An Interview with Alison Joseph

Alison Joseph portrait

Photo by:  Hugo Glendinning

I am delighted to welcome Crime Writers’ Association Chair, Alison Joseph, as my guest this month. 

Alison is a prolific author of crime novels as well as a radio dramatist skilfully adapting such works as Georges Simenons’ Maigret for the listening audience.

Welcome, Alison.

Have you had a love of books and story-telling from a young age?

Absolutely. I began to write stories almost as soon as I knew what writing was. And I was an obsessive reader too.  I was quite a sensitive child, and sometimes real life was somehow too big, or too chaotic, perhaps,  so finding I could take refuge in fiction was a huge relief. Not that I had an unhappy childhood, though – it was more my own response to it.

Your career began in local radio before making documentaries for Channel 4. When did you decide to branch out and become an author?

I loved being a radio presenter, in Leeds. And then, back in London, I got into making films. Documentaries is only another kind of story-telling, really. I made a series about women and religion for Channel 4, presented by Helen Mirren, and at that time my first child was about a year old, and I’d just tuck him under my arm and bring him on the shoot with me – in fact I have a lovely photo of him and Helen gazing rather adoringly at each other. But as he got older and then I had two more children, the logistics of freelance directing and childcare just got too much for me. As I said, I’d always written, and it just seemed to be the right time to start to take it seriously as a career.

What appealed to you about the crime genre?

I rather tumbled into it. I was lucky, that my first few short stories got published – they were mostly romances for women’s magazines. But I started hatching a plot to write a detective nun, and my then agent was extremely encouraging about it, so I wrote the first Sister Agnes story chapter by chapter, sending it to her. And it got snapped up straight away, and I started on the second. But even then I had no idea how much I would love being a crime writer, and how a properly structured, page-turning story was the thing I really aspired to do.

The Sister Agnes Mystery series has an independent, compassionate and frequently challenged protagonist at its core. Did you set out to explore issues of faith, science and life as the character develops through the cases she solves?

Again, those themes grew with time. The idea of a detective nun to start with was a kind of literary device – I wanted a female detective who was single and who would stay that way, but I didn’t want anyone hard-edged, and I didn’t at that time want to write a policewoman. Sister Agnes is white, half-French but very English, a contemporary nun, working in an open order, and as I wrote more of her I realised how she can quite realistically be in a position to know more than the police, for example, she works in a hostel for homeless people in South London. It’s difficult to write a believable amateur detective in these times of expert policing, so an amateur detective has to have access to places that the police can’t necessarily uncover with any ease.aj-act

And then, of course, there’s the dilemma of having a character who believes in a benign God constantly being brought face to face with the worst that one human being can do to another. Again, this has become a rich seam in the novels, her religious doubt in the face of suffering, and the way her own faith is tested by the criminality she encounters.

The novels have a very different setting, giving each book a fresh appeal. Did you plan out the whole series beforehand or do you move Agnes on one book at a time?

I don’t plan anything. Although, I have got a bit more orderly in my plot structuring as I’ve got better at it. My early plot structures were completely chaotic and often re-written madly as a result. But I have certain obsessions which I constantly circle in my work, and having a continuous character has been a great gift in exploring them. So, for example, The Dying Light is about family secrets emerging. It’s set against the background of the building of the Jubilee Line extension – I got to go down into the tunnels while they were being built, which was fantastic. And the Night Watch is about gambling and chance and the mathematics of probability. And A Violent Act is all about creationism and Darwinism.

Last year Dying to Know was released. What appealed to you about Detective Inspector Berenice Killick?

Berenice is a policewoman, a mixed-race Yorkshirewoman. I had got to the point where I wanted to write more realistically. If you’re a copper then you really are dealing with murder, whereas if you’re a nun, even on the mean streets of Bermondsey, it’s not going to be that normal to have to solve a crime.  Dying to Know  is a police procedural about particle physics. I invented a physics lab in Kent, on the marshlands of the south coast there, and the story starts when it looks as if there is a serial killer targeting the lab. I got to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN for it, which was one of the most compellingly interesting days of my life.dtk200

What is the most challenging aspect of adapting someone else’s work for radio?

The thing about writing a radio play is that it’s all about speech. But in a way, so is crime writing. It’s about what people say – whether they tell the truth, whether they’re telling lies, whether they choose to say nothing at all. So my own radio plays, although most of them aren’t crime stories, still have a mystery about them, I hope.  My adaptations have been more to do with crime, for example, the Maigret stories by Simenon which I absolutely loved doing. I love working with actors too – there’s a magic about seeing someone find the potential in a line of dialogue.

