Tuesday, 23 May 2017

My Sister and Other Liars is born!

A few weeks ago, on The Durrells, Larry Durrell had a book launch. Only one person attended, and only because he’d been promised cake.
I also had cake, and fizz, and was overwhelmed when around 80 people attended my book launch this month. I’ve learned, after years of the usual rejections and knock-backs, never to take a single reader for granted. And a book launch is special, some writers even compare it to having a baby. If My Sister & Other Liars is my baby then I was pregnant for 7 years! It’s true that I abandoned the manuscript, wrote two other books, but kept returning to it. “What is it about this book?” one writer friend asked me, “Why can’t you just let it go?”
No, I couldn’t let it go. Here’s why:
All of my other five novels are based on `big` cases, sensational ones that rocked the nation. My first novel, The James Version, is based on the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn. Humber Boy B is inspired by the Jamie Bulger case. Nowhere Girl takes the germ of the Shannon Matthews story and transplants it in Luxembourg. Alice, in The Sacrificial Man, is a British version of the German cannibal killer.
My Sister and Other Liars is also based on a real case, but an unknown one that took place in a town I can’t name because I don’t know it. Seven years ago, by chance, I saw an interview with a teenage girl, whose sister had been attacked and hit her head, rendering her brain damaged. She had no memory of the attack and the police had no leads. They were closing the case. The teenager said two things: firstly, “someone in this town knows what happened to my sister and they’re not saying.” True, that. Look at the (excellent) recent programme Little Boy Blue, about the tragic murder of Rhys Jones. A significant number knew who’d shot him, they just weren’t saying.
Second, she said, “He could be next to me in the queue for chips. He could be driving the bus I’m on.”
This poor girl was haunted by these two things, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her or her predicament.
She became my protagonist, Sam. And as Sam decides to find her sister’s attacker there are devastating consequences. Sometimes, it is best not to discover the secrets that surround us and Sam becomes obsessed, and sick, facing the chaos of lies and misinformation that surrounds her sister’s attack. This manifests itself as anorexia, a disease about control.
I didn’t know I was writing about anorexia until Sam was recognisably ill. My editor first named it, and my research opened up a world of water-loading, excessive exercising, pro-Ana sites, blue and brown kitchens and the stories of girls dangerously close to death. I learned that of all mental illnesses, anorexia has the highest fatality rate. And these details wound their way into Sam’s story, despite warnings from editors that it would make the book a `marmite` read.  
What I felt I couldn’t do was to tone down this part of the story: I owed it to the girls and their parents who’d shared their stories with me. And I owed it to my readers.
So, the book is born. And if you are reading this then maybe you are part of its journey, which is now beyond my control. Off Sam goes, into the big wide world. I’m sending her on her way with love.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Return of The Native

Last night I couldn’t sleep. I gazed wide-eyed at the ceiling, listening to the waves and the caw of the gulls. It didn’t irritate me; each push of sea against the shore made me breathe a tad deeper, it felt peaceful. Alert to the world outside my window, I was filled with a restless energy for dawn, so I could get up and explore my surroundings. I’ve been away for over two years, and I've missed it.

Confession time: I haven’t always loved Suffolk.
I was born in “Up North”, transplanted at the tender age of seven, because of my dad’s work with the NHS. When we arrived in Ipswich I sounded (with my Yorkshire accent) and looked (carrot hair) `different`, and the playground can be tough if you don’t fit in. I missed my family and friends. In Hull a latch-key dog named Ringo had adopted me, and I was heartbroken at having to say goodbye to him. It wasn’t a happy beginning.
Initially we lived in one of the doctor’s flats on Pearson Road, along with several cockroaches, then we found a house in the Chantry area. Slowly, I began to make friends, and my parents bought me a dog who wasn’t Ringo but Rufus. I started to settle.
I’d just taken my O levels when my parents decided to buy a hotel in Felixstowe. Having been made redundant a few times, Dad wanted to be his own boss and Mum (then a school nurse at Thomas Wolsey in Ipswich) is a fantastic cook, so she thought she’d be up for the challenge too. It’s no small thing, giving up two careers to run a hotel, and I admired their ambition, but the move meant I was once again in a town I didn’t know.
I decided to continue my studies in Ipswich, taking the train each day and biking to Westbourne, dossing round friend’s houses as often as I could to avoid returning to a place I couldn’t think of as `home`. I thought I’d leave someday soon and never return.

