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Friday 3 April 2020

Interview with Sally Spedding

Dot Marshall-Gent talks to Sally Spedding

Sally Spedding has been a writer since her youth.  She studied Sculpture at Manchester and St. Martin’s, London, before becoming an exhibiting artist and full-time teacher.  During this period, she continued to write and, when she won an international short story competition, caught the attention of a literary agent. 
In 2001 her debut novel,
Wringland, was published. 
Sally has twice won the international Welsh Poetry Competition and has also received the prestigious H.E. Bates award for her short story,
Strangers Waiting, which features in her collection of the same name.
In addition to her poetry and short stories,
Sally has written several stand-alone novels, a trilogy featuring
ex-Detective Inspector John Lyon, and
The Devil’s Garden, published at the end of 2019, is the second novel in her recent Delphine Rougier series. 
She is an active member of
Mystery People and Crime Cymru, and also belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association, assessing manuscripts sent in by those entering its Debut Dagger Award and/or seeking publication.

Dot: Hi Sally and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People.  When I read your novels there is something mysterious, even spiritual, about your portrayal of nature and animals, including the human species.  Their stories unfold as part of a spectacular, often brutal, cosmos.  Are you aware of this cross-creative engagement and sense of spirituality when you are writing?
Sally: My initial response is to say I’m not aware of the ‘cross creative engagement and sense of spirituality’ when writing but have been and still am hugely interested in the Cathar believe of the transmigration of souls.  Of Metempsychosis.

Dot: That sounds fascinating, please would you say a little more about it.
Sally: In Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie’s book, Montaillou, the Cathar peasant shepherd, Pierre Maury, is interrogated by Dominican thugs in what they called the ‘Tower of Justice’ in Carcassonne.  When he was asked what he was doing on a particular day, he replied, “Out looking for my shoe,” meaning a shoe he’d cast when he had been a horse in a previous life. [ A full description of this incident can be found in ]

Dot: Ah yes, I read on your website that Ladurie’s book was one that had most influenced you.
Sally: That’s right.  Twenty years ago, on a trip with my family, we passed the tourist attraction, the Grotte de Lombrives near Tarascon.  The family wanted to stop and look inside but I began to shake, and I begged my husband to drive on.  Later I found out from my Dutch aunt that during the Spanish Inquisition Sephardic Jews were on the run and some were walled up alive in the cave.  I am severely claustrophobic! I hate lifts, flying and so on. 

It also turns out that my middle name, Frenkel, comes from Franco-Raphaelite, the name given to the branch of Jews in Spain who were targeted by the Inquisition.  Ladurie’s book exposes the duplicity and betrayal of a so-called Christian church who finally destroyed this gentle, fascinating community in the Plateau de Sault, in the Ariège close to the Pyrenees, an achingly beautiful part of the world.

Dot: That explains why in many of your novels beauty and terror coexist.
Sally: Absolutely, and it reflects my own experiences.  I used to teach at a secondary school, and I can remember a dreadful incident involving one of my best pupils.  The student was out walking when he was confronted by a group of yobs who chased him into what was considered to be a lovely, picturesque woodland.  Here he tragically drowned in a pond.  We were in France at the time and I’d had a dream about a drowning that very same night.  I came home knowing that something bad had happened.

Dot: And it is not only the nightmarish and idyllic that are juxtaposed in life and reflected in your work.  Your writing also weaves together past and present? 
Sally:  Yes, a good example would be my novel Behold A Pale Horse.  The narrative combines a contemporary strand set in London and the South of France in 1983, and also a thirteenth century strand located during the purge of the French Templars where, again, God seems absent.  The desperate scratchings on the walls of Chinon Castle, in which the knights were imprisoned, say it all. 

Dot: I am always impressed by the landscapes in your books.  Could you say something about the importance of place and mood for you as a writer?
:     Setting is crucial and is, in my work, an overriding ‘character.’  Annie Proulx once said, “Get the setting right, and your characters will be in the right place.” 
Mood is important too, created by colours or lack of colour, and by weather, which can affect the psyche. 
Wringland, originally called Snare, was my first novel and part of a two-book deal.  It was written from my sense of grief at leaving Wales for Northampton.  I used a ruler to find the nearest bit of sea and it was where the River Nene divides Norfolk from Lincolnshire - the endless flat Fens and what Hilaire Belloc described as the “vague intermingling of mud and tide.”  This landscape provided the mood and setting for Wringland, but it was only after I’d finished writing the book that I read Belloc’s Hills and the Sea, the collection that described his travels.  Belloc mentions a man who is cleaning the bridge at Sutton Bridge and when it was done, he writes: 

“…the gates opened, and everyone went on into the ‘Wringland.’” 

Weirdly, that name is Old High German for ‘snare.’  Strange or what? 

I also met several people, who had lived at Sutton Bridge, and who said it had been haunted.  One woman even told me that parents still told their children to be home by dusk.Incidentally, our brand-new house, located about seventy miles from Sutton Bridge, in Great Billing was haunted and I nearly died.  It is a long story, but nothing’s wasted and goes into my writing!  The house was built on a medieval graveyard, apparently, so it pays to do your homework when you choose somewhere to live!  We were so keen to sell the place that, when it went on the market, I had to lie about the location! 

