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Monday 2 May 2016

Alanna Knight


Marsali Taylor talks with Alanna Knight MBE

Alanna Knight is one of the most popular authors in UK libraries. Named as one of The Times’ “100 Masters of Crime”, she is a leading crime writer with three historical crime series: the Victorian detective Inspector Jeremy Faro, lady investigator Rose McQuinn, and time-traveller Tam Eildor.
She has published 75 works which include romance, thrillers, historical novels and non-fiction. Alanna is an authority on Robert Louis Stevenson and she has written true crime, 'how to write' guides and biographies.
Hon President of Edinburgh Writers' Club, Honorary President and founder member of Scottish Association of Writers, member of Society of Authors and Crime Writers' Association, and Mystery People.
She appears regularly at Edinburgh International Book Festival and many other literary events.

Marsali: Going back to your childhood: you were born in South Shields, of Scots-Irish descent, then moved to Newcastle?
Alanna: Yes, I was just six months old when we moved, and I went to school there, a girls’ school – it’s now a posh hotel! I’ve been proud to be a Newcastle girl like Catherine Cookson. My godmother, who was also a ‘flower of the century’, born in 1900, loved her books. I’d never read any, but we had the same agent, Giles Gordon. I saw one of her books on his shelf, signed, ‘love, Kitty.’ I was intrigued by this, and read it, and I said to him to tell her how much I’d enjoyed it. ‘Tell her yourself,’ he said, and gave me a introduction to her. She lived miles out in the country, we got lost finding her, but she was very welcoming – her husband, Tom, was a mathematician, and delighted to meet my husband, Alistair, who was a scientist. I joked to Catherine, ‘That’s Alistair, he’s my chauffeur,’ and later, while we were having tea, she leaned over and said, ‘Alanna, is he really your chauffeur?’ I could see her wondering how this new young writer could afford a chauffeur! We became friends, and she used to phone me, and say, ‘Ee, Alanna, it’s lovely to hear a Geordie accent!’

Marsali: There’s a long gap before you were first published, in 1969 – what were you up to?
Alanna: I went to work in the office at Newcastle University, that was in the late forties. While I was there I kept seeing this post-graduate student crossing below the office windows, in his white lab coat – he said later that I marked a cross on his back! That was Alistair. We married in 1951, and came to live in Aberdeen, where I had our two boys.

However I’d always wanted to write. Aged eight, I wrote poems for the Children’s Hour competitions, and it was a great thrill when I won, and heard my name over the radio. Then as a teenager I wrote a novel. It was going to be the definitive Irish novel, set in Kerry, where my maternal family came from, with names like Siobhan and Niamh. I didn’t know how to end it, but I remembered there were high cliffs in Kerry, so I had them all go there and jump into the sea. Years later, I re-read it, and laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks.

I had lots of rejections, and each time a book was sent back, I thrust it away in a drawer, and began another. Then I got a scholarship to the summer school in Swanwick, and wrote Legend of the Loch, my first published book, which won the  Romantic Novelists’ Association Netta Muskett award. I’m still a member of the RNA – they gave me my first chance. After that, I continued to write romantic suspense – I enjoyed the suspense element, because I love puzzles. I got into historical writing because I was commissioned to write a book set on the Isle of Lewis. I’d never been there, but when I saw the Callanish stones, the plot of Colla’s Children just came to me.

Marsali: While you were writing these, you were also researching your portrait of RLS and his wife Fanny, and you’ve written several more books about RLS.
Alanna: It was my son Chris who came home from school, saying, ‘Mum, I’ve got to write something about Robert Louis Stevenson. Can you help me?’ So I asked Alistair, said, ‘Can you go to the University library and bring me something on RLS?’ He staggered home with a great pile of books, and said, ‘When you’ve finished these, there’s the same again waiting for you.’ As a child I loved his poems, and I discovered that Treasure Island was written nearby, at Braemar. Now, reading him as an adult, I just adored him. Every book I read, I thought, ‘That’s how I want to write!’ I say to people who’ve never read him, ‘Read his letters!’ They are marvellous – they had no other means of communication in those days, and gave so much of themselves in their letters.

