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Thursday 2 July 2015

Elly Griffiths


Lynne Patrick talks with Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths is best known for her series of murder mysteries featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, which now runs to seven titles. They have a little of everything a good book needs: a leading character the reader can warm to, and lots of interesting people in supporting roles; some stunning landscapes brought to vivid life; delicious twisty plots with plenty of tension and just enough high-octane action; an occasional smidgen of romance.

But that’s not all there is to Elly. Under her real name she wrote four novels which can broadly be described as romantic suspense; and last year in a departure from the big Norfolk skies Ruth Galloway loves so much, she brought out what is promising to be the first in another series, set in post-war Brighton, in the completely different world of theatre and variety.

Lynne:  Elly, there’s plenty that I’m sure readers would like to know about the Ruth Galloway books, and about you yourself, but first of all, I’m intrigued to know what triggered last year’s change in direction. Where did
The Zig Zag Girl come from?
Elly:  I’ve been wanting to write The Zig Zag Girl for some time. In fact, it’s not having the ideas that’s the problem – it’s getting the time to write down all the ideas I have (in my head at the moment I’ve got two YA series and a literary novel about Lourdes). The Zig Zag Girl was inspired by my grandfather who was a music hall comedian. Granddad was on the bill with a magician called Jasper Maskelyne who, in the Second world war, was part of a group of magicians hired by Churchill to use stage magic techniques against the enemy. They were the inspiration for The Magic Men in my book. I also wanted to write about the theatre and the last days of Variety – such a fascinating, sad, glamorous world.

Lynne:  The Zig Zag Girl is set in the 1950s: quite some time before you were even born, so you weren’t writing from memory – yet it all rings true. How did you go about making it real? Researching the different speech patterns, attitudes, habits – capturing the tone, if you like? Written records of that kind of thing are thin on the ground.
Elly:  The thing is – 1950 doesn’t seem that long ago to me! My dad was 50 when I was born, he was born in 1912. Max speaks with his voice, ‘old boy’ and so on. My grandfather fought in the First World War and was on the stage in the 50s. I’ve got all his old playbills and, if I ever need inspiration, I just look through them. Some of the acts sound wonderful: Petrova’s Performing Ponies,  Lou Lenny and her Unridable Mule, Raydini the Gay Deceiver…

Lynne:  Any plans to follow it up with another adventure for Edgar and Max?
Elly:  Yes. The sequel will be out in November. It’s called Smoke and Mirrors.

Lynne:  Born in London, settled in Brighton with your family – but the books you’re best known for are set in Norfolk? What drew you to that area? What is it about Norfolk that’s special?
Elly:  I spent a lot of time in Norfolk as a child and I think that always makes a place seem special. Norfolk seems very big and mysterious to me and I think that’s because I still see it with a child’s eye view. But Norfolk is perfect for the Ruth books because it’s absolutely full of archaeology. I don’t think I’m ever going to run out of plots…

Lynne:  What made you decide Ruth Galloway was going to be a forensic archaeologist, and not a policewoman?
Elly:  About ten years ago my husband Andy gave up his job in the city and retrained as an archaeologist. This got me interested in archaeology. Then Andy introduced me to a friend who was a forensic archaeologist and I was interested to learn how often she was consulted by the police. I was fascinated by the similarities – and differences – between police work and archaeology.

Lynne:  What people love about Ruth is that she’s so normal – she has a weight problem, she’s a bit awkward in company, she has a way of falling for the wrong men, and she’s such a likeable person. How did you go about creating her? Is she based on someone real?
Elly:  Not really, though she probably owes something to my aunt, my sisters and some of the other strong women in my life. But really Ruth just came walking towards me, fully formed, out of the Norfolk mist…

Lynne:  Norfolk isn’t exactly a crime-heavy place, yet there’s no shortage of present-day murders to keep Nelson busy, as well as ancient bodies which bring Ruth on the scene. Do you ever feel you’re stretching
realism a little too far?
Elly:  I do worry sometimes, but the truth is that Norfolk IS full of bodies. It’s just that sometimes they are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. And I really feel that any crime series requires a suspension of disbelief on behalf of the reader. Even a policeman would only get only really complex murder in a career, not one a year. Within these conventions, it’s up to the writer to make the books as convincing as possible.

Lynne:  If the series was ever picked up for TV, who would you like to see playing Ruth and Nelson? And maybe Cathbad?
Elly:  A TV company has an option but everything is moving extremely slowly, it’s even slower than archaeology. But, of course, I’ve thought about the casting. Ruth Jones or Eva Myles as Ruth. She would have to become Welsh but it would be worth it. I’ve always thought Richard Armitage for Nelson (I can dream can’t I?). Cathbad is the most difficult. Maybe David Tennant with long hair?

Lynne:  Do you remember the moment when your advance copies of your first-ever book arrived – a real book, not just a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Elly:  My first book was written under my real name, Domenica de Rosa. It was called The Italian Quarter and was loosely based on my father’s life as an Italian immigrant before the war.  I found the experience almost too personal and have never reread the book.

Lynne:  Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you write a new novel?
Elly:  I write for myself really. I love writing and I tell the sort of stories I enjoy reading.

Lynne:  What is your working strategy? Are you highly organized, plotting it all out in methodical detail, with timelines and spider diagrams? Or do you just plunge in and trust that the characters know what they’re doing?
And how does a new book start in your mind?
Elly:  I do plot my books from beginning to end, just a sentence per chapter, and the basic plot rarely changes. But, having said that, the characters do unexpected things sometimes, for example Cathbad in The House at Sea’s End. That was just not meant to happen! The Ruth books nearly always start with the place – the marshes in The Crossing Places, an old house in The Janus Stone, the abandoned airfields in the latest book, The Ghost Fields.

Lynne:  Your books aren’t heavy on big sex scenes, and any graphic violence has usually already happened before the protagonist gets there. Are you uncomfortable with the modern trend towards gory descriptions?
Elly:  As I say, I write the sort of books I would like to read and I don’t like reading about graphic sex or violence. However, I wouldn’t criticise books that take a different approach. There are some books that are hard to read but all the more powerful for that. I have a weakness for happy endings which I think can make my books a bit self-indulgent.

Lynne:  And finally – what made you adopt a pen-name? Domenica de Rosa is such a pretty name, and
unusual enough to stand out in the large crowd of crime writers; what made you decide to change it? And where did Elly Griffiths come from?
Elly:  Thank you! I think the problem is that it’s too romantic and – ironically – too much like a pen name. I did write four books under my real name but when I wrote The Crossing Places my agent told me that I needed a ‘crime name’. Ellen Griffiths was my grandmother’s name. She died when I was five but she was a highly intelligent woman, very well-read, who’d had to leave school at thirteen to go into service. I thought that she would have liked a book written under her name.

The Elly Griffith Series
The Crossing Places The Janus Stone
The House at Seas End
A Roomful of Bones
Dying Fall
The Outcast Dead
The Ghost Fields 

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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