EP43: Martina Cole – Dangerous Lady

Martina Cole is the undisputed queen of British crime fiction. She’s sold over 14 million books and her novels regularly top the Sunday Times bestsellers. She’s come a long way from being told ‘Women don’t write these kinds of books.’ We were delighted to speak on the eve of publication of her new paperback Betrayal.

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In this episode you will discover…

  • How writing for yourself and not an audience can help you break out
  • Why you should think twice about burning your old manuscripts
  • Why it’s okay to steer away from your outline
  • And a top tip for editing!

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

Martina Cole is the undisputed queen of British crime fiction. She’s sold over 14 million books and her novels regularly top the Sunday Times bestsellers. She’s come a long way from being told ‘Women don’t write these kinds of books.’ We were delighted to speak on the eve of publication of her new paperback Betrayal.

When you started out did you have any aspirations?

When I wrote Dangerous Lady all those years ago — I was only twenty-one when I wrote that, and I kept it for ten years — the only aspiration that I had was to see my name on a book, because I loved books so much. I wanted to see my name on a book, but that was about it. I never thought that I’d be here twenty-five years later.

Did you say it took you ten years to write your first book?

No, I wrote the book, and I kept it in a cupboard for ten years. I wrote two other novels, I wrote scripts, all sorts.

Why did you keep it hidden away?

I don’t know. I was a long time ago. I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously as an author. I was moving house and I was just going to throw it all and burn it, and I got Dangerous Lady out and I started reading it and I thought, y’know what, that’s not bad, I would read that. It all went from there, I rewrote the book, I had six months’ sabbatical from my job, got Darley and it all went from there.

Darley Anderson is your agent?

Yeah, I‘ve still got the same agent and the same publicist and the same publisher twenty-five years on.

How did you find Darley?

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I thought it was a woman — ‘Darley Anderson’ — I’d never heard of anyone called Darley. His real name’s Thomas! My ex-husband said, ‘Who do you keep calling ‘darling’? on the phone. I said, ‘It’s Darley!’ I got in touch with him, I told him about Dangerous Lady, and he said that’s different, women don’t write that kind of book. Send it to me. I was writing about the criminal underworld, and I had put a woman in the middle of it all. He got in touch with Headline. I had a bidding auction, and Headline made a pre-emptive bid and that was it.

Why didn’t you think anyone would take you seriously?

I’ve always been a prolific reader, but I just didn’t think they would. This girl from a council house etc. I realise now, all these years on, the person reading your book doesn’t know anything about you, except what you tell them. They don’t know if you’re a rocket scientist. They know nothing about you. That’s the great thing with writing is you look at Jimmy Herbert and they’ve come from the same place.

It’s the love of a good story, it’s the love of telling a story, that’s what makes a good writer.

 

Is there any advice that you would give to a young Martina?

Yeah, should’ve done it ten years earlier! The thing is, the world would have been ready for (protagonist of Dangerous Lady) Maura Ryan then. Women were still getting jobs for beauty. In a lot of ways I think Dangerous Lady was an anti-book in that respect. In the time that wrote it, in the eighties, women were judged on what they looked like. Women in books became supermodels, or went into acting, or the perfume industry, or magazines, and I put this woman into the criminal world, and it worked for me.

Did you know women like Maura?

Maura was the antithesis of me. I come from a long line of strong women. Irish women. When I was describing her growing up in the sixties, that was where I grew up. Your mum used Nivea and Ponds, there was beeswax on the table, every house smelled the same. It smelled of ‘clean’. Unless they were a dirty bitch, of course (laughs). People still washed their front door steps, everything was bleached and disinfected, I think that comes across in my books. I try and capture an era. It’s all in the detail, the devil’s in the detail. It’s a very true expression.

You’re a prolific reader…

I read so much. I read over a hundred books last summer. I read so many books. I could do a book a day. Easily. When I go in a book shop I have to read the first page, to see if I’ve read it. It’s true, because I read so many books. I read lots of crime — I love crime — I also read a lot of historical novels. I love autobiographies as well. One the of the main books that I go back to again and again is Hatter’s Castle by AJ Cronin. It was a definitive book for me. It’s a big melodrama. I was only about ten or eleven when I first read it, maybe a bit younger, and it absolutely blew me away. The whole concept of the Tay Bridge disaster, the terrible weather in Scotland — oh my God, it’s always raining in Scotland — and this man who was so arrogant he had his house built like a castle. He was a hatter. Also, something I never knew till I read that book… Do you know where we get the expression ‘Mad as a hatter?’ They’re all high on the glue. They were gluing all day and that’s where ‘Mad as a hatter’ comes from, they were high as kites.

