Peter Lovesey talks with Anthea Fraser
Anthea Mary Fraser announced at the age of five that she wanted to be an author. However, despite having been a prolific writer in school, she did not become a professional writer until after her two daughters were born.
Her first professional publications were short stories.
She has created two mystery novel series, the first featuring 'Detective Chief Inspector David Webb' with the Shillingham police. There are 16 novels in this series, the last twelve of which bear titles based on the lyrics to the traditional English folk song Green Grow the Rushes, O.
The second series features 'Rona Parish', a biographer and freelance journalist.
Peter: Congratulations, Anthea! Writers everywhere will be in awe of your achievement, particularly as you’ve ranged across romantic suspense and the supernatural as well as your crime fiction.
Anthea: Even in those other genres there was always an element of crime, and after a fairly lengthy police procedural series, I decided to approach it from the angle of those to whom it was happening, probing the emotions involved both in committing the crime and solving it – whydunnit rather than who. Families, in particular, fascinate me, and the nuances between them.
Peter: I believe you were creating stories even as a child.
Anthea: Yes, my greatest influence was my mother, herself a published author, and it was because of her that I wanted to write myself. My ambitions never changed. I recently came across a diary in which, at the age of nine, I’d noted: ‘Today I wrote my first thriller – The Old Clock Tower.’ Sadly, no trace of this epic remains.
Peter: Did your education at Sandford School and Cheltenham Ladies’ College instil a love of writing?
Anthea: The headmistress of Sandford was somewhat eccentric, addressing her pupils as ‘lovey’ and was more like a grandmother than a teacher. She took a great interest in my writing and kept me supplied with an endless succession of what we called rough notebooks, which I filled with poems and short stories.
It was in the house library at Cheltenham that I discovered crime fiction, and overdosed on Agatha, Dorothy L Sayers, Leslie Charteris and many others.
Peter: You married Ian in 1956 and some years passed before you were published. Bringing up your two daughters must have come first. But at some stage you took a course at the London School of Journalism. How did that influence you as a writer?
Anthea: I read a short story in Good Housekeeping and thought I could do better than that. I knew I had to prove it, which was why I took the LSJ course in short stories and it was invaluable in teaching me discipline. Over several months I received fifteen printed lessons on dialogue, plot, characterisation etc. When the children went to bed for an hour after lunch I’d do my homework at the kitchen table. It must have been lesson 8 or 9 before I was actually allowed to write a story and I chose a ghost one, The Man in the Raincoat. Flicking through Honey magazine at the hairdresser’s, I spotted a short story competition and sent it off. It was listed as a runner-up, on the strength of which Rosemary Gould, of the Laurence Pollinger literary agency, wrote to offer me their services. The incredible thing was that my mother’s books had been published through Pearn, Pollinger and Higham before the agency split into three!
Peter: Your first novel, Designs of Annabelle (1971) was with Mills & Boon, notoriously difficult publishers to please.
Anthea: After a year or two of writing for women’s magazines, Rosemary suggested I try a novel, and insisted it should be romantic as that was what ‘my public’ would expect. I asked if I could have a little murder at the end but was firmly refused. I never want to become a regular writer of romance, and when M&B turned down one book because – horror of horrors! –the hero was divorced, I decided enough was enough.
Peter: Laura Possessed, in 1974, was clearly a major advance for you, selling to America as well as Britain. Would you like to say how it came to be written?
Anthea: Just as I’d decided on a break from romance, another competition gave me the perfect opportunity. It was for the best crime novel by a woman, to be published in both hard and soft-back here and in the States. So, I wrote another ghost story, Laura Possessed, which was shortlisted and then accepted by three of the four sponsoring publishers. That was how Laura saw the light of day and as The Exorcist was currently popular, I was advised to stick with the supernatural.
Peter: Do unseen forces hold a special interest for you?
Anthea: Yes, the paranormal fascinated me and still does. Due to the success of Laura, I was asked by the Society of Women Writers and Journalists to speak on the supernatural, with questions afterwards. Since I knew nothing at all about it, I spent months researching possession, witchcraft, time travel, etc, and that research stood me in good stead for another six books.
Peter: I believe Collins declined Breath of Brimstone. Why was that?
Anthea: Because it featured the devil! However, Dodd, Mead, Corgi, FA Thorpe, Severn House and Soundings later took it.
Peter: A Shroud for Delilah in 1984 was another breakthrough book, your first with Collins Crime Club, and introduced Chief Inspector David Webb. It had terrific reviews. Booklist called it “a superbly crafted, riveting, page-turner of a book.”
Anthea: When interest in the supernatural began to wane, Rosemary suggested I switch genres, and as I’d always loved crime fiction and the paranormal books had a crime element in them, it was the natural choice.
I had written about a third of A Shroud for Delilah without any police involvement at all, because everything I knew about procedure was gleaned from TV. And then I had another incredible stroke of luck. At a dinner party I was seated next to a real-life detective inspector and my husband Ian told him I was writing a crime novel. He invited us both to spend a whole day with him at Snow Hill police station, and promised he’d answer my questions. He could hardly have expected I’d arrive with a list of 86 and a tape recorder. He gave me a copy of the instructions for new detectives arriving at a crime scene – gold dust! He was an enormous help throughout the whole series. Once I phoned him and said ‘I have to get the murderer into the house, even though it’s under surveillance. How can I do it without making the police look stupid?’ And he said, ‘Give me ten minutes. I’ll get the boys in and see what we can work out.’ And they came up with the ingenious solution that the radio battery gave out at the crucial moment.
