Saturday Morning : What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Moderator: Karen Sullivan
Now, I have always thought that there’s a special place in hell for people who put on panels before 10am, but thankfully the rest of Newcastle disagrees with me. The 9.30am panel with Lilja Sigurdardottir, Steph Broadribb, Will Carver and Doug Johnstone was a cracker.
The panellists started by saying a little about their books and the situation of their protagonists then they got down to the business of talking about love.
Doug Johnstone talked about protective love and the massive unrecognised army of young carers who just get on with it which he described as an ‘unrecognised phenomenon’. His novel Breakers touches on this as it also does on protective love, that of a brother for his younger sister and love on the wrong side of the tracks. Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.
Will Carver discussed connections and disconnections. His novel, Good Samaritans is a mix of dark thriller and domestic noir. Seth Beauman can’t sleep. He stays up late, calling strangers from his phonebook, hoping to make a connection, while his wife, Maeve, sleeps upstairs. Will describes his book as portraying a dysfunctional marriage where murder keeps it on track.
Steph Broadribb’s Lori Anderson is a single-mother and a bounty hunter. She’s as tough as they come, but when her family is threatened, she will do anything to keep them safe. All she wants is to be independent and provide for her child.
Lilja Sigurdardottir’s young mother Sonja was forced into smuggling cocaine to stop her son being taken away from her. Sonja is at the beginning of a relationship with someone and the custom’s officer who is chasing her is at the end of a loving relationship. What happens when the two intersect is what makes Lilja’s books Trap and Snare special.
Karen asked each author to pick a fictional love story they liked.Doug chose Drive. Lilja’s was Wuthering Heights. Steph picked True Romance and Will chose the Great Gatsby.
Then Karen asked the authors what was the most romantic thing they had ever done. Doug has written love songs. Steph has based a character in her books on someone she loves. Will Carver tracked down a bench in Central Park close to the one where Woody Allan proposed in Manhattan and proposed there. Lilja was 15 years younger than her now partner, who thought she was too young, so Lilja basically had to stalk her until she gave in (but that was a long time ago now and they are still very happy).
Panel 2 Rough Justice Moderator: Sharon Bairden
My next panel was with Michael J Malone, debut novelist Noelle Holten, Craig Robertson and Sarah Stovell.
Billed as a journey into crime’s darkest corners, where bad things happen close to home. Sharon asked the authors what their brand of rough justice was and if they enjoyed serving it outside the law.
Sarah talked about the emotional and psychological revenge meted out in her novel Revenge.
Discussing social commentary, Sharon asked Craig Robertson if that was a deliberate inclusion. Craig responded by saying it has to be deliberate. A writer needs to have the ability to tackle current issues, not least because there is so much that needs addressing.
Noelle talked about domestic abuse and that she wanted to show facets of the men who perpetrate as well as those who are victims of domestic abuse. Violence, she says, is learned behaviour.
The panel discussed what actually happens versus what can be explored in novels. Writing they agree, is about getting under the skin of your characters and empathising with them in order to make them three dimensional. General agreement too on blurring the edges between good and evil and how the best books are often in that subtle area between the two when an action can go either way.
Is there much of your background in your books, Sharon wanted to know?
Noelle, a former Senior Probation Officer, says there’s a lot of what she has learnt in her book, Dead Inside. Craig, a former journalist, has had a great deal of experience in dealing with people who have lost loved ones in high profile circumstances and those experiences inevitably feed his writing. Michael Malone says that writers, above all, are extreme people watchers. Sarah agrees that personal experiences always flow into her work, though she can’t quite get away from the fact that she has ended up in every one of her own books.
Is there anything you wouldn’t touch in your books, Sharon asked? Craig responded by saying that the more painful things are, the more useful they are to you as a writer. Michael agreed, stressing that writing is and should be an emotional experience.
The authors discussed adding lighter moments to their books, slipping in references to people they know, or in Michael’s case, giving his dog, Bob, a wee cameo.
