocking the toilet or standing beside a pile of tea towels.

I turned up in the dressing room ten minutes later. Sarah and Barry looked worried, I’d not even made it all the way through the interval.

Sold out! Every copy. I even took back and sold the book I’d given to Sean. I could’ve sold a load more too. People were genuinely annoyed that they couldn’t get one. The wife would be livid when she heard that.

Still though, inexplicably people had bought the book. They’d known that I’d combined crime with judiciously applied comedy and they were fine with it. Clearly, none of these people would ever make it as literary agents.
When I first asked for a guest post from Caimh McDonnell, I hadn’t read the book and to be honest, wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When this brilliant post arrived I was over 80% through the book and well past the ‘Does comedy and crime go together question’ and concluded that this excellent piece should be read before I post my review, which will be coming very soon!

In the meantime if you want to know more visit Caimh’s blog here


Thank you Caimh for an entertaining post and I wish you continued success with a book which will show all those literary agents that they are not always right!

About the Author

Caimh McDonnell is an award-winning stand-up comedian, author and writer of televisual treats.

His writing credits include The Sarah Millican Television Programme, A League of Their Own, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. He also works as a children’s TV writer and was BAFTA nominated for the animated series Pet Squad which he created. He was also a winner in the BBC’s Northern Laffs sitcom writing competition.

During his time on the British stand-up circuit, Caimh has firmly established himself as the white-haired Irishman whose name nobody can pronounce. He has brought the funny worldwide, doing stand-up tours of the Far East, the Middle East and Near East (Norwich).

His debut novel, A Man with One of Those Faces, is out now.

Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Author Interview

Q & A with James Henry Author of Blackwater

Blackwater book jacket

Back in March I received a copy of this book from the author and simply couldn’t wait until closer to publication date to read it – yes my strict scheduling was broken for this author who also wrote the prequels to the Inspector Frost series, which he executed with the spirit of R D Wingfield.

You can read my review to Blackwater here and even better it’s published today!

I’ll start with the obvious question:

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did you write stories as a child?  

I never thought about writing until the opportunity presented itself (with First Frost), and then it was more to see if I could, rather any burning passion to do so.

What were your five favourite childhood books?

Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Fantastic Mr Fox, Comet in Moominland, Moominland Midwinter.

Oh yes! All of those were in our house too!

You wrote the three excellent prequels for R D Wingfield’s Inspector Frost series: Were you asked to or did you volunteer?

Thanks. I volunteered. I am a fan, the TV had drawn to a close and the author had sadly passed away. It is a rare privilege to be associated with the great R D Wingfield and his fantastic creation, Jack Frost.

Blackwater is set on the Essex shoreline particularly around Mersea Flats and your writing really evokes the sense of place. Is it somewhere that you have spent a lot of time?

Yes, I love it there. I have been windsurfing off West Mersea for over twenty-five years, but also visit on still days to walk on the sea wall at Cudmore Grove.

Where did the inspiration for DI Nick Lowry come from? Is he based on someone you know?

He’s not based on anyone I know (though like Lowry I keep my sherry in the fridge, but that’s where the similarity ends). His name is borrowed from the writer Malcom Lowry, a favourite of mine.

How would you introduce Nick Lowry at a party?

He’s not the party type!

Being a teenager in the 1980s I particularly enjoy stories set at this time so what one thing best evokes the 80s to you?

The music. A lot of it was truly dreadful, but on the other hand it was undeniably a varied decade, if you think about it.

It was indeed and there are some bars of music (good and bad) that instantly conjure up that time for me.

I felt quite sorry for WPC Jane Gabriel at the beginning of the book since she really is subject to the male whims of her colleagues who either dismiss her or see her as a sex object? This aspect of the book really did hammer home quite how far attitudes have changed. Was it a deliberate choice to make her quite so attractive to highlight this?

Yes – that and I wanted a new recruit from another industry/environment. Gabriel was a model and so was familiar with the drawing stares – the fact that she cannot escape this even behind a uniform made it an appealing attribute to her character.

Which book set in the 80s would you recommend to me?

It would have to be A Touch of Frost.

The pace of this thriller is far faster than Frost’s more meandering way at solving a case; which is easier to write?

Frost was easier to write, as there are (very good) precedents. Although the prequels aren’t by any means the same, the originals provide a guide to follow, with regard to structure.

Do you have a writing schedule? Perhaps you have a target of a set number of words per day?

In a way – I know how much I need to do in a month…and have deadlines (which I consistently miss).

With Colchester being a garrison town some of the members of the armed forces are under observation in relation to suspected drugs smuggling. How much research did you have to do to get the scenes where the Police force and the armed forces have different priorities right?

I didn’t research too deep, as that would have affected how I drew the characters and how they might interpret situations. That said I did get a general overview from people who were there at the time, and the whole book is influenced by stories I picked up on by dint of living in the area. For example in the 1930s Colchester Police had a boxing team that won the European Championship. The team was run by a Chief Constable who was keen to recruit sportsmen like Sparks in Blackwater. Whether they actually sparred with the army, I have no idea, but it seems feasible from a fictional point of view.

Where do you write?

On the train when I commute into London, and in very untidy room in Essex.

Are there any more books in the pipeline and do they feature DI Lowry?

There are. I’m just about to start…

The information I received with Blackwater says you work in publishing and enjoy long lunches? What do you do? Are there any openings as I like long lunches too!

Ha, yes I do work in publishing as an editor. The long lunches are infrequent now, but enjoyable when they occur… shout when you’re in town and we’ll what we can do!

James Henry_MG_5361

Thank you James for answering my questions with such good humour, I wish you every success with Nick Lowry and look forward to that book you are about to start…

Publication Date UK: 14 July 2016
Publisher: riverrun
No of Pages 496
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

The Frost Prequels
First Frost
Fatal Frost
Morning Frost

Posted in Author Interview

Q & A session with Robert Thorogood

Killing of Polly Carter jacket (email(

I was delighted to be asked to be part of this blog tour and especially pleased to be allowed to ask the creator of Death In Paradise. Robert Thorogood, a few questions.

