This was the first mini crime festival hosted in Newcastle upon Tyne.
It was held at the beautiful Lit and Phil building in central Newcastle, just along from the Central Station and therefore very convenient for people attending from outside Newcastle.
The event was extremely well organised with refreshments (coffees, teas, hot chocolate, beer and wine) and Forum Books from Corbridge was there with a bookstall, with all the latest books by the panel authors, and sold at a reduction from the usual prices too.
It started at 2.00 pm and finished at 8.30 pm. Each session was an hour and a half and there was an hour in between, so plenty of time to get some fresh air, a cup of coffee, visit the loo, and find a seat ready for the next event.
As someone who has visited crime festivals in the past, it was one of the more enjoyable ones in terms of the intimacy of the panel discussions. No matter where you were sitting, you felt as if you were in the same room as the authors and the audience was given plenty of time to ask questions in each session.
I hope this will be the first of many such events in Newcastle upon Tyne. I enjoyed it very much. There were three panels.
As we arrived promptly, I didn’t manage to get a photo of the first panel before switching off my mobile phone. Apologies for that.
On the panel were John Lawton, Samantha Norton and Aly Monroe. All agreed that the historical setting adds another layer of intrigue to the storytelling and a lot of research is necessary for accuracy. John Lawton has a varied career, spanning publishing and agenting and for some time was the agent of Ariana Franklin, Samantha Norman’s mother. Samantha was commissioned to finish the last unfinished novel by her mother, Winter Seige, which is set in the twelfth century. John and Aly Monroe both write espionage thrillers, set in the same era of post world war 2 espionage.
The second world war is inescapable for those who lived through it and even for the generation that came just after it. Their connections to people who lived through it, fought in it and died in it, are tangible and the cold war era that reigned until the 1980s also defined the global picture for those who grew up after the second world war. However, neither John nor Aly see themselves as intrinsically crime writers. John feels that violence is what helps to propel the plot along while he is really more interested in the history. He once described what he wrote as “romantic historical dramas wrapped up in a coat of noir”. Aly feels she is painting a portrait of an era in history. If there are crimes in Aly’s books they are all crimes committed within one’s own side in a war, for example, within the government, the intelligence agency, and so on.
Samantha Norman talked about her mother’s passion for the vibrant society in the twelfth century under Henry II, just after the first civil war in England. Henry II made reforms to the judicial system that have led to our present day systems. The main protagonist is a feminist from Salerno in Italy – Adelia Aguilar – who studied at the School of Medicine in Salerno which admitted women at the time.
There were many interesting questions for the panel to address. One of these was whether crime fiction is flourishing these days.
There was a consensus that crime fiction is a large umbrella term for many different sub-genres and publishers like to encourage you to write in this genre as it is very popular. In a discussion on social media and the contribution this makes for authors, John Lawton revealed that he disliked it but did point out that there had been almost 150,000 hits on a Youtube video he had made so clearly it was effective.
Aly Monroe commented that bloggers are now performing a hugely influential service in publicising author’s books which is very significant for writers. Asked for a show of hands of bloggers in the room, there were several (of which I was one although I don’t consider myself a serious blogger).
The reach to readers extended to a discussion of the reach of the books in different parts of the world. John Lawton’s books are published in about eight languages, but the Russians and the Germans are not interested in his stories apparently. Aly Monroe’s books have not been translated into other languages, but she has readers in Spain who read her books in English and a fan club in North Carolina. Samantha Norman’s primary publisher is American and subsidiary publisher is English.
When asked about their process, all were passionate about what works for them; piecemeal writing, researching, obsessing about it in their minds; writing early, writing late, not being sidetracked and so on. Each work attained critical mass at some point beyond which it took on a life of its own and dictated its own pace from that point on.
Women in Crime
All authors came into writing in different ways. Zoe wrote her first novel which received rave rejections at the age of 15. She wrote the first Charlie Fox novel, Killer Instince, when she had received death threats at work for her work as a photo journalist. Melanie was a journalist and wrote non fiction before moving into crime thrillers set in the Arctic. And Mari began writing to get her wrist working properly again after an assault she received at work as a probation officer.