I was wrong. Seven years later I was studying for my Social Work qualification at UEA, in Norwich, and was offered a placement at the Felixstowe probation office, so I moved back for six months. I decided, as a way to meet people, to take a film course in Ipswich and on the first evening I met Andrew.
Also a migrant to Suffolk at a young age, and also someone who’d left for University but wound up coming back, our life stories were twins. Within six weeks I knew he was the man I wanted to marry, and everything I felt about the county changed changed.

It was during my maternity leave, whilst I was writing The Woman Before Me, that I began to feel part of the community. I joined the writing group that meets at the library, as well as various mother and toddler groups. I knew people, and I knew my way around. And when in 2005 I became a full-time novelist I felt supported by local bookshops and books clubs. This sense of belonging was priceless.  
Often, in the evenings, Andrew and I would push the pram through town and down a particular street to admire the houses. They reminded us of the homes we’d seen on our honeymoon in New England, and one in particular looked like it had a view of the sea. “If any of these ever come for sale, I’d buy it,” I told Andrew. But I knew it was just a fantasy.
Thirteen years later I was walking past an estate agent just as he was placing a new advert in the window. I recognised the house immediately and called Andrew.
“It’s for sale,” I said. “We’re viewing it tomorrow.”
Three days later that, after much financial wizardry, the mortgage adviser told me we could put in an offer on our dream house. Excited, I called Andrew, “We can do it!”
“We can’t,” he said. “The firm are moving me to Luxembourg. Or they’re making me redundant.”

Luxembourg. I couldn’t even place it on a map. I didn’t know what language they spoke. And I boarded the plane on that first visit full of doubts anxiety. I didn’t want to uproot my kids, like I’d been uprooted. I wanted them to grow up around their grandparents, to have the sense of `roots` that I had lost.

Against all expectations, Luxembourg bowled me over. The main square, the Place d`Arms, is lined with restaurants and outdoor seating, all around a bandstand area. The old city is built around a valley, looped by the original fortress walls. The shopping area is classy, with designer shops like Gucci and Dior next to wine boutiques and chocolate shops. It’s like a city from a storybook, and as we sat in the square that first evening I felt that maybe this could be a new chapter in my life, if only I was brave enough. But I had a condition: I still wanted to buy the house, even though it would mean renting it and someone else living in it whilst we were away. This was my safety net, a foothold in Suffolk.

Four months later we moved to Luxembourg, enrolling the kids in the nearby International School. With them making new friends, and Andrew busy at work, Luxembourg was less structured for me. After I’d done all the usual things that moving home requires I joined the gym, made friends and went for coffee. But very quickly I found these things weren’t enough. I started work as a volunteer at the local prison, one of only three Brits on the team, and made links with local social workers and police.
One morning I was dropping the kids off at school when I noticed several security guards hanging around. And a poster advising parents not to let their children travel to school unaccompanied. I discovered that there had been three attempted kidnappings in the past week, and people were nervous but very little information was available. It was a lightbulb moment: I knew I had found the subject for my fifth crime novel.
I began to research, reaching out to locals for their stories, and to professionals for their expertise. I even had an audience with the British Ambassador, Alice Walpole, of whom I asked just one question: “what would you do if a British girl was kidnapped?”
This research took me into the darker parts of Luxembourg, the areas where drug addicts and prostitutes live, and also the refugee hostels. I was privileged to hear their stories, and hoped I could do justice to them. I also had a stint in hospital, which changed the course of my novel so it looked at several aspects of Luxembourg life.