Peter: Between 1987 and 1999 you wrote a wonderfully inventive series of twelve David Webb books based on the lines of “Green Grow the Rushes O”. It must have been a challenge fitting a police investigation around each of the quotes from the song.
Anthea: I never set out to do a mini-Sue Grafton. The verses had always intrigued me, particularly, for some reason The Nine Bright Shiners, and I wrote that with no intention of doing any others. Then I suddenly thought: suppose The Six Proud Walkers were members of a family? Gradually more and more ideas came, until eventually I realized I’d have to complete the set. Eleven that Went up to Heaven proved quite a challenge!
Peter: You served as secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association from 1986 for ten years and yet still managed to write more than a book a year (thirteen, I believe) in the same period. Was this the most demanding time of your writing career?
Anthea: I thoroughly enjoyed my ten years as CWA Secretary, and am grateful that it was pre-email. It was good to meet members and hear speakers after every Committee meeting, when all the Committee members stayed on for the general meeting. I don’t know that it made too many demands on my writing – in fact, it was my lifeline after Ian died.
Peter: I particularly remember how bravely you soldiered on.
Anthea: I couldn’t write for a year, but I had to keep going with correspondence, minutes etc, and then Liza Cody, bless her, literally bullied me into writing a story for the CWA anthology, and that got me back into the swing.
Peter: Ian was a warm and witty man well known to all of us crime writers, always at your side at conferences and social occasions.
Anthea: He thoroughly enjoyed everything to do with the CWA, especially meeting people whose books he’d been reading for years, and on one occasion had a long chat with Penny Wallace. Her father, Edgar Wallace, was one of Ian’s favourite authors, and Penny kindly sent him one of the Sanders of the Rivers series. At Dick Francis’s Diamond Dagger celebration at Saddlers’ Hall, Ian happened to be standing near the door when Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray arrived. Someone called to Dulcie, who veered off, leaving Michael and Ian facing each other. With his usual charm, Michael came forward with his hand out and said, ‘Michael Denison.’ Ian took it, and answered ‘Ian Fraser,’ to which Michael replied ‘Of course!’ Ian dined out on that for years.
Peter: In recent years you created Rona Parish, a journalist and biographer whose projects frequently lead her into unravelling crimes. Was this a deliberate attempt to get away from police investigation?
Anthea: I’d written sixteen of the Webb books and wanted a break, so I wrote a couple of stand-alones, Past Shadows and Fathers and Daughters, and relished the change of scene and characters. I’d not actually intended the final Webb book, The Twelve Apostles, to be the last in the series, but after a couple of years’ break forensic science had moved on, I’d lost contact with my Superintendent (as he was by then) and it would have been almost impossible to get back into the routine. So, I embarked on what started out as a third stand-alone, but decided almost at once that I was missing the comfortable feeling of writing a series and that the background and characters in this one could ‘have legs’. Which was how the Rona Parish series took shape. And this time, after ten books, I did take the conscious decision that the series had gone as far as it could and took care to tie up any loose ends.
Peter: Does this kind of story require different plotting skills?
Anthea: My main concern was that Rona shouldn’t keep stumbling over dead bodies, but that each case was
feasible. Her successes in solving cold cases occasionally caused resentment by the police, unlike the Murder She Wrote formula, where they would gratefully exclaim, ‘How lucky you happened to be there, Miss Fletcher!’
Peter: Any advice about research?
Anthea: The time-honoured advice to writers to write about what you know is difficult for crime-writers, so I’ve turned it around to know about what you write. Over the years I’ve built up my own reference library, though that didn’t prevent my family being asked such esoteric questions as to whether a body would fit in a bin-bag or how decapitation could appear accidental.
Peter: Did you get the answer to that last one?
Anthea: I visited a local gliding school and startled the instructor by asking if someone running full-tilt into the steel cable as a glider rose from the ground could be decapitated. He assured me that no one ever had been but agreed it was possible, which was all I needed to know.
Peter: Asking questions about murder takes some nerve sometimes.
Anthea: Certainly does. Once, I braced myself to attend a Forensic Science Society conference in Harrogate, and at lunch, finding myself next to a pathologist, took the opportunity of asking how he’d establish the time of death of a body found in a ditch, which, of course, I happened to be writing about. When he started discussing the gestation time of maggots, several people at the table seemed to lose their appetite. In one book, I wanted to check what time cows were brought in for milking, in order to establish an alibi. I picked a farm from the Yellow Pages, only to learn to my dismay that in winter, which it was in the book, they’re not put out in the fields at all. The farmer was obviously sorry for me, and really entered into the spirit of the thing. He told me modern farms have closed circuit TV in their cowsheds, to keep an eye on the animals. ‘You could have the murderer appearing on the screen!’ he said eagerly.