There was debate about what a strong woman is and the fact that women just are strong, so the female protagonists are not unusually strong, but representative of real women rather than superhero types. Mari’s Kate Daniels is based on a police woman that she knew who was very protective of her staff and this comes across in the novels. Melanie’s Edie Kiglatuk is based on a polar bear hunter in the Arctic whom she met and who, although petite, was entrusted with the protection of a group of men doing a trek in the Arctic. Zoe’s Charle Fox shares many characteristics of hers, the love of motorbikes being just one.
All three protagonists are outsiders in one way or another. Kate Daniels is a lesbian who feels she must hide this fact at work or she won’t get on. Edie Kiglatuk is divorced, has struggled with drink problems and Charlie Fox is ex military turned private eye. It seems that female characters are more harshly judged than male characters and that violence in fiction is still not acceptable for women protagonists. For example, Zoe recalled how a reader once challenged her that a guy had written her books and she had just put her name on the front. Melanie’s Arctic series is being commissioned for a TV series and they wanted to change Edie’s reaction to a threat from a punch to something less violent. All agreed that all violence on the page has to be earned otherwise it is gratuitous and pornographic.
The discussion around gender led to asking Melanie why she published under MJ McGrath. Some authors do publish under initials to encourage a readership of both genders but in this case it was simply that she had published non-fiction under Melanie McGrath and wanted to distinguish the fictional work from the non-fictional. This led to a diversion into what name she publishes under and what time of year she is published within different countries. For example, in Germany she publishes under Melanie McGrath and in the US MJ McGrath. Then in Holland they prefer to publish her Arctic novels in winter because people only read stories set in winter during the winter, while in Israel, they publish them in summer because it is so hot, people want to read about somewhere very cold.
When asked about their process, all were different. Mari Hannah writes daily and always at her desk. The novels are plotted before she starts and she will never run out of ideas because she has so many. Melanie has a routine and works best late morning and early evening. She finds the first draft very hard though because she says she has a butterfly mind. Zoe understands the split of mind between creative and practical. She’ll write notes and then extend these into a scene. At the end of each chapter, she’ll have a chapter summary which is useful in later parts of the book for continuity.
This was the evening session and very enjoyable too. Barry Forshaw‘s questioning and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Quentin Bates‘s laughter about all things Icelandic also helped to make it very lighthearted. Pictured here from left to right are Barry, Yrsa and Quentin (and to the right, Jacky Collins).
If I’d been more on the ball at the time, I’d have realised that I also saw Ragnar Jonasson, Quentin, Yrsa and Jacky up at the Congregational Art Gallery in Rothbury, on Friday 2nd May. I wasn’t up there for their evening session but simply an outing and refreshment in the afternoon. I noticed them at a table but didn’t realise until afterwards. Of course, Ragnar Jonasson was supposed to be at the Icelandic Crime session at the Lit and Phil but was called away for the imminent birth of his baby. Hope all has gone well there.
Yrsa was introduced as the Queen of Icelandic crime who also writes for children and in the horror genre. She also works as a civil engineer in Iceland, and along with Quentin and Ragnar founded the Icelandic noir crime festival, the first of which was held in November 2013. Quentin is an English man married to an Icelandic woman and his stories are based in Iceland.
Tongue-in-cheek, as Quentin explained that he used to write about fish but thought he would give crime fiction a try, Yrsa explained that in Iceland you have to have two jobs because there are only 320,000 Icelanders to do all that needs to be done on the island.
There was some general discussion about the different qualities of the Scandinavian countries and the fact that Ragnar Jonasson has not yet got a translation deal in English publishing. Quentin said that there were only four Icelandic authors who are translated into English but about another six who are translated into other European languages. He also pointed out that so many people read English that sometimes publishers don’t bother translating from English anymore.
Yrsa’s latest book is The Silence of the Sea, a story about a family that goes missing from a yacht at sea and Quentin Bates’s Cold Steal, the fourth in the Gunnhilder mysteries is available as an ebook.