In November `Nowhere Girl` was launched at an event hosted by the British Ambassador in her Luxembourg residence. In her welcome address she told the audience of social workers and police, scout leaders and nurses, how I had come and asked her my question, and how she couldn’t answer. This was why she wanted to host the launch; unbeknownst to me everyone in the room had been asked to contribute to a new Child Protection policy, published that day. I felt humbled, and also delighted. It was a wonderful occasion, and also a perfect way to say goodbye. I was coming home.

So, the adventure is over. It wasn’t always rosy or easy, but I wouldn’t have changed anything.
I’ve been home since Easter, and it’s been busy, with a lot of focus on the upcoming Felixstowe Book Festival. Two weeks ago, along with fellow crime author Daniel Pembrey, I spoke at the Luxembourg Embassy in London, with Prince Louis of Luxembourg in attendance. The icing on the cake of my Luxembourg adventure.

As I sit here, looking out to the sea from my dream house, I know I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere else. But I also know that it’s true what they say; there really is no place like home.  

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Humber Boy B - my next novel

A blur in the sky, a brick – no, a trainer, red – falls to the water… There seems to be a scuffle… a hand grabbing at the dangling child. Then, with the awfulness of inevitability, the hanging child drops, gravity takes him.

A child is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge. Despite fleeing the scene, two young brothers are found guilty and sent to prison. Upon their release they are granted one privilege only, their anonymity.

Probation officer Cate Austin is responsible for Humber Boy B’s reintegration into society. But the general public’s anger is steadily growing, and those around her are wondering if the secret of his identity is one he actually deserves to keep.

Cate’s loyalty is challenged when she begins to discover the truth of the crime. She must ask herself if a child is capable of premeditated murder. Or is there a greater evil at play? 


Because you can’t go home, not really. Home isn’t fixed, an unaltered state, and upon returning the native is changed, by what took them away, by what happened since.
And so I return to Hull for the first time in many years. I have married, had children, followed a career, written books. And Hull is different to, the house I grew up in looks smaller than I remember, my Grandma’s house has been bashed within an inch of its life by some DIY fanatic, and the neighbours’ houses all have Alsatians. Or so the signs warn.
Do I belong here?
My children trail me, as we walk in the rain, across the Humber Bridge. I’m thinking about my novel now, about the boy who dies, but here is my son running with fingers touching the railing, a surmountable barrier to the drop. It makes me shiver, connects me to the mother in my novel, and this is why I came. To check that the Humber in my head, the one I’ve tried to portray in the book, is real. The rain stings my face and the water is muddy brown, all as I remember.
We drive down Hessle Road, past closed up Fireworks shops and tanning booths. Poundland and Wilco are the only places that look thriving, but the people are as friendly as my mother always says, more willing to chat than their Suffolk counterparts.
We visit Arctic Corsair, and the guide’s accent as well as his stories take me to the heart of Hull; this is a working city, built on hard graft. My own family came here to follow the Herring from Brixham, big and tough men who joined the police force and fire service, a legacy that hasn’t translated down physically but may be there in other ways. I like places with edges, I’m interested in crime, the ugliest cases. And my boy, the one in the book, is the worst kind of criminals. Humber Boy B has killed another child, despite being a child himself.
I may not be able to come home, but I want to find Ben’s home, my Humber Boy B. As I walk the streets of the city I feel my perspective shifting, and I don’t want him to be from the roughest parts, to be a boy who could be explained away by neglect or abuse. His step-father, a minor character up to this point, begins to breathe inside me. Could he be a fisherman? Working on the Icelandic boats, away for three weeks at a time? An absent parent, but for the best of reasons.
We go to The Deep, Hull’s world-class Aquarium, because Ben would go there, and also because water is a major theme throughout the book. I look at the jellyfish, with no hearts or minds, and wonder what Ben would make of them. I enjoy the comical penguins, one of whom stares at the wall for twenty minutes as if it is running a film, and wonder if Ben would have laughed.
And this, I think, is why I’m here. To meet the characters who have been growing in my imagination, to see if they can make their way in the Hull that exists today. I’m still listening to the voices in my head, still trying to get it right on the paper. It needs to be real, authentic. Ben needs to live.  
The answer will only be known when other people meet Ben, and tell me that he does. 

