Article published on May 9, 2016.
A couple of weeks ago I went to my second Rooftop Book Club event and it was just as good as my first. Previously I saw Maggie O’Farrell and Monica Wood being interviewed by journalist and author Hannah Beckerman and the air of excitement in the room that time was palpable. This time was no different – drinks, nibbles, a stunning location at the top of Carmelite House overlooking the River Thames and no less than six authors presented for our delight and delectation. No wonder the atmosphere was so good!
Rooftop Bookclub have got the format of these events absolutely right – selling tickets means they take it seriously and so do we who turn up. It feels like a proper ‘do’, plus you get to sit down and actually listen to the authors talking about their books. Sounds silly but this is sometimes not the case and I for one appreciate a formal (not too formal) interview. Then there’s the goody bag…
The theme for this one was Spring Thrills, presented by Crime Files, the people at Hodder & Stoughton, Headline and Quercus who look after their crime titles. Now, I am not as crazy about crime as a genre as I’m sure most of the superfans and bloggers in attendance are but I’m always interested in writers talking about their work – and in fact I ended up buying two of the books mentioned and have plans to buy another so, call me open-minded.
The evening was divided into two 45 minute long panel discussions, the first of which focused on Sense of Place: Region as Character and saw the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer Jake Kerridge talking to authors Elly Griffiths, Claire McGowan and James (J.S.) Law.
Elly’s latest book, The Woman in Blue, is set in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk which is known for its religious shrines in honour of the Virgin Mary. Elly told us that she went on a pilgrimage as part of her research to support the religious element of the plot but Jake wondered why her books were set in Norfolk in the first place. She revealed that she’d been walking in Titchwell Marsh with her archaeologist husband who happened to mention that marshland, being neither land nor sea, was considered to be sacred by prehistoric man and a bridge to the afterlife. This was the reason that bodies were buried there – and Elly needed no further encouragement, the entire plot of The Crossing Places (the first in her series featuring forensic archeological Dr Ruth Galloway) came into her head. Despite never having lived in Norfolk she has spent a great deal of time there over the years with family and suggested that there is something about childhood recollections that can be magical and also a little bit frightening, and which probably informed her approach to setting stories in this particular location.
In contrast, Claire McGowan created a fictional place to represent where she had actually grown up in Northern Ireland, for her series featuring forensic psychologist Paula Maguire. She found she needed a more varied mix of people and she also wanted to explore the borderlands as a way of suggesting tension and danger. In part this came from a need to write the Northern Ireland of her childhood out of her system and crime fiction became a way of exploring the history, politics and religion of the region generally.
James Law, debut author of Tenacity, worked his experience of working on a submarine into his story but found that he could only write about it once he had left. He soon realised that the enclosed, claustrophobic environment would work perfectly for the novel he eventually produced, along with the oddities of being submerged at sea for long periods of time. Throwing a female protagonist into the mix, when women have only very recently been allowed on board submarines, was another interesting and relevant way of way of creating conflict.
Elly found the strangeness, beauty and desolation of much of Norfolk important in terms of creating a sense of place and she also wanted the contrast of characters loving it and characters hating it to give a more rounded view of how a person can be affected by where they find themselves. Jake suggested to Claire that her stories set in Northern Ireland were imbued with the effects of historical events on a community and she agreed, saying that whenever she thought something might be a bit far-fetched she discovered that worse had happened in reality. James wanted to contrast the ultimate locked room of the male-dominated submarine environment with the difficulty of a female outsider trying to penetrate the sense of belonging. The limited space and never being more than a few metres away from somebody but at the same time feeling completely alone as a non-submariner provided the perfect pressurised environment for his heroine.
Authenticity is a big deal in crime writing but of course it is not always possible or advisable to mimic real life too closely, as Claire decided when it came to the location of her novels and Elly also found it necessary to mix the made-up with the actual in her Norfolk setting. James, amusingly, had to miss out a couple of submarine decks for the sake of a pacy plot detail!
Jake wondered whether region as character has become a bit of a cliche or whether it is still an important part of a novel, particularly in crime fiction where it is almost expected. Claire agreed that it can behave as an antagonist and obstacle and Elly was definitely intrigued by the idea of awful things happening in beautiful places. James suggested that the test would be to try and imagine whether the story could work anywhere else and if not then place as character is evident. Elly wasn’t so sure that the metaphors found in location are always deliberate but admitted there is a temptation to apply them to the physicality of a place, including the weather.
