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Sunday, 4 June 2017

Martin Edwards, Cathy Ace, Frances Brody and Ann Cleeves

Jill Amadio catches up with Martin Edwards, Cathy Ace, Frances Brody and Ann Cleeves
at the Malice Domestic Conference 2017

Four Brits enveloped by 550-odd enthusiastic Americans -  325 of them readers, the remainder authors -- might tend to get lost in the crowd but not if your name is Ann Cleeves, Frances Brody, Cathy Ace, and Martin Edwards. Crossing the pond to a Washington D.C. suburb – although Welshwoman Cathy braved the border from her current home in Canada – the authors were on hand the weekend of April 17 to attend Malice Domestic. One of the most popular crime writing conferences in the States, it also beckons hordes of readers who swarm the host hotel and bookroom, snapping up their favorite authors’ latest offerings. In fact, these fans are treated with great appreciation and one is chosen annually as a Fan Guest of Honor.

What do our intrepid Brits do before, during, and after their flying trips to America? They’ve all made friends over here and often stay on with them for a few day friends after the conference, hare off to book clubs and bookstore signings, or hurry back home to what one of them calls the best country in the world.

Martin was honored this year at Malice’s with the prestigious Poirot Award, presented to those who have made outstanding contributions to the genre. ‘Outstanding’ barely scratches the surface of this unassuming g man’s prolific fiction and non-fiction output that includes 65 or so short stories, true crime, thrillers, mystery series, standalones, and the editing of more than 30 anthologies. He wrote several text books during the course of his legal career including one called Managing Redundancies.
“I’ve been writing all my life in one form or another,” he said. More recently he wrote The Golden Age of Murder, a magnificent background study of revered writers such as Christie and Sayers and others who invented what the English call the modern detective story. Martin’s book has won three awards in the U.S. and shortlisted for a couple more including Britain’s Golden Dagger.  “I thought the book would be a small, niche project probably with a small press but Harper Collins picked it up, and it has sold really well from the start, particularly in the States where reception for the book has been absolutely tremendous”.

Admitting he wrote many, many drafts of Golden Age, and consulted friends, agents, and fellow writers regarding structure, he said that the biggest change during the several drafts was that he kept re-writing it, and using more and more the technique of the novelist.
“Interestingly,” he added, “I get more editorial input from my American publisher than my British one. Barbara Peters is a very, very good editor indeed and a big supporter of my work long before she published me..””
Now heading up the UK’s Crime Writers Association and elected president of The Detection Club in 2015, one becomes aware during an interview that Martin is a book in himself. How does he manage to produce such a massive outpouring of writing while until recently a partner in a law firm and still continuing his consulting business as a labor law solicitor?
“Evenings, weekends, during the holidays…”
“Your poor wife!” I could not resist interjecting.
“Yes, that’s a bit tricky. On the other hand, if I had a bad day at the office I could come home and kill someone.”

As a leading expert on employment law, known nationally and internationally, Martin worked on many high-profile cases, which helped inform only one of his books, Take My Breath Away. A psychological thriller with portions of political satire unknowingly provided by the behavior of Tony Blair, it is set in a London human rights law firm.
“But I most enjoy writing my Lake District series,” he said. “It is so beautiful. Barbara Peters (Poisoned Pen Press) pointed out that when Americans think of a British crime series they expect it to be in rural areas, and where I live is perfect in that respect. Traditional mysteries are more popular than ever, I’m told, and I am happy to keep one of my traditional series in the Lake District”.

Martin notes that he is lucky enough to live in the same county he was born and grew up in, mid-Cheshire, an area that is much under-estimated, he said, with more beautiful gardens per square mile than almost anywhere else, small and large.  For the past 20 years, he and his family – wife and two daughters -have lived in Lymm, a small village.

One of the highlights of the Malice Domestic convention was Martin being interviewed onstage by Cathy Ace. After they sat down in wingback chairs a maid appeared carrying a tea tray and set it down on the table between them. Cathy did the honors, pouring from a large silver teapot.  Their conversation before a standing-room only ballroom audience ranged from Martin’s books to his views on writing, and what he called his “rather nice success over a long period of time”.