Compiling the RLS Treasury was in pre-computer days, so I’d go down to the National Library in Edinburgh to research, and come back with armfuls of photocopies. Then a friend in Edinburgh, Sheena McDonald, offered us

the use of her flat. Alistair had just taken very early retirement, and the boys were at University. It was supposed to be just for the summer, but we loved Edinburgh, and bought our own flat here, where I’ve lived now for over 30 years, the longest I’ve lived in any house.

Marsali:            The Inspector Faro series began in 1988 – tell me about that. Why did you switch genres?
Alanna:             I’d just finished a three historical book contract, and my lovely editor had left to have a baby, so I felt I was at a crossroads, with no idea what to write next. I was wondering if I should do something else, and looking out of the window, and then this man walked past, wearing a deerstalker and and an Inverness cape, looking up at the windows as if he was searching for something, and I thought, ‘He could be a Victorian detective!’ I never saw him again, but he became my Inspector Faro. In 1996, STV took out an option for a TV series, which Brian Cox was very keen on, but the network was put off by the cost of a “costume series” – changed days now!

Then I thought that Rose, Faro’s daughter, was a bright little girl, and keen on detection, so I decided to give her her own series. Macmillan turned her down, so Giles sent her to Constable, who gave me a three-book contract. However they only did hardbacks: ‘You’re a library author,’ they said. Then I met David Shelley, the MD of Allison and Busby, in 2002, and he said, ‘Come to us, and we’ll bring out your backlist as well.’ Since then I’ve written one book a year for them.

Rose is really me, my voice. When you’re writing, you get into the skin of your character, you put them on in the morning. It’s especially important for historical novels – otherwise you just have modern people in fancy dress. Alistair used to tap on my study door and say, ‘Is Inspector Faro still with you, or can I have a word?’ But although writers are solitary creatures, I enjoy being an entertainer when I have to give a talk – I love establishing a rapport with my audience, and talking to each one.

Marsali: The supernatural element in your books is important. Is this something you’ve encountered yourself?
Alanna: Oh, yes. As a child I had time-slip experiences. When I was ten, there was a cottage near Jesmond Dene where two maiden ladies lived, we children were terrified of them, but we used to pinch their apples, things like that. We had a cocker spaniel, Terry, and one day when I was taking him for a walk, I saw that a part of their fence had fallen in, so I went through the gap. I saw a summer-house, with a three-layered cape hanging up in it, and there were statues in the garden. I went back home and told my father, ‘Dad, you need to come and see the Miss Nobles’ garden!’ He came, but the fence wasn’t broken, and none of the things I’d described were there. However my father had an elderly friend who was a historian, and Dad told him this story. There had been a summerhouse, the friend said, and statues, but because they were unclothed Greek gods and goddesses, the Victorians smashed them all. The odd thing was that Terry didn’t come with me, which was strange, but maybe dogs can’t travel through time.

Another time, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I went to Holyrood with my mother. I got rather bored with the history tour, so I slipped out of a side door, and went into a lovely garden, There was a railed area, like a pets’ cemetery, and by the Abbey I noticed a thing like a wooden kitchen chair top stuck in the ground, with the name David Rizzio on it. I told a writer friend about this, and she said that I couldn’t have seen that, nobody knew where he was buried, and when I went back, there was no garden, just rhododendron trees, and I realised that the buildings on Calton Hill hadn’t been there, just a grassy slope, some sheep and a windmill.

