In Too Deep is in the crime/suspense genre. It tells the story of Maura, who witnessed the bizarre death of her best friend Kim and we learn at the beginning of the book that she has fled her old life and taken on a false identity. She’s horrified when a reporter tracks her down, but he persuades her to tell her story. We learn what really happened to Kim and the part that Maura played in it. It’s set in the fictional town of Dowerby, which is a claustrophobic and unpleasant place.
You have a PhD from Newcastle University in Creative writing so how much did this help shape your fictional writing?
It’s made a huge difference, I think. For the PhD, I was writing a very different book to In Too Deep, but all the reflection I had to do about my writing practice and processes has rubbed off on any other work (at least I hope it has!). Two things really helped me: the input of my supervisors, one of whom was the award-winning writer and poet Jackie Kay, and also the support of the peer group who were doing the PhD along with me. This support is ongoing even though we’ve finished the studying! I can’t thank my fellow students enough for all the feedback and encouragement. Everyone was very generous with their time and expertise.
You were inspired for the novel by your time as a newspaper journalist, so please can you expand on this for us?
The great thing about being a journalist is that you do meet so many different and interesting people, you hear amazing stories and you get out and about, every single day. So it’s almost inevitable that some of the things I saw and heard inspired the fiction. For example, I was based for a long time in a small Northumberland town called Alnwick where they had an annual fair with a medieval ducking stool for women and that was definitely the inspiration behind a major part of the plot in In Too Deep – although I should say that Alnwick is a very nice place, while Dowerby really is not. But I also wanted to write in a bit about the way people respond to journalists and I didn’t want my reporter characters to be the usual ruthless stereotypes, because that wasn’t my experience when working in the industry.
Please tell us about the novel The Serpent House that you wrote while you were studying your PhD?
It couldn’t be more different to In Too Deep! It’s a children’s novel, aimed at readers aged between nine and twelve, and it is a historical time fantasy. One of the unusual things about it as a time-slip novel is that both the time periods are set in the past: the late Victorian era and the eleventh century. The main character is Annie, who goes to work at the mysterious Hexer Hall, which is full of strange snake motifs. She discovers she can travel back in time to the former leper hospital which used to be on the site and she is given a dangerous quest to retrieve a magic book. But in doing do, she has to confront the things she fears the most. It was inspired by the village where I live which is called Spittal and is named after the leper hospital that used to be there centuries ago. There are a few local tales about it that I drew on for the story.
The novel was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House Award, so how did this make you feel?
It was the most amazing news, because it’s such a prestigious competition and it attracts so many high-quality entrants. Barry Cunningham, who runs Chicken House, called me to tell me I’d made the shortlist and he said he thought the book was ‘very powerful’. He’s such a well-respected figure in the industry, so that was an incredibly proud moment! It gave me the confidence I needed to know that the book was worth the work I was putting into it. Another huge confidence boost was being a runner-up in the Luke Bitmead Bursary with the novel that later became In Too Deep. All these things help affirm that the work is on the right lines.
Who are your favourite reads?
There are so many and in a range of different genres. In the crime/suspense genre I love Margaret Murphy, Ruth Dugdall and Gillian Flynn. At the more literary end, I love to read Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Barbara Trapido and some classics such as Jean Rhys. My ‘desert island’ book would be the collected works of Dorothy Parker.
How important is it for authors to study a PhD first?
It was important for me because I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my writing and I wanted to have the mentoring and support that this would bring along. I don’t think most writers really need to have this sort of qualification, but doing it, or even an MA in Creative Writing, will help deepen your craft. It also puts you in a group of other writers who are learning along with you. I have never met anyone who’s regretted doing a writing qualification of any kind.
What is your writing process?
I’m what writers call a ‘pantser’, in that I tend to just write from the germ of an idea and see where it takes me. People who know me find this very surprising, because in all other areas of my life I’m a dreadful over-planner! But with writing, all that planning seems to act as a displacement for actually getting the words on the page. Of course this means there’s often a lot of editing and revision to do, once the first draft is down. I get some days when I don’t get time to write, unfortunately, because of teaching and other work commitments, but on a writing day I will make myself do at least 1,000 words. And I’m not at my best first thing in the morning.
Which writers can you see reflected in your work?
That’s quite a tough question to answer because I’m not sure if a writer can see it for themselves. Maybe readers spot the influences coming out better than the writer. But when I first started writing In Too Deep, I’d read a lot of early Fay Weldon and I think some of her acerbic style of dialogue and that underlying feminism has influenced the writing. At least I would like to think so! But it seems a bit presumptuous to compare myself to more established writers.
What is next for you?
I’ve just finished the first draft of another crime/suspense novel, with the working title This Little Piggy. Although again there is a journalist at the centre of the story, it’s very different to In Too Deep: it’s set in 1984, the setting is very urban and I’m hoping that the denouement will come as a big shock to the reader! I know there’ll be a lot of revising to do, as there always is with early drafts. There is also the children’s book, which is sitting waiting for something to happen to it and it would be lovely if it did.
Out now, published by Legend Press.