Wednesday, February 20, 2013
British author Alison Joseph (photo © 2013 Ali Karim)
I was delighted to find myself seated, during last year’s Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, next to mystery-fiction author and Renaissance woman Alison Joseph. Over the years I’ve listened to many of Joseph’s BBC radio dramas and read several of her novels featuring the unusual amateur detective Agnes Bourdillon, better known as Sister Agnes.
For anyone out there who hasn’t enjoyed them yet, the Sister Agnes stories owe much to literature’s Golden Age tradition of the amateur sleuth, yet they also bear an incisive noir edge. When interviewed by West Yorkshire’s Bradford Star newspaper, Joseph described her Catholic protagonist thusly: “Sister Agnes is a character who has developed over the years. I spent a lot of time thinking about detectives and found the most successful ones were those without any ties, such as Philip Marlowe. So I chose a nun, as it’s difficult to think of a female character who doesn’t have anyone relying on her, such as a mother, daughter, or partner.”
Beyond her fiction-writing and her role as a radio dramatist, the London-born Joseph founded a TV production company that worked with Britain’s Channel 4, shooting short documentaries. She’s taught creative writing at Sussex University and the Central School of Speech and Drama. She’s also been involved with both The Society of Authors and the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), for the latter of which she has served as vice chair--a position she’ll soon relinquish in order to take over that organization’s lead. That she has managed to do all of this, while rearing three children with her husband, is testament to her energy and professional commitment.
In the wide-ranging interview that follows, Joseph talks about why her sleuthing nun has been so engaging, her long-standing interest in composing radio dramas, her thoughts on the rise of e-books, and her next, very different book project.
Ali Karim: Can you tell us, first, how you became fascinated with writing? Did you come from a family of readers?
AJ: No, I wouldn’t say that. I always told stories to myself, as a child. But it was a private thing to do. I give talks in schools, and when I’m in a primary school there are the loud, clever kids who put up their hands to ask questions (usually about how much I earn)--but at the end, when it’s over, there’s always the one solitary child who sidles quietly up to me, having said nothing all through the session, and murmurs, “I write stories.” And it’s that child who’s the writer. The one for whom it’s a refuge. I was like that as a child.
Not that life was unhappy. I grew up in North London, my parents were old lefties, and I went to Highgate Wood School, the local comprehensive. I have a lovely brother and sister ... it was a very good start in life. My dad was Jewish, and my family extends widely. I’m quite likely to bump into a cousin when I go to the local Sainsbury’s.
AK: So, during your early years of education, what were the books and authors that most influenced you, either consciously or subconsciously, steering you toward the writing world?
AJ: Heavens. I don’t know. I read everything when I was little. I loved classic children’s stories--Noel Streatfeild, Frances Hodgson Burnett. But I used to read weird things, too, like the anatomy pages from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Clearly, I was already taking on the twisted imagination of the crime writer.
AK: And what made you leave London to head north, especially to study French and Philosophy [at Leeds University] in Yorkshire?
AJ: I stumbled into doing French and Philosophy, and Leeds was rather a default outcome, too, in the muddle of my university application. But an immeasurable amount of the good in my life comes from that non-decision. I loved studying Philosophy, I loved doing French--I had a fab year in Paris as part of my course--and I loved Yorkshire. I stayed there after graduation, and worked for the local independent radio station, Radio Aire. It was fun, but in the end the pull of the south grew too strong, and I moved back to London and started working in telly, for Channel 4, as a documentary director.
AK: Had you started writing fiction during this time?
AJ: I was always writing, of course. And film-making is narrative too. I made a couple of rather odd experimental short films in those days, so I suppose my writing skills were going into scripts rather than novels at that point. But I’ve always thought visually. Even in my novels, I tend not to really get to the heart of a scene until I’ve worked out the lighting.
AK: You’re probably best known for your nine-book series of Sister Agnes mysteries, the first of which was 1994’s Sacred Hearts. Can you tell us where your protagonist came from?
AJ: Sister Agnes was another stumble into the unknown. I’d been reading lots of crime fiction, during the late ’80s, early ’90s. There were some very good female detectives around then (there still are, of course), and I began to think about how to write a classic lone detective, but to make her vulnerable and yet not connected to partners or children or family. So, a nun seemed like a good way to do this. It was a literary device to start with. I had no idea what a rich seam the novels would become for exploring issues of rationality and faith and doubt, of the need for evidence, and the problem of evil.
AK: Recently, Scottish author Ian Rankin told the BBC--during an interview regarding the return of detective John Rebus--that he might not get on with Rebus, were he to meet his character. Would the same thing be true about you and Sister Agnes?
AJ: That’s a very interesting question. She really isn’t like me very much. I think at first meeting I’d find her frosty. But her concerns are very much my concerns, so I suppose if we got talking, and if she thawed out a bit, we might get on. I’m much more like her best friend, Athena, whose main interests are things like shoes, or the Nicole Farhi sale, or how to find the perfect red lipstick.
AK: Are you a detailed plotter, or do you allow your imagination to take you on a journey traversing the high wire?
