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Monday 2 March 2015

Phil Rickman


Lynne Patrick talks with Phil Rickman

Phil Rickman was born in Lancashire. He has spent most of his adult life in Wales and the Border country, where he won a couple of awards for his work as a BBC radio and TV news reporter.
His first novel,
 Candlenight (1991) was discovered by the novelist and fiction-editor
Alice Thomas Ellis. He followed it with four other stand-alone ghost stories before the Merrily Watkins series began with 
The Wine of Angels.
Phil lives near Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Carol – they met as  journalists on the same paper .. He writes and presents the book programme Phil The Shelf on BBC Radio Wales.

Phil Rickman’s best-known series features a woman priest, but if your taste in crime fiction runs to the cosyclerical variety, the Rev Merrily Watkins may not be the kind of sleuthing parish priest that would appeal to you.

There’s certainly plenty of crime; two of the recurring characters are police detectives, and the latest in the series, The Magus of Hay, revolves around a suspicious death and the disappearance of another police officer. But cosy these books are unquestionably not. There’s far too much scary stuff going on under the surface: unexplained and unexplainable happenings which leave the most sceptical reader wondering if there really are more things inheaven and earth than are dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, as Shakespeare might have put it.

Reviewers have called Rickman’s books challenging and intelligent, strikingly original and consistently intriguing, and perhaps most revealingly, mysteries in the classic sense… to illuminate the darkest corners… And it can get pretty dark.

The man himself is comfortingly ordinary: not especially tall, softly spoken, and accompanied by Fergus, his lively Airedale terrier, who seems to understand... well, about as much as most dogs do. When I met him he wore not a pointy hat and a robe scattered with moon and stars, but a sweatshirt carrying the name of a musician who features in the Merrily Watkins series alongside a feisty teenage pagan, an elderly JCB driver and a rather cuddly bishop and his elegant secretary.

Phil has lived most of his adult life in the Marches: the enigmatic border country between Wales and England which lies at the heart of the Merrily Watkins series, and many of his other novels too – kind of reflecting the theme of happenings on the borders of life and whatever reality is. My first question was, which came first, the place or the fiction?
Phil: They came together. A package deal. I’d always wanted to write rural-based thrillers, and I was looking for somewhere fascinatingly different and came across The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, who discovered strange alignments of ancient sites in the landscape. So you could say I followed a leyline to the heart of the

mystery. I started by writing supernatural stories with an element of crime. Now it tends to be crime novels with a careful element of the supernatural – which you can accept or not.

Lynne: Mostly your work is set in the here and now, albeit with resonances and influences from the past and other times and places. What made you head for Tudor England for your other series, featuring John Dee the Tudor magus and alchemist?
Phil: I won’t lie. My publisher at the time said, We thought it was time you wrote an historical mystery. Say 16th century? And I knew quite a bit about Dr Dee, whose family came from the area where we live. Couldn’t believe nobody had used the younger Dee as a central character before, so I put his name forward and the rest is, er..history.

Lynne: Is it harder to capture the tone of a historical period than to recreate the atmosphere of a place? Did that series take a lot of research of the down-to-earth kind?
Phil: It probably is harder. However… I realized that what I ought to do with all that research is not use most of it. I’ve read so many historical novels full of the kind of trivial detail that someone writing at the time just wouldn’t bother with. You know the kind of thing – you have someone going to the lavatory just so you can describe exactly what kind of primitive lavatory he went to. Unless there’s someone waiting in the jakes to beat him up, don’t bother. Just do the interesting stuff.

Lynne: In another life you were a news journalist, and you also front a (mostly) serious book programme,
Phil the Shelf, for BBC Radio Wales. Journalism, at least the respectable kind, is a different kettle of fish from fiction: a different kind of writing, requiring different techniques. How do you keep the two things separate?
Phil: I don’t see them as separate. Technically, they’re not really all that different. Basically, never write a sentence that doesn’t make the reader want to proceed to the next. Reading the news pages of the Sun or the Mirror is actually quite a good guide to telling a story, although reading the Guardian’s might be less effective.

Lynne: What brought you to fiction?
Phil: I’m guessing it was learning to read that started it. Been trying to write crime novels since I was about eight. Journalism helped, especially radio journalism which teaches you how to handle dialogue, and about instantly conveying a situation to someone who can’t see it.

