A few reasons, but the main one was that I started to think hard about what a crime novel really needed. What kind of detective? What kind of mystery? What do readers want from a crime novel in a world that’s absorbed Patricia Cornwell, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and so on? The more I started to think about those things, the more my central character – Fiona Griffiths – started to come alive for me. And after a certain point, she just took over. I literally started dreaming about the book. After two years of thinking about this book, I found myself writing it faster than I’d ever written anything before.
So Fiona Griffiths is quite a girl, huh?
Tell us about her. Right. Sure. Except … Except? Well, she’s kind of secretive about things. But she’s a Detective Constable in the South Wales Police. She’s twenty-something. Small-built. Bright as hell. Dark-haired. Um, and then there’s the illness thing. The thing with her father. A couple of strange things about her personal life. A slightly strange relationship with corpses … But I can’t say too much. A lot of Talking to the Dead revolves around various mysteries to do with its heroine, so as soon as I start to say anything really interesting about her, I have to shut up. This is a book with quite a lot of surprises.
Did you find it easy to write as a woman?
Yes, I did really. It’s odd though. The strangest thing about Fiona Griffiths is not that she’s a woman, but that her mental state is a long way different from the average. The truth is that it’s a pretty short imaginative leap to ‘become’ a woman for authorial purposes. It’s a much longer jump to ‘become’ someone with Fiona’s own strange past. I should also say, by the way, that the deepest oddity about Fiona is as weird as hell – but it’s not something I’ve invented. There’s a real condition which real people have and which you can check out on Wikipedia in due course. Oh, and writing as a woman gives you liberty to write lines you wouldn’t get to write any other way. Things like: ‘I get home sometime after two. I walk up to my front door with kitten heels and ammo boxes in one hand, gun in the other.’
There’s so much crime out there, how did you want your novel to stand out?
Not just a lot of crime, there’s a lot of really good crime. It’s also strange that in Britain Scandi crime is probably more voguish than home-grown crime and of course US authors churn out an endless array of excellent, hard-boiled, well-written crime thrillers. So it’s a tough background for new crime series. Having said that, Fiona Griffiths is obviously pretty different from your average cop. (Again: I can’t reveal why – but she makes Lisbeth Salander look like a pretty normal girl.) But I also wanted to inject something of my own into the writing. To make it tough but classy. Utterly down to earth but with a little splash of poetry. I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I was certainly thinking hard about that.
And Wales? Why Wales?
Well, I’m not Welsh, but I did spend huge chunks of my childhood there – and the best chunks too. So the country is in my bones. And then Wales has this brilliant dual status. It’s a nation with its own capital city, but it’s also a less affluent and less powerful province of a much bigger union. Cardiff seems very new in some respects, but it’s also the capital of a country whose people has long pre-Roman roots. It’s also right on the edge of things. There’s a scene towards the end which takes place on the sea cliffs of West Wales, and you realise how far on the edge of things you stand, how far from London.
The publishing landscape is obviously changing fast. What do you think this means for readers and writers?
It’s changing so fast, it’s enough to induce dizziness. I think readers will always be well looked-after. E-books are cheap and easily available. The high-street chains will be radically reducing their presence soon, but you’ll always be able to get hard copies of books from the internet. The real issue is how people browse. As a teenager, I used to go into a brilliant indie bookshop and just browse the shelves or pick the bookseller’s amazing brain. How do you browse in the absence of bookshops? It all feels more hit and miss now. As for writers – who knows? Will there be a recognisable publishing industry in five years’ time? I’m sure there will be, but I wouldn’t bet too much that the existing big firms will still be there in a recognisable form. It’s a strange old time.
I run an outfit called The Writers’ Workshop, which helps writers with their work and (when the quality is right) linking them up with literary agents. We also run a Festival of Writing, and I’ve written a couple of books on How To Write and Getting Published which do just what they say they’ll do.
How much are you looking forward to Harrogate?
On a scale of 1 to 10? About a quadrillion, I think. I’m going to team up with some Orion authors when I’m there. Authors like Harlan Coben, for heaven’s sake. It’ll be amazing.
Many thanks to Harry for stopping by, you can order Talking to the Dead here.