Cathy, from Vancouver, Canada, is herself a great interview. Voluble, articulate, funny, and with no sign of losing her Welsh accent, she mines her rich background from an international marketing company she owned and operated out of London. Her career took her to foreign countries, providing settings and characters for later use in her books. Her life experiences included sharing a house at university with eight Welsh-speaking rugby players whose ‘ripe’ vocabulary,she knew, was not exactly appropriate for writing cosy-style mysteries.
Like Martin, Cathy wrote non-fiction for years, post-graduate marketing text books while teaching at university, nine books in all, and they sold well, especially in China. When she retired, and switched to writing mysteries she thought she would write all day but the business of promoting her books, serving on boards, chairing Crime Writers of Canada, and keeping her five-acre garden in good shape as well as taking care of her husband and two dogs, time slips away faster than she’d like.
Each of her Cait Morgan crime novels – she began writing just five years ago -  is set in a different country: Hungary, Holland, France, Mexico, Wales, the wine country of Canada, and one aboard a cruise ship to Hawaii.  Book eight takes place in Las Vegas, and won Canada’s Bony Blithe Light Mystery Award in 2015, and was short-listed for it this year. Cathy has spent weeks if not months in foreign countries as part of her marketing career, living with locals and soaking up the culture. As a result her fictional characters and settings must, she feels, reflect the reality she became part of.
“If I can’t get under the skin of a place and its people, I can’t write the book. I need to feel the tension, to experience it. The Cait Morgan series focus on the history, the architecture, the food, and culture. Now, Cait is an
immigrant with immigrant experiences. When I meet Canadian readers, many of whom are immigrants themselves, they love the fact Cait is Welsh-Canadian. The WISE women in her other series, however, in contrast, are one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English, working as team as the home nations [in the UK] always have”.
Cathy points out that the Welsh immigrated significantly but were a lot less noisy about it than the Irish. “The Welsh assimilated in a different way as incomers, they don’t stand out as much. Americans get the difference between Irish and English, and Scottish and English but between the Welsh and English it’s a bit fuzzy. I am hoping to make a difference in that respect. Why did she choose Las Vegas for her sole book set in America?
“We’ve been there several times over 15 years and I specifically chose Vegas because it is a city that struggles with its identity. A city made up of people from elsewhere. There’s tension there. I knew I was able to use its cosmopolitan, diverse nature to allow me to speak about the American diaspora as I write about the Welsh diaspora.”  She explained that she knows many residents there who operate as though it’s just any city, that the people who work in Vegas, the schoolteachers, bankers, postmen and women, have their specific cultures diffused across the entertainment business. 

Cathy is also a veteran backstage visitor, knowing many of the dancers, performers, and staff, and listening to their hopes and dreams.
“So, the contrast is that mothers are desperate for their kids to go the college. They want to get out of Vegas and go somewhere else. I know a whole extended family from Serbia who are busboys and servers there. The husband is working two jobs, as is the wife. Ironically, they are living the American dream. Speaking of which I have observed that of the three English-speaking cultures, the Americans expect there to be a dream. The Canadians hope there will be a dream, and the British think you are foolish if you have a dream and if you do fulfill your dream, God forbid you pat yourself on the back in public about it”.

She said she had to work very hard on that book not to create caricatures, but characters. Her title, The Corpse with the Platinum Hair, won Canada’s annual Bony Blithe Award for light mysteries. It was challenging for two reasons. First, it was based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in that it’s a closed room mystery.  Secondly, was the approach, the tension that is in all her books, the differences between people while considering their different cultures with all their histories and the countries she has come to know.

On the other hand, award-winning classic mystery writer Frances Brody keeps Kate Shackleton, her fictional private investigator, in the UK and like her fellow authors knows that the smallest details of a story make the fiction ring true. Among the throngs of Malice Domestic attendees at the formal banquet I was still hoping to find Frances to set up a time to talk. Suddenly, a diminutive woman hurled herself at me and I instantly realized it was her. She’d found me, instead of the other way around. Happily, we agreed to meet the next day in the only quiet place in the hotel aside from one’s room.