It was a defining book for me, because I went into this huge world that I knew nothing about and came out of it feeling like I was an expert.

Was there one point in your career where you thought, ‘I’ve made it’?

I was in a restaurant, thinking I’m sure that’s so-and-so, and he came over and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re Martina Cole! I’ve read your books.’ I thought, they know who I am! That was one of the mad ones for me. The main thing is to keep your feet on the ground.

What’s your working day like?

I live in northern Cyprus for much of the year. It’s very, very hot. It’s why I love it out there, and I’ve got a couple of bookshops out there as well, which is nice for me. My dream was always to have my own bookshops. I still work through the night, because it’s cooler out there. I’ve always worked through the night because it’s quieter.

When I was writing Dangerous Lady years ago, I used to hear the milkman and think I’d better go to bed in a minute. Now I listen for my chickens and my cockerel.

 

Has seeing your work adapted for TV and theatre changed the way that you write?

I often have a big say in the process. I make sure that I script edit, I co-produced on some of them with Lavinia Warner, and you get a say in casting, the script and everything. I would advise anyone to make sure that you keep that. It hasn’t changed the way that I write. I think people need to remember that when you’re watching something you’re showing a story, when you’re reading something you’re reading a story. It’s like with Audible books; if the person reading it doesn’t capture the essence of the book, then you’re not going to carry on listening to it, y’know? I think it’s (the same) with television as well, and especially the plays. I love seeing the plays, because I love theatre anyway. I put a play on Broadway years ago, and I’ve put on four plays with Stratford theatre, and it’s a completely different ball game. When we first did Dangerous Lady and, more recently, The Take, it’s nice to see how the actors portray your characters. I can’t fault Tom Hardy. He was Freddie Jackson. He was him.

Are you someone who outlines a novel, or do you jump in?

The strange thing is, I always have a beginning and middle and an end, and then it all changes. I start writing and I have all these good intentions and then I introduce characters, and other things happen, and it just gets more convoluted. For me, that’s the perfect way to write. I have a premise, the core of the story, and then it all goes from there and gets bigger and bigger.

You have a loyal and vociferous fanbase. Do you write for them or yourself?

I’ve never written for an audience. I’ve always written for myself. When I do writers’ conferences, even the ones in the prisons, I always say to them, don’t try and please other people, try and please yourself. Write something you’d want to read and the chances are other people will want to read it, too. I pick up books at times and I know they’ve been written for an audience, for another author. I like to read a book that’s personal. The thing is, a book can sell a million copies but that’s your book. Doesn’t matter how many millions of people have read it, once you buy that book that’s your book, and you’re reading it. And you get so many pretenders come up now. The Girl On The Train was one of the most fantastic books I’d ever read. It blew me away. I was really annoyed that the film was in America, but that’s another story. Every time I saw ‘Girl’ on a book… you get overkill. Everywhere I looked I saw ‘Girl’. They’re also-rans.

How did your prison work come about?

I do a lot of writing classes in prisons. I do a lot of the top security prisons. I really, really enjoy it. I do Styal women’s (prison) It’s nice to go in and get people reading. I’m part of the Reading Agency, I’m an ambassador for them to get people reading. When we were doing the Six Book Challenge it was just fantastic. It grieves me; we’ve got the best education in the world, and then suddenly you go into the prisons and so few young men can read and write. It’s shocking. Not just to prisons. We go to workplaces, we go all over just encouraging people to read. Getting people to realise there’s a whole world in a book. You can lose the rest of the world in a book.

What do you enjoy most about being an author?

Just sitting down to write. And there aren’t many jobs where you go places and people tell you how great you are all the time! I’m sure it doesn’t happen if you’re a banker.

Is there one piece of advice you’ve had that’s always stuck with you?

I’ve had some great advice over the years. Most of it unrepeatable! The one that really stuck in my head was from Darley, my agent, and he said to me, ‘Never lose sight of who you are, no matter what happens.’ And I never did. And I think that’s really important. No matter how successful you become, keep as normal as you can. It’s the most important thing of all. My Darley’s fantastic. He’s been my agent for twenty-six years, and we’re still on a handshake. Old school.

Any advice for us as we go into our edit?

If it’s too long, cut it. Keep the reader interested. Sometimes you can go on a bit too much about the same thing. There’s only so many ways you can say certain things. Unless you’re writing sex books, then you can do what you like (laughs). Fifty Shades Of Grey. I’ve always said, if that was set in a caravan in Eastbourne it would be an episode of Criminal Minds, wouldn’t it?

The main thing about an edit is to stay true to the characters. Make sure that when you do the edit that you’re taking out what’s unnecessary and keeping in what’s necessary. That’s why you have an editor, to put you in your place!

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