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Sunday 2 August 2020

Interview with Julie Wassmer

Lizzie Sirett talks to Julie Wassmer

Julie Wassmer
is a television drama writer who contributed for almost twenty years to the popular BBC series EastEnders.
She published her autobiography
More Than Just Coincidence in 2010, in which she describes finding her long-lost daughter after an astonishing twist of fate. It was voted Mumsnet book of the year.
The Whitstable Pearl Mystery was the first in her series of crime novels, involving multi-tasking private detective-cum-restauranteur, Pearl Nolan. Julie lives in Whitstable and is well known for her environmental campaigning.

Lizzie: Julie, you have just published the seventh book in your series featuring Pearl Nolan, owner of the restaurant ‘The Whitstable Pearl’, entitled Murder on the Downs.  Can you tell us a little about it?
Julie: The Whitstable Pearl Mystery series has been described as “a delightful combination of seafood, murder and a multi-tasking heroine on the north coast of Kent”. That heroine is restaurateur and private detective, Pearl Nolan, and Murder on the Downs, the seventh book in the series, strays a little from the usual seaside setting to focus on a controversial new property development which threatens to encroach upon the green open space of Whitstable’s local downs. Residents view this as the thin end of the wedge with regard to local wildlife conservation and a campaign resolves to oppose the development, spearheaded by an interesting DFL (Down From Londoner) Martha Laker. A committed environmentalist, Martha is no stranger to controversy herself and manages to divide opinion across town, with local people viewing her as their fearless champion while establishment figures see only an interfering agitator.

Tensions escalate between the developers and Whitstable residents, and this strains Pearl’s close relationship with London-born police officer, DCI Mike McGuire, who harbours concerns that the campaign will spiral out of control. Pearl’s loyalties are torn as her family join a protest event and newspaper headlines avidly follow this David and Goliath battle - which soon results in Pearl discovering the first of three dead bodies on the downs…

The book touches on the real-life tension that exists here in Whitstable between DFLs and local people - particularly in the summer months when the town is very popular with tourists. In this fictional instance the DFL property developers represent external forces trying to inflict unwanted change on the local community and their environment. In spite of that, I had no wish to represent the developers as simple villains of this piece; in fact I was keen to properly put forward their arguments as a counterbalance to the opposition they come to face from a Whitstable protest action not unlike one I took part in myself to save local wildlife from unnecessary tree clearance – an event that partly inspired the book.

The underlying conflict between the DFLs and local people is always present in my Whitstable Pearl Mystery novels but, interestingly, there remains a symbiotic reliance between the two: our local economy depends on visitors but too many of them results in the kind of change that threatens the very nature of Whitstable’s traditional idiosyncratic charm. A delicate balance has to be maintained and the relationship between Pearl and the DFL police detective, DCI McGuire, embodies this dilemma with the travails of their on/off love affair forming a serial element to these stand-alone novels.

Lizzie: Although born in the East End of London and following your association with Eastenders, why set your books in Whitstable?  Which came first, the idea for the series before you moved to Whitstable, or was it as a result of living there?
Julie: Many authors invent locations for their detectives, but I chose a real place – not the East End of London where I grew up – but the little coastal town which has been my home for more than twenty years. One of the most popular novelists of the 1930s, Somerset Maugham, actually spent some of his childhood years in Whitstable after his mother died and he was sent to live with his uncle, a local vicar. Maugham went on to write of the town in his novels, Of Human Bondage (1915) and Cakes and Ale (1939) but he referred to it as Blackstable, and it’s been suggested that he did so because he had an unhappy time here. I don’t know if that’s true but in choosing Whitstable as my main location, I really wanted to pay tribute to the town I fell in love with all those years ago.  A quirky place, with an independent anti-establishment spirit (which I sometimes feel might be down to its old smuggling history) Whitstable is also quintessentially English and full of interesting characters - the perfect location for the kind of dark “cosy crime” genre of my books.

I have always been a fan of writers who make great use of location in their work, especially Donna Leon whose Commissario Brunetti novels are set in Venice, and the American writer, Stephen Dobyns, who brings alive the Saratoga Race Course in his Charlie Bradshaw crime books. I love the idea of location becoming almost another character in a novel and I like to think that when my readers reach the final page of a Whitstable Pearl Mystery they will feel as though they have been away for a much needed break on the coast.
As one reviewer wrote: “Come to Whitstable – without coming to Whitstable.”