On the question of a series or stand-alone, the panel was a little divided. Michael remarked that with a stand -alone novel, you were king of the world, whereas a series is like a pair of comfortable shoes, inasmuch as you know the characters so well. But then, as Craig suggested, sometimes that makes you want to kill them all off! Sarah wouldn’t rule out a series, but as her characters have a tendency to end up dead at the end of a book, that might be difficult.
Saturday PM Panel 3. LGBTQIA+ I Am What I am La Vie en Noir
Moderator: Jacky Collins
Our panellists for this ‘cupcake’ panel this afternoon were Paul Burston, Jonina Leosdottir and Derek Farrell.
Jacky kicked off the discussion by asking each author what brought them into writing crime?
Paul Burston used to write black, gay comedies. In 2009 he was dropped by his publisher and started to write a novel. About half way through he realised that the idea he had for the story was in fact a crime novel so re-wrote it.
Derek Farrell always read crime from an early age. His dad loved reading crime and they watched crime series on tv together from an early age. His view of life is that you should read what makes you happy whether that’s The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. He penned his first crime novel in the late 90’s, which then turned into 3 novels and a travelogue. He’s also written a historical novel. Farrell used to work for a bank with an HQ in the World Trade Centre, but then 9/11 happened and everything was chaos.
He attended a creative writing class where the task was to create a character and then destroy their life. He wrote about a man whose boyfriend found him in bed with the window cleaner and for the rest of his course people kept asking him about that character, so he knew he was onto something interesting.
Jonina Leosdottir had her first book published 31 years ago, and crime is a recent addition to her portfolio. Growing up she read everything and wrote copiously. Having her as a penfriend, she says, was like receiving War and Peace every time she wrote a letter. She was a journalist for 20 years then resigned after a row over an anti feminist spiritualist preacher.
Jonina then turned to writing fiction. She enjoys writing about relationships with the odd murder thrown in.
The panel discussed whether their books had an agenda. Paul is an Aids activist, and for him, his books are always political. He really hates the ‘gay best friend’ syndrome in books and so wrote a gay character with a straight woman best friend in The Closer I Get. His novel The Black Path is about a marriage in crisis in which the gay character was a catalyst. Writing a gay character, he says, is writing a character who knows fear. He said, and I really ached here, that he never holds his husband’s hand when they are out together, because of the fear that might induce in him.
Derek Farrell says all his characters are really him. In his Danny Bird series, Danny throws himself headlong into his dream to turn the grimmest pub in London into the coolest nightspot south of the river. Sadly, everything doesn’t go quite as planned when his star turn is found strangled hours before opening night.
Fortunately, Danny has his best friend, Caroline, affectionately known as Caz to “help” him out. With aplomb, she has almost everything for the situation that Danny finds himself in, miniatures of booze to settle the nerves, lipstick and a compact mirror to make sure she’s in tip top style, or just cash to put in the till to keep things ticking over in the bar. Danny is smart but not socially confident whereas Lady Caz owns the world.
Jonina Leosdottir has written Y/A books, crime novels and a non fiction book about her own life. For 15 years Jonina was in a relationship that she had to keep secret. Her partner was a politician who feared that her opponents would take political advantage if they knew she was in a same sex relationship and so Jonina had to say in the closet for all that time. Eventually her partner became Prime Minister after the Icelandic banking crash and acknowledged their relationship, so she went at almost a stroke from being a hidden secret to meeting the President of China; from one extreme to the other.
There was an interesting discussion about the marketability of gay characters in books with Paul Burston pointing out that Val McDermid had had to put her Lindsay Gordon series to one side before becoming really successful and that Mary Hannah’s Kate Daniels character was really fortunate in taking off, otherwise she would have had to go.
Yrsa intervened to say that she realised she had not had many gay characters in her books over the last 10 years and wasn’t doing so well in portrayal terms. The panel discussed cultural appropriation, which they broadly agreed was not an issue and said that what they found offensive was the deliberate exclusion of gay characters rather than anything else.