Peter: More than twenty of your novels are not in series, including five under the pen-name Vanessa Graham. You describe some as romantic suspense. Is it difficult to reconcile romance and crime?
Anthea: No, I didn’t find it particularly hard. I was reading and enjoying Mary Stewart’s books at the time, and she was my inspiration.
Peter: Although you sometimes invent fictional names for the places you use as settings it is no secret that Broadshire, where David Webb is based, is the real county of Wiltshire. A strong sense of place is a constant feature. Does the setting make the stories more real for you?
Anthea: Yes, setting is crucial, and I sometimes work on that before characters or plot. I have a very visual imagination and can follow my characters as they go from one point to another. I was influenced in this regard by the Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. The ‘old brownstone’ became so familiar and, most importantly, was exactly the same in every book, so that the reader felt at home there and could find his way from room to room. Although Broadshire was a made-up county, I was careful to use names for the towns and villages that fitted in with the locality, and drew copious maps of the county and the individual towns and villages. One of the problems in writing a series is that often there’s supposed to be a gap of only a few months between the end of one book and the beginning of the next, and I became very confused about which year it was. I solved the dilemma by inventing Broadshire Time; I established that the action of the first book, A Shroud for Delilah, took place in September BT1 (Broadshire Time 1). Events that had happened beforehand, such as when characters first met, I dated BT minus 1, and so on. Then in the second book, A Necessary End, it was January BT2. By this means I was able to keep track of such things as children’s ages and how long ago something had happened.
Peter: Are your characters ever drawn from people you know?
Anthea: Never. It’s more fun to invent them, and I have more control over them. I have a ‘Faces and Places’ file, in which I keep pictures of men and women torn out of newspapers or magazines – never anyone well known – and house interiors or village streets that could be incorporated into a future book. It’s quite useful to have them pinned up on the wall as I’m writing; I can look at them and think, ‘Now, how would they react in this situation?’
Peter: Have you ever based a plot on a real-life case?
Anthea: The short answer is no, but there were a couple of occasions which sparked an idea. One was the Jeremy Bamber case a few years ago. An apparently happy family – father, mother, daughter, and the daughter’s two children – were found murdered in the family home by the son, who claimed his sister must have done it because she was mentally disturbed. It turned out, of course, that it was he, Jeremy, who was the murderer. Relevantly, in this case, both he and his sister were adopted.
Peter: You said earlier that families fascinate you.
Anthea: They always have, the interplay between them, the jealousies and hidden tensions, and so on. Following on from this case, I wrote Six Proud Walkers, in which a seemingly happy family were killed, not all at once, but
one by one. It was totally different from the Bamber case, but what had caught my imagination was that the reality could be so different from appearances.
Peter: You mentioned a second case . . .
Anthea: That was a local one that took place some years ago. A young family had moved out to the country to escape the violence of the inner city. The two children went to a nearby school, the husband commuted daily to London, and the wife was left alone all day in an almost deserted village, since the pub, the shop and the school had all closed down, and the residents left early each morning to go to work. When she failed to collect the children one day, the alarm was raised, and she was found murdered. I don’t remember now any details of the murderer or his motive, but it gave me the idea of a village whose houses had been gentrified to such an extent that the villagers themselves couldn’t afford to buy them. Most of them were second homes, empty for a large part of the year, and a deep resentment built up among the villagers. And, of course, that led to murder.
Peter: Your fiftieth novel, Sins of the Fathers, begins with a marvellous twist guaranteed to intrigue and involve the reader for the rest of the book. Without giving too much away, can you say if this was also the idea that sparked the novel?
Anthea: Some time ago I had an idea for a short story to be called Away Day, in which a young man received a first-class rail ticket in the post with no message or explanation and which, when he went on that journey, caused him to be framed for murder. The story never got written but I reworked it for Sins of the Fathers.
Peter: It’s a beautifully plotted book, if I may say so, and demonstrates that your writing is as inventive as ever after fifty books. Finally, what has experience taught you that would be helpful to a new writer wanting advice?
Anthea: I don’t know that I’ve any new advice to offer, just to read as much and as widely as possible. Personally, I’ve never done ‘drafts’ but start every day mercilessly editing what I wrote the day before, to ensure the same ‘tone of voice’. In the early days I planned the whole book in advance, detailing events chapter by chapter. Then came the time when I was in such a hurry to start writing that I couldn’t be bothered to plan and jumped straight in. It was unnerving at first, and I kept finding a character I’d intended to kill in Chapter 3 was still around several chapters later, but it all worked out in the end and that’s basically how I write today.
Peter Lovesey was born in 1936, and attended Hampton Grammar School before going to Reading University to study fine art. He soon switched to English. National Service followed before Peter qualified as a teacher. Having already published The Kings of Distance, named Sports Book of the Year by World Sports, in 1969 he saw a competition offering £1,000 for a first crime novel and decided to enter. Wobble to Death won and in 1975 Peter became a full-time crime writer, winning awards including the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2000 in recognition of his career in crime writing. He is most well-known for his Inspector Peter Diamond series. There are 17 books in the series. The most recent being Beau Death. Click on the title to read the review.