Jersey Festival of Words: The Crime Panels

My intention was that I would blog about Jersey Festival of Words while I was there. However, that was derailed partly because I had my own event to prepare for and partly because I was having far too good a time to sit down and write. What I’ve decided to do, as I’m now writing in retrospect, is to group events by theme, rather than do a day-by-day commentary. First up: crime.

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I attended two crime panels on the Saturday of the festival. The second, which I’ll come back to in a moment featured two male writers, JS Law and John Samuel, along with Louise Doughty. The first was at 10am and was a fascinating discussion between Antonia Hodgson, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown and author of a series of three historical crime novels which begin with The Devil in the Marshalsea, and Rachel Abbott, self-published author of six novels (Kill Me Again being her latest) and the fourteenth best-selling author (whether traditional or self-published) of the last five years.

Both writers say they got started by thinking about ideas on their commutes. For Rachel, this was plotting a murder in her head stemming from the question, what situation would be so bad a woman would murder a man? She says most of her books have a dilemma at the heart of them. She likes her readers to think about what they would do in that situation. She researched her latest novel, Kill Me Again, by sending her retired sister out in Manchester with a camera. When she went to the Pomona wasteland, near the canal, she asked the builders working there, ‘Can you tell me, is there anywhere decent to bury a body?’.

Antonia fell in love with the 1700s as it’s a period we don’t read or hear about as much, partly because George II was ‘the dullest king we’ve ever had, a ridiculous man!’. She finds the street level fascinating though. ‘I love a good plot, a good mystery, I love a good twist.’ She did her research mostly in the British Library, although for the third book in the series she also used the West Yorkshire archives. She describes the joy of looking at pamphlets that have been tucked away for years and finding personal notes on them. She hasn’t had anyone tell her that anything in her books is wrong but says she included the note about swearing at the beginning of The Devil in the Marshalsea after her American editor questioned whether people really swore that much at the time the novel is set. She says writing about a historical period reminds us how little human nature has changed.

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Bored in Italy, one snowy February, Rachel began to write for her own pleasure. She had no intention of trying to get her writing published but after mixed reviews from her family, she decided to give it a go. She sent the book to six agents. The first one wanted to take it on but didn’t think it was the sort of book that would sell. Because Rachel was 59 at the time, she decided to put it on Kindle instead.

To begin with, nothing happened. The book was published on the 15th November 2011 and sold 16 copies on Christmas Day, which Rachel thought was exciting at the time. However, her marketing background told her, ‘You need to get noticed’, so she put together a twenty-seven-page plan. She worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for three months, gaining two-stone from subsisting on biscuits! It took six weeks to get Only the Innocent to number one in the Kindle chart, at which point it was selling 3500 copies a day.

Antonia says, ‘I do think that talent will out, almost always, but it is a slog’. She thinks the industry needs to be more open about the process and describes sending a book into the world as ‘absolutely terrifying’. Her first novel wasn’t published. She says she knew it wasn’t right but was encouraged by agents who told her she could write. She didn’t self-publish ‘because I know so much about the industry: you have to be a brilliant writer and a fantastic entrepreneur’.

She talks about the idea of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the publishing industry, saying that these people are incredibly committed, enthusiastic, creative people, looking for books that will sell well. Although she does say that there is work to be done in terms of diversity. A range of people will lead to a range of tastes in the books bought.

Rachel says the problems in self-publishing are the lack of editing, the low pricing, sock puppets and buying reviews.

They both talk about having to be tough and taking expert advice. Rachel has an agent (Lizzy Kremer, who is also the agent of Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train). She talks about ‘When I first took her on…’ and that she did so because Kremer told her of one of her books, ‘I thought it was pretty good but you can do better than that’; because she guides her as to what to do next; because she reads and edits her work, and because she’s sold Rachel’s books into twenty different languages. There’s a great moment when she says about Kremer, ‘She’s the professional, she knows what she’s talking about. My agent’s very hands on. She’s quite fierce’.