This series has a very special place in my heart; when Owen returned home at the beginning of this year we instigated a complicated point system for the entire series with awards made for Victim, Perpetrator and method of killing with a sliding scale for how early these were identified. Needless to say it got totally silly with certain people guessing as soon as each episode started, and other’s making schoolboy errors for not having watched the previous week’s trailer closely! I will be watching the fifth series in 2016 without him but with fond memories and of course I will use my best detective skills to ensure I win.

In the meantime there was The Killing of Polly Carter to enjoy where I pitted my wits against this ingenious puzzle – you can read my review here.


1. Where did you get the inspiration from for Death in Paradise?

It’s actually a rather sad answer, because I came up with the idea in 2007 after the Pakistani cricket coach Bob Woolmer died under suspicious circumstances in the Caribbean. Following his death, the Met Police in London decided that the local Caribbean coppers weren’t up to running the murder enquiry (Mr Woolmer was a British Citizen) and so they sent out a British Policeman to head up the investigation. As soon as I read that, it was like a lightbulb going off in me head. ‘A British Copper goes to the Caribbean to solve murders…?’

2. You came to success relatively late in life after years of dreaming of writing for television; how close were you to giving up?

I certainly was ‘relatively late’! But it’s a hard question to answer in that I was still selling scripts (to both the BBC, ITV and independent film companies) in the years before I got Death in Paradise greenlit, it’s just that nothing I was writing was getting made. In truth, I think that my ‘career’ at the time (such as it was) was more appropriate for someone in their mid-twenties rather than someone in their mid-thirties, and I know this for sure: without my wife’s support — both emotional and financial—over the years, I’d certainly have had to give up long before… so I’m eternally grateful to her.

3. The Killing of Polly Carter is the second in a three book deal with MIRA, how does writing a book compare to writing for television? Which do you prefer?

There are huge differences between writing a book and writing a TV episode. The main one is that when you’re working in TV, it’s very much a team effort, whereas when you’re writing a book you are on your own for months at a time. Which is both liberating and terrifying. What’s more, when you’re coming up with a TV script, you’re very much tied to what we can afford to film, who we can manage to cast — all the ‘real world’ problems that coming with shooting a script in the real world. Whereas the joy of a novel is that you only have to write a sentence and you can conjure anything into existence. (For example, the idea for the murder in Polly Carter was one I’d had for some time, but we couldn’t work out how we could film the necessary cliffs and bay at the heart of the story seeing as there no such cliffs or bay on the island of Guadeloupe where we film the series).
And finally, the real joy of a novel is that it allows the author access to his or her character’s internal thoughts, and this has been the single most enjoyable upside of writing a novel rather than a TV script: in a novel I can explore Richard’s grumpy take on the world in far greater detail.

4. The Killing of Polly Carter features a formerly successful model, did you take inspiration from anyone real? If so are you prepared to tell us who or perhaps give us a cryptic clue?

Ha ha! I wouldn’t really like to say who I based it on — although there’s certainly elements of Kate Moss at her most nihilistic kicking around in there. In truth, I chose to set this book in the world of modelling because I needed the victim to be famous, rich, unstable, and now fed up with life. So that’s the real reason why I made the victim a supermodel. It felt like the sort of character who’d get into the sorts of mess I needed her to get into to help me ‘sell’ the story.

5. In The Killing of Polly Carter I thought I’d cracked it early on only to find I was on totally the wrong track; how long do you spend working out a credible mystery with plenty of red herrings?

It’s so lovely to hear that your theory about who the killer was incorrect. That’s after all what I’m hoping to achieve when I write the book! As to how long it takes to create a story with all the necessary twists, turns, reveals and surprises…?! Well, it takes months and months of plotting and thinking and writing. Just hundreds (and thousands?) of hours of work. For this book, I didn’t even start writing the first sentence until I had a fully-detailed synopsis of every single moment that had to happen… which ended up being a 45-page document! It is tough plotting a murder mystery novel, but very satisfying once it’s done.

6. What I love about Death in Paradise and the two books you’ve written featuring Richard Poole on the Caribbean island of Saint-Marie is the traditional feel to the mysteries. I’ve read that you are a fan of Agatha Christie and wondered which of her novels is your favourite, and why?

I am a MASSIVE fan of Agatha Christie, and I’m sure that my list of favourite novels is very similar to anyone else’s: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd of course; and Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun and And Then There Were None. But the truth is that there’s no such thing as a bad Agatha Christie novel. Even in the ‘less good’ books, there’s always something that is startlingly impressive. For example, I re-read the Tommy and Tuppence ‘N or M’ last year. It’s an enjoyable but patchy read, but there’s one glorious misdirection in it (when a passing beggar woman steals a baby) that is pure murder mystery genius… and no-one else could have come up with it apart from Agatha.

7. Richard Poole often gets his flashes of inspiration from the most unlikely of sources, one lightbulb moment in The Killing of Polly Carter was particularly brilliant and obscure, which points to a writer with a wealth of knowledge about all sorts of interesting subjects. Do you start with the solution and work in the clues afterwards? Or do you have some facts that you want inserted and build the solution around them?

I think I know what you’re referring to when you say that there’s an obscure source in the book! (And yes, it is very obscure, isn’t it?). But this is such a lovely question, thank you for asking it, and the answer is simple, really: for the last 5-6 years I’ve been working full time as a murder mystery writer, so I’m always bumping into odd bits of information or forensic breakthroughs or etc. etc. online that I think might be useful in an episode one day. So, whenever I find anything interesting, I make a note of it, and then, before I start writing a book or an episode, I go to my scrapbook of hundreds of half-thoughts, clues and oddities and see what I can weave into the story. So yes, I come up with the ‘fun’ bits first and then, if I can make it work in the story it goes in… otherwise it stays in my scrapbook waiting to be used for another day.

