Leigh Russell in conversation with
Martin Edwards is an award-winning crime writer whose fifth Lake District Mystery is The Hanging Woodl. The series includes The Coffin Trail (short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for best British crime novel of 2006), The Arsenic Labyrinth (short-listed for the Lakeland Book of the Year award in 2008) and The Serpent Pool. He has written eight novels about Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin, and two stand-alone novels, including Dancing for the Hangman. He won the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2008, has edited 20 anthologies and published eight non-fiction books.
For more information visit: www.martinedwards.com. www.doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.com
Q Where most authors might be satisfied with one successful crime series, you have two, set in Liverpool and the Lake District. You also write many articles, short stories, and blog posts, in addition to the thorough research you carry out. Not only that, you are generous in giving time to support organisations like Mystery People and the CWA. It doesn't take a detective to work out where this is leading... How do you find time to write? Are you one of those mythical authors who wake up at 5am to write, or do you burn the midnight oil? Please tell us about your writing process.
A I’m definitely an owl, not a lark, so no 5am starts for me! I enjoy working in the evening and sometimes quite late, but not often after midnight.. The fact I have a day job as a solicitor is not quite such a drawback as it may seem. I know that if I don’t get writing when I do have the chance, I won’t produce a thing, so I tend to have a go whenever time permits. As with most things in life, though, motivation is what counts. The fact is, I have always loved crime fiction, and I think I’m very fortunate to be part of a community that is not only fascinating but full of delightful people.
Q Your Harry Devlin novels are being reissued with additional features, including introductions written by stellar names. Has the production process for books changed since the publication of your first novel, and do you think books - like authors - have to offer more to promote themselves in today's competitive market place?
A I’m really thrilled that the wonders of digital publishing means that ebook and print versions of those early Harry Devlin books are available again. They were books I enjoyed writing and one day I might return to exploring Harry’s world. For reprints, giving readers added value in the form of special features like those in the Devlin reissues, is highly desirable I was enormously grateful to friends like Frances Fyfield, Val McDermid and Andrew Taylor who contributed new intros to the various books, while Mike Jecks allowed me to include an essay he once wrote about my work. I hope that these features, and the ‘making of’ essays that I included, will encourage people to take a look at the Devlin books. What pleases me most is that a number of good judges reckon the books have stood the test of time. But how to attract a wider readership without a big publicity budget? It’s the challenge that faces so many of us, and as you rightly say, it’s a competitive market place. For me, the key for all authors trying to promote their books is to be themselves, and focus on whichever marketing strategies suit them.best. In my case, that means devoting time and energy to my blog, “Do You Write Under Your Own Name?” I enjoy writing the blog posts, and if you enjoy something, you don’t mind putting in the effort. That’s the long answer – the short answer to both questions is ‘Yes’!
Q You are known for carrying out careful research. Tell us about your most harrowing, and your most enjoyable, experiences while researching your novels.
A As a card-carrying wimp, I always try to avoid harrowing experiences if I can, but I must admit that dragging my children around the rainswept Lake District when I was researching The Coffin Trail was a bit of an ordeal for all of us. Enjoyable experiences – too many to mention, but I really loved walking round and then up Hallin Fell near Ullswater when planning The Frozen Shroud. Blissfully
peaceful, and beautiful. And a rarity - the weather was fantastic! More generally, researching books has brought me into contact with many people and places I’d never have encountered otherwise. I’ve been struck by how generous people are to a total stranger who asks them all kinds of weird questions.
Q What crime story are you currently reading (or perhaps watching on television?) and what books are on your 'to read' list?
A I’ve just finished The Tooth Tattoo by the admirable Peter Lovesey and I’m answering these questions just before the final episode of Broadchurch, a very good whodunit series that I have really admired. At the top of my pile of books to read are The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor, The Shadow Collector by Kate Ellis and an obscure older one, Corpse in Cold Storage by Milward Kennedy.
Q Tell us about your current writing project
A The Frozen Shroud is due to be published in the UK in June, and I’m currently planning another Lake District Mystery, as well as doing quite a lot of research into Golden Age detective fiction. I’d love to write a history of that period one day..
I won't ask you tell us which of your two series you prefer, but can you tell us what differentiates them? Why did you choose to write a second series, rather than writing twice as many Harry Devlin novels? Is there a benefit to you, as a writer, in having two series on the go? (I have a hidden agenda in asking this, as I've just agreed to write a spin off series to accompany the Geraldine Steel series.)
