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Sunday 1 November 2015

Kate Rhodes


Lynne Patrick talks with Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes was born in South London, the second daughter of two teachers.
After a PhD on Tennessee Williams, she worked as an English teacher at universities in Britain and the United States, and now writes full-time, and lives in Cambridge with her husband Dave Pescod, also a writer. Her study has a great view of cows grazing on Stourbridge Common down to the river Cam, perfect for daydreaming.  She has three step-sons, Jack, Matt and Frank, and has recently become step-granny to Freddie.
Her first books were poetry collections, and she was awarded English Speaking Union and Hawthornden Fellowships for poetry, and shortlisted for the Bridport and Forward Prizes. She now writes a series featuring Alice Quentin, forensic psychologist, the latest of which is
River of Souls.
Her love of crime started in her teens, when she read Graham Greene’s classic Brighton Rock. Since then its been a breathless race through as much classic and contemporary crime as she can find. Give her a free afternoon curled up by the fire with Raymond Chandler, Henning Mankel or Louise Penny and she’s a happy woman! 

Lynne:  Kate, you studied one of America’s greatest playwrights and were awarded prestigious fellowships and shortlisted for big prizes for your poetry. I’m intrigued to know what made you abandon literature for a life of crime.
Kate: That’s an interesting question, Lynne, with a kind compliment thrown in. It’s true I completed a PhD on Tennessee Williams, and enjoyed writing two poetry collections, but I’ve always loved reading crime. There’s something fascinating about seeing writers play with morality in their tales, good versus evil. I found myself so drawn to the form that I couldn’t resist trying it for myself.

Lynne:  Do you still write poetry?
Kate: I do, it’s a touchstone for me. A successful poem is like a well-focused photograph, capturing a single
image  with perfect clarity. It’s very different from the massive task of writing a novel, which is more like weaving a complex tapestry. Writing poetry seems to help my editing skills too. If I make an error in a poem, there’s no wriggle room, because each line has to be exact. That level of precision is excellent preparation for writing prose.

Lynne: It’s a completely different kind of writing, requiring different techniques. How do you keep the two things separate?
Kate:  I think I must be using two separate bits of my brain! My poetry and short stories tend to slot into the gaps when I’ve just completed a novel. They can be great testing grounds for trying out ideas that will appear in later novels. Luckily the forms are so different, it’s easy to switch from one language to the other.

Lynne:  There is a theory that English Literature is the worst possible degree a writer can have – that
studying other writers is no substitute for living life and gathering experience. How do you feel about that?
Kate: I can only talk about my own experience, but I think it’s great to have both. I loved studying English and it taught me to be humble. There are so many talented authors out there. All you can do is start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up, through constant endeavour. I left it until I was forty to commit myself to writing a novel, partly because I was scared, but also because I needed plenty of life experience. I could have started sooner, but I would have had less to say!

Lynne:  Your protagonist Alice Quentin is a psychologist – a scientist, working in a potentially dangerous environment peopled by serial killers and people with serious mental conditions, and she has something of a nightmare background herself. That’s a far cry from a poet who has lived a relatively stable life, and now lives in a beautiful part of Cambridge. Where did Alice come from?
Kate: Alice may seem different from me, but we share plenty of common traits. We both hail from south
London, suffer from claustrophobia, and have relatives who suffer from bipolar disorder. Once I knew I would be writing at least five books about Alice, I decided to make her the kind of person I’d enjoy having a cup of coffee with, otherwise our five years together would have been miserable. The weirdest thing is that she seems
so real to me now that I often feel guilty about putting her in yet another dangerous situation!

Lynne:  The background to your books is always vivid – sometimes scarily so. What kind of research do you do into Alice’s profession and the kinds of places it takes her to?
Kate: I’m very lucky that my brother-in-law is a forensic psychologist. He has been a brilliant source of advice, and the clinical psychologists at Guy’s Hospital have also been very generous with their time.  Researching my

books is one of the things I really enjoy, but it can take me from the sublime to the ridiculous. When I was writing River Of Souls last year, the Thames River Police very kindly took me out on a patrol boat for two days, but spending time at Broadmoor Hospital was much less relaxing. The place contained so much despair, I’ve never felt happier to escape from a building.

Lynne:  E-books aside, a book is a very special thing, and more special than ever when your name is on the cover. Do you remember the moment when you held your first copy of your first book? Did it feel
familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Kate: My first novel Crossbones Yard came out in 2012, and I remember being so elated when the proof copy arrived that I could have danced around the room. I used to wander casually into my local bookshop, just to see it on the shelf, sitting beside one of my great heroines, Ruth Rendell. I was thrilled with the rather scary cover, and the story hadn’t changed a great deal from the manuscript I originally submitted. I haven’t reread it yet. I’m
slightly scared to open the cover, in case I find something that should have been edited.

Lynne:  Your books aren’t heavy on sex scenes, and you don’t dwell on the graphic violence. Are you
uncomfortable with the trend towards graphic ‘realism’? Is there anything you wouldn’t write, any line you wouldn’t cross?
Kate: It’s interesting you say that because the Washington Post described my first book as ‘a fast-moving, entertaining mix of sex, suspense and serial killings.’ Alice, my central character, does have a sex life, but she also has a job, friends and relatives. I’m keen to create a character who feels as rounded and real as possible, so giving her a balanced life matters to me. River Of Souls contains some moments of violence, but I’m more interested in why someone commits murder than in depicting every gory detail. It’s the psychology of violence that interests me. I think there are several lines I wouldn’t cross in my books; I choose not to write about rape, for example. Some crime writers include graphic descriptions of sexual violence, but I’d rather steer clear of such an emotive subject.  

Lynne:  Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you set out to write a new novel?
Kate: I write for people like me, which must sound very narcissistic! I like a well-told tale, with believable
characters and a fascinating crime at its core, so that’s what I try to create. I don’t have a picture of an ideal reader in mind. The more public events I do, the more I realize that a very wide spectrum of people read crime, men and women, young and old.

Lynne:  How do you go about it? Detailed synopsis first? Just plunge in? Do you know how it’s going to end before you start?
Kate: I always write a one page synopsis and character outlines before I dive in. Not planning at all would feel too perilous, like embarking on a journey without maps. I try to produce chapter plans too, but these often change as the book unfolds. I always think I know how it will end, but stories have a way of veering in the opposite
direction. I have a terrible habit of changing my mind about the killer’s identity halfway through!

Lynne:  And how does a new book start in your mind? In particular, tell us about River of Souls.
Kate: Often a book starts with a specific location. River of Souls centres around the river Thames, which I have always loved. I grew up in Greenwich and was often taken on long meandering walks, following the river through the city, before Canary Wharf existed. I went for a walk with a friend one evening along the Embankment, just as dusk fell. Mist was rising from the surface of the water making it look ghostly, reminding me of Peter Ackroyd’s description of it as ‘the river of death,’ and felt compelled to use the river as the setting for my next book. My
research showed me that the river has always been a place of sacrifice, from the Bronze Age onwards. The killer in the book believes he can hear the river speaking to him, begging for more souls,
which compels him to cast his victims into the water.

Lynne:  Thanks so much for this, Kate. I look forward to reading River of Souls.
The Alice Quentin series:                                                   
Crossbones Yard.                                 
A Killing of Angels.                              
The Winter Foundlings
River of Souls

Short Stories in:   
The Mammoth Book of British Crime  
Deadly Pleasures, a CWA anthology

Poetry Collections:
The Alice Trap


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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