8. Where do you do your writing? I imagine you in front of a big picture of a Caribbean beach with perhaps a toy iguana for company? Am I close?

Ha ha! The tragic truth is that I write in a tiny shed in the garden that’s half full of lawnmowers, old camping equipment and broken furniture. So, the only view I have is of the pine cladding I put on the walls in front of me. And the only window I have is a tiny little strip of Perspex that I can’t see through because it’s directly behind me. In fact, when I’m sitting in my chair at my desk, I can touch all four walls of my (half-an-) office… and yet I’ve come to love it over the years. I think that writers should never get ideas above their station, and it’s very hard to do that when you don’t even have a whole shed to work in!
In fact, here’s a panorama photo of ‘my’ side of the shed taken from one of the corners. You can see the little window that’s behind me (with green curtains bought from a charity shop), the lovely self-built pine cladding on the walls with all my various notes stuck to it (and my Series 1 framed poster)…. And the red thermal curtain I hung to keep the heat in (and to stop me seeing the lawnmower and junk that’s in the other half of the shed).

Shed view

9. What book would you recommend to me? And why?
Oh gosh, I don’t know! Looking through your website, you read wider and better than I do, so can I please ask you the same question? What book would you recommend?

Well that was a bit of a cheat but… well I’m always up for a book recommendation and the latest book on my book pushing mission is a debut novel that is much darker than yours but also extremely well plotted – the book I recommend is The Hidden Legacy by G.J. Minnett – to find out more, read my review!

Thank you Robert Thorogood for answering my questions – The Killing of Polly Carter is published by MIRA on the 3 December 2015 – don’t miss out!

Posted in Author Interview

The Lie – C.L. Taylor – Most Memorable Holidays

The Lie

The Lie could be read as a cautionary tale of what could happen if you decide to holiday with friends. Fortunately most of us don’t end up in dire peril but I doubt that there are many of us that don’t have at least one story to tell.

My tales aren’t so much from a holiday but from when myself and a friend decided that we would come to Jersey and work for a season… that was 25 years ago and although she returned to the UK while I remained in Jersey, we are still very close friends. Most of those stories will never, ever see the light of day but are sniggered about over glasses of wine by the more mature and responsible women we have become!  Suffice to say the stories that can be told consist of dodgy boyfriends, hitch-hiking, misunderstandings with the locals and a complete load of pink washing that my bf swore was white, and of course she hadn’t put her red knickers in with our white work shirts.

Anyway enough about me, CL Taylor’s is here to share her Top Five Most Memorable Holidays with Friends*

CL Taylor Holiday

We all love our friends, we wouldn’t keep them in our lives if we didn’t but one of the greatest tests a friendship can endure is a holiday together. When you spend a week with someone, when you’re in each other’s company for 24 hours a day, you see each other at your best and your worst. And that can make or break a friendship.

When I was researching THE LIE, my new psychological thriller about four friends who go on holiday together and find themselves in a situation so dangerous they have to run for their lives, I asked my Facebook friends to let me know about any awful holidays they’d had with friends. Wow, I could have written another three books with all the stories I heard – friends attaching themselves limpet-like and refusing to do anything alone, friends abandoning each other and friends disappearing off with their boyfriends for the entirety of the holiday. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had any awful holidays with friends but I have had some memorable ones. Here are my top five…

IBIZA – aged 21

My trip to Ibiza aged 21 was my first ever holiday abroad without my family. I’d just graduated from university and it was supposed to be a last gasp hurrah with my friend Mel before we decided what we were going to do with our lives. This was the holiday that very nearly didn’t happen as Mel discovered, during the car drive to Birmingham airport, that her passport was out of date. Cue a quick U turn, lots of frantic phone calls and fingers crossed that the Ibizian embassy would accept an out of date passport. Thankfully they did.

Most memorable moment: Running into the sea in my new indigo-coloured, knee-length skirt and emerging a couple of minutes later with purple dye dripping down my legs.

RHODES, GREECE – aged 29

Milly and I were both single and desperately in need of of a break abroad to soak up some sun and swim in a crystal clear sea.

Most memorable moment: I went scuba diving for the first time and nearly had a panic attack when the instructor guided me into a cave and indicated that I should hang onto a rock. I had no idea what was going on until he whipped out his underwater camera and took a photo of my terrified face.


I went to the South of France with four friends. We hired a villa with our own private pool and spent our days exploring the Cité de Carcassonne, browsing the artisan shops in the nearby towns and going on wine tasting tours. We may have had slightly too much to drink after the wine tasting tour on the penultimate day as a HUGE row erupted between two best friends in our group. The last day of the holiday was a tense one as they studiously ignored each other and the rest of us pretended that we were still having a loving time.

Most memorable moment: Turning our tongues purple during wine tasting.

NEW YORK – aged 35

I’d never been to New York before and when a friend announced that Virgin were having a sale on tickets and would I like to go over there to help her celebrate her birthday I jumped at the chance. It was the most astonishing trip. It’s true what they say about feeling like you’re on a movie set when you walk around New York. Everything is so familiar and Times Square in particular blew me away.

Most memorable moment: I am terrified of heights so wasn’t hugely keen on following the others up the Rockefeller Centre but I knew it afforded the most amazing views of New York – views I might never get to see again – so I agreed to go with them. Once we were at top my stomach dropped away and I froze. The tower was shaking beneath my feet. My friend told me it was all in my head but, once we were on firm ground again, she admitted that she’d lied to reassure me. It HAD been shaking.

NEPAL– aged aged 32

This was the biggest adventure of my lifetime and the holiday that inspired THE LIE. I’d never been to Asia before and it was the biggest eye opener of my life. There were monkeys in the streets, the ‘traffic system’ was non existent and the rain was monsoon-like. It was like stepping into a completely different world. The trek up the Anna Purna range was HORRIBLE, my thighs and feet ached like they’d never ached before but to stand on a mountain where you’re higher than the clouds is the most astonishing feeling in the world. Unlike the girls who go to the fictional mountain retreat in THE LIE we all got along famously.

