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Monday 4 May 2020

Lesley Thomson

Lynne Patrick talks with Lesley Thomson

Lesley Thomson was born in 1958 and brought up in Hammersmith, West London, grew up in London. She went to Holland Park Comprehensive and graduated from Brighton University in 1981 and moved to Sydney, Australia. Her novel A Kind of Vanishing won The People's Book Prize in 2010.  Lesley has written eigtht books in her Detective’s Daughter series. The latest novel being Death of a Mermaid. Lesley combines writing with teaching creative writing at West Dean College. She lives in Lewes with her partner.

Lesley Thomson’s new novel, Death of a Mermaid, will be published on the 7th May, and the fanfare of promotion that accompanies a new release and the current climate will be confined to online events, which don’t take up nearly as much time as bookshop visits and face-to-face interviews. So, there’s been plenty of time for a new novel, which will be out next year... but I’ll let her tell you about that herself.

Lynne: Lesley, what inspires you to write? Where does the first inkling of a new story come from? And what lights a fire under it and sets a whole novel in motion?
Lesley: The seed for my story is often something I’ve seen: a tombstone (Ghost Girl), a walk in Kew Gardens (The House with No Rooms), or taking my dog out at in the silent dark (The Dog Walker). Death of a Mermaid began with a fish van’s fanfare. I imagined what a mobile fishmonger sees. Were they the killer or the victim? A witness to murder? In 2019, after much mulling and jottings, I had the plot. And then, as you say, the fire is lit.

Lynne: A sense of place that brings locations to vivid and tactile life is something that permeates your work. Do you research and explore your locations in detail before writing about them?
Lesley: Yes, extensively. I explored the beaches at Newhaven where Death of a Mermaid is set. I went on a tour of a local fishery. I explored the town, the local Co-op, the church and the library. I walk in my characters’ shoes and my experiences become theirs. Sitting in my car, overlooking the River Ouse where it joins the sea one morning, I saw the ferry from France glide by. My radio was on. The theme for Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs fitted with the ferry sliding past the windscreen. Freddy has this experience in the novel.

Lynne: What is your working method? Are you an organizer, with timelines and diagrams and character studies, maybe even a spreadsheet like Stella Darnell? Or are you more like Jack, intuitive, and trusting that it will all work out if you keep going?
Lesley: Hah! Well, both, I suppose. Stella would have forty fits if she saw my desk, but I’d tell her she gets her love of spreadsheets from me. I realised several books in that I’m a mix of Jack and Stella, fanciful and practical. I’m mildly dyslexic. For me, this means I find organising information difficult and my spelling is erratic. I do plan. I sketch out about five chapters ahead. I update the sketch with what I’ve actually written. By the end of the draft, I have a road map. My characters develop with each draft. I trust it will work out because so far it has!

Lynne: Stella and Jack are chalk and cheese, but their talents and working methods complement each other. Where do such different characters come from? Are they based on people you know? Or pure imagination?
Lesley: I never create a character from life. I’d find that restrictive and hard to break away from the original. But, as I said earlier, inevitably there’s some of Jack and Stella in me, although I hate cleaning, and probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive a tube train... I do spot traits in people and squirrel them away. Then out they come as my fictional character emerges.

Lynne: Who do you write for? Is there a reader in your mind when you write a new novel?
Lesley: Yes, there is a reader in my mind. Me. I teach Creative Writing and I advise students to write for themselves. Why aim your story at a stranger about whom you know nothing? We only know what we ourselves like to read. I try to write novels I love, that absorb and stay with me like a memory of an experience I’ve lived through. It started for me with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I still think of Lucy as a childhood friend.

Lynne: Workshops and tutoring play a large part in your life, and degrees, residential workshops and editorial consultancies abound nowadays. How do you feel about this? Are writers born, or can they be taught how to do it?
Lesley: Those with a consistent desire to write fiction can gain a lot from studying on a writing course with fellow writers and published tutors who understand how different people learn and what they’re attempting to express.  I see it as on a par with attending art school if you want to paint. For those who come with curiosity and a burning intent to tell a story, there’s much to gain. 