You have been chair of the CWA for nearly two years, What major changes have you seen in that time and how exciting do you see the future of crime writing?

It’s been a great privilege to be Chair. It’s a role I give up this April. The single most important thing I’ve witnessed in my time as Chair has been the centrality of the crime and thriller story to our culture. It’s quite wonderful, really, how readers and viewers take the detective story to their hearts. It’s not surprising, though – a well-told story that is about important issues of criminality and morality is always going to have a huge following.

The other important issues I’ve seen are to do with publishing, and the business of it. Our genre remains buoyant, but of course there are concerns about the market’s greater reliance on bestsellers, and the sustainability of the business model of publishers selling to bookshops and bookshops selling to readers. There are so many fractures in that model, to do with on-line selling in particular. On the other hand, those fractures are opening up new markets, in terms of e-books and self-publishing, that weren’t there before.

What is next for Alison Joseph?

I have just started doing a series of novellas featuring Agatha Christie as a detective. The first one is called Murder Will Out. I was reluctant at first, as she’s real, of course, and I wasn’t sure it would be possible. But it’s been hugely enjoyable, firstly to write in that era (the first one is set in 1923) and secondly to structure a story around the tension between what’s real and what’s made up. And, thirdly, to aspire to Dame Agatha’s mastery of the crime story.mwo200

I’m also planning the next Sister Agnes story, and the next D I Berenice Killick story too, and I’ve got another, male, detective, waiting in the wings. I seem to have created these demanding characters who are very keen to get on with the next chapter in their lives. I guess I’m just lucky that I haven’t yet run out of ideas.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions and share your writing experience and your love of the crime genre with us.

More from Alison:

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An Interview with Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud

Martin on Thomson Dream Aug 2012

July’s special guest is award winning crime writer and consultant in a law firm, Martin Edwards. I first heard Martin give a fascinating talk at last year’s CWA conference in the Lake District and could tell that he was not only an authority on the genre, but was passionate about it.

Martin recently won the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham award at the Bristol Crimefest. Congratulations! 

You are an accomplished legal consultant and crime writer. When did this love of law turn into the desire to write crime novels?

The love of crime fiction definitely came first. As a small boy, I became fascinated by the idea of telling stories. Once I discovered Agatha Christie at age nine, the die was cast, and I determined to write detective stories. However, we didn’t know anyone who wrote books, and my parents were rather concerned about my ambition of becoming a detective novelist. So they encourage me to get a ‘proper job’, and that’s where the idea of studying law at university came in. I found that I relished the academic challenges of law, and later I enjoyed the practical side of employment law. I’ve been lucky with my legal career, and it’s introduced me to fascinating people and places. But now I’m aiming at long last to focus on my first love. After thirty years as a partner in my firm, I’ve retired to become a part-time consultant. Yippee!

Would you say that your legal work, involving meeting individuals in pressing circumstances and dealing with their problems, has given you a greater empathy and insight into human relationships and conflicts, which can help with fictional character development?

Jobs, and employment issues, are all about human relationships. After a few years as a lawyer, it dawned on me that this was why employment law appealed to me in a way that subjects like conveyancing did not. Of course, the more people and human dilemmas that you encounter, the more you develop an understanding of people’s behaviour – good, as well as bad – that is definitely helpful when you write fiction. You’re not writing about the people you meet, but about the issues that people have to confront in their lives.

New editions of your Harry Devlin novels have been released. Can you share with us how this Liverpool lawyer came to be created?

My first – and never published, or even fully typed – novel was a football thriller. After that, I wanted to write a book that could be published. When I went to work in Liverpool, it seemed like a wonderful setting for a crime series. I didn’t know any cops or private eyes, so I decided that my hero would be a lawyer, like me. Not really like me, though. He would be a criminal lawyer, and have a tough life in various ways, as well as being rather braver than me. To this day, I’m very fond of Harry, and I’d like to write about him some more one day. In the meantime, I’m excited that the novels are now available again as ebooks, and two have actually been republished successfully as mass market paperbacks, as “Crime Classics”, no less…

For your next series you set the first novel ‘The Coffin Trail’ in The Lake District and introduced your readers to Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett. What was most challenging: moving from a protagonist who was a lawyer to a DCI or from a ‘Harry’ to ‘Hannah’?