Most memorable moment: Nearly drowning whitewater rafting. We were all tipped out of our dinghy as we tried to traverse the rapids and I dropped so deeply into the water that, when my lifejacket tried to bob me back to the surface, I found myself directly under my friends’ feet. They stamped on my helmet, with no idea that I was beneath them, and I inhaled quite a lot of water. When I finally surfaced I barked like a seal each time I inhaled. Never, ever again!

* Friends names changed to protect their identities!

My Book Review: The Lie by C.L. Taylor

C.L. Taylor has chosen one of the most the under-represented relationships to feature in psychological thrillers for The Lie which features friendship. When Al breaks up with Simone she is distraught and takes to stalking her and her new partner on facebook and in real life. Her three closest friends from their days at Newcastle university; Emma, Daisy and Leanne decide that action is needed and hit on a holiday to a retreat in Nepal where there is no internet, to help Al break the cycle and learn to let her failed relationship go.

In the present day we meet Emma Woolfe who has moved to Wales and works in an animal sanctuary, has a fledgling relationship with a teacher and is happier than she has ever been, but for some reason she is no longer Emma, she now goes by the name of Jane Hughes. Worse still an anonymous letter alerts her that someone has tracked her down. And so the questions begin; What happened on the holiday? What is she trying to conceal? And who is trying to expose Jane?

Told in alternating scenes from five years previously on the trip and in the present day the author maintains the tension exceptionally well. This book works so well as an expose of the unsavoury side of female friendships without the accompanying mystery that it makes for quite uncomfortable reading at times. I certainly recognised some of the individuals although the author stops well short of creating stereotypical characters. With the cracks in their friendship already present before the trip, the author perfectly captures how allegiances are formed to serve ulterior motives and in this tale each member of the group did their best not to be excluded from the pack, probably a wise move in a setting where the rules of normal life had been swept away and substituted for those of a new age cult.

There is also a good sense of place with the descriptions of Nepal beautiful and evocative so that I could imagine the scenery although I wouldn’t have been too keen on the trek to the Ektanta yatra retreat. During that scene I could almost feel my muscles burning as the group followed their guide up the rough path and equally could visualise their relief when they were welcomed with a cup of chai.

I am a huge fan of psychological thrillers and in this crowded genre it is great to find something that stands apart from the crowd, The Lie does exactly that from the unusual setting to the relationships being put under the microscope. That accompanied with the excellent pace which has tension ratcheting up in both the past and the present, this is a great addition to the genre.

I’d like to thank the publishers Harper Collins UK for allowing me to read this great book which will be published on 23 April 2015. If you can’t wait that long you could always get yourself a copy of the author’s debut The Accident which I also highly recommend.

Do you have any memorable holidays you are prepared to share?

Posted in Author Interview

Interview with Alan Veale, Author of The Murder Tree

The Murder Tree

The Murder Tree introduces an unlikely pair of  heroes: the American daughter of a wealthy businessman and a Manchester-born  librarian working in Glasgow. Each have their share of domestic strife to deal  with, while sharing a thirst to find out the truth about a 150 year-old murder. But deaths are still taking place today as far afield as New York, and trying  to dig through the roots of this unique family tree becomes more hazardous than  either Chrissie or Billie could imagine.

It was a particularly bright but quiet morning on Anderston Quay, yet still too early for the day shift to begin their labours around the harbour. The sun was ascending leisurely above the tenement houses to the south and east of the Clyde, polishing away the gloom of the previous night and casting long shadowy fingers from a multitude of ships’ masts that towered over the cobbled old wharf. Stately schooners grunted in sullen protest at their less wholesome neighbours as the river’s brackish waters reached the ebb, and nuzzled the wooden hulls against each other. Like a forest of elm trees in a winter wind, the tangle of spars and lines swayed to their own peculiar rhythm as the rooted vessels rode fretfully under their cabled restraints, murmuring their protests at the turning tide.
Another sound approached from the north: soles of leather slapping against unyielding cobblestones, tripping a little unsteadily under the impatient progress of their mistress. The slight figure of a young woman, curiously hunched forward under a light grey woollen cloak, rounded the corner of Finnieston Street and blinked against the sun’s dramatic appearance.

When did you first become aware of the Sandyford murder?

I first got to hear the story around November 1992. I was taking a short coach holiday in Scotland and I’d taken a book to read with me – ‘Heaven Knows Who’ by Christianna Brand, which gave a contemporary account of the trial of Jessie McLachlan, and the events leading up to it. This was one of two books that had recently been passed on to me by an elderly friend of my then wife’s family who was losing her eyesight. She was a lovely Geordie lady named Chrissie MacPherson, who died long before I came to write the novel, but that should explain the choice of name for my main character, and the dedication at the beginning of ‘The Murder Tree’.

I always wonder how an author chooses the character’s names and this is one of the best answers I’ve heard.

What prompted you to turn this historical crime into a book?Alan Veale -small photo

Christianna Brand’s version of events read to me like a good old-fashioned mystery story – with a surprising twist at the end. I had written several scripts for the stage, and my creative instincts told me that the story of Jessie McLachlan could be given a fresh treatment. The problem was that I did not feel it was right for the theatre. I had recently performed in a play written by Jeffrey Archer that featured a trial and the background events preceding it. Unfortunately I did not feel that his story worked well in that medium, and I was put off going down the same route. A visit to Glasgow and the murder scene the following year helped to form the outline of the plot that was to become ‘The Murder Tree’, but somehow I felt that a screenplay would be easier to work on than a novel. How wrong I was! I kept making notes and working on scenes, and bringing them in and out of a drawer many times over the next two decades. But it wasn’t until my children were older, divorce had lost its sting, and I had taken early retirement from the Civil Service that I decided the time was right to use my notes to create a novel.

