Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Wilson’s War Hero

I have for many years now enjoyed the psychologically potent crime novels of British writer Laura Wilson. I was particularly fond of her fourth book, Hello Bunny Alice (2003), a dark tale of fractured lives and damaged people. Evocative, bleak, and gripping, it forced me to seek out Wilson’s preceding works, which Val McDermid had championed for their “intricate tapestries that pull together disparate elements into a challenging whole. Her great strength,” McDermid wrote of Wilson, “is her gift for ventriloquism; she can assume the personae of an impressive range of characters and seldom puts a foot wrong.”

The London-born Wilson started her novel-writing career with A Little Death (1999), which was nominated for an Anthony Award and the British Crime Writers’ Association’s (CWA) Historical Dagger Award. (Of that book, Publishers Weekly wrote that it “presents a tour de force reminiscent of Barbara Vine.”) She followed it up with Dying Voices (2000), My Best Friend (2001), Hello Bunny Alice, The Lover (2004), and A Thousand Lies (2006), all of them standalones, several of which earned award nominations and received excellent reviews. Last year, Wilson was appointed as a crime-fiction book critic for The Guardian newspaper, and now writes two columns per month, alternating weekly with Mathew Lewin’s column about thriller fiction.

This year saw her changing direction as an author and embarking on a historical crime-fiction series, set in London during the Second World War and featuring a police inspector. The premiere installment, Stratton’s War, landed on my doorstep recently, along with an invitation from Wilson’s publisher, Orion, to gather with the author and some of my colleagues at a launch party at the Waterstone’s in Islington (North London).

Orion publicity manager Gaby Young had arranged for the whole top floor of the bookstore to be roped off for this event. And I was astounded by the turnout; it appeared that the whole of the CWA London chapter was present, along with many critics (Barry Forshaw and Peter Guttridge, among them), booksellers, and local crime-writing literati. This was as indicative of Laura Wilson’s personal popularity as it was of her talent as a novelist. A number of her fellow writers--Natasha Cooper, Mark Billingham, Michelle Spring, Martyn Waites, Simon Brett, Lauren Henderson, Dreda Say Mitchell, Chris Simms, and more--had come out to wish Wilson well.

Once all of us were gathered (including Mike Ripley, who’d arrived red-faced and out of puff, having walked from Euston Station, due to a problem on the tube), Wilson stood to address us all. She spoke of her decision to try writing a series, the character of her protagonist, and her parents, who had been helpful to her in researching this new novel. (It seems her father and mother were teenagers in wartime London, and were happy to be mined for their memories of period details.) Wilson followed her brief address with a reading from Stratton’s War, and then people queued up to receive signed copies.

Afterward, the author agreed to retreat to a corner of Waterstone’s, where I could ask her some mildly probing questions about her background as an author, her new book, and her decision to turn away from composing standalone works.

Ali Karim: Were you a great reader in your youth? And what books struck a chord with you and perhaps even steered you to write?

Laura Wilson: The first book I remember reading for myself was The Tale of the Fierce Bad Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. When the nice friendly rabbit offers the bad rabbit a carrot, Potter writes, “He doesn’t say thank you. He just takes it.” There was a picture of the bad rabbit looking fierce and snatching the carrot. That made a very big impression on me; I thought it was a terrible thing to do. Perhaps the bad rabbit’s relatively small crime started something … I also loved Fattypuffs and Thinnifers [by Andre Maurois], Black Beauty [by Anna Sewell], and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women--but only the first book, because I lost interest when they grew up and got married and all the rest of it. I don’t remember any conscious decision about wanting to write, just as I don’t remember learning to read. I think the desire was just there in the background, waiting for me to stop dithering and act on it, which I finally did in my late 20s.

AK: What drew you to crime fiction, especially historical work?