AJ: The plotting of these things is complex, and each novel has been slightly different. But I think it’s true to say that in all of them the characters have taken over, so however much I start out with an idea of what happens, as the characters develop, I have to change the plot to fit in with what’s true for them. In one of them, The Night Watch , which is all about maths and odds and chances, I invented this gorgeous man, this mathematician, who was supposed to be found dead at the end of Chapter 1. But I got so keen on him that I couldn’t bear to lose him. So I gave him a brother to be bumped off, so that I could keep him in the story.
AK: While reading your 2007 novel, Shadow of Death, I wondered if you were employing Sister Agnes to investigate your own questions of faith and the variability of human nature. Agnes and the other characters in your series are often confronted with such knotty dilemmas.
AJ: I think that’s true, yes. As I said, she started as a kind of clever idea. But I think she’s much more real than that now. It’s been really compelling to work in a genre that’s all about evidence, and yet to have a central character whose heartland beliefs are about faith. There she is, living a life that is supposed to be given up to her Catholic order, and yet in the course of the investigations she has to look for evidence, she has to be rational and clear-sighted. And there are always her own conflicts too. There are often challenges to her commitment to staying in the order. There’s always that tension there. She is in an open order, so she doesn’t wear a habit and she works in a hostel for homeless young people, so it’s not as if she’s shut away from the world. But the world still exerts a stronger pull than it should.
AK: Over the decades you’ve penned original broadcast plays, such as BBC Radio’s Sister Agnes Investigates, as well as abridgements of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret stories and other works. Give us some insight into your appreciation of radio dramas.
AJ: I’ve always loved doing work for radio drama. I love working with actors, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the solitary work of writing the novels. Being in a studio with such talented casts is great fun. Sister Agnes Investigates was an original play for radio. We decided to do that rather than try to adapt one of the existing novels. It was really interesting seeing her exist not just in my mind. She was played by Anne Marie Duff, who did it brilliantly, finding that mixture of hard-edged but vulnerable.
I love writing plays. I think crime fiction depends a lot on what is said or not said by the characters, so it’s not a big step into writing for radio which, again, is all about dialogue. But I’d like to write for theater too, to explore a kind of storytelling that’s about the physical space of the actors as well as what they say. I think it’s because I admire what actors do so much.
AK: I rather enjoyed listening to your original play Mitchener: Black Box Detective, which aired last August on Radio 4. It focused on an air-crash investigator and positively rippled with authenticity. What was the history of that production?
AJ: Mitchener was a very interesting play to write. I visited the AAIB--the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. They’ve existed since the early 20th century and they investigate every air crash that happens over British air space. They’re an extraordinary team, mostly people who’ve flown planes themselves, and they’re very dedicated. They do all the forensic work on the wreckage, but of course they’re dealing with real human grief, with survivors and bereaved relatives. I tried to bring some of that to my character of Mitchener. I hope I did them justice.
AK: Although your career is running on several tracks now--your prose writing as well as your broadcast work, along with some teaching and your roles at The Society of Authors and The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA)--you seem to have found time to squeeze in a family life. How do you manage your time?
AJ: You’ll have to ask my husband and children about family life. My kids are sort of grown up now, but I fear their childhood memories will be of talking to a mother who’s not really listening at all. But, then again, they have the advantage that I was never going to be a helicopter parent.
AK: I hear that later this year, you will take on the mantel of chair at the CWA, replacing Peter James. How do you feel about the challenges that you and the association’s board members will be facing?
AJ: I’m very much looking forward to being chair of the CWA. But you’re right, publishing is facing many challenges. The rise of e-publishing is blurring various boundaries, with the risk of piracy and the resultant loss of income for writers. And the shrinking of the library service is a great injustice for readers, [in addition to] depriving authors of income. But crime fiction as a genre is still enormously successful, and also the rise in e-books has huge advantages. There are new ways of bringing one’s work to a readership which no one could have predicted five years ago. And the demise of the printed book has been predicted many times since [William] Caxton. But yes, these are interesting times for those of us who are trying to make a living telling stories.
AK: And what about your own writing? I understand that you’re departing the Sister Agnes series in order to write a scientific thriller, which led to your exploring the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], a particle accelerator located in a tunnel on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. Tell us a bit about that project.
AJ: Yes, my new book is about particle physics. It’s not a Sister Agnes, because I wanted to explore a multi-viewpoint way of telling a story. It also has more realistic police work in it, rather than the amateur detective. I visited the LHC in Geneva to research it. The physicists there have been fantastically helpful. But really, my concerns haven’t changed. [My interest is still in] the stories we humans tell ourselves, how we give ourselves meaning, how we structure our lives with beginnings, middles, and ends. And I guess you don’t get a better beginning to a story than the Big Bang itself.
AK: Finally, what have you read that’s excited you lately?
AJ: My reading is eclectic. In crime writing, I love Walter Mosley’s work. He manages to take the detective genre and do something poetic with it, somehow epic.
In non-crime, I’m currently reading Alice Munro and Elizabeth Bowen. There are books I return to, like The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is a perfect book, I think. Also, Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban--not so much a perfect book but something greater than that, something flawed but utterly truthful.