Lynne: Series fiction has great appeal for readers, but I can’t help thinking it can present a challenge to the author. How do you go about keeping a series fresh? Is a standalone a way of taking a break from a series to stop it getting stale.
Lesley: The Detective’s Daughter series gives me space in which to develop my characters beyond each novel. Stella’s grief for her dad has changed over the seven novels. Her relationship to life and to Jack changes. The biggest challenges are fixed posts, dates, events, character’s background which can’t be moved to suit my plot. As a crime writer, I grew up, with Sue Grafton. Her alphabet novels stayed forever fresh and kept this reader/writer on her toes.
I wrote
Death of a Mermaid for itself. As I said, I had the fishmonger idea, and rather than shoehorn it into a Stella story, I wanted to create new characters in a different setting. Now, I’m equally excited and absorbed as I write a new Jack and Stella.

Lynne: Do you remember the moment when your advance copies of your first-ever book arrived – a real book, not just a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
It was over thirty years ago but it’s still vivid. Nine books on, I haven’t got used to it. It’s extraordinary to me that characters I have dreamt up in my study with only my dog for company can be ‘real’ to readers in the US, Australia, or even in the same street! I’m often invited to book groups where my novel is fresh in their minds. For those, I’ll re-read or listen on audio; as author I’d hate to be the least knowledgeable in the room. While I remember key elements, when I’m deep in a current novel everything else fades.  For example, in The Detective’s Daughter Stella chews gum. By The Playground Murders, she wouldn’t dream of it, seeing it as nonchalantly rude; I need to remember that when I’m talking to readers. I have been pleasantly surprised to enjoy one of my novels objectively. Sometimes I can even forget I wrote it.

Lynne: A new book is a very special thing, and all the more so when it has your name on the cover, even thirty years on and nine books in. When you hold your first copy of a new novel, does it feel familiar – or completely different from the manuscript you initially sent out?
Lesley: I’ll never get over the sense of disbelief when I open a box of author copies and see my name on them. However, I dare not open one of the copies  in case I see something I want to change. My novels are not just my achievement, I share that with imaginative, hardworking team at my publishers, Head of Zeus.

Lynne: Tell us more about Death of a Mermaid.  It’s clear from the Jack and Stella novels that you know London very well indeed, and are very much at home there in your writing, so what triggered the change of direction and location? Is it just that you now live on the Sussex coast? Or was there more to it?
Lesley: I’ve always been drawn to open spaces. I grew up by the Thames in London. I loved our summer holidays in the 1960s with my beloved Aunty Agnes by the sea at Brighton, and I returned there to go to college. Around the ‘turn of the century’ I lived in Newhaven for five years. The town has been strangled by a ring road, so unlike other coastal towns it attracts few tourists; people coming off the ferry are going somewhere else. I rambled over the nature reserve and around the cliffs and along the beaches. Also, besides loving the sea and rivers, I’ve always had a soft spot for ghost towns of faded Victorian splendour.  I used to haunt Margate, now I drift around Newhaven!

Lynne: Finally – are you planning more standalones? Please tell me we haven’t seen the last of Stella and Jack!
Lesley: I’m deep in the latest story about Jack and Stella right now. As yet without a title, it will be out in 2121. Until lockdown I was researching; this required many trips to Tewkesbury Abbey with my dog to listen to Evensong. And walks on the Ham there, where the rivers Avon and Severn meet.  I shall write another standalone. Another idea will take hold which demands I stray beyond the limits of those posts of time and place fixed in The Detective’s Daughter.

Lynne: Lesley, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Fingers crossed for huge success with Death of a Mermaid.
Lesley: I’ve had such fun considering these questions, thank you!
Keep safe and well everyone.

Lesley Thomson’s novels:

The Detective’s Daughter series:
The Detective's Daughter
Ghost Girl
The Detective’s Secret
The House With No Rooms
The Dog Walker

The Death Chamber
The Playground Murders
The Runaway

Seven Miles from Sydney
A Kind of Vanishing
Death of a Mermaid

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.


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