Thursday, 18 August 2011

Writers talk about writing - Kaitlin Queen

(Once you've finished reading what Kaitlin's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here)

Born in Essex, Kaitlin moved to Northumberland in the north-east of England when she was a child and has lived there ever since. Her children's fiction (mostly for the 9-15 age range) has been published by Hodder, Puffin, Orion and others and has, in some weeks, out-sold the Harry Potter books. "Kaitlin Queen" is the name she uses for her adult fiction, and One More Unfortunate (Amazon UK | US) is her first adult crime novel.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book, One More Unfortunate.

It's the mid-1990s and Nick Redpath has some issues to resolve. Like why he is relentlessly drawn back to a circle of old friends and enemies - and an old love - in his seaside birthplace in north Essex. And why he won't let himself fall in love again. But first he must prove that he didn't murder his old flame, Geraldine Wyse... It's a murder story, and a love story, and a story deeply rooted in a part of the world I know well.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Currently I'm working on an adventure series for 9-11 year olds. As Kaitlin Queen I'm toying with various ideas for more adult crime fiction as I enjoyed working on OMU so much. Foremost among these would be continuing Nick Redpath's story with a sequel to One More Unfortunate called The Time of Roses, another story where a murder mystery is tangled up with Nick and Karen's developing relationship. The other idea I'm toying with is a series of short, noir stories inspired by the paintings of Jack Vettriano; whatever people may say about his art, Vettriano is a master at telling a story in paint.

You're a successful children's author, whose books in some weeks have out-sold Harry Potter. What's made you turn to crime fiction?

I think most writers are tempted to try something different, every now and then. Life would be so dull if we wrote the same book over and over again, although that doesn't stop some people. Why crime in particular? A lifelong love of the genre is what did it, particularly on TV. There are few things better than losing an hour or so to a TV crime story: Columbo, Murder She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder, Cracker, Taggart, and of course all the Agatha Christie adaptations over the years. As you can see, my tastes are eclectic, and I hope that comes across in my novel.

'One More Unfortunate' has been dubbed Essex Noir. Do you think that place is important for crime fiction, and if so, why?

That description hadn't occurred to me, but it's perfect. My influences were many and varied, and I hoped to pull off a novel that could be both gritty and noirish at one extreme and a gentle romance at the other, with many points in between. Place is, I hope, clearly a major factor in OMU: Nick is drawn to his home town and there's a lot of emphasis on the place's history. One of the things that fascinates me about writing is the way description can be used to establish atmosphere and tension: you can describe a scene in so many ways, but if the reader knows it's a murder scene every little descriptive detail takes on a new significance.

What have you enjoyed most about writing not just in a different genre, but for a very different audience? And what have you found more difficult?

Some of my children's stories are crime adventures, so it's a genre I have some history with. Crime for adults does allow you to explore different avenues, though, and one of the real draws for me was the opportunity to write about grown-up relationships and their complications through the eyes of the grown-ups themselves. It's like raising your own children: they're fascinating and fun creatures, but sometimes it's nice to get out of the house and have a grown-up conversation. One of the challenges was adjusting to a different pace of storytelling. It can be so easy to lose the attention of a younger reader and when they've grown bored and put the book down you've lost the game. I like to think that adult readers are more comfortable with a bit of digression, but after all this time it's natural for me to stick to the story and keep things moving. OMU is a full-length novel, but it's still relatively short, and I think that must be the reason.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

To succeed in children's fiction you have to have a knack for hooking the reader and then keeping them hooked: I think I write stories that have good pace and keep you wanting to read more. Page turners, if you like. I don't know about doing better, but I'd like to write more about adult relationships: the love story in OMU is one of my favourites of the things I've written.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

I've always written. When I was a child it was animal stories. I wrote so many variants of Watership Down featuring different animals! I think that of those people who love reading there's a certain proportion for whom the natural next step is to be fascinated by how the stories we love come about and are put together. I count myself lucky enough to be in that group.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

I really don't know. I must confess that I'm not a lover of technology. I'm enormously grateful to Keith Brooke (publishing supremo at Infinity Plus) for pushing me towards electronic publishing for OMU; it wouldn't have happened if I didn't have someone who understood how it all worked. For most writers the best thing we can do to be ready for the brave new world of publishing is to keep on writing our best stories in the belief that there will always be a means of getting them to our readers.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

Anything by Elizabeth David. For it to be authentic I would have had to have lived and travelled in Europe during a fascinating period, and learned to cook authentic food from masters. One day I intend to write a 1930s Mediterranean cookery murder mystery. Just think of the research!

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

Not nearly as much as my publishers would like! The most rewarding thing I've done in this line is visiting schools and other educational events. The audiences are always so rewarding and enthusiastic. I have no idea how effective that is, though.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Never be satisfied with your writing: you can always make it better. The other side of that is that you must also develop the ability to know when to leave a story alone and move on to the next one.

If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

"Show, don't tell" is an excellent piece of advice. Far too many aspiring writers report a scene rather than dramatising it in a way that allows the reader to feel that they're there, immersed in events. However, if we showed everything our novels would be ten times as long and a great deal more dull. Much can be cut altogether, but there is also a lot that, while it has to be mentioned, can be skipped past with a brief bit of telling rather than a long passage of showing.

Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?

I am well and truly out as me, but Kaitlin is still tucked away in her closet. I like it this way. I'm a fairly self-conscious person, and hiding behind a pen-name has allowed me to explore adult issues in ways I might shy away from as me, particularly as "me" is a children's writer!

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).

Today is a gibbon day, I think. Tomorrow could be more tiger, but we'll have to wait and see.

Any questions that I should have asked?

The answer is, "Yes, but only when I've had a glass or two of Pinot Noir." I'm afraid the question includes a clause that forbids me from revealing it.

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