LW: Although I chose to read English at university, I’ve always enjoyed reading non-fiction history books, though I’ve never been that keen on historical novels by contemporary writers set pre-1900; there are a few exceptions to this, such as Andrew Taylor’s brilliant novel The American Boy [U.S. title An Unpardonable Crime], but not many. The recent past fascinates me because there’s the feeling that one can almost--but not quite--touch it with one’s fingertips. I think it’s a way of understanding the present--How did we get here?--and it certainly puts things into perspective, but I don’t feel sentimental or nostalgic about it. As for being drawn to crime … that’s probably a question for a psychiatrist, but most of the best stories and plays, from the ancient Greeks onwards, contain some sort of crime--few writers can resist that sort of dramatic potential. The crime novel is an excellent vehicle for exploring social problems and social change, and I also think that the “morality tale” aspect of crime fiction is appealing--not just to me, but to the majority of writers and readers.

AK: What about your own tastes in crime-fiction reading? Do I detect influences from Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and even Agatha Christie in your stories?

LW: Highsmith and Rendell (as Barbara Vine), certainly. I admire Agatha Christie’s plotting immensely, but she doesn’t have much of a style … an unconscious influence, perhaps. Other writers I love and re-read whenever I can are Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. There are many more, but it would take too long to name them all.

AK: Ever since the first, A Little Death, your novels have received astonishingly good reviews and have been nominated for literary awards, with The Lover winning a French prize. Does this put pressure on you when you start a new novel?

LW: No shit, Sherlock. … I’m always delighted to receive a good review, and people have been incredibly kind about my books. However, there’s always this little gremlin dancing up and down somewhere in the corner of my mind, whispering, “Well, your next one won’t be a patch on that.” … You just have to try and ignore it--fairly easy on a good day, but very difficult if things aren’t going well.

AK: Which are of your novels are you particularly fond of, and why?

LW: Hmm. Difficult question. I suppose the first one, A Little Death, because those were the first characters I created. (Unlike a lot of writers, I don’t have a bottom drawer of unpublished novels--I was extremely fortunate in that respect.)

AK: As you were in your excellent thriller The Lover, you seem drawn again in Stratton’s War to World War II-era London. What is it about that period that attracts your imagination?

LW: I think it probably comes back to dramatic potential, and the fact that, for the first time in history, [World War II] really was “total war”--the civilian casualty figures are higher than the military ones. The blackout fascinates me--the way that literal darkness can be symbolic of moral darkness. And, like many crime writers, I’m drawn to the themes of chaos/order and destruction/resurrection.

AK: How much research is necessary for you to write such novels?

LW: Lots. I like talking to people best, and I’m always happy in a library. I also do research of a physical nature when necessary, on the basis that feeling, as well as seeing, is believing. However, it’s easy to get carried away—it’s no good if it becomes a displacement activity. As Alan Bennett once said, “You’re only a writer when you’re writing. Everything else – researching it, mulling it over, talking about it--is merely vamping till ready.”

AK: Much of your other work features “damaged” and “emotionally fragile” players. Why do such people feature so heavily in your work?

LW: Not only my work, but every writer’s work, surely? Characters who are wholly good or wholly bad are dull and predictable. Real people are full of contradictions and unexpected weaknesses, even if they don’t have any particular trauma to contend with--and, within the necessary confines of fiction, I try to make my characters as realistic as possible.

AK: An undercurrent of psycho-sexual tension is also present in your novels, with their fractured relationships, jealousies, and hidden secrets. Do you plot all this out extensively, or do you define your characters first and watch to see where their motivations lead them?

LW: When I first started writing, I didn’t plan extensively--I just went where the characters took me. However, I soon realized that this, for me at least, was very much the long way round. Stratton’s War has a far larger cast of characters than my previous novels, and had to be pre-plotted or I would never have been able to keep track of them all. I used to think that this method of working would be a constraint; but actually, I have discovered that it is not only liberating, but much less stressful. However, I have always had a very clear idea about the main characters before starting, because, for me, they are the most important ingredients of a book.

