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Friday 2 August 2019

Dot Marshall-Gent talks with Joy Ellis


Joy Ellis grew up in Kent.  She moved to London to take up an apprenticeship at the legendary Constance Spry Flower Shop in Mayfair before opening her own florists. 
Undaunted by the loss of her business during the 1980s recession, Joy was employed in a series of different occupations before landing a dream job for any bibliophile when she was appointed manager of a book shop. 
Joy now writes full-time and in June her latest novel
Five Bloody Hearts made the Amazon Best Sellers list on   She is a 2019 APA Audie Awards finalist in the Thriller and Suspense category for her novel Their Lost Daughters. Superbly narrated by Richard Armitage, this second novel in the Jackman and Evans series was described as “a major hit for Audible” and was also short-listed at the British Book Awards (The Nibbies). 

Dot: Hi Joy, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People.  I have so many things I would like to ask you about but let me begin with your latest book.  I was delighted to discover that Five Bloody Hearts gives DCI Matt Ballard and DS Liz Haynes a second outing.  In 2017, when they appeared in Beware the Past, they became your third sleuthing duo working in the Fenland Constabulary.  Did you have any idea when the first Nikki Galena thriller, Crime on the Fens, was published that it was heralding not one but three series?
Joy: Hi Dot, thank you for taking the time to do this, it’s much appreciated. Well, it had always been my intention to have a fictional Fenland police force and have several towns in the area that were covered by different divisions. Although there would always be links, as in the forensic team that would cover the whole county, it would give me the chance to ‘showcase’ some very different character detectives. It didn’t work out quite as I intended, but in my opinion, things couldn’t be better as they are! Three will be my limit! It gets confusing even now, sometimes leaving me wondering which DI a particular copper works for!

Dot: Five Bloody Hearts begins with Matt Ballard speeding towards a murder scene whilst worrying that this new case will delay his already overdue retirement plans.  He is one of a series of unorthodox, complex and sometimes conflicted police protagonists you have created.  Are these interesting aspects of their personality part of your plan for each book or do the characters reveal themselves as you write the narrative?
Joy: Their personal lives, emotions, and the way they deal with difficult situations is an integral part of the storyline. However, it has been known for my characters to take charge and do it their way, in which case, I go with it! I never argue with my character’s voices.

Dot:  The novel shows Ballard and his team juggling two pressing investigations and alludes to the other, more mundane but still important, cases that have to be dealt with.  Your writing addresses issues of workload, funding and changes in police powers; I find that this adds realism to your books without them ever becoming didactic.  How do you achieve this?
Joy: I cannot believe how difficult it must be in real life in the police force these days, and I think we have to accept that things are not as they were. We can’t avoid or ignore the budgets and the restrictions placed upon our officers by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), but a mention is enough. I am writing a mystery to entertain, not bore the socks off the readers. I like to use those hindrances to add to the angst of the detectives and make them work harder. These issues are part of how the police work today, so they are necessary for realism, but not laboured to death!

Dot: Five Bloody Hearts also explores wider social issues.  One that emerges within the first few pages involves migrants from different areas of Eastern Europe.  You describe their different cultural perspectives and aspects of their lives and language.  How do you go about researching subjects like this for a new novel?
Joy: Where I live has a very high Eastern European population, because of the work on the fields and in the food processing plants. The local papers are full of articles that help, then I follow them up by sourcing comments on the internet, and that can give a huge cross-section of opinions. I also read the local police reports and county court case listings to gauge specific crimes. Lastly, I talk to people, and some of the stories I get told are too unbelievable to put in a book.

Dot:  The Fenland Constabulary may be fictional but the Fenlands in which they are set is very real and links all of your work and the brooding misty marshlands complement the psychological aspects of your writing.  Would you say something about the importance of the Lincolnshire Fens in your work as an inspiration, a setting and a character in its own right?
Joy: The Fens are certainly my main character. All my books stem from walking the fen lanes and being by the rivers and the marshes. The big skies, the mists, the high winds that tear across the flatlands, they all inspire and guide the stories. There are massive areas where there is no signal for your phone, even in some of the towns. Satnav refuses to find you. Some of the lanes wind across the fen fields and go nowhere; they simply stop in a muddy field. And there are times, up on the sea banks, when you think you are gazing into infinity, all sense of perspective gone, as you stare along a straight path that disappears into the horizon. It’s a strange landscape and it inspires even stranger inhabitants. In short, perfect for murder.

Dot:  Matt Ballard may be pondering retirement, but you have other fascinating characters like John Carson in Fire on the Fens and Beth Cartwright in Guide Star who have already left careers on the front line.  John and Beth respond very differently to the reality of growing older, and they both make surprising choices which might be regarded as challenging stereotypes associated with aging – do you agree and is this intentional?
Joy: Intentional? Oh yes. I love strong, older characters. Their histories and their expertise are priceless for the stories. Another character of a certain age is Eve Anderson; her take on retirement has involved shooting a criminal and using her particular skills to hunt a murderer. I have to put myself in this age-bracket and sincerely believe we are a different breed to our parents. Not a soul I know is content to grow old gracefully, and I’ll drink to that. I wear the clothes I want to wear, I still wade in and tackle jobs that used to be reserved for the man about the house. Drain blocked? Okay, where’s the rods? etc, etc. My partner, until sustaining a recent shoulder injury, enjoyed an hour of Body Combat or Body Attack at the gym of an evening, and could leave some of the youngsters gasping for breath. Yes, a different breed.