The Frozen Shroud UK editionI was moving from one viewpoint character to two – Hannah and Daniel Kind, the historian who gets to know her in The Coffin Trail. I always intended that the series should be about their developing relationship, but Daniel was the starting point. I saw him as the key character, but when Peter Robinson read the book, he said he thought Hannah was the one I was really focusing on, and I saw at once that he was right. By that point, I’d was writing my ninth novel and I was ready and very willing to tackle story-telling from the perspective of a female character. It was a fresh challenge, and one that excited me. It still does.

You have many projects ongoing simultaneously between your two careers as well as being a critic, an anthologist, a contributor to many non-fiction works as well as keeping your very helpful blog updated. Would you describe yourself as an exceptionally disciplined and driven writer/worker?

TMBA Kindle artworkI admit to being driven, in that I feel very conscious that life is short and that there are a lot of things I want to achieve. To my mind, being ambitious is a good thing, as long as one tests oneself against one’s own self-imposed standards, rather than against other people, or the standards set by others. However, although to some extent I’m self-disciplined, I sometimes wish I were better organised. I do tend to set myself very demanding targets that I fail to meet with monotonous regularity. Perhaps – in a not very coherent way –that’s the method that works best for me, and even if sometimes I feel I could have achieved more, perhaps this helps to drive me on to do better in future.

In your ‘Writing tips’ you advise: ‘Plan the story before you start’. Once this has been done, would you ever amend or change a plot as you begin writing the first draft?

Yes, I’ve done this from time to time. The great thing about writing is this – you can always improve what you have written. A plan works well for me – not everyone is the same, of course. But even the best laid plans are sometimes capable of being changed for the better. So far, I’ve never changed the original solution to any of my novels, but I’ve tinkered with many other elements of my stories.

Your work as an archivist for the CWA and The Detection Club has been widely praised. Could you please tell us something about The Detection Club?

The Detection Club was founded in 1930 by that wonderful and under-rated writer (and rather strange man) Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote innovative whodunits as Anthony Berkeley and superb psychological crime novels as Francis Iles. It was the world’s first social network for crime writers, and attracted the likes of Christie, Sayers and Margery Allingham. The aim was for an elite of crime writers to raise the literary standards of the genre, but above all they liked drinking and chatting together. The extent to which their literary aims were achieved is debatable, but the books produced by the Club – for example, the round robin mysteries The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman – remain very readable to this day, and have been very successful in new editions in recent years. I’ve written intros to a couple of them, most recently The Anatomy of Murder, an intriguing book of essays about real life murders. The Club is and always has been in essence a sociable dining club. Membership is by election – there is an annual secret ballot – and the Club flourishes to this day.

As a collector of rare crime novels, is there one particular book you would like to own and, if so, what makes it so special to you?

Now you’re asking! I’d love to own a Sherlock Holmes book, signed by Conan Doyle, but alas, I’m sure that’s an impossible dream…

In ‘Dancing with the Hangman’ you explore the question of ‘justice’. In your crime novels do you enjoy being able to write the conclusion that you personally approve of, wherein your legal career the verdict is, to a degree, beyond the legal representative’s control?

Yesterday's Papers ArcturusIntriguing question, and I’m not quite sure about the answer. When I was fighting legal cases in the employment tribunal, I always wanted to win, but on the whole I felt that the right result was usually achieved in most cases. With fiction, I like to see some form of justice done at the end, but this doesn’t always mean the conviction of those who are technically guilty. I think it’s good if a novel reaches a conclusion that affords “satisfaction”, but the forms that satisfaction, and indeed justice, can take are many and various. Christie understood that – consider the finale to Murder on the Orient Express.

Could you share with us some of the delights included in the latest anthology that you have edited for the CWA?

Guilty Parties contains more stories than usual, and I really enjoyed reading them. It would perhaps be invidious to pick personal favourites, but my aim was to showcase the variety and depth of the crime genre, and it’s a book that I’m very pleased to be associated with.

What is next for Martin?

I’m currently working on my seventh Lake District Mystery and I have two or three short stories coming out in the near future. Recently I finished a history of detective fiction between the wars – The Golden Age of Murder – which I would love to see published in 2015, as it’s a book I’m really proud of, and I’ve put a huge amount of effort into it over a good many years. At present I’m editing two anthologies of vintage crime fiction for the British Library, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and a book of true crime essays for the CWA. I’m also working on a book that brings together all Dorothy L. Sayers’ reviews of detective fiction from the Thirties. All of which is quite enough to be going on with!

More from Martin

Website: martinedwardsbooks.com
Facebook: Martin Edwards
Twitter: @medwardsbooks