Wednesday, 2 March 2011

How Jessica Mann's crime writing career began

I was really pleased when Jessica Mann responded to my suggestion that she write something about how she got started as a writer. It's the sort of topic I find really interesting, and I'm especially keen that we hear more about writers past and present who - like me - are by no means household names.

'When Martin emailed saying he had acquired a pristine first edition of my first novel, A Charitable End, I read it again myself and found a story I’d forgotten in a tone of voice I hardly recognize. Then Martin asked me to write something about how I got started as a crime novelist.

In my head, I’d been a writer ever since I could read and was determined to be the youngest published novelist ever. I was broken-hearted at seventeen to discover that Pamela Brown had been only sixteen when The Swish of the Curtain was published. All the same, to write a novel and get it published was still my ambition though deferred and deferred again as I went to Cambridge, got married, moved to Edinburgh where my archaeologist husband was a university lecturer and had children.

Many writer friends have told me that they always felt, exactly as I did, that holding a hardback volume with one’s own name on the spine was more than a simple ambition or life-plan, it was something without which life would have been meaningless. But I had still produced little more than random scribbles when Charles was appointed to a chair at Leicester. I suddenly realised that it was now or never: write that novel before we moved south or accept that it wasn’t ever going to happen. So, at last, I got down to work, half-an-hour here and half-an-hour there, whenever I could get away from our three (at the time) small children. I have had an irregular working timetable ever since.

A Charitable End was finished shortly before we left Scotland. I sent the manuscript to Collins and got it back almost by return of post. Then a friend introduced me to an agent who took me on and sent the book back to Collins who bought it, not quite by return of post, and published it in 1973, to encouraging reviews. On republication in 1992 Gwendoline Butler wrote that the book is “a story of the secrets that can lie hidden behind a respectable façade.” (She also kindly called it “a wickedly funny picture of manners and morals in the Scottish capital, a fascinating mystery and also an understanding and sensitive novel about the position of women.”)

Why crime fiction? Partly because that was what I liked reading; partly because I was interested in what happens when the thin ice of civilised society cracks or breaks; and partly because it was a genre that was by definition not autobiographical. I had no wish for my writing to be any kind of emotional strip-tease. As I was to realise when I wrote a book about women crime writers (Deadlier Than The Male, 1981) the grandes dames of crime fiction all used it as a kind of barrier between themselves and self-revelation.

A Charitable End came out in 1973. In various ways it’s become a period piece. First of all, at 60,000 words it’s less than half the length of most 21st century crime novels. It’s written in a less colloquial style than is usual now. And it’s about middle class people.

It has become fashionable to suggest that crime fiction can only be regarded as realistic if it concerns gritty low-lifes, and investigation is only worth following if it’