Lizzie: Can you tell us about Pearl? Is she you, based on someone you know, or pure fiction?
Julie: At the start of the series, Pearl Nolan is introduced as a woman on the brink of 40, wondering whether she can revive old dreams and take up the career she abandoned when a teenage pregnancy got in the way of her becoming a police detective. For the past two decades she has remained anchored to her home town of Whitstable, bringing up her son, Charlie, while managing a successful seafood restaurant, The Whitstable Pearl, but when Charlie heads off to university, “empty nest syndrome” and the discovery of a dead body lead Pearl to start up her own private detective agency. Pearl’s mother, Dolly, wishes her daughter could let old dreams die because Pearl’s cases put her in physical jeopardy - but they also place her with DCI Mike McGuire of Canterbury CID – and Dolly Nolan is no fan of the police…

Pearl has a strong though tricky relationship with her mother - an eccentric, unconventional “artist” in her mid-sixties. It’s true that every character in a novel displays elements of the novelist in some way or another and while I recognise traits of myself in Dolly Nolan, Pearl is the kind of woman I would like to be; a strong and fearless survivor. In many ways Pearl appears to be more the responsible parent in this relationship while Dolly behaves like the rebellious daughter - but Dolly brings her own wisdom and experience not only to Pearl’s cases but to her daughter’s relationship with Mike McGuire. Dolly knows Pearl like no-one else. Pearl is attractive and brave but, ultimately, she shows vulnerability in her relationship with the city police detective Mike McGuire. A case of “opposites attract”, Pearl acts intuitively while McGuire relies on the certainty of formal procedure. Their “will they/won’t they” love affair underscores the action of the books.

Lizzie: Is the fact that Pearl runs a restaurant because you always wanted to run one or is it incidental? I can’t say ‘why an oyster restaurant?’ because Whitstable is famous for them, but I take it you are an oyster lover? 
Julie: You don’t have to enjoy oysters to live here – but it helps! Certainly, Whitstable is most famous for its local oysters – with an annual festival taking place every summer on the weekend closest to 25th July to celebrate them. To establish the town in my first book in the series, I focused on the death of a local fisherman, Pearl’s own oyster supplier, Vinnie Rowe, on the eve of this festival. The discovery of Vinnie’s dead body formed the “inciting incident” which set Pearl on a mission to discover if his death was an accident, suicide – or murder…

Pearl personifies the town and its connection to oysters – she is a true Whitstable native – though it’s ironic that the famous “native Whitstable oyster” is unavailable during the town’s oyster festival. In fact, it’s the Pacific rock oyster that is enjoyed here during the summer months and, like many of the visitors to our town, the Pacific rock oyster is actually an “outsider”. Having been introduced to our waters it has taken up so much of our marine environment, the Environment Agency is now trying to contain its spread. Locals would see a parallel with the influx of DFLs (Down From Londoners) who, smitten with the town, have bought second homes here thereby forcing out local people – an issue I explore in Murder on the Downs.

Our geography in Kent means that, as a writer, I have exceptionally rich and varied terrain for my locations - with countryside and orchards only a ten-minute drive away from the town centre, the great city of Canterbury just eight miles down the road – and, of course, Whitstable’s coastline to explore.

Lizzie: How did you become a television drama writer?
Julie: I have always been a storyteller. As an only child I read a lot but also came up with my own tales and always hoped to become a professional writer. I went to Kingston University to study English and History – and relished having three whole years to read great literature. When I graduated, my ambition was to write novels but, as with Pearl’s ambition to become a police detective, Life got in the way…