Panel 4 Crime Cymru We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside
Moderator: Gail (G.B.) Williams
This Welsh crime fiction panel comprised Matt Johnson – ex soldier, ex policeman. Matt Johnson is the author of the 2016 John Creasey CWA Dagger listed novel ‘Wicked Game’ and has written three books in the Robert Finlay series. Thorne Moore writes psychological mysteries, or domestic noir, exploring the reason for crimes and their consequences, rather than the details of the crimes themselves. After twenty years as a working actor, mainly in film and television, Phil Rowlands moved into the production side as a freelance writer and film producer. He has written feature films, TV and radio dramas, documentaries and animation series and worked as a script doctor. Siena is his first novel.
The panel started by discussing their own crime writing. Phil Rowlands writes psychological thrillers because he enjoys writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations and because he enjoys writing about the aftermath of such events.
Thorne Moore figures that crime writing is as good a place as any to look at how people deal with adversity and to look into a character and their past.
Matt Johnson writes what he knows. A sufferer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, as a result of his time in the armed forces and police service. Writing began as part of his therapy.
G.B. Williams wanted to join the police force but failed the height restriction. She wrote romance with a plot, nut soon ditched the romance and kept the plot.
Each of these authors set their novels in Wales. What is it about Wales that casts such a wide spell? For Thorne Moore it is the thousands of years of history; the contrast between the cottages and the castles and the fact that everywhere you go there are bodies underfoot.
Phil Rowlands talks about the wonderful diversity of Wales which gives a sense of many worlds. The landscape is astounding and the darkness is blacker than elsewhere. It inspires a passion.
Matt Johnson undertook his selection and training exercises in the Brecon Beacons. It wasn’t until he went back some years later that he realised the beauty of it. He loves the remoteness and the potential for total isolation. the diversity of language, depending on where in the country you are, is another pull for the panel.
The authors discussed the formation of Crime Cymru as a way of bonding together and acting in their shared interests as well as being helpful to profile the crime writing community and to punch above their weight.
Panel 5. What Lies Beneath?
Moderator: Jacky Collins
I call this one the beautiful people panel. A killer line up of International authors from France, Norway, Germany and the UK discussing dark deeds and undercurrents. Simone Buchholz, Louise Beech, Thomas Enger and Johanna Gustawsson were our panellists. So, what brought them to crime fiction?
Simone was a journalist, predominantly writing for women’s magazines. She got bored, tried to effect an entry into sports journalism but the men wouldn’t let her in. She needed more roughness in her life and as an avid reader of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler and Jakob Arjouni she thought it would be great to take the characters like those and to put them into contemporary Hamburg. 8 novels later she is still going strong.
Louise Beech describes herself as a ‘genre floozie’. She told us how she had sadly experienced being on the end of a murder investigation in real life after her grandmother died as a result of a home invasion. Her first crime novel is Called Star Girl. She wrote it after gaining confidence from writing her first 4 books and going darker, she says, felt natural.
Thomas Enger is Norwegian, a country with a tradition of gifting crime novels at Easter. As a teenager, his father was keen for him to read the classics, but he got easily bored. Then he found his way into the crime fiction section and read everything avidly. So when the urge to write came on him, crime was the natural choice. Thomas journey into publication was a long one. He wrote 4 novels in 15 years that were never published. He made his debut in 2010 and this summer will publish his 10th book.
Johanna Gustawsson was not a keen reader, but she grew up on a diet of Agatha Christie books and was a lover of Hercule Poirot, whom she found to be a brilliant man. In her book, Block 46, she wanted to write about her grandfather. Her own father hadn’t been such a great dad and she thought it was important to understand why.She started to research Buchenwald through the Nurnberg Trials and out of that came a book in part about a hero who could not be a father. Part historical, part contemporary Block 46 plumbs the darkness and looks at the horrific evidence of the nature of evil, while Johanna is channelling Poirot.
Jacky asked about recognition and wining prizes. Simone said that when she is writing it never feels good enough. She is massively insecure until an editor, critic or a jury says it is good. She really worries what will happen when no-one is interested any more. (never going to happen, darling). She has seen respected colleagues now in their 70’s and 80’s whose time has gone and she fears it.
Thomas agrees that kind of anxiety is very common. Is it good enough? Will readers love it? Awards are a huge pat on the back and help to instill confidence.