Dot: Scary, but a great example of something that looks benign but then turns out to be dangerous.
Sally: Exactly. Mark Z. Danielewski’s remarkable novel House of Leaves is about another seemingly ‘normal’ suburban home in Succoth Avenue, Virginia. It turns out to be a killer, built on a site going back to Mesolithic times.

Dot:  I’d like to focus next on your characters.  They are often unreliable, invariably flawed and sometimes deeply scarred by the past.  Darkness often threatens to overwhelm them, both mentally and physically, and although they may get through the narrative they rarely arrive at a neat ending.  What directs you as an author to these unsettling and surreal situations?
Sally: All that I can say is that ‘nothing is wasted.’  However, I never write about anyone I know.  To me that is lazy, and also possibly risky, legally speaking.  But I have been ‘round the block’ with so many experiences that inevitably things like hardship, betrayal and loss can’t be ignored.  My familial history on my Dutch/German father’s side is heart-breaking, and letters to his parents - who’d escaped the death camps – after he’d gone back to find who might have survived, mention betrayal on a big scale.

Dot:  That reminds me of several of your characters whose experiences shape them and who develop as the narrative unfolds.  I’m thinking about Delphine Rougier who seemed an unlikely candidate to become a police officer at the beginning of Downfall.
Sally: I’ve always, like many people, had a dream – something to cling to – which somehow keeps one going, and in my Delphine Rougier series, of which Downfall is the first, she longs to quit her lowly hotel cleaning job and become a gendarme.

Dot: I loved the way her character develops during the course of the narrative.  By the end she is battle-hardened and much more aware of people’s duplicity.  Your other series features ex-Detective Inspector John Lyon. Could you say something about the Lyon trilogy?
Sally: In the first book, The Nighthawk, John Lyon from Nottingham, innocently strays into the dangerously deceiving world of the seemingly attractive and vulnerable, Karen Fürst.  Karen, a disabled woman, harbours a dark secret from her past and Lyon, who still feels guilty that he couldn’t stop a young colleague’s suicide, tries to right that wrong by helping her.  Bad move!  The novel is set in the Eastern Pyrenees where we’ve had a house for 30 years, the surroundings are incredible – beautiful but treacherous – just like people!

Dot:  And you have other threatening characters whose memories of a dark past intrude into the present but in more familiar surroundings.
Sally:  Yes.  Cut to the Bone is set in contemporary Coventry, where luxury living is divided by a mere strip of tarmac from London overspill and deprivation.  A newly single mum must try and keep her little family, who are forced to live there, safe from the middle-class, good-looking, gifted teenage violinist Louis Perelman.  Perelman is a boy whose fractured past has shaped him into a psychopath.  Again, beauty and terror.

Dot: You completed a final draft of Blood at Beltane at the beginning of March.  Are you able to tell us a little bit about it?
Sally: Blood at Beltane is the fourth in the Delphine Rougier series and when my publisher realises its length, he will probably shake his head!  If I grovel enough, however, it will come out after the next one (provisionally called Fatal) which is set mostly in the Plâteau de Sault where Delphine, who is now a lieutenant, stumbles across the remains of an illegal school for children who have been sent from the French colony of Réunion in the 60s and 70s to repopulate rural parts of France.  Here are people who will kill to keep their shocking secrets safe.
Blood at Beltane begins with a prologue foreshadowing a truly gruesome event.  Then a letter in June 2007, notifying Welsh poet and university lecturer, Ifor Griffiths, that his application to locate and translate the work of the late Gaspard Lecroix, who lived in the Sarthe department, has been awarded £30,000. What Griffiths’ resentful partner and young son gradually learn is that he’s been in love with a French porn star since meeting her online the previous autumn.  A greedy, manipulative much younger woman, part of a strict, commercially successful Muslim family in Le Mans.  He really should have stayed at home!

Dot: I’m delighted to hear that Delphine has been promoted and that there are two more books in the pipeline - I look forward to reading them.  Meanwhile, my final question concerns How To Write A Chiller Thriller, which was published in 2014.  How did this non-fiction book come about?
Sally: I was commissioned by the then editor of the ‘The New Writer’ to put together a ‘How-to’ book for aspiring crime thriller writers.  Like all my books there is a link to it on my website – unless, that is, this interview has converted readers to try their hand at ‘cosy!

Dot:  Now there’s a challenge!  Well, Sally, thank you again for giving us an insight into your work - and for continuing to write ‘chiller thrillers’ that terrify and entertain in equal measure.

Sally’s suitably scary website address can be accessed via

Books by Sally
DI John Lyon
The Nighthawk (2018)
Bloodlines (2018
Death Knell (2019)

Delphine Rougier
Downfall (2019)
The Devil’s Garden (2019)

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.  

1 comment:

  1. Huge thanks to Dot Marshall-Gent for her generous and insightful appreciation of my crime chillers. She does so much for other writers too, and for that we are all grateful!