An interview with crime writer Rebecca Muddiman
This year saw the publication of your first novel, Stolen. As a crime writer, are there any other authors in the genre that particularly inspire your work?
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction. I was an avid reader long before I started writing and it was Lisa Gardner ‘s The Third Victim that really got me into it (so much so that I named my series character DI Gardner after her). I read that book in a couple of days, I just couldn’t put it down. And once I’d got a taste of it I sought out as many crime novels as I could. I find that reading other crime novels helps my own writing even if there isn’t an obvious comparison between my work and theirs. It’s interesting to see how other writers structure their books and the subject matter they go for.
I particularly like Harlan Coben, Kate Atkinson, and Elizabeth Haynes. I’m not sure my writing is really like theirs but it’s something to aspire to!
What do you think are the key elements that make a crime novel a gripping read?
I think having interesting characters is vital. They don’t even have to be particularly likeable, just compelling. I especially like books with “normal” people at the centre. Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay do that very well – put a regular person in extraordinary circumstances – and it’s something I’ve done so far with Stolen and Gone. Although with my books I have the police characters in there as well, I like having a normal person’s point of view. I think it makes it easier for the reader to relate and think “what would I do?”
I also think short chapters are good for crime novels. They make the story move along at a faster pace and lots of readers have told me (and I do this myself so it was a conscious decision when I was writing) that because the chapters are so short in Stolen that they keep thinking “just one more chapter” when they’re reading, and then end up staying up all night to finish the book.
Are there any current trends in crime writing that you love/loathe?
I can’t really think of any trends – I tend to choose the books I read on whether the story looks good more than anything else. But I did really enjoy the Scandinavian TV crime shows like The Killing and The Bridge so maybe I should give some of the books a go. Like I said earlier, I’m a big fan of novels with the “normal” person at the centre of the story so I suppose I tend to seek them out.
As for things I loathe, I’m not sure it’s a trend but I really don’t like pages and pages of research in a book, especially in a crime novel. You can almost understand why it happens – when a writer has done loads of research and wants to share it – but it just slows things down and unless the intricate details of how trace evidence is collected is a vital plot point, it’s totally irrelevant and just makes me want to skip pages until something is actually happening again.
Stolen is set in the North East in and around your hometown of Redcar. What made you choose this as your location? Would you like to see the North East reflected more often in literature?
I didn’t set out thinking I had to write about Teesside but once I started writing and was picturing the locations where certain events would take place, it was natural for me to imagine places I knew in the local area. I think Stolen could be set anywhere really but once I had a first draft I quite liked the idea of the books being set here. And it is a bit of a neglected area in fiction which is a shame because there are some fantastic locations here. I take my dog to the Gare regularly and I make notes all the time for future books. It’s such an amazing place, especially for a crime novel. On one side there’s quite a nice beach and the other is overlooked by (what was) British Steel and Hartlepool power station. And there’s plenty of places to bury a body too!
At the moment you’re working on your second novel, Gone; can you tell us a little about it?
Gone is the second book in my series starring DI Michael Gardner and we find out a bit more about his past in this book. It also introduces a new character to the series called DS Nicola Freeman who was originally just meant for Gone but I like her so much I’m going to keep her on! The book begins with a body being found in woods in Blyth. There’s ID on the body suggesting it’s Emma Thorley who disappeared eleven years earlier. But as DS Freeman investigates she discovers all it not what it seems and the lives of a group of people, who all knew Emma in some way, are changed, including DI Gardner.
In 2010, you won a Northern Writers’ Time to Write Award. How beneficial do you think awards are for writers?
I think you have to look at the two sides of the coin with awards. You have to keep in mind that just because you have, or haven’t, won an award doesn’t necessarily mean that much. Who gets one is very subjective and will depend on the judges. And you have to remember that there aren’t enough awards to go around for every good writer. But I can honestly say I don’t think I’d be writing this without the help I’ve had from New Writing North. Winning the Northern Writers’ Award was the first step in getting Stolen published. I met a lot of agents and editors from getting the award. And, of course, it gave me time to write. So I think winning an award, especially one like I did, can be a fantastic stepping stone and a way of getting your name out there. But if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you should lose confidence. You just have to keep going and know there’ll always be someone else who loves your writing.
Outside the crime genre, who are your favourite writers and what do you love about their work?
I love Sue Townsend, especially the Adrian Mole books which I can read over and over again. They seem very light, and they are an easy read, but they’re so funny and clever. I like Nick Hornby because I’m a bit of a music geek too. Raymond Carver’s stories are amazing – I’m still trying to work out how he does it. His terse writing style is a huge influence – someone once described his as “meat and potato words” – but they still manage to be incredibly poignant, human stories. I also really like Audrey Niffenegger. The Time Traveller’s Wife is probably my favourite book.
I also read a lot of non-fiction. I love Jon Ronson, and I read lots of books about comedy, especially female comics/writers like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Mindy Kaling.
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 big pile next to my bed but I keep adding to it and every time I choose one to read next, something else comes along that looks just as inviting. Currently at the top of my list are The Killing Pool by Kevin Sampson and a book about the history of Saturday Night Live. But no doubt Christmas will bring another pile of books to distract me.
I’ve got several books I’ve bought and never so much as considered moving to the next-on-my-list pile. I should probably just give them to someone else but I always think one day…
I’m terrible for buying books and having piles of them lying around the house waiting to be read. How do you prefer to read: are you a Kindle addict, library regular or a paperback collector?
I’ve never used a Kindle. I’m a bit of a techno-phobe and I’m very slow taking to new ways of doing things. Plus I don’t think I’ll ever get to the stage where I don’t have real books.
I should visit the library more often than I do but I’m a compulsive book buyer. I’m really trying to cut back a little as I have shelves of books I haven’t read yet! When I was deciding which bookshelf to take a photo of, I counted them up and was surprised to find I’ve got 12 bookshelves (some floor to ceiling), plus a bedside cabinet piled high with books I plan on reading next. Not all of the books are mine – I live with a book-loving boyfriend – but I imagine the majority belong to me.
A few years ago I went travelling around America with my friend, Paula. I started off with just a backpack but ended up buying a suitcase too because I kept buying books – including a very heavy signed copy of a book of photos of The Clash. I bought it in San Francisco and carried it right the way back across the country to New York, and then home to Redcar. Paula still hasn’t forgiven me for that because we had to take turns carrying it! She was also appalled that I took a book out of a bin in our hostel room. But really… who puts a book in the bin?
And finally, do you have any random/funny/bizarre stories about books or writing to share with us?
When I was at primary school I won a short story competition and Mo Mowlem, who was the MP for Redcar at the time, came to hand out the prizes. I could see that one of the books was something about fairies and had a pink cover, and the other was Dirty Beasts by Roald Dahl. I was (and still am) a massive fan of Roald Dahl so I was desperate for Mo to hand that one to me. I was so concerned with wishing for the Roald Dahl book that my name had to be called out a few times before I realised and got up. Fortunately Mo did the right thing and I still have that book on my shelves today.
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