Louise takes the view that she loves writing and nothing else is guaranteed.
Johanna’s publisher told her that recognition takes around 5 years to achieve, but her book just took off. She sees her name on a book and is just in awe of being published. After that, prizes are just surreal and make her cry – a lot.
Some of their books are quite violent and Jacky wanted to know if these authors self censor? Simone talked about her protagonist, Chastity Reilly. Chastity’s mother left when she was 2 years old. Her father was a US soldier who shot himself when she was 20. So she is damaged. She tries to talk about what she feels but she can’t. She knows how to push her self destruct button. Simone writes about violence because she wants to rail against violence and to rid society of it.
Louise reckons that as long as it is part of the story and theme then anything goes. Done in the right way, any topic should be available. Thomas Enger agrees that its fine if the story warrants it. He knows one of his publishers was warming his hands over some gruesome murders in his books, so he did feel he had to oblige just a bit. He doesn’t seek these scenes out though, now they are less and less there deliberately.
Johanna’s books can be quite graphic as they are serial killer novels, but she tries to do that through feelings, or smell or seen through someone’s eyes rather than to paint the violence. She writes only 10% of what she knows happened and some scenes she can’t write at all. She cant and won’t do gratuitous violence, but then neither can any author on this panel.
Jacky wound up the panel by asking what these authors have learnt on their writing journey.
Simone says – take more risks.
Louise – the act of writing has got better
Thomas – now will part plot the beginning and the end of his novels but he allows for a dynamic process as characters develop along the way.
Johanna has always been and always will be a plotter but she has learned to trust herself more.
Panel 6 Saturday Night Showcase Going Back to My Roots
Moderator: Miriam Owen
Sometimes you just know when you are in the presence of real class. John Harvey and Gunnar Staalesen were in conversation. Whwther they were discussing football or Varg Veum and Charlie Resnick, there was much to learn from these two authors.
Gunnar has lived with Varg Veum for 43 years. John Harvey uses Resnick to examine and illustrate societal changes. Both authors are interested in real events happening in real places to inform their work.
Staalesen describes Maigret, Chandler Ross McDonald and Dashiel Hammet as all writing in the realistic tradition, alongside Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo who helped define the Scandinavian crime genre with their 1960s and ’70s Martin Beck series. The French were early adopters of crime fiction.
John Harvey wrote pulp fiction and took whatever he was asked to do, so has written westerns, Herbie books (Herbie Rides Again).He’s glad people now don’t have to do that because the option of self publishing has come in.
Gunnar recalled that in Norway in the ’50’s there were maybe 5-10 crime fiction novels published, usually by non writers. Then in the 70’s an explosion of younger crime writers happened after Sjowall and Wahloo.
Gunnar referenced Louis Masterson (AKA Kjell Hallbing), a Norwegian author who between 1966-1985 wrote the hugely popular Morgan Kane series of western novels – a series of books about the fictitious Texas Ranger (later U.S. Marshal) Morgan Kane. He was hugely successful and his books sold incredibly well, but he wasn’t respected because he wrote westerns. Staalesen also commented on the decline of independent bookshops especially in the UK and remarked that fixed pricing of books in Norway had prevented this happening there.
What, asked Miriam Owen, did the authors like most about writing. John Harvey said it was the satisfaction of knowing you had crafted a really good sentence, or when you had got a scene to really work. The incidental pleasures that make it all worthwhile.
Gunnar loves to write stories. The biggest pressure is writing the story for the first time; all the other drafts and edits are hard work, not pleasure. John Harvey enjoys writing short stories and poems and indeed, he says he will not write another novel.
Both authors enjoy the theatre. Gunnar writes regularly for theatre and John got a lot of pleasure from adapting Resnick for the stage. Actually witnessing an audience getting pleasure from and reacting to his writing was a real treat, along with the collaborative nature of the project.
Well, gentle reader, that was my day and there were loads of panels I did not get to. But now it was time to visit the bookshop and sample the cocktails on offer before heading to the silent disco and later ‘eat my gun’….
Back later with Sunday’s panels.