Humber Boy B is going to be published by Legend Press in April next year.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Blog Tour, tagged by PENNY HANCOCK

Thanks to Penny Hancock for including me in the BLOG TOUR. I met Penny at a literary event in Southwold, disturbingly entitled Slaughter in the Scout Hut, and she was no more than 30 seconds into her talk when I knew I'd buy her book and love it. And I did: TIDELINE is wonderful, a forty-something woman's obsession with a youth gone wrong, a crime chiller for the MILF classes. Check Penny out on her website: www.pennyhancock.com.
So, this Blog Tour is basically a literary pyramid scheme, except instead of having to send a chocoloate bar or a pair of knickers (anyone else remember that one?) you simply have to answer some questions on your blog. So I shall do so, in the hope that someone will still send me a bar of chocolate…(don’t worry about the knickers. That one always struck me as a bit odd.)

What are you working on now? My Sister & Other Liars.

Why do you write what you do? As always with my writing, it is inspired by a real event. Several years ago I was watching a TV programme about a young girl whose sister had been attacked, and left brain damaged. The girl was told that the police had no idea who had attacked her sister and they were closing the case.

My novel starts at exactly that point, fictionally working through what a girl in that position would feel and think and – most importantly – do.

How does your writing differ from others of the genre? I’m hoping it will appeal to young adults, as well as older readers, as Sam is just sixteen years old when she receives this devastating news. She decides that, if the police can’t bring her sister’s attacker to justice, then she will. The story takes place over the following 2 weeks, culminating on her 17th birthday, which is also the anniversary of the attack.

How does your writing process work? It takes months. Years. Who’s counting? It’s not a race, and the reader doesn’t care how long it took, just so long as it’s a damn good read! I write a first draft in a fever, and then edit by going over and over what I've written, never afraid to cut, always hoping to improve. 

I’m attracted to stories that raise my anxiety, those newspaper headlines that linger long after the paper has been binned. Writing is my way of working through it. 

Okay, writers I like and admire, and would add to the BLOG TOUR are :
Gary Murning  garymurning.wordpress.com
Guy Mankowski  guymankowski.blogspot.co.uk
Sophie Duffy  sophieduffy.wordpress. com

Friday, 4 April 2014

Dugdall in the Duchy...

When I was a kid, I hated Sundays. The seventh day would yawn ahead of me, defined only by boredom and roast beef. No shops, no plans, nothing doing. Hitting my teens, the day only lifted at 5pm when the Top 40 boomed from radio and I could amuse myself for two hours trying to capture songs on tape without any of the DJ’s chatter, a test of my digital dexterity on the `pause` and `record` buttons.

But then the world changed. Shops started to open, no-one bothered with tapes anymore, and the weekend finally had function.

That was many moons ago, but I find myself again thrown back into that Sunday feeling. On my first Sunday in the Duchy I had no idea of the time-warp that had happened overnight, until I arrived at the door of Auchan to find it shut. To my open-mouthed horror, even IKEA was closed.
Deciding to take advantage of forced recreational time, we took a family trip to Little Switzerland and discovered a wonderful walk starting at the dramatic and steep Wolf Gorge then winding around sleepy villages and dramatic rock formations, following the meandering stream back to the car, By then our stomachs had started to grumble, but we couldn't find any place selling dejeuner, no pretty café or bistro. Subway was open, but that wasn't exactly the authentic experience we had in mind.
As we munched on our Hearty Italians, walking through the picturesque villages, it felt like everyone else was snoozing. Could it be true?