Ghosts... I fight against being psychic, but my very first job, aged sixteen, was in a Georgian house, and as the boss was away I was on my own. Each morning as I opened up, I’d see a young man with red hair and a green
corduroy jacket leaning over the bannister, as if he was looking for the postman. I’d say ‘Good morning’ but as he never replied I felt embarrassed, and stopped looking up at him. Then, one day, there was a letter that wasn’t for us, so I put it on the mat upstairs. Well, when the boss came back I mentioned the young man upstairs. ‘What young man? We own this building,’ he said,  and went on about squatters. We went upstairs, and there was the letter still lying where I’d left it, and when he opened the door all that was in the room was our boxes. The young man didn’t exist! I was horrified. I couldn’t bear to go back. I got my mother to phone and say I was sick, and then I resigned

Marsali: Inspector Faro gets to meet Madeleine Smith, and you use the Tam Elidor novels and your non-fiction books to explore real Scottish crime. If you could interview one person involved in one of these, who would it be?
Alanna: Yes, the Madeleine Smith book was Murder in Paradise.  It was another of those crossroad times. Faro was moving towards retirement, and he’d met Imogen, and I wasn’t sure what to do with him next, then I read this book about Madeleine Smith, and how she went on to model for Rossetti, and married his manager, and I thought, ‘What a wonderful story for Faro.’ Unfortunately, it was 1860, so I made it Faro’s first case, when he’s just a constable. I think I’d like to meet Madeleine Smith – I’ve read all the trial notes and papers, and though the verdict was that Scottish Not Proven, I think that she did it.

Marsali:            Another of your series characters is Annie Kelty – tell us about her.
Alanna:             Oh, yes, Annie Kelty was in three books I wrote for a US educational publisher, who specialised in books for adults with limited reading ability. The first one was for a reading age of 8-10. The linking theme was that Annie, an antiquarian bookseller’s daughter, was searching for the mother who’d mysteriously disappeared when she was a child.

Marsali:            Through your long career you’ve been active in writer organisations – how did that come about?
Alanna: I was a founder member of the Scottish Association of Writers – the only founder member remaining. I’m now honorary president. This year I adjudicated the Historical Novel Award. I’m also  member of the Scottish Crime Writers’ Association, and I’m on the committee of Bloody Scotland. I really enjoy that – I love working with writers. I feel I was given that talent, and it’s not for me to keep, but to share, like the Greeks, pouring some of the wine back into the ground.

Marsali: Alanna Knight, MBE! Tell us about your day at the palace.
Alanna: It was wonderful! I was disappointed it wasn’t the Queen, but Prince William was absolutely charming. He asked me what I wrote, and said how much he loved Edinburgh, and he was fascinated that I was writing The Balmoral Incident. I sent him a copy, I hoped Kate might read it, and got a lovely letter back. My boys were in the second row as I went up to be invested, and they teased, ‘Hope you said we were at St Andrew’s too!’ Alistair was there as well – it’s a family tradition.

Marsali: You’ve just released Rose no 8 and Inspector Faro no 16: what’s next?
Alanna: Well, I’m going to do a research trip in Orkney. I want to have Rose and Faro meeting there, at a family occasion, and of course there’ll be a crime, which they’ll investigate together. Then, in June, I’ve been invited to Newcastle University, to present a paper on Hadrian’s Wall. It’s at a conference called ‘Reading the Wall.’ Way back, I wrote a historical novel called Lament for Lost Lovers (Dead Man’s Moon in Kindle), set in 1969, about a centurion and a tribal princess who’d run away together. They’d been caught and killed by her father, but there was a prophecy that when men walked on the moon they’d be reunited. I wrote about that to the conference organisers, and didn’t expect a reply, but I got one by return of post. I’ve never presented a paper at a University before, but it was where I worked, and where I met Alistair, so it’ll be nice to go back

Alanna Knight, thank you.
For a full list of Alanna’s books please visit:
Marsali Taylor  grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland’s scenic west side as a newly-qualified teacher of French, English and Drama. After writing plays for her classes to perform in the local County Drama Festival - a number of these are published by DramaWorks - Marsali moved on to crime fiction, and has now published four novels in the Cass Lynch series, about a liveaboard Shetland yachts skipper. A qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, particularly women’s history, Marsali has also written about women's suffrage in Shetland, and women ambulance drivers on the Russian Front in WWI. She's a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

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