 Did you prefer writing the present day parts or the historical sections? Jessie

I think the correct answer to that one would be the present day scenes. But I say that simply because they were in part easier to write. I have a busy imagination, and it can be fun playing God and have the power of life and death over the characters I create. Also, Glasgow as a backdrop to the present day inspired me to feel comfortable about the places I took those characters. It really is a fascinating city, and whenever I have been there I have been greeted by so many friendly faces. There is no evidence of the pictures painted by the television series of ‘Taggart’, and I could imagine Chrissie and Billie walking those streets without any feeling of threat – other than from the past…

But I also like a challenge – otherwise ‘The Murder Tree’ would never have been written! Selecting the relevant scenes from the past was certainly that. I was mindful of a need to be as accurate as possible about the nineteenth century incidents, as anyone reading my book with a historical knowledge might have cause to complain if I had misrepresented the facts for artistic licence. I was also aware that I should not be too heavy on the detail from the past, so I tried to keep the court scene as tight as possible, without losing the inference of culpability against Old James Fleming. The dialogue on this occasion was largely adapted (and anglicised) from the original trial notes as recorded by William Roughead.Fleming

I am one of those readers who pick up on historical inaccuracies but as far as I was concerned you did a fantastic job of keeping the past authentic.

I imagine there was a lot of research needed since this book was based on an actual event, did you do all of this first or was it done while you were writing?

On reflection, I would think it was around fifty-fifty. It is true to say that I spent around twenty years with this project getting a dust off now and then, usually to re-read material, and then to work on a plot outline or consider re-writing a particular scene. I also visited both Glasgow and Edinburgh during that time, and collated photographs with other documents I felt might serve some purpose.

But once I had made the decision that this was going to be a novel, the work began in earnest. I had time on my hands and a healthier bank balance, so I took the research very seriously. Again I visited the murder scene itself, and made the longer trip to Inverness. I felt it necessary to visit the key scenes in person so that my descriptions were as complete as possible. Even a short holiday in New York came in useful.

How long did it take to write The Murder Tree?  Did you set yourself a writing schedule, if so what did this look like?

It took longer than I thought it would! But then I should qualify that because this was such a steep learning curve for me. Writing a novel was more technically demanding than I expected, and while I actively looked for help and advice, at the end I still had to find a way of re-writing scenes that at one time I had felt sure were pretty near perfect. They weren’t of course. Ernest Hemingway is often quoted as saying “The first draft of anything is shit”, and he was right! In real terms it probably took me around a year to complete that first draft, and then another twelve months re-writing it. Once I was absolutely sure I had got it as tight as it could be I sent it off to a professional copy-editor for final ‘tweaking’. She then sent it back with a long list of recommendations for further re-writes… And she was right to do so – on the whole. Once I had taken on board most of her comments (including a good helping of praise), I was ready to publish.

No – there once was an effort to have some kind of schedule, but it was impossible to stick to while juggling other duties involving work and teenage children!

Is Billie based on anyone you know?  He is a fascinating man and the perfect person to pair up with Chrissie!

Ah, there’s the rub… The short answer is yes, but I’ll give you the long answer first!

To begin with, you have to remember that my original outline for ‘The Murder Tree’ started off as a screenplay, and unlike books, such scripts rely heavily on dialogue. If I had started off writing a novel I might have let Chrissie be a more dominant main character, and followed events principally from her point of view. A book can do that because it allows us inside a character’s head, but I was accustomed to writing dialogue to tell a story, so I was committed to giving my female lead a male counterpart who would act as her foil, and prospective romantic interest.

With the medium of film or television in mind I started out visualising actors that I felt might suit the characters I had created, thus helping me to work through a scene in my head that I could then write about. In my early drafts I imagined Billie to be a Scot, and the first actor that sprang to mind was Robbie Coltrane. I think that was where the smoking element came from, because Robbie was playing a chain-smoking character in ‘Cracker’ at the time. Some of his style of humour is also still evident.

But certain elements were not right. Size matters. As I re-visited my plot and the characters therein I found that I needed both Michael and Edward Fersen to be big men. For me, I needed a contrast to complete the picture, so Billie had to be physically around average height or below. Bye-bye Robbie!

Billie’s part became more important as the plot developed over time. I found myself using my own experiences to shape this man’s personality. I was a Mancunian, so why not make Billie more like me? There was no reason why an Englishman might not work and live in Glasgow, so there was my answer – I built Billie’s character around myself – and found the whole story that much easier to write!  Physically there are some differences: I am nearly six feet tall, and around sixteen years older than Billie, plus I don’t smoke, and have never worked in a library. But I’ve haunted several!

What a brilliant insight into this wonderful character.  Now you’ve mentioned  Robbie Coltrane and Cracker I can see the connection in the sense of humour which was one of the points that made me love the character so much, plus I as a child I wanted to work in a library, but that was before I realised you couldn’t sit and read the books all day!

Are there any villains in your family tree? I have done a little research on my family and haven’t turned up anyone remotely criminal, much to my disappointment!

None that I’m aware of, Cleo! But it’s a subject that holds out so many possibilities, don’t you think? The television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has dug up many curious family skeletons, and somehow it does seem disappointing if we only find that our ancestors led rather simple, blameless lives. During my library talks about ‘The Murder Tree’ I do ask my audience to consider how they might feel if they researched their own family tree and came up with a potential connection to a murder story such as Jessie’s from 1862. If you put yourself into Chrissie’s situation, how would you react?

I know it probably would be quite unnerving, to put it mildly, but I do wish my ancestors had done something exciting.  The most interesting character was a taxidermist in rural Essex who wrote long letters to the local paper!!  I watch Who Do You Think You Are? avidly because I find the unfolding of a past that at best the descendants have an inkling about, amazing. 

What made you come up with the concept of a website to complement the book? I really enjoyed reading this and felt unlike similar ideas your website actually adds something to the reading experience, you can’t beat the pictures of the actual house where Jessie was killed!

