An interview with crime author Helen Cadbury
The author of To Catch a Rabbit, which I reviewed earlier this year, Helen Cadbury is from York and was one of the winners of the Northern Crime Award. You can visit her website or follow her on Twitter @helencadbury.
Congratulations on the recent publication of your first novel, To Catch a Rabbit. As a crime writer, are there any other authors in the genre that particularly inspire your work?
I read a book called King Suckerman, by George Pelecanos back in 2001, and I loved it. It made me want to write crime fiction, although it took me a while to get round to it. I’d loved Agatha Christie and Ngaio March as a young reader, and in my twenties I read a lot of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. More recently I’ve really enjoyed Mark Billingham’s Inspector Thorne books, although I haven’t read all of them yet. Like Pelecanos, they have very real urban settings in places you can imagine living (in the case of Thorne, in places I have lived, which helps.) I also love both Louise Welsh and Kate Atkinson, because they write so brilliantly. The books stand up as quality literary fiction as well as being intriguing crime plots. I’ve just starting reading David Peace and I know I’m very late to the party, but mind is currently being blown by the Red Riding trilogy. While I was writing To Catch a Rabbit, I kept being asked if I’d read his work. I hadn’t realised how close the settings were geographically, so perhaps it’s just as well I waited, or I might have given up!
What do you think are the key elements that make a crime novel a gripping read?
Being able to empathise with a character is important if you’re going to care about what’s going to happen to them. Structure is crucial, but if it’s working, you don’t notice what the structure is doing. Chapter endings are hugely important, and although it may not necessarily be a cliff-hanger, there should be a question in the reader’s mind: what’s he doing, what’s going to happen to her?
Are there any current trends in crime writing that you love/loathe?
I’m not a fan of graphic sexual violence; I think it’s very dangerous territory to get into rape and abuse as entertainment, although Rebecca Muddiman handles a rape scenario very well in Stolen, because we see the victim afterwards, being processed in the rape suite at the police station, so it’s very clear what the human consequences are; we’re not just being shocked for the sake of it. Sometimes it’s better to set the scene up and then turn the camera away, in literary terms, like Tarantino does in the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs.
Do you have a second book planned or underway and can you tell us a little about it?
Well, I’m happy to say that I’ve just sent my second book to my agent for feedback. It will need a bit more tweaking but the book is basically there. The title is yet to be confirmed, but I think I know what it is! We meet Sean Denton again, a few years on (the last book was set in 2007, so I’ve moved to the present day). He’s in a new role in CID and, although he has more power than he did as a PCSO, he’s still the rookie. A young man of Pakistani heritage is found dead at the foot of a stairwell on the Chasebridge Estate, amid rumours of drug dealing and a growing far-right presence in the area. Looking at it as a whole, there are certain themes emerging: it’s about racism, but also about families, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters.
You also work with female prisoners, helping them to develop their writing skills and have previously worked as a creative writing tutor for several arts and education programmes. What aspects of this work do you find most rewarding? Do you have any specific books or authors whose work you regularly recommend to your students and how do they benefit from them?
When someone creates a poem or a story and reads it out for the first time in a group, that’s amazing. Every time a student says: I didn’t think I was creative, or, I was never any good at English at school, but writes something that makes the reader, or listener, cry or laugh, or gasp in amazement, that makes it all worthwhile. In terms of reading, I try to find out what people are interested in, then I’ll recommend something I hope they’ll like. Everyone’s different, but there are certain poems and pictures that I come back to because they are great stimuli to writing. One poem I use a lot is by a Sheffield based poet, Sally Goldsmith, and it’s called Awake (it’s in Are We There Yet, published by Smith-Doorstop). It’s seven lines long and it’s got such a story packed into it. It’s triggered some great poems and stories.
Outside the crime genre, who are your favourite writers and what do you love about their work?
Can I go outside fiction here? I was very lucky that I saw Seamus Heaney read only a couple of months before he died and I’ve been re-reading a lot of his poetry. When I read the play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, I found myself gripped; it’s a page-turner, which is unusual for a play on the page. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw it on stage either; it was extraordinary, a real state of the nation piece. That phrase often means something set in London about politicians, but Jerusalem is about a much darker, drunker and sexier rural heart of our nation. In terms of fiction, I have really wide tastes. I’m in a book group, which has been brilliant for introducing me to writers I might not normally have picked up in a shop. I discovered Carson McCullers recently and loved both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.
Which books are you planning to read next? Do you have any that you secretly suspect you’ll never get round to?
I have a massive book pile by my bed. I should be reading Rough Music by Patrick Gale because it’s our next book group choice, but I can’t drag myself away from David Peace. I saw him read at the launch of The Durham Book Festival and bought Red or Dead, which is like an extended prose poem about football. It’s a massive hardback, so I might have to get a special bookstand to put it on while I’m reading it.
I can’t really accept the idea that I’ll never read a book I’ve bought. Books on Kindle are a different matter. It’s very easy to click the 99p or free offers and then forget about them because there’s nothing visible to remind you. If I ever get stuck in an airport for 48 hours, I’ll be glad of my Kindle stockpile, but I suspect there’s a few on there I’ll never read.
Are there any books you started but never finished?
Very few, but I have to admit to not finishing some of the book group titles (I hope they’re not reading this; I dissemble well, thanks to Goodreads reviews…) If everyone in the group has dissected a book, especially if I’m struggling with it, I lose the urge to read it myself.
I always have piles of unread books lying around the house waiting to be read. Do you have a to be read (TBR) pile and what does it look like?
A huge pile! Except it’s not just by the bed, it’s on the floor and on the shelves by the bed too.
How do you prefer to read: are you a Kindle addict, library regular or a paperback collector?
I am a bookoholic. I can’t go into a bookshop without buying something. I own a Kindle and find it very useful on train journeys, but my preference is for paperbacks, and for keeps. I love libraries too and I always check out the ‘new books’ shelf. The trouble is, I’m quite untidy and I can’t always find the books I keep getting reminders for, so it can be an expensive business.
I’m a bit obsessive about my books and keeping them as undamaged as possible. Do you have any pet hates about the way other people read or treat their books?
Not really. I think books are for reading. I used to read in the bath a lot, which isn’t very good for books, but as we’re a bit conscious of the bills these days, I tend to have showers, so the books are safe. I’m happy to lend books out, but I expect to get them back. If I don’t want it back, I’ll say so, and I am getting better at giving books away, as the available bookshelf space in my house is now completely overflowing.
And finally, do you have any random/funny/bizarre stories about books or writing that you can share with us?
One of the oddest things about writing a novel is that you make something up, or guess at something, and then it actually happens in real like. You start to feel as if you are conjuring things. There’s a certain make and colour of car in my second book and when I was house-sitting for friends this summer, getting a bit of peace and quiet to write, the exact car in my book turned up and stayed parked right outside the house all day. It was very unnerving. I also taught in a young offenders’ prison last year and taught someone who had a similar name and came from the same area as someone I thought I’d invented. I had to really concentrate to separate the fictional from the real person.
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