Lynne: Your novels are pretty substantial volumes, and most of them, some in particular, show evidence of a lot of research. And then there’s all the promotion authors are expected to undertake. Is there actually time to write? Take us through a typical week when you’re working on a novel.
Phil: There isn’t a typical week. How about a day? Get up, take dog for walk, clean out donkeys’ stable, switch on computer to write, check emails, get distracted, try to write something; ping! another bloody email! Vow to get computer unconnected to Net. That’s a good day. Those novelists who operate according to strict hours amaze me. Like the ones who have a strict chapter-by-chapter plan and know how it’s all going to end. I can usually tell instantly if I’m reading a meticulous planner. The element of surprise is usually signposted and the characters have no room to breathe.

Lynne: Apart from the novelist’s desire to tell a good story, what are you aiming for in a novel? Do you set out to open eyes and minds? Or just to entertain?
Phil: If you fail to entertain at some level, you’re a lousy novelist. If you can open minds and eyes as well, that’s good, but I don’t want to lecture or evangelize, and any opinions expressed are not necessarily mine. If I can have a character being eloquent and persuasive about something I personally hate, I regard that as success. It’s also more entertaining.

Lynne: You often say on the acknowledgements page that you didn’t have to make much up. How does a new novel begin in your mind?
Phil: No idea. I’m superstitious. I’m scared that if I think too hard about where ideas come from they’ll stop coming. Let’s not knock inspiration.

Lynne: The violence in your books is in the reader’s head rather than in graphic detail on the page. Are you uncomfortable with the trend towards graphic descriptions?
Phil: I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, although often it’s a refuge for not-very-good writers. If you can disturb somebody in a non-graphic way it’s usually more effective. Harder to recover from psychological wounds.

Lynne: Your books aren’t exactly comfort reading. Have you ever come across a story which made you too uncomfortable to develop it into a novel or part of a novel?
Phil: Actually, I think some of them are – in parts, anyway – comfort reading. And that comes out of trying to have likeable characters and locations. The one I thought more than twice about was The Lamp of the Wicked, which is about the legacy of Fred West. But it contains no graphic violence, and deals – meaningfully I hope – more with the pain and uncertainty of people close to victims and possible victims. In the end, I think it emerges as one of the best.

Lynne: Most of your books, not just the Merrily Watkins series, have a woman as the central character, and those that don’t still have strong women centre-stage. Is this a deliberate choice, or did it just happen like that?
Phil: Just happened. In the first novel, Candlenight, I didn’t realize, until a writer I respect told me, that the central character is not the American journalist Berry Morelli, but Bethan, the Welsh schoolteacher. However, I still didn’t think I could do women particularly well, until women started telling me I was getting certain things right. Merrily arrived because – this doesn’t often happen – I started with a plot twist which could only be explored with the aid of a woman vicar, and she just stuck around. I suppose what I like about trying to see from a woman’s point of view is that it takes away the worry that I might be basing a character too much on myself. I hope I can be more objective.  

Lynne: When can we look forward to the next Merrily? Or is something else itching to be written first?
Phil: The next full-length Merrily is likely to be next autumn, to tie in with her first appearance on TV, in the ITV Encore adaptation of Midwinter of the Spirit. (Lynne: Not before time! It’s ideal for TV!) There’s also an eBook, a Merrily novella (which is either a long short story or a short novel.)
Phil Rickman’s latest novel is not a Merrily Watkins.
Night After Night is set in and around a reputedly haunted Tudor mansion which has been taken over by a TV production company for a new twist on the Big Brother concept. As Phil says in the acknowledgements, he didn’t have to make much up...

His other books:
The Merrily Watkins series:
                                        Wine of Angels                                             
Midwinter of the Spirit
The Crown of Lights
The Cure of Souls
The Lamp of the Wicked
The Prayer of the Night Shepherd
The Smile of a Ghost
The Remains of an Altar
The Fabric of Sin
To Dream of the Dead 7
The Secrets of Pain
The Magus of Hay

The John Dee series:
The Bones of Avalon
The Heresy of Doctor Dee

Standalones: Candlenight
The Man in the Moss
The Chalice
Night After Night

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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