Dot: I’m sure I’m not alone in agreeing with you about that, and speaking of difference, I mentioned your stand-alone novel of Guide Star.  The book differs from your others because it has no obvious crime, yet the interrogation of characters’ minds drives the plot every bit as much as the police pursuits and murder investigations of your detective series.  Did you deliberately seek to move away from the more familiar crime fiction format when you began to write it, and do you envisage writing any similar books in the future?
Joy: I loved writing Guide Star. It was an idea that I had many years ago about overcoming life-changing trauma. I believe in the strength of the human will to carry on, even if the life they face is very different to the one they had planned. It also encapsulated the fact that there is always more than one victim when something happens to a loved one. It was always intended to be a police orientated book, and as I had a fascination for Urban Exploration and decay photography, I managed to amalgamate the two ideas. I can certainly imagine writing another unorthodox book at some point, if I discovered a subject that caught my imagination as much as the life of Stella North.

Dot: Before you were a published author, Joy, you enjoyed a career that was brim-full with variety and interest.  How does your wide-ranging experience of work influence your writing?
Joy: Looking back, life threw me into some incredible situations, both very good and pretty bad, and you never forget how you coped, what you enjoyed, and the people you met on your journey. Somehow these occurrences, jobs and people find their way into the books, sometimes intentionally, and often without me even realising. I believe I’ve been very lucky, even if it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time, to have been presented with such a variety of experiences. I think to be able to write from the heart about your characters feelings and the way they deal with things, you have to have been there, lived through both heart-break and joy. Plus, doing multiple kinds of work gives you a plethora of material to use in the books without the aid of Wikipedia!

Dot: Following on from the previous question, when did you begin writing, what prompted your decision to write full-time and why did you choose the crime fiction genre?
Joy: I’ve written stories since I was a kid. My mum kept some of them and when she died I found them, stuff I didn’t even remember. She died before my books were published, and that’s a real sadness, she would have been so happy about it. I retired early because of a knee injury, and at the time I was a book shop manager, and the shop was on two levels with a stock room only accessed by a steep staircase. Not funny! At this time my partner Jacqueline was about to retire from the police force, so we moved from Surrey to the Fens, and I started writing in earnest. Jacquie is a highly decorated officer, having been awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, so you can guess why I chose police procedural crime fiction as a genre. An in-house consultant? Perfect!

Dot:  Several of your books are now available as audio recordings and I particularly like Richard Armitage’s portrayal of DI Rowan Jackman.  I also found Henrietta Meire’s interpretation of the Nikki Galena books and Anthony Ferguson’s narration of Beware the Past enjoyable and accessible.  How have you been involved in this process, and what did you think of these productions?
Joy: Richard Armitage IS Jackman as far as I’m concerned. He is perfect. I love the way he manages my myriad of characters and gives them all a voice of their own. Such a talent, and he’s a lovely guy too. I love audiobooks, and when I’m writing and swap series from Nikki Galena to Jackman for instance, I listen to the last in the series to bring me back into the zone, so to speak. I have been to Audible and when they did a film shoot for a TV advert for Their Lost Daughters, I was invited along and did an interview with Richard.  I don’t like the over-used word awesome, but heck, it was awesome! I love the other series too and Henrietta and I chat on Facebook. I find the spoken word such a wonderful way of giving life to your characters, and for me, it makes everything about writing seem so real. It’s a dream come true.

Dot:  That’s marvellous and, by the way, congratulations on being nominated in this year’s APA Audie and British Book Awards for Their Lost Daughters, what a wonderful achievement.  Which brings me to another observation - you are such a prolific writer, Joy, I’ve read that you can complete a book in three to four months and that you start work at 6.00 am.  I know that you have a love of flowers and motorcycles but does your schedule allow you to enjoy these passions or any other interests?
Joy: I do write in the early mornings, and also late at night, but mid-day and afternoons I’m useless. Mind turns to mush. And I find the day gets in the way, so much to do just doing all the household stuff we all have to cope with, and four dogs need quite a bit of attention too. As to pastimes, I am a pastel artist and I do try to find a little down time for that. I’ve always been artistic but only discovered pastels about three years ago.  It’s the one time when I don’t wander into my parallel universe of the Fenland Constabulary, and instead I immerse myself totally in colour and texture. Flowers will always be a great passion, and no matter what is happening, I do displays for our village church flower festival every year. Motorbikes belong in my past now; dodgy knees and a new hip preclude doing the things that Marie Evans does! To be honest, apart from walking the dogs, writing is both my full-time occupation and my hobby. I love writing, and I hope that comes over in the books. If I didn’t love writing the books, how could I expect anyone to love reading them?

Dot: Absolutely, and your enthusiasm is clearly evident in the novels.  It’s been a great pleasure talking with you, Joy, and before we finish can you tell us what you are working on at the moment and when we can expect to see more thrilling mysteries emerge from the Fens?
Joy: The 10th DI Nikki Galena, Fen Series, Darkness on the Fens, is to be published on 16th July! The next book will be a Jackman, and I’m already over half way through that. Because of an Audible Exclusive arrangement on the Jackman series, I will then go straight into Jackman book  #7. After that I have an idea in my head for Matt Ballard, then it’s back to Nikki! Goodness me, I’ve just frightened myself looking at that workload! Oh well, I did say I liked writing, didn’t I?

The interview between Joy and Richard Armitage can be accessed here
              DI Nikki Galena & DS Joe Easter

1. Mask Wars  (2010 (aka Crime on the Fens)
2. Shadowbreaker
(2011)(aka Shadow Over the Fens)
3. Hunted on the Fens
4. Killer on the Fens
5. Stalker on the Fens
6. Captive on the Fens

7. Buried on the Fens
8. Thieves on the Fens
9. Fire on the Fens

 I Rowan Jackman & DS Maria Evens

1. The Murderer's Son ()
2. Their Lost Daughters
3. The Fourth Friend
4. The Guilty Ones
5. The Stolen Boys

Detective Matt Ballard

1. Beware the Past (
2. Five Bloody Hearts
Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s
College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.

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