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THE CHAIN

 

The Chain is a series of one-to-one conversations between authors discussing the business of writing. This issue we join Kate Mosse and Denise Mina, both acclaimed writers of 'crime' but with very different approaches.


Hi Denise. Long time, no hear!

 

It's a wonderful thing, this author-to-author chat and we seem to be covering a lot of ground (both physically and in terms of writing): Michael Connelly in America, Maeve Binchy in Ireland, me in England and now you in Scotland ...

Preparing for this conversation of ours, I looked back over your writing - eight novels, short stories and a play - and thought that was a hell of a lot of work in a relatively short period of time. My first question, though, is did you always know you wanted to write crime fiction? Is it what you mostly read, or not at all? And do you have a clear sense of being either inside or outside a tradition? I love crime, read a great deal of classic crime, but knew it wasn't what I was capable of as a writer. If you like, my reader's voice and my writer's voice are in opposition. You seem to combine the best of classic crime and a more modern attitude of why-dunnit rather than who-dunnit. How did you start?

 

Hope the sun is shining in Glasgow and v much looking forward to hearing back from you.

 

Love

Kate

 

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Hello Lovely

 

I'm right in the middle of a scene so I dont want to answer this today but tomorrow. Is that alright for you? I know you're always insanely busy.

 

Dx

 

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Of course. And how fab to be writing so well that you don't want to break off.

 

Xxx

PS V much enjoying Wasp Season...

 

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Motherhood makes you instantly older, and what I was experiencing was Age Related Tenderness.

Kate Mosse

 

Kate Mosse

© Pascal Saez/Writer Pictures

 

 

 end of the wasp seasonwinter ghosts

 

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina is published in hardback by Orion, price £12.99. Denise's backlist has been reissued in paperback.

 

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse is published in paperback 28 October 2010  by Orion, price £7.99.


denise mina

 

Denise Mina

© Colin McPherson

Hello Lovely Kate!

 

Unbelievably the sun is out in Glasgow, an event unusual enough to make the city absurdly grateful. I'm cowering indoors, working.

Well, a lot of crime writers have an encyclopedic knowledge about the history of crime writing and current trends, but I don't. What I loved about it was the way people read it: irreverently, quickly, and with gusto. I think all crime fiction is crammed with politics and I wanted to write an alternative story where the untried suspect didn't get shot at the end and the women weren't evil-sexy or dull-worthy. I took my PhD thesis and fitted it into a crime story so that people would read ideas I'd borrowed from academic work.

Like lots of people, I didn't realise I was a crime writer until I got published. I think publishers tend to be quite rigid about these categories but I don't know if readers are. As someone who's very savvy about publishing, were you aware of the history of the form when you wrote Labyrinth?

 

Hope it's nice down south

Dx

 

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In Sussex, Noah-like deluge ...

 

I agree, publishers are more rigid than writers – or readers – about categories though, having said that, I'm not sure they have any choice. There's always a tension between 'new' and the Classic FM 'if you like that, you'll like this' approach. When I was writing Labyrinth, I kept saying that it was an adventure story ... and kept being told that 'adventure doesn't sell'. So, like you, I stopped categorising and just got on with writing the book. In America and Italy my novels are sold as thrillers, in France and Holland I'm literary, in Japan I'm 'women's fiction' (really?!?). The bottom line is that it's the same book, whatever the label.

Despite my background in publishing and promoting other writers' books, it was only at this stage that it really hit home to me that the author really shouldn't bother about labels and that our only job was to do the best we could, with the story we were trying to tell and with the skills we had at that moment in time. We shouldn't play at being publishers, or publicists, or marketeers, but just concentrate on the simple sentence by sentence business of dreaming up and finishing a novel.

I wonder if that's why your novels are so compelling, because you simply wrote what you wanted, without trying to shoehorn your work into a category. Having said that, once you got going and you were successful, did you feel more pressure to comply with certain 'rules' of the genre. For example, by having Alex Morrow – a repeat character and series detective – did you feel you were satisfying your readers or did you enjoy her company, therefore want to spend time over various books developing her back story? I love her as a character, but wonder if I might feel a little hemmed in by having to stick to one person as my narrator/lead. How do you prevent yourself becoming either (a) too fond of her, so you can't put her in jeopardy like you might otherwise do; or (b) getting bored ....

 

Kx

PS I'll never forgive you if you let something awful happen to her ... or the twins!