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Antonia confesses to rejecting a book, in her capacity as an editor, that went on to become a bestseller, but that the book wasn’t for her. She says there’s room for both traditional and self-publishing. They discuss the things traditional publishers do that a self-published author would need to do themselves, or simply doesn’t have access to. For example, it’s difficult for self-published authors to get their books into book shops as retailers don’t have time to see each author rather than meeting a rep from a publishing house; traditional authors receive an advance from the publisher; self-published authors bear the costs of producing and distributing their book; self-published authors aren’t eligible for many competitions (although this is beginning to change) and aren’t part of promotions, whether Richard and Judy or Buy one get one half price.

Rachel says if you want to self-publish, you need to have your books professional edited, copy edited and proof read. Marketing is your responsibility. ‘Whether you’re a success of a failure, it’s down to the amount of effort you put in.’ She says you need to be bloody minded, determined, consistent, analytical and to persevere in order to raise awareness of your book.

If you’re going for a traditional deal, you need to have an honest conversation about expectations when the deal is signed, says Antonia. ‘You do have to go into it knowing what questions to ask’ with regards to the level of marketing your book will receive. ‘The role of the author is becoming far more central,’ she says, describing them as ‘a partner in the publication’. Writers don’t have to be on social media, but it is seen as a bonus if they are when launching a new writer.

Neither writing wants books to disappear and Antonia thinks that the apocalyptic warnings about the death of print are over and things are stabilising. Rachel says the number of ebooks you have to sell to reach number one in the Kindle chart is slightly lower than it was when she started out.

Interestingly, both writers end by saying the ‘essential’ thing you need as a writer, whether traditionally or self-published, is an agent.

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Cathy Rentzenbrink, JS Law, John Samuel, Louise Doughty

Late-afternoon, I was at the Opera House for ‘The Voice of a Thriller’. A discussion between three crime writers, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink. Because of the nature of this blog, I’m only going to cover what Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard and Black Water contributed to the discussion, but the whole thing was fascinating and I think it’s well worth looking up the other writers and their books if this is your genre.

Louise begins by reading two passages from near the beginning of Black Water. She tells us she loves reading from her books because it’s easier than writing them and she’s a frustrated actress, she wanted to be Glenda Jackson in her teens! She reveals that she wanted to do the audiobook for Apple Tree Yard and then her publisher told her they’d got Juliet Stephenson, so she had to relinquish that one!

The idea for Black Water came when she was at the Bali Writers’ Festival in 2012. She was hideously jetlagged, might have had a cocktail too many at the parties and was staying in a hotel above the Ayung River where the nights were noisy. As the monkeys, geckos and monsoon rain kept her awake, she had the image of a man lying awake, mortally afraid. He believed men with machetes were coming for him. He was afraid of something he’d done and Louise knew what was going to get him really was his own ghosts. She wrote the first 2-3000 words and then got stuck for a year.

She talks about how all her books have been different and that makes life hard for a publisher. It was her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, which was first described as a psychological thriller. She says the writer’s ‘only duty is to write the story that’s in your heart to the best of your ability’, it’s up to the publisher to place it within the market. She though Apple Tree Yard, which brought a new audience to her work via the marketing of the book as a psychological thriller, was ‘a feminist indictment of criminal justice’ but it would be ‘churlish’ to resent the way the book was marketed.

Black Water is more overtly political. Louise describes Harper, the protagonist, as a metaphor for a country: can he find love and redemption after a mass killing? She says she wants the book to form a bridge into an unknown world as well as entertaining the reader.

She felt she was ready to write from a male point-of-view for this book. The previous two had been female, first person, present tense. She kept Black Water in third person even though it’s from Harper’s perspective as she wanted him to be unknowable. She spoke to a lot of men when creating the character but, ‘I do fundamentally believe we are all the same’. She said it was the language that caused her a problem: how would Harper have a thought to himself? She uses the line, ‘to do a bit of shopping’ as an example. She says this implies a leisure activity and probably isn’t the way a man would express this. She changed it to, ‘to pick up one or two things’, although she kept a line about flip-flops being unflattering which a man did pick her up on. She liked the line though so it stayed.