Embracing once again the Sunday feeling, last week we went to MUDAM. Now, what I love best about modern art is its accessibility. It doesn't stare at you from the wall, challenging you to study your art history’ no, modern art is what we make of it. I’ll never forget seeing Tracey Emin’s tent, embroidered with the names all the men she’d ever slept with. So simple, so fascinating.
And MUDAM didn't disappoint. Lee Bul’s work especially grabbed the attention of the kids, who sat rapt in front of the dozen or so retching dogs, a homage to the artist`s own pet and lovingly re-worked in the same pose using various materials. “I like the one with cotton wool.” “Nah, I like that one, covered in tape!”
I think Ms Bul would have been delighted to see how engaged, how thrilled, we all felt by her work but sadly the security guards weren’t so delighted. They flinched every time the kids moved.
In the mirror instalation we discovered earphones that made everything around sound dream-like, so we had great fun taking turns with the headset and shouting at each other like we were in a coma, “Wake up! Don’t follow the light!” Until we were told off.
I’d love to have had Lee Bull with me at that moment. She is a woman who dressed like a human squid for 2 weeks in TOKYO airport, so I don’t think she’ d have had any truck with officious guards. However, as a rather more timid creature, I whispered to the kids to hush and resolved that next Sunday maybe we'll visit a cathedral.

Afterwards we drove home, via a garage for milk and provision, and then had an afternoon snooze. When in Rome….

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Just Landed!

I’ve just landed in Luxembourg, and it’s been a bumpy entry. Was it really less than one month ago that I was in Felixstowe, that seaside town on the very edge of England, packing boxes, saying goodbye to loved ones? If I could turn the clocks back just two weeks I’d tell myself this:

Bulbs. They aren’t the same here, and your removal men will take yours from your lamps and standard lamps, leaving you stuck. Buy a supply.

Plug adapters. You know when Blockbuster closed down they had a huge box for sale and you bought eight, thinking you’d done well? Think again. Hairdryer, mobiles, laptops, EVERY lamp (even though they don’t have bulbs!) Buy the whole box because you won’t be able to get any here for love nor money.

Be prepared to go offline for a while. A long while. Think of it as an Internet holiday.

Diet. Get that weight down because it sure as hell won’t go down once you’re scoffing fresh pain and fromage. And drinking encore le vin.

Speaking of which, be ready to be told your French is bad and please can you speak in English so you stop confusing people.

The good news? All of this is normal. So says my `Living in Luxembourg` guidebook, which also helpfully pounts out that organised people who are used to being in control will find the early months especially disconcerting. Oui? Cest moi!

The kids, though, are fine. Ducks to water. Speaking of water, and also speaking of those extra pounds, in the past two weeks I have become a gym whore. I thought I might have found the perfect place, basically because they offer a class that promissed a svelte figure tout suite, but sadly the instructor hadn’t heard of women’s lib and spent the whole class referring to double ds and derriers. Pa pour moi, sil vous plait.
My next attempt seemed to be going much better until I ventured into the sauna area, to be confronted by naked men en masse. Very Britishly, I fled in panic, not even doing the correct thing and checking my bracelet over the switch to exit, but ducking under the barrier. My French was simply not up to the lengthy explanations needed at the reception desk, so I paid the extra suppliment for the 30 minutes (according to my bracelet) that I’d spend in the sauna. As if I’d dare! I don’t even think it was a mixed session.
And today, at a brave third attempt, I tried biking in the water. Yes, aqua aerobics! Now, forgive me fellow Brits, but in the homeland aqua exercise is for those who are expecting, or look as if they may be. Not so, here in the Grand Duchy. These women were fit. They pounded those bikes into the ground, and if there had been wheels involved they would have won yellow shirts. But, more impressive to me, they wore the cutest outfits. Bows and silver clasps and sparkly bits. The water shone with cubic zircona.
So, if you spot a Brit in a one-piece, it just might be me. But in a few months, when I’m fully intergrated, I expect to be sparkling in the water, or the water sparkling on me as I brave that sauna with no sense of shame. Bon Chance!