In my late twenties I worked for BBC Radio in their drama and music departments and this coincided with making some friends who happened to be studying at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. I began reading film scripts and learned the great screenplay rule of how to “show” not “tell”…
After I went travelling for 5 years, aboard a 50 foot yacht, (another story…) I then returned to London and began working for a company that made commercials. One of the partners was keen to make the move into drama and encouraged me to write a short film script for a project co-financed by Channel 4 and British Screen. Specifically, to discover new writing and directing talent. My script was accepted and once the film was made, it gained attention from some people in the film industry. I was then encouraged to get an agent – the same agent I still have 30 years later – and soon after that, in the early ‘90s, I was offered a commission to write for BBC’s EastEnders. That led to more commissions – writing for other series like ITV’s London’s Burning, Granada’s Medics and Channel 5’s Family Affairs. Thinking about it now, you could say that a 20-year career writing TV drama followed on from writing one little 12-minute screenplay.
Lizzie:                Having written for television for twenty years, why the switch to crime fiction?  Pearl, apart from owning a restaurant is also a frustrated detective, is that in you too? 
Julie:                  As mentioned, I had always harboured an ambition to write novels and in particular crime fiction, but it wasn’t until I moved to Whitstable that the idea for this series really began to form. I knew I would set a book here but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write a police procedural or something that allowed my narrative more freedom. Also, I toyed with the idea of having a male detective but once I began to see my main protagonist as someone who embodied the town itself – the Pearl in the oyster – I recognised I was most interested in featuring a woman, at a specific time of her life, not shelving an old dream to become a police detective but realising this ambition in another form.Like Pearl, I am also a “people person”, so for me any story begins with its characters – the people who will bring a narrative to life. Whether the plot unfolds on a TV or cinema screen, or within the pages of a book, it’s always the characters who drive it by keeping a viewer, or reader, hooked. It doesn’t matter how wild a car chase is, or whether our hero or heroine ends up hanging by a cliff-top by their fingertips, if we don’t care about those protagonists we won’t care what happens to them, so my starting point is always coming up with characters we can believe in and with whom we can empathise, which is why they’re given their unique quirks and foibles – like Pearl, the chef, who hates following recipes.

It’s true I could have chosen a TV format for the series but I needed to fulfil my own ambition of finally writing a crime novel. At the time, I couldn’t possibly have foreseen that I would now have seven novels published and the books would be optioned by the production company, Buccaneer, the makers of the TV drama series, Marcella, starring Anna Friel. However, the series rights have been sold and plans are afoot to bring the books to the small screen which, if it happens, would bring everything full circle.

Lizzie: What triggers the idea for a new book?   Something that you see or read about or ….?
Julie: Writing for film and TV taught me the importance of what is known as the “inciting incident” – the precise moment when our main character is forced to embark on a journey that forms the basis of any gripping story.  My  very first “inciting incident” for Pearl came in the Whitstable Pearl Mystery when I imagined her rowing out one night on the eve of the Oyster Festival to issue a warning to fisherman, Vinnie Rowe, only to find his boat, The Native, as mysteriously deserted as the Marie Celeste. Vinnie is nowhere to be found but as Pearl brings up the boat’s anchor she discovers her friend’s body tethered to it - the heavy anchor chain wrapped around his ankle. The mystery surrounding Vinnie’s death forms the start of Pearl’s journey as a private detective but the incident itself was inspired from my own travels at sea. One night, while enjoying a working holiday aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, the captain yelled out to me: “Be careful!”  Pointing down at the deck he warned: “Make sure you step outside that anchor chain before you throw it overboard or you’re likely to go with it!” I stared down at the heavy anchor chain piled into a neat circle below me and made certain that both my feet were well outside of it before shoving the anchor overboard. I watched as a few hundred feet of chain rattled after it, disappearing down into the oil-dark water as I allowed myself to consider the captain’s warning and I then imagined how many lone sailors might have met such a terrible drowning after a single moment’s inattention...That was my inspiration for the very first “inciting incident” in The Whitstable Pearl Mystery but I find ideas wherever I can and in many unexpected forms.

In Murder-on-Sea, I was inspired by the image from the famous painting by Millais of the Shakespeare heroine, Ophelia, floating in a lake, her hands upturned as she holds a garland of flowers… In May Day Murder, it was the sight of children dancing at Whitstable’s May Day celebrations which gave me the idea for how the body of a murdered actress comes to be found tied to a maypole during the annual festival at Whitstable Castle. 

Three great passions for me are people, food and Whitstable itself – all provide inspiration for me. Food provides a theme in Murder on the Pilgrims Way which features an Italian TV chef by the name of Nico Caruso, but in Disappearance at Oare, I wanted to explore how the absence of a missing person impacts on those left behind. Appearing at local literary festivals inspired me to write Murder Fest which focuses on the murder of a controversial author, Blake Cain, who has been “sandwiched” between two other writers for a literary event: his former wife and his current mistress… In Murder on the Downs, I drew on my own experience of taking part in environmental protests to prevent unnecessary tree clearances here. Every experience in a writer’s life is dredged up for inspiration for our plots. I never try to question where ideas come from – I’m just grateful they always seem to be there when required.