The mezzanine where authors signed their books was empty. Everyone else was either still sleeping or attending the many panels.  We sat down to chat. Frances lives in Leeds and her books – eight so far - are mainly set in Yorkshire during the 1920s. But this output is swamped by her writing career in radio. She wrote many stories and plays for BBC Radio, scripts for television, and stage plays taken on tour. She wrote history and a drama series, plus a couple of soap operas.
“That structure, writing plays, became very helpful when I began to write novels,” she said. “I switched because I’d always wanted to write novels. That was always my plan

Her writing day begins around 10 a.m. “But if my deadline is close I begin a lot earlier because I am usually late”.  Research includes visiting locations in person, and one-on-one with local law agencies and others. She has spent time in America and feels at home here but her heart is in the Dales.  “I can still smell the lanolin from the shop”, she remarked, referring to the factory in her first crime novel, Dying in the Wool, in Bradford, the center of the woolen weaving industry. Frances was so fascinated with learning more about the mill town she resided in for a while she has brought the world of weaving into sharp, authentic focus along with exacting descriptions of the factory workers’ lives back then. Conditions in factories were pretty miserable in the post-World War I era, as well as dangerous. There were no safety regulations at the time and the massive machines and other equipment were primitive. In addition, the author has chosen to write about the huge social changes sweeping across the UK at the time.
“I think that whenever we write, everything we kind of have learned or believed can come through organically in the books.” Frances’ research with reference books such as the ABC Railway Guide and online is meticulous. One item caught her attention when North Carolina came up during her search for woolen mills while writing the first book.  “It’s interesting to me that there were the same sort of industries here and in the States, similarly in my third book which is set in a quarry. I think that may be among the reasons why Americans as well as British readers are kind enough to give me a great reception and I thoroughly enjoy every moment I spend here.”

She admits British authors tend to stereotype Americans and in the past found them more outgoing than her fellow countrymen. “But I have a feeling they [American} are not as outgoing as they used to be when I first came over. Not readers and authors but Americas in general.”

Recently in New Orleans to attend the Bouchercon writers conference, Frances spent a few extra days staying with an old friend and soaking up the atmosphere in the likelihood she’ll set a mystery in the city famous for its French quarter and Mardi Gras. When she goes back home, she’ll head for the Bronte Parsonage, built in 1778, in Haworth, West Yorkshire to quiet down.
“It’s been a long, long time since I was there and they have done lots of things to it in recent years.”

Fellow author Ann Cleeves is as every bit as unassuming and thoughtful with answers to questions as Frances, despite the gigantic success of Ann’s books into television, the BBC’s Shetland and ITV’s Vera, shooting her up into a prominence she never imagined. The two award-winning series stars Brenda Blythen as Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, a bit grumpy and a bit of a tippler, and Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez as taciturn and quiet as Vera is witty and garrulous, have become world-famous for their acting. Brenda’s Vera is one of the most endearing characters in today’s crime literature while the stalwart Henshall/Perez who lives on the remote, almost-barren isles of Shetland with their mysterious, wild beauty and eccentric characters, fits the dour Scot role perfectly.

From the beginning of her mystery writing career Ann, originally from Barnstaple, Devon where her father was the village head teacher, has chosen nature reserves for her settings. Even Vera’s town, set in County Durham in the desolate Northumberland moors, teaches readers and viewers about local flora and fauna. Indeed, the first book was written on the bird conservancy of Fair Isle, closer to Sweden than Scotland. She was serving as an information officer after working as a cook when she met her ornithologist husband, Tim, on the tiny, tidal island of Hilbre. They were the only residents. Faced with plenty of spare time, Ann wrote her first crime series about a naturalist and his wife, George and Molly, admitting some of the books were truly not up to snuff. The book tours brought her to Massachusetts, where she still has friends. 
“I’m not very good at plotting, but I think if you are writing a mystery the plot is set out for you in such a way that you usually have a small number of suspects and a resolution to tie it all up. I created some quite interesting characters but then I wasn’t sure what to do with any of them until I killed one off”!
Her creations come from living inside her characters’ heads to see what they are thinking, and listening to people talk.