Basement Plan

I attended a writers’ festival in York in 2012, and one of the authors I met there had written a book on self-publishing, which I bought as the concept made a lot of sense to me.  I am fairly hopeless at new technology myself, but one of the recommendations he made was to create a website to promote my work. I appreciated how relevant such a suggestion was in today’s competitive environment, and a personal friend of mine made a living designing these things, so it seemed the obvious way to go. I also realised that a website would allow me to provide so much more detail about the original crime than I could feature in my novel, and also to add the little biographies that I had created for my characters during the writing process. Some of the readers of my earlier drafts commented that the names, dates and numbers of characters described could be quite confusing, and therefore it made sense to provide a separate source of reference using a dedicated website. The designer is Mirandi Van Staden, who also did an excellent job in creating the book cover from my own description.

If after all Alan’s answers to my questions above you are still wondering whether you will enjoy this book visit the website The Murder Tree and see what it is all about.  As I read this book on kindle I didn’t realise there was a website until the end, and I’m not sure quite what made me check it out, but I’m glad I did!

Now onto my most important question as someone who has read The Murder Tree:

You hinted in your comment to me that there was going to be another book; is it going to feature any of the same characters?  I think I may be a little in love with Billie Vane.

A second novel is in the early stages of research and plotting, and because the feedback from ‘The Murder Tree’ has been 99.9% positive, I feel it makes sense for book number two to have some continuity. So yes, two (and possibly three) of the characters will make a second appearance. The subject will again be an historical mystery and investigation (based on a true story), and this time the central character will be Billie Vane! (You heard it here first…)

Well on that very happy note I want to thank you for providing wonderfully informative answers to all my questions!

Here is a taster of what a happens when Chrissie’s father is flying across the Atlantic,  before her life is altered forever….

His attention shifted to the small video screen set into the seat in front of him. Another reminder of the chaos that had just entered his life: a representation of the northern hemisphere, framed in a touch screen box, gave a course across the Atlantic for all one hundred and eighty two passengers presently in Economy Class. Alternating with an on-screen message of welcome from Continental Airlines was a reminder of the miscellany of entertainment channels awaiting the passengers aboard Flight CO17. Fersen shook his head in resignation and raised his hand in front of him, idly considering if he should simply turn the damn thing off altogether.
But then the picture on screen changed as if part way through a movie, the image now displaying a city street with elegant Georgian buildings, proudly flanked at ground level by iron railings. Into view in the foreground came a plodding horse shackled to a two-wheeled cart, with a man and a young lad of about fourteen at the traces. Their clothing was old-fashioned: simple work-shirts and trousers with heavy boots, while the young lad also appeared to be wearing an apron. At the back of the cart sat several large metal churns, a couple of wooden crates, and some enamel jugs. Fersen watched in fascination as the lad leapt off the cart, grabbed a heavy jug off the back, and climbed the steps to ring the bell of a stone-fronted building with a heavy front door. The screen in front of him was too small for much detail, but he thought he could just make out the number 17 etched in gold leaf onto a glazed panel above the door.
Then it felt as if turbulence had hit his ribcage. The city street scene was clearly depicted on all three monitors in front of him: a triple image that brought shock recognition of the house Fersen had left in anger just a few hours ago.
Beads of sweat now leaked from every pore. He sat transfixed while the focus gradually shifted past the cart, past the boy as he stood waiting patiently on the steps, and on to the handle of the door itself. Now oblivious to the detritus of the twenty first century that surrounded him, Fersen was totally absorbed by a parallel world of long ago – yet still so familiar. He caught his breath as the door swung open, and witnessed the look of surprise on the milk-boy’s face. Framed in the doorway stood the corpse-like image of an old man: a stooped figure in a black coat, waistcoat and winged collar. The face filled the screen, cold black eyes that looked directly into Fersen’s heart while the thin lips moved silently. He stared back, his own mouth moving in a similar pattern. A spasm of pain surged through his upper body and his hands clutched the left side of his chest. He squeezed his eyelids together in a vain attempt to shut out the images on screen. But then his mouth was forced to open wider as his lungs made a futile bid to function without oxygen.

The Murder Tree – Amazon UK

The Murder Tree – Amazon US

Posted in Author Interview

Interview with Jane Davis author of A Funeral for an Owl


So here is my very first interview with an author!  Jane Davis wrote one of my favourite novels of all time ‘I Stopped Time’ and when she sent me her latest book A Funeral for an Owl I cheekily asked if I could do an interview with her when it was published.  To my delight she agreed.

Cleo: What theme was the basis for A Funeral for an Owl?

Jane:  A Funeral for an Owl shares its central theme with Half-truths and White Lies, I Stopped Time, and to a lesser extent These Fragile Things, that is the influence that missing persons have on our lives. Whether an absent parent, the child who never was, a friend who died an untimely death, the object of our unrequited love who finds a love of his own, the friends we lose touch with, we all collect them, particularly as we get older.  In my own life, the influence of those who are missing is as great, and possibly greater still, than those who are present. The fact that someone is absent creates the ultimate What if? question, the question authors have to toy with when thinking about the premise for their plots.

This theme was something that I had explored tentatively in my previous fiction, but I found myself studying the Missing Persons ads in The Metro, the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds whose stories aren’t sufficiently high-profile to land them on the pages of newspapers.  They are simply slipping between the cracks. And so I looked into the facts. One in ten children ‘run away’ from home before they reach the age of sixteen, an estimated 100,000 every year. Shockingly, a quarter of those young people are actually forced out of their homes by parents or carers. Two-thirds are not reported to the police as missing. That’s 75,000 children for whom a Missing Persons ad will never be placed. All of these children are highly vulnerable, at risk of substance abuse, sexual exploitation and homelessness. Mobile phones and social networking sites have made it even easier to target them. I include a particularly poignant quote from Lady Catherine Meye at the beginning of my novel. “We can’t establish for certain how many children are missing. You’d have more chance of finding a stray dog.” But what if some of the rules that are put in place with the best of intentions – to protect children – actually deprive the most vulnerable of confidential counsel from someone they trust? I appreciate that not everyone will agree with that view, but when I was growing up we had a wonderful teacher who operated an open-house and provided a safe place for those who were struggling at home, no questions asked. It was surprising who would turn up at her door. Today, in an environment when any relationship between teachers and pupils outside the classroom is taboo, she would be sacked. I think that’s terribly sad. Fiction provides a unique opportunity to tell one side of a story through the eyes of one or two characters. It’s not the whole picture by any means, but it is one aspect of it.