After writing seven Harry Devlins, I produced a stand alone, Take My Breath Away, which was bought by David Shelley, of Allison & Busby. David then suggested I try a new series with a rural background. I said, ‘How about the Lake District?’ and he gave me the thumbs-up. He’s now the editor for J.K.Rowling, and though I don’t think J.K. picked him because of what he’d done for my career, I’m certainly grateful to him! The Lake District books have a slightly slower pace than the Devlins, and probably less humour. The central relationship between Hannah and Daniel gives the series a particular flavour, and because there’s a lot of emphasis on setting, atmosphere, and character, and perhaps a bit less on the puzzle element, I find that the Lakes books tend to be preferred by women readers. But there are exceptions! The advantage of varying the kind of books one writes is that it helps to avoid staleness and formulaic writing. There is a risk, though, in writing too fast, and I know that some writers who are committed to write two books or even more a year find the pressure testing. I’d feel the same. There’s a lot to be said for quality rather than quantity for the sake of it.
Q What is the appeal of crime fiction for you as a writer? How does the enjoyment of writing the genre differ from the thrill of reading other authors' crime novels?
A I’m fascinated by people and relationships, and always have been. Crime puts people and relationships under intense pressure and scrutiny and that can be especially compelling to read about or write about. For me, the pleasure of writing has much to do with the pleasure of creating something that didn’t exist before, and would never have existed if I hadn’t decided to bring it into being. Of course, what you create never turns out to be quite as brilliant as the original concept, but a lot of the fun is in trying to improve. Fail again, fail better, didn’t Samuel Beckett say that? As a reader, I enjoy the puzzles in Christie and Colin Dexter (and Jonathan Creek) but I also relish the more sophisticated approach of, say, a Ruth Rendell or a Gillian Flynn. Crime fiction is such a broad church (see, I’ve got Broadchurch on the brain...) that there’s something in it for everyone who enjoys a good read.
Q You mentioned 'stamina' is an essential quality for writers. Can you explain what you meant by that?
A Writing a novel takes me a year or more. Most of the time, when I’m writing, I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve written (I think a lot of writers feel the same, which makes me feel slightly less inadequate!) To keep going, when you are worried that what are writing isn’t good enough to meet your own standards is hard work. You need self-belief and confidence to carry on, but you also need energy and, I think, stamina. If you keep on keeping on, sooner or later the book will improve. At least that’s been my experience so far...
Q On your website you wrote that the Harry Devlin novels are a comment on urban life in the late
twentieth century, and the Lake District mysteries are concerned with rural life in the twenty first century. How important is context to you in your writing, and did you deliberately choose a rural setting as a contrast to the city background of the Devlin novels?
A As I mentioned, the idea of a rural setting came from David Shelley. I chose the Lakes because I love the area and I thought it would be a terrific place to ‘have’ to research. The importance of the context for me is that it shapes the mood of the writing. There’s a lot in the Lakes books about the heritage of the area, not just the literary heritage but also, in The Arsenic Labyrinth, the industrial heritage and, in The Frozen Shroud, the social heritage. I’m very interested in what is happening to rural England now, just as I’ve long been fascinated by the changing face of Liverpool. Shortly after I moved to Merseyside, we had the Toxteth riots, now the waterfront looks a bit like Manhattan. Things always change, and I think Liverpool’s changed for the better. My hope is that inevitable changes in rural life will not prove too destructive. Time will tell.
Q One of the hardest interview questions I've been asked was when to give 6 little known facts about myself for a 'Getting to Know You' feature for a BBC radio interview. I'll let you off lightly, and ask you to share just one little known fact about yourself.
A I once featured in the pop music pages of the Oxford Mail because I’d written a lyric for a song on an album by a friend called Giovanni Carrea. I’d like to say it topped the charts, but....
Books by Martin Edwards
Harry Devlin, Liverpool solicitor.
All the Lonely People
I Remember You
The Devil in Disguise
First Cut is the Deepest
Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett
The Coffin Trail
The Cipher Garden
The Arsenic Labyrinth
The Serpent Pool
The Hanging Wood
The Frozen Shroud
Take My Breath Away
The Lazarus Widow