 

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In Glasgow: sudden sunshine after a week end of incessant rain.

 

Even the trees look suspicious. It's so interesting that, as someone who had worked in publishing before, you felt that disconnect between marketing and writing. Writers often talk about this but I think it's important not to be churlish about marketing. There is a custom among writers to say that we don't care, we just want to be creative and write but if you aren't interested in your audience, why are you even writing it down? Why not just think it? Writing at all presupposes the audience. For me books don't happen in the original conception of the writer. I wish they did. It's like being a mother – every book is perfect at conception and then limited by my failings. Books happen in that magical space between a reader and writer. Flaubert said every book is different to every reader and I think that's right.

Also, until the mid nineteenth century writing fiction was an upper class pursuit and not a money making enterprise. Byron's contract for ‘The Childe Harold’ didn't give him any money at all, it just limited his liability for debts from publishing, which was quite usual. I think most writers are still monkeying Byron – sulky, tortured outsider, other worldly, Greek Independence guerrilla fighter (okay, maybe not that one) but he was the Elvis of writers with a public profile: first and best and never really forgotten.

But, as you say, marketing can be limiting. In crime the publishers know how to market an indefinite series with a protagonist on every page, usually characterised by a gimmick – drinker, drug addict, magician. They must never change from one book to the next. I've never done that because I didn't want to get bored. I love reading those books, but don’t want to write them. I do find it hard to have the same person on every page, especially if the character is very intense or their mood is low, because a reader may spend a minute and half on a page but I spend days there and a twelve page grim chapter can get heavy. That was one of the reasons that I introduced a chirpier character and shorter chapters in the Paddy Meehan books, because I'd had a baby and I knew I'd have shorter working days. In the Alex Morrow books I wanted a broader cast and she's actually in them remarkably little.

But my experience was slightly different from yours because I went through a dip about five books in when my publisher sort of lost faith in me, all the pressure lifted and I was left to do what I wanted. You exploded into publishing with the success of your first book, do you think that caused a lot of pressure to do a repeat? Publishers often want the same book over and over but you've resisted that. Was that hard? Do you think the public want the same book over and over? Was a massive bestseller as a first book a good thing or a mixed blessing? And do you miss characters, ever? I found myself doing a Facebook search for one of my characters once. I felt like a nutter when I realised...

 

Dx

 

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Hello again

 

I realise I perhaps wasn't clear last time around, a propos marketing and writing. I was more trying to say that there's a pressure of putting the cart before the horse. If you like, thinking about marketing BEFORE the book is actually written, rather than concentrating on one thing at a time. So planning, dreaming, writing – and only then thinking about marketing. Marketing – and its poor relation, publicity – is essential. For me, more than anything, it's about two things: first, as you say, the relationship between reader and writer and the writer and her book – why publish, if you don't want strangers (rather than just family) to read it; second, it's about the partnership between publishers and writer. My experience, as an author, is that publishers (and agents) work incredibly hard on their clients' behalf, so it's only reasonable for the author to also get herself out and about and work hard in return. These days, a novel doing well – however we define that – will always be a mixture of timing, quality and luck, but always, always the product of a lot of hard work.

Now, to correct the record on my 'overnight' success – or, rather, my explosion (like the idea of this!) into publishing, as you put it. Labyrinth, which was my break through, is actually my 5th book, not my first at all! In 2005, when Labyrinth was published, I already had two novels and two non fiction books under my belt. My first two novels (one was better than the other) very clearly show someone who has not, yet, found her voice as a writer. Neither novel is happy within its own skin, for different reasons, though I can see elements of the topics and themes that would become 'mine', as it were, in both of them – an interest in shifting time and different time perspectives, a suggestion of esotericism, strong female protagonists, a strong sense of place. With Labyrinth, I stopped sitting on my own shoulder, saying 'oo, you don't want to do that,' or 'you should be more like so-and-so', and simply let the story and the character develop without editorial interference from me. If you like, finally I learnt to be a writer when I was writing, rather than an editor.

As for the pressure to repeat the same formula, yes I do feel that a bit. But it comes more from me – and knowing what my readers enjoy (or, at least, going by what they say in emails and letters) – rather than from the publisher. I am working on the third in the Languedoc Trilogy now and I certainly feel a sense of coming to the end of a sequence of books. I'm looking forward enormously to trying something new, with a different scope and different landscape. It's partly why my next major projects after I've finished Citadel will be a non fiction book and a major play commission. After that, I'll go back to novels.