Cleo: The telling of the story from more than one perspective was something that I really loved about this book. As a reader it gave me far more to think about than if it had just been told from Jim’s point of view.

Cleo: A Funeral For An Owl main protagonists, Jim and Shamayal, are male; is it harder to write from this perspective?

Jane: There are challenges about writing from a man’s perspective. Some of them are based on the myths perpetuated by popular women’s magazines – about how many times a day men think about sex, for example. When I’m not sure how to approach a topic, I turn to books. I also rely on gut feeling about how much detail people actually want to read. Something implied can be far more powerful than something that is explicit. I prefer describing emotions rather than mechanics. Young Jim does undergo something of a sexual awakening when he meets Aimee White, a girl from the other side of the tracks – smart and what we used to call middle class – who is a whole year older than him. Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy provided a wonderful example of the confusion of finding yourself aroused by someone you are not attracted to. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad provided fantastic examples of how to portray flawed characters in a non-judgemental way – people who don’t always understand the reasons why they do things. I take comfort in the fact that I am not so convinced as Cosmopolitan is that there is a ‘typical male’, but even if I’m wrong, my characters are not intended to be typical. I hope that, through young Jim, I have sympathetically addressed the pressures boys feel to behave in a so-called ‘masculine way.’ The main challenge in writing Shamayal was creating the fight scene. That was new territory for me. Again, my intention was to create a sense of fear rather than to be graphic. (I should perhaps explain that this isn’t a book about sex and violence.)

Cleo: I totally agree with you as I do not believe that boy’s issues and concerns are that different from those that girls have. Certainly my experience of teenagers of both sexes along with the multitude of their friends that passed through my door have proved that in fact the concerns are pretty similar.

Cleo: Did you see or hear about a playground fight involving gangs or was this woven in later in the process?

Thankfully the only playground fight I have ever seen close up was between my best friend and the school skin-head (also a girl). It began during a game of netball and I can’t tell you what it was about, but it must have been some righteous cause, because my friend wouldn’t have fought over any other. The skin-head should have had the advantage as girls’ fights consist primarily of scratching and hair-pulling, but my friend won.

The original draft of A Funeral for an Owl only told the story of what happened between Jim and Aimee in 1992. That was rejected by my then publisher as they felt it lacked a strong female protagonist. It was only later that I came back to the material, which I was convinced was too good to be consigned to that dusty drawer reserved for rejected manuscripts. I was surprised that I felt a real affection for it. I kept returning to it and decided to update it with Shamayal’s story. By layering the story I was able to reflect on cause and effect. I was able to tell the story of how Jim would put his career on the line to stop history repeating itself. I was able to allow Bins to be a bit of a hero. It was also an opportunity to acknowledge the enormous changes I have witnessed over the past twenty or so years. The cultural mix – in my South London middle school there was one black family. My friends’ children simply cannot understand how we survived without mobile phones in the ‘olden days’ and why there are so few photographs of us. Children and adults were members of different species. Gangs were very different things then. Children did not kill children. Today, hearing about gang fights is unavoidable. I read a lot of personal accounts during my research, including one victim’s who was dumped in a bin and left for dead. Sadly, there are lots of truths in my book.

Cleo: I think the fact that the book contains a lot of truths is what makes it so powerful, the change in attitudes in the last twenty years certainly adds context to both parts of this story.

Cleo: My favourite secondary character has to be Bins, a man who spends most of his time in the bin store at Ralegh Grove, the estate Shamayal lives on. Is he based, even vaguely on someone you know?

Jane: No is the short answer, but it’s not a very satisfactory one. Some readers assumed that Bins was autistic, but that wasn’t my intention at all. I suffered from depression for many years and, in an age when suicide statistics speak for themselves, I enjoy celebrating people who have found their own ways of living. In my locality we have a wizard who walks the length of the high street in his full regalia, complete with a black cat on his shoulder; we have a very masculine-looking Scotsman who wears a very badly-fitting cotton floral dress; we have a man who walks the streets with a tank strapped to his back spraying the air, and a young chap who stands on street corners conducting the traffic, and singing hymns at the top of his voice. These are all logical responses to an insane world. Small communities – and children in particular – accommodate people who don’t fall into our narrow definition of what is ‘normal’. It was only when watching a programme about the artist Chuck Close that I became aware of the condition Prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’, and appreciated how someone who didn’t appear to recognise someone he had met dozens of times before might be treated as if he was stupid, and if he was treated as if he was stupid, how he might eventually come to believe that.

Cleo:  I asked this question was because I often feel that the importance of identifiable characters outside the main protagonists is often overlooked. I loved Bins and his interactions with both Shamayal and Jim bought a tear to my eye, I’m a softy for people caring for others particularly when on the surface it looks like Bins needs help too!

Cleo: I thought Ayisha seemed a little prim and proper at the start of the book, did you like her less than the other characters?

Jane: Ayisha is opinionated, it’s true. She is also a person who has been brought up with rules and believes that they’re there for good reason. She knows that her colleague Jim has breached the teachers’ code of conduct by befriending fourteen-year-old Shamayal. In the aftermath of the playground fight during which Jim is stabbed, Ayisha administers first aid. She’s in shock and understandably so. This is far outside her normal experience. She makes a split-second decision that it would be wrong to report Jim. He is in no position to defend himself: imagine the headlines if he doesn’t pull through. But in that split-second she puts her own teaching career on the line. So, yes, when she finds out that Jim has done all that she suspected and more, she’s furious with him. Because it’s too late. She is involved, even though she really doesn’t want to be. Far from disliking Ayisha, I am completely sympathetic. But for her ethnic background, I am a lot like her.