Nowadays, it is not surprising that Ann’s appearances at book fairs attract people from all over the UK and elsewhere.  At the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival, she had a thousand people show up. She attributes part of the vast crowd to the fact that the last episode in the Shetland series was about the aftermath of a sexual assault
“The TV team are very sensitive”, she said. “They talked to rape crisis people and survivors. The only thing they were asked not to show was the attack itself”.
“Having one of the Vera episodes shortlisted for an Edgar [the Mystery Writers of America ‘s top award] was lovely, especially when the scriptwriter, Martha Hillier, came over for the event. Gabby Chiappe is another of my favorite scriptwriters and we’ve become friends. She has just written her first feature film, ‘Their Finest’”.
Ann answers all her emails herself. One came from a reader in America who wrote, “I just watched the series of Shetland…why didn’t the cops just shoot the guy? They must have had guns”. Ann had to explain that British police don’t routinely carry guns, not even in large cities.

Ann is invited to offer a lot of input for the Vera television series.

“I travel up to Northumberland, up to the Scottish border, helping them and Brenda experience a variety of backgrounds because now the scriptwriters are writing new stories now rather than adaptations from the books. I know that Vera’s character is not as I wrote her, as sort of a bag lady”.

Luckily, Brenda has stepped into those shoes with her own style, and plays her differently by blending in characteristics without offending anyone.
“After location-seeking I take them back to our house where Tim cooks up a huge curry, or to a friend’s house so they can talk to someone who lives there”.

Input is less for the Shetland series. “It was a bit like giving up a child for adoption, but once you hand it over you can’t meddle.  Her great success had led to far more travelling including Tanzania which she has visited before and used public transport. These days, her travel is a little more luxurious although she regrets how some of it takes her away from writing and her six grandchildren.
“They live very close so I do lots of childcare’.

She often leaves Tim behind. He’s retired, thrives on birdwatching, and grows vegetables. He has an allotment big enough, Ann notes, to grow “a few”. 

Success has also brought her a writing room at her small, modest 1930s home in Whitley Bay. Until very recently she wrote at the kitchen table. “But after Tim retired he kept interrupting and wanting to make me cups of tea so I finally got a room set up in our loft where I can listen to BBC Radio in the background. At this time of crazy news in the States it is very reassuring to have the BBC telling me what is actually happening”.

Topping off her tours this year are trips to Estonia, Romania and later, Norway. Her books have been translated into 30 languages. The sole non-fiction she’s produced is a bestseller coffee table tome on Shetland. A local photographer took the pictures and it includes poetry in the difficult-to-understand Shetland dialect. “The islands belonged to Scandinavia until the fifteenth century, so I had to get a Shetland poet to translate it”.

Like Martin, Cathy, and Frances, Ann puts much stock in the practice of writing. ” I’m glad I didn’t have early success because I needed time to practice and learn what I style I wrote in. Today, new writers aren’t really giving themselves that time, especially when they find an agent and a publisher and are pressured to write big, successful books after a large advance. There is no nurturing of authors as there used to be”.

Ann’s first Vera book, The Crow Trap, was responsible for her being discovered and plunged into her current popularity.
“It’s a lovely story. An ITV producer, Elaine Collins, was looking for a book to read while on holiday and found a secondhand bookstore in north London. Many of my early books were remaindered, and there was The Crow Trap”.

Elaine became executive producer on both of the TV series. She’s married to Peter Capaldi who plays Doctor Who.

Ann Cleeves’ latest Vera book launching in September is The Seagull, set in Whitley Bay and promises to reveal more about Vera’s deceased father and his background. Stay tuned.

Jill Amadio hails from Cornwall, U.K., like the character in her crime series. Amadio was a reporter in Spain, Colombia, Thailand, and the U.S.  She is a true crime author, ghosted a thriller, writes a column for Mystery People ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America,  Sisters in Crime, Mystery People and the Crime Writers Association UK. She lives in Southern California.
For a review of Jill’s latest book
       Digging up the Dead
Published by by Mainly Murder Press 2016
        click on the title

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