As for missing characters, I love the idea of you Facebooking one of your own... I think when one writes historical characters, it's slightly different. You don't really expect to see them in Tesco or Sainsbury or B and Q! That said, with the Trilogy, I hadn't consciously made the decision to include characters who'd appeared before, but some of them – Audric Baillard, for example – just sauntered on in to Sepulchre, then to Citadel too. It's lovely to see him and, in Citadel, there are quite a few who've come back from other stories. Having said that, my experience is that readers have a longer and more emotional connection to characters than do I. I think readers often dream about characters, long after the novel is finished, whereas as the writer, I'm just delighted to have wrapped up the story and all the loose ends ...

 

A final question. You mentioned how motherhood changed your requirements for a working day - a wonderful and pragmatic approach to the situation, brilliant - but did it also change the stories you wrote or the sorts of storylines you were prepared to consider?

 

Over and out from Sussex.

 

Kxxx

 

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Kate, I'm so sorry, I feel like an idiot.

 

In consolation, I had such a great story written for you: hard working publisher who secretly writes amazing genre-defining book about a place she adores and then bathes in champagne for the rest of her life. It was a heart warming story. Other writers' success is so much more enjoyable than your own, especially if you rarely see them and they're always smiling and wearing something nice when you do. I remember a white coat you wore once (Not sure where or when) with beautiful embroidery on it. Anyway, I'm trying to draw attention away from my gaff. Glad that worked.

Re publicity, it is hard graft, especially if you're quite introverted. There's always a point in a foreign tour when I find myself sitting on the end of a hotel bed and thinking 'what the hell am I doing here?' But, as you say, that's a big part of the job and can be learned. I wonder how many shy people are put off finishing that first brilliant novel because they worry about talking about themselves or doing readings. The first time I did a public talk I hyperventilated but it can all be learned. You seem very confident but I suspect that's a learned skill too, or have you always been comfortable with public speaking? Do you like touring?

I loved what you said about finishing a trilogy and looking forward to something completely different. If I get the chance I love reading a book by a writer who has just finished a long series, they often have a joyous quality about them, whether fiction or non-fiction. What is it about, can you tell us? Also you mentioned a play commission, something you've done before. I love working in different forms. I think prose is my drug of choice though, I'm always glad to get back to it. How do you find it? Is it refreshing for your prose or do you prefer other forms?

Motherhood felt as if it changed everything, I was more tearful, sentimental, more compassionate etc. But I was corrected by a fellow writer, Nicola White, who doesn't have kids. She's a little older than me and said motherhood makes you instantly older, and what I was experiencing was Age Related Tenderness. As you get older, she said, you see how everything is connected, how much small things matter, and how short the time is. Do you think your work has been shaped by being a mother?

 

Sorry for the stupid mistake,

 

Dx

 

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Dearest D Don't be daft,

 

no reason at all you should know that Labyrinth wasn't my first. And all the rest of it – being a wonderful heart warming story – is actually true, in that I had no expectation ever of being a full time writer, so when suddenly it went so well, when I was already middle aged and set in my ways, it was wonderful.

I worry, sometimes, for our younger Orange Prize shortlisted authors and winners that, if success comes too young, you believe that's how it is. When the truth is, of course, that there's rarely such a thing as an overnight success.

As for the rest, you're spot on. I love the talking bit, the interviewing bit, and have always been fine doing the public side of being an author. My lovely Dad taught me how to speak in public - all the usual tips like focusing on the clock at the back of the hall, looking around all the time so everyone thinks you are addressing them personally, how to use notes (rather than read notes). So, that side of things was always fine for me.

I do quite like touring, but prefer to do it alone (i.e. without a PR person looking after me), so that non-talking downtime is factored in. Finally, and this relates to the answer about success and being middle aged and all that, I became a mother before I became a writer, so there was no before and after for me in this. Truthfully, I've always been organised – bossy oldest sister and all that – so I didn't have to adjust. It made it much easier, though, when Labyrinth went huge, because my children were old enough (a) to be proud and understand it and (b) have a concept of time, so if I was away working, they understood that. I think it's very very hard for parents, touring and being away on promotion, when they have youngsters. I fear we've reached our word limit and then some, but just to say what a pleasure this has been.

 

Our last weather report - rain and showers in Sussex!

 

Kxx

PS Obviously, I do usually bathe in champagne .....

 

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