Cleo: I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t like Ayisha, I came to admire her decision to put her career on the line enormously as the book progressed. So moving swiftly onto the next question…

Cleo: Who was your favourite character in the book and why?

Jane: I think that Jim’s Granddad is a very powerful character. He is another missing person by the time that the action in the book begins, but he represents everything that was good about Jim’s difficult childhood. He recognised that Jim’s dad, Frank, favoured his brother, Nick, because he was more masculine, and he tried to compensate.

“He was a gentleman.”
Shamayal’s recovery swift, the mocking manner returned with a vengeance. “Posh?”
“God, no! He had a face full of stubble and tattoos up to his armpits. I meant in the old-fashioned sense. He was born at a time when showing manners and respecting his elders weren’t seen as weaknesses.”
Shamayal looked doubtful: this definition implied a loss of face.
“Granddad understood me better than anyone else.” Jim found himself smiling. “He was just old enough to remember what it was like to be really young.”

Cleo: Have you ever been bird-watching and if so did you learn the names of the birds in a similar way to Jim?

Jane: I’m not a bird-watcher, but I am a very keen walker, I enjoy observing life on a small scale. It’s important to slow down, to get away from technology, to observe the changing seasons. I’ve just returned home from a trip to the Lake District, but it is equally possible to experience these things in your local park. Apart from Ralegh Grove, which is fictional (based on my experience of living on High Path council estate, where I bought my first flat), the places I describe are within walking distance of my house. I simply recorded all of the birds I saw and looked them up. So-called garden birds are declining at a frightening rate, so it’s possible that this simple pleasure isn’t one that will be with us for ever. The one exception to my writing-down-and-looking-up rule is my owl. I am not absolutely sure that there are barn owls in Carshalton – although, if there were, it is likely they would be found by the sides of the railway lines. The owl is such a powerful image in mythology and folklore that his appearance was non-negotiable. I visited several wonderful websites when looking for inspiration: provided me with beautiful and moving photographs that left me with a very clear image of what I wanted to try to convey in words. They do wonderful work and run adoption schemes for owls, which makes a very nice present – if you don’t want to buy a book.

I introduced the bird-watching aspect in tribute to Barry Hines’s heart-breaking portrayal of Billy in A Kestrel for a Knave. Like Billy, by discovering birds, Jim discovers another way of being that sets him apart from his father and brother and the assumptions that, like them, he will turn to a life of petty crime. He also sets himself apart from boys of his own age.

Cleo: The myth that you use wasn’t one I’d heard before, but one that I will now always remember.

Cleo: All your books are very different; do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

Jane: In the world of traditional publishing, it is not a smart move to make your books too different. The issue of genre is not quite so thorny in self-publishing, which recognises that authors want to develop and grow through experimentation and that readers do not want to read the same old recycled plot with different casts.

There is a school of thought that tells you that must have a clear idea of where the plot will take you before you start writing. If that was the case, I would never have put pen to paper. I choose to take the advice of authors who say exactly the opposite:

Debby Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category and I’m with her. Joanne Harris, too, says that women often write in this way, while men prefer to plot.

Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing: is to start with a single question and see how that idea develops. The question always begins ‘what if’ and his usually follow the lines of ‘What if aliens landed in Arizona?’ or ‘What if zombies invaded my hometown?’

Sir Terry Pratchett uses a method he calls The Valley of the Clouds. In the valley of the clouds there are mountains but you can only see the very tops of the peaks. It is your job as an author to work out how to get to the mountains. As a walker, I really connect with this description.
Have a clear idea about your characters, give them background stories, put them in a conflicted scenario and take the idea to its natural conclusion. If you’re lucky and your characters are right, with a fair wind, they will take control and do most of the donkey work for you. Shamayal is one example of this. His spoke very clearly to me because he has a very definite speech pattern and he is unafraid of saying things to an adult that simply wouldn’t have been acceptable when I was growing up. That said, my method does result in some serious nail-biting, but I think that to plot rigidly would be to stifle the characters.

Cleo: Have you always written stories?

Jane: No. I always used to draw pictures. I might have pursued art but, after years of As, a grade C in return for my experimental silk-screening for my Art O Level dampened any ambitions I had in that department. I left school at the age of sixteen and never returned to it. These days I stick to photography.

Cleo: That’s a really original answer as most writers appear to have been scribbling notes away for years. I’m sure that will be good  for aspiring writers to know, particularly as it is NaNo season!

Cleo: What made you sit down and start your first novel?

Jane: There were several reasons why I started to write. The first was that, although I had been an artistic child, my work in insurance provided no creative outlet. Secondly, it was a question of timing rather than one of time. I spent many years with ample time on my hands, but I didn’t start to write until I was in a relationship with someone who gave me confidence to express myself. Finally, I needed something to write about. Something happened in my life that I needed to make sense of and I used writing to explore how I felt about it. I think that most writers start because they want to make sense of the world.

Cleo: Do you work on one book at a time?

Jane: After the first book is out there, it’s almost impossible to work on one book at a time. At the moment I am marketing last year’s double release, preparing for the launch of A Funeral for an Owl and am 65,000 words into a new project which I’m still too superstitious to talk about. I’m at the panic-inducing stage where I know what happens at the end but I can’t seem to find the path to my final peak!

Cleo: That is such an eloquent way of describing all the work we readers often forget that goes into writing and publishing a book.  I can’t wait to see what the new book is about but I won’t push for an answer, yet….

Cleo: When can readers look forward to reading A Funeral for an Owl?

Jane: The eBook is available immediately and the paperback is due for release on 1 December 2013

Thank you for providing such interesting and in-depth answers to my questions.  It has been an absolute pleasure to feature you on my blog.

My review of A Funeral for an Owl will follow tomorrow.

A Funeral for an Owl
Half-truths & White Lies
I Stopped Time: A Historical Novel
These Fragile Things

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A Funeral for an Owl