Harper is mixed-race (Indonesian and Dutch) and uses his ‘floating ethnicity’ to his advantage. However, in the Netherlands, at school, he is bullied for being black; in the US he is bullied for being Japanese, and in Indonesia, where he works for a large, powerful organisation, he is considered to be white. Louise says she wanted him to be a comedian: he is constantly asked ‘Are you part something?’ in the novel, and that she wanted a man who is a perpetual outsider as ‘outsiders are observers’. She says writers consider themselves to be outsiders, it’s the one thing they all have in common. She ends on the intriguing note, ‘Harper is my most autobiographical character’.

Black Water – Louise Doughty

It came to him then, what was going to happen. They were going to kill him. Take a break for a while, Amsterdam had said. Go up to the hills, we have a little place outside of town, it’s been used before. Have a rest, you’ve earned it. When we’ve talked to the West Coast, we’ll let you know. He had wondered, at the time, why they had to talk to the West Coast at all. If Amsterdam was certain he was finished they should have recalled him immediately. Why send him up to the hills – unless they wanted him out of the picture if the press ran with the story? Well, that was what he had thought at the time. Now, though, in the dark of night, the decision to send him here took on a different meaning.

We meet John Harper in the hills on an Indonesian island, waiting for the boys he is convinced are coming to kill him. The only person he has contact with is Kadek, a servant who brings him food and performs some basic housekeeping.

Harper has been to Indonesia before; to Jakarta in 1965 when he witnessed some horrific moments in the anti-Communist riots. The story that were are told about him is punctured by these moments of violence.

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Near the beginning of the novel, Harper decides he’s going to go into the nearest town for a few things. There he meets a woman, Rita, who he drinks cocktails with and then spends the night in a local hotel. The following morning, she leaves without speaking to him. But Harper’s feelings about her are somewhat different:

Christ, he thought, I survived a rioting mob in Jakarta not long ago and then began to wonder if my life could be in danger from the people who have employed me for three decades – yet one encounter with a woman and I’ve turned into this. He realised he was enjoying this image of himself: the hard-bitten man on the veranda in the jungle with his whisky and his cigarettes.

But it’s not over for him and Rita – he bumps into her in the marketplace a few days later and a relationship begins. This is partly a device (albeit a very well-constructed one) to allow Harper to tell his story. Doughty avoids it seeming like a device as the reader is unaware initially that Harper is relating his story to Rita at the same time he tells us.

We’re told when he meets Rita that he’s an economist working in Jakarta. We’ve already had several hints that there’s much more to Harper’s job than analysing figures, however, and it soon becomes clear that he works for some sort of intelligence service although not a government based one.

The story we’re told in the second part of the novel goes right back to Harper’s childhood and to me, is the most compelling part of the book. Possibly because it’s the only section which feels as though it may be the whole truth (whatever the truth is in a work of fiction). Harper was born Nicolaas in a concentration camp. He’s Dutch, of mixed heritage. His father was beheaded by the Japanese and his mother spends her life trying to escape the horrors she’s endured. His childhood focuses on his mother’s marriage to an American black man called Michael, the time they spend living with Michael’s father, who Nicolaas calls Poppa, and the death of his younger brother, Bud. It’s the insights into Harper’s childhood that show us why he’s become the man he appears to be.

The power of transience: in motion, you could be whoever you wanted to be. When had he learned this? On that solo Atlantic journey, with the label around his neck? Or earlier, at the age of three, watching his mother cadge cigarettes from different passengers or sailors, varying the details of who she was according to whether she was talking to a man or a woman, a sailor or a fellow passenger? Whatever lessons were learned then, chief amongst them was this: if you don’t want people to know who you are, keep moving.

If you’re expecting something similar to Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, you might be disappointed with Black River. In many ways, it’s a different beast. Doughty considers identity, the West’s ignorance of the East, how the past can affect the future. This is very much a character study, albeit one driven by violent disruption in both a personal life and a country. However, the novels do share some similarities: what affect love can have on someone; what people are driven to do to save themselves, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable.

Black River is an interesting, fear-driven novel. Doughty poses many questions about Harper and the part he’s played in events. The question for the reader is, how much you do you trust him?

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Louise Doughty will appear at Jersey Festival of Words with fellow thriller writers JS Law and John Samuel for a discussion about the thriller genre. The event takes place on Saturday 1st October, 17.45 in Jersey Opera House. Tickets are available here.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.