Authors: S J Watson (Transworld); M J (Melanie) McGrath (Pan Macmillan); Gordon Ferris (Corvus); Julia Crouch (Headline). In the chair: Val McDermid.
The inspiration for these debut novels:
S J Watson’s (SJW) inspiration came from a man whose obituary he penned. The man had such bad epilepsy he had an operation to remove part of his brain which then impacted his memory to the degree that each day meant the start of production of new memories with no long term retention. M J McGrath (MJM) spent time in the high arctic in order to research her non-fiction work. Here she met a female polar bear hunter who became the inspiration for her half-white, half-Inuit protagonist Edie Kiglatuk.
Gordon Ferris (GF) took his inspiration from what became his title: The Hanging Shed. In these buildings condemned men were led from room to room to the ultimate place that delivered the end of their lives in post WWII Glasgow. Julia Crouch (JC) runs and listens to music at the same time. As she pounded the terrain down in Brighton, a Nick Cave song – The Boatman’s Call, inspired by his relationship with P J Harvey – threw up a question in her mind: how can such passion arise in your steady-Eddy, beloved husband?
And what, asked Val McDermid, led these authors to write crime fiction?
Well, they all fell into it, as it happens. They had the stories in their heads and the stories fitted the ever-expanding genre. SJW is not a ‘huge fan of labels’. He never sat down thinking he was writing a crime novel. He loves stories: a page turner; something with a bit of violence in it; something that makes him want to know what happens next; something he might choose to re-read because the journey was such an exhilarating ride he wants to catch up with the detail later.
MJM didn’t set out to write a crime novel; she was simply looking for a subject. When researching in the arctic she was bombarded with its untold stories. There, when the snow melts, bones appear: human and animal. It is a place of violence with the ice cracking all the time. For MJM, this was a rough and raw place packed with stories.
GF just wanted to write stories where the story is ‘everything’. He joked that his group on stage made the ‘accidental crime novelists’. Not a fan of police procedurals and CSI, his period setting was selected to ‘avoid that silly stuff’.
JC simply sat down to write the best novel she was capable of: a domestic drama involving passionate excessive love. She feels she has written a ‘crime of passion novel’ which puts her in two camps: the Crime Writers’ Association and the Romantic Novelists’ Association. And she noted that she’d heard the latter ‘do a good party’.
What have they learned in their debut process?
At 40, SJW has learned that he is a writer and that this is what he should be doing; that there is value in taking risks. He is driven to write.
For GF the more he wrote the more he learnt and it was the ‘learning process of becoming a craftsman’. He wrote about ten novels before finding his voice and style.
Coming from a non-fiction background, MJM discovered she needed to know her characters profoundly from the start. She said ‘Really knowing them, you can shape what happens to them.’
JC had never realised just how many times it is possible to rewrite a novel, knowing the feeling of never being satisfied until you simply have to call a halt. She has also been impressed with the ‘community of passionate readers out there; the librarians and the people who read and read.’
With successful first novels on the shelves, what are these authors doing now?
SJW is writing something currently called ‘Nine Lives’ and it’s not about cats. He described it as a different world to Before I Go to Sleep, where it’s a novel about the fluidity of identity and about mask wearing. And it has more sex in it.
MJM is about a month away from submitting the next Edie novel. It also has more sex in it. Set in Alaska, it focuses on sexual and political skulduggery.
GF’s Bitter Water is the sequel to The Hanging Shed, told in the first person by Douglas Brodie. A hot summer outbreak of violence meted out to criminals such as rapists, thieves etc sees justice taken out of the hands of the authorities and a dilemma for the investigation.
JC’s Every Vow You Break is set in upstate New York where a wife bumps into an ‘old close acquaintance who is now Daniel Day Lewis famous’ with obsessive love and a stalker in the frame. This, we were told, also has more sex in it.
And not to be left out, GF then said he has ‘a wee bit…’ of sex in his next one.
Being debut authors, this group did not realise that previous form at Harrogate has seen authors on the stage outlining their avoidance strategies and reasons for not having sex in their novels. It seems we have a tide change here.
A fun event with four authors and four novels to have on your radar.