AK: Detective Inspector Ted Stratton, as introduced in this series debut, has none of the flaws that many detectives--and some of your own previous characters--possess. Can you tell us how he took form in your mind?

LW: When I started thinking about a series, I decided immediately that the main character had to be a policeman. The idea of having a protagonist who wasn’t in law-enforcement and having to devise all sorts of convoluted situations whereby they stumbled over dead bodies and started investigating murders was just too much to contemplate.

I decided at the outset that Stratton was not going to be a conventionally flawed crime-fiction protagonist. There were a couple of reasons for this. I wanted to create a character that I admired (seeing that I shall have to spend a lot of time with him in the future), but who wasn’t holier than thou. Also, I thought that if he was pissed half the time, or bed-hopping, it would detract from his ability to provide a viewing platform for the reader--not only for the war years, but for the subsequent social changes. The idea is that the series will span the period from 1939 to the late ’60/early ’70s. At the moment, he is happily married and the tensions in his relationship with his wife are external ones (the children being evacuated, the shortages, the irritating brother-in-law, and so on). This may, of course, alter in the later books …

[Stratton] has a pretty standard background for a policeman of the time: lower-middle-class, intelligent but not well-educated; and he joined the police force not out of a crusading desire to do good, but because it is a steady job without too much desk work (which wouldn’t be the case today, of course), and with a good pension. He is also pretty ambivalent about the gray area of legalized brutality; and, although he may not like it, he knows that British justice is not always blind, especially where class is concerned.

AK: After writing a number of standalone novels, why did you decide to start a series with Stratton’s War?

LW: Mainly because I was pushed. Jane Wood, my then editor at Orion, suggested it, and, once I’d thought about it, I decided that it would be fun. I liked the idea of continuity and the chance of a more intricate examination of the main characters’ lives.

AK: Tell us about your book-reviewing work.

LW: When The Guardian first asked me to review crime paperbacks, I was very nervous because I’d never reviewed anything, even for a school magazine. (Come to think of it, I don’t think my school had a magazine.) After the first two or three books, I’d figured out what to do and started to enjoy it. When they asked me if I’d do the monthly column, I was delighted. It’s always wonderful to discover new authors.

AK: You have worked with the two legendary “Janes”--literary agent Jane Gregory at Gregory and Company and editor Jane Wood, formerly of Orion. Can you tell us a little about your relationships with your agents and editors?

LW: I miss Jane Wood terribly. She’s a good friend as well as a wonderful editor. My new editor at Orion is Jon Wood. I was absolutely delighted when he said that he wanted to work with me, because we have always got on well. I’m one of only two women (at the last count) on his list. I told him that I was worried it would all be terrifically macho and how would I fit in. I’m not going to tell you how that particular conversation developed, but it certainly assuaged my fears (which I now see were entirely groundless).

Jane Gregory is formidable and very bracing, which is just what I need. I have been with Gregory and Company from the beginning of my writing career, and I count myself very fortunate to have such a good agent.

AK: I see you are involved in programming for the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2008. How much work is entailed in organizing such an event?

LW: Lots. I am the programming chair for 2009, and the work has already begun--but it’s under wraps, so that’s all I can say.

AK: What books have passed over your reading table recently that you’ve enjoyed?

LW: Recently, a great deal of my reading time has been spent truffling through manuscripts for this year’s Debut Dagger Award, so I’ve been going to bed with Kenneth Tynan’s diaries. The problem is that it’s hard to read myself to sleep with something that, every few pages, makes me laugh out loud.

AK: Finally, what are you working on now?

LW: The second book in the Stratton series. Picking up where you left off with characters is proving harder than I’d anticipated--all that back-story. But (so far, touch wood), it’s going pretty well.

* * *
If you’d like to sample Laura Wilson’s new series, click here for Chapter 1 of Stratton’s War.

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