Something Elly wasn’t sure she could do, following a question from the audience, was set a book somewhere she hadn’t been or didn’t know well. Claire thought she was least likely to set a book in the suburbs, preferring the grittiness of a city or somewhere remote, whereas James felt that writing a very well-known place might present too much feedback from readers eager to point out mistakes and omissions.
The second panel, chaired by author, journalist and Times reviewer Antonia Senior, followed a 15 minute break and was concerned with London: Past and Present. Antonia spoke to another three authors – Sarah Hilary, Janet Ellis and Antonia Hodgson. She started by asking them what their personal relationship is with London, and whether they love it or loathe it. Janet lives in and loves London, particularly the idea of walking in the footsteps of everyone who has been there before and the glimpses of the Georgian London that she has written about in her debut The Butcher’s Hook. Sarah loves it too, and misses it from the time she spent living there, appreciating opportunities to come back and observe the changes in the city. She, like Janet, appreciates the anonymity of it and the layers of history. Antonia also declared her love for the city, knowing from a young age, in Derby, that it is where she would end up. She likes the community dynamic of London, not found in many other places.
Sarah’s books are concerned with modern-day London and Antonia wondered where her vision of London came from particularly with regard to her latest novel which is set in and around Battersea. Sarah told us about her fascination with the iconic image of Battersea Power Station and her shock at discovering the changes that have been made to it, after she had written the first draft. She is also concerned with the types of people cities like London attract, some of whom end up sucked into the darker side as well as the fact that people are often strangers to each other while being in close proximity.
Antonia’s novel is set in the 1720s, when London was only just becoming recognisable as it is now. The living conditions of that time influenced her story, including the lack of privacy and the poverty everywhere. Antonia Senior observed that all three novels displayed a sense of proximity, not just of people living next to each other but of different communities existing side by side exerting another kind of pressure. She asked Antonia where her inspiration for writing eighteenth century novel came from, whether it was research or walking around the city as it is now and imaginatively recreating the history. The answer was a bit of both, with primary sources undoubtedly valuable but also being able to find connections to how we live now, assessing the changes and the similarities. Janet’s novel, set just a few decades after Antonia’s in the 1700s, also depicts the elemental features of a rapidly growing capital city with all the inherent conflicts between nature and industry. She was interested in the idea of this new perspective and how that would have affected her heroine.
Antonia wondered whether any of the authors had approached writing about London, which has been written about so thoroughly, with any trepidation but Sarah explained that writers often live in the world of their own story and that the influences of the city experienced in other ways merely served to inform her version of the landscape she was writing about. Antonia found that Georgian London has actually been neglected for years and that she enjoyed the sense of reclaiming it. Janet specifically wanted to write about a London that can still be found today and that isn’t entirely fictional, liking what she described as the ‘vibration of reality’.
This led into a discussion about the responsibility they feel to the real London and whether there is a pressure to get the detail right. Janet felt that, while important not to make any huge blunders, if the characters and the story are compelling enough small aberrations would be forgiven by readers. Sarah has found that she is more concerned not to tie herself too closely to a particular geographical location, feeling reluctant to be too specific and agreeing with Janet that the story and the momentum of the plot should take priority in fiction.
A member of the audience wondered how the authors would go about filling a gap in their knowledge. Antonia explained that her plots come from the research she does and then as she is writing and discovers things she doesn’t know she makes a note to go back, so as not to interrupt the flow – agreeing with the other two that the story is the thing. Both Antonia and Sarah find the Internet an invaluable research tool but Antonia also pointed out that historical texts can often be at odds with each other and that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, just a subjective interpretation. Janet warned of the dangers of putting too many facts into a book risking information overload – in other words, know it but don’t necessarily show it.
I hope my paraphrased summary of the main discussions has given you a flavour of the evening – any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine, of course! I’d like to stress how warm and funny all six authors were and there were lots of laughs. The Rooftop Book Club team really do put on a good evening of bookish entertainment and if you are able to get there I would highly recommend it.
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Visit the Crime Files website for more info on the books and authors mentioned above, among many others
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