Lizzie: When writing do you plan your plots before you start?  And, if so, do your books change during the writing process? So often writers say that the characters take over, resulting in a different ending and sometimes perpetrator. Do your books pan out exactly as you originally planned?
Julie: Writing television drama requires a screenwriter to produce detailed treatments for TV producers in order to demonstrate the way their episode will unfold. Often these take the form of a ‘scene breakdown’ in which every moment of television action is finely plotted. This gives production staff a good sense of what to expect for production scheduling, but, for many writers, like myself, such premeditation takes all the fun out of what I call the “journey of writing” - and the unexpected twists and turns that often appear out of the blue when we’re allowed to follow our instincts with a story. 

In my Whitstable Pearl Mystery novels I decided to make a complete break with the usual methods of plotting for TV and to simply trust my instincts as a storyteller. As whodunits, my books are filled with the drama of a murder, or two, or three, but for story and plot I always rely on my characters to tell me where they want to go. If I lose my way in my plot, I like to think it’s because I’m placing my characters somewhere they don’t wish to be. I ask them where they would prefer to go and what they need to do? Invariably, they give me the answer.

For the plotting of the central crimes I know very little when I begin – only the victim and the method employed for their murder but, by building up a clear picture of who this person is and how they might relate to others, I am actually following the methodology of the investigations made by Pearl and McGuire – so you could say I have a bit of detective in me - though as writer I have to remain one step ahead!

I have changed the identity of the murderer in at least three of my seven novels and I honestly believe I wouldn’t enjoy writing these books half as much as I do if I had to stick rigidly to a plan. In fact, I need to make as many twists and turns in the plot as my characters take in their lines of inquiry. If I didn’t, there would be no surprises for me and, I suspect, even fewer for my readers. Allowing my characters to lead me where they want to go can sometimes feel like a bit of a magical mystery tour but there’s always a destination at the end – and hopefully it’s a satisfying one for the fans of my books

Lizzie: When embarking on a new book, what area of the book challenges you the most?
Julie: This is a very interesting question because I haven’t really thought about this until now, but as I’m just about to begin writing a new book it would be useful for me to do so…

I think one great challenge is actually psychological - and perhaps this is common to many writers: getting over what’s known as “imposter syndrome” – the sense that you are succeeding only by luck and not talent – and that you’ll somehow be found out as soon as your luck runs outIt’s always important for me to summon up confidence in my own abilities – to give myself a “talking to” – maybe with a recitation of a helpful mantra or two. Then, once I’ve actually begun writing, there’s also the need to keep going and not to use displacement
tactics to distract myself from the task in hand. It’s very easy to go off and do some gardening or some housework (in fact, my home is never so tidy as when I have a book to write) and though I promise myself every time that I will begin writing earlier in the year (so that I don’t spend the summer in a blind panic) I tend to leave things until the last moment because nothing concentrates my mind like a deadline. The tighter the deadline, the harder I work so I tend to take things to the wire. I’ve never been a 9-5 person. But I always meet my deadlines and I’ll write through the night if I have to – but that’s the way I become truly engrossed in my story and my characters.

Technical challenges for me can be structural – though I strongly believe working in TV helped me on that score: I tend to write my books in three “acts” as I would a screenplay. Another concern is whether I have done enough to conceal the identity of my murderer. As when writing comedy, one can never be sure if a joke is funny until it’s told and someone laughs. With a crime novel I never know if I’ve executed sufficient sleight of hand until my publisher and readers come back to me to let me know they failed to guess whodunit. Once they do that, I know I have done my job.

Lizzie: I am delighted to see that you have a new book Strictly Murder due out 6 May 2021.  But have you any plans to try something different?  A stand alone, or a new series.  Is there any character in your head that is longing to get out?
Julie I am indeed being commissioned by my publishers, Constable at Little, Brown and Hachette, to write more Whitstable Pearl Mysteries and I’m just beginning work on Strictly Murder. However, during the
recent Covid-19 lockdown, I found myself writing something quite distinct - a stand-alone novel – a dark thriller. The main character in that book is male and without saying too much at this point, it’s not a whodunit and there are no detectives – but there is plenty of jeopardy and hopefully lots of suspense. I haven’t yet finished this book but I’m hoping to find time to do so over the summer if I can make good progress with my next “Pearl.” Sometimes, I find that having two quite distinct projects on the go at the same time helps to speed progress on each. It’s nice to have the contrast and to move from one to the other.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the Whitstable Pearl series progressing within a new medium – TV. If
everything comes together and Pearl finally steps on to the small screen, I will be very happy acting as consultant on the series.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this interview, Lizzie. It was lovely talking to you about my Whitstable Pearl Mystery series of crime novels.
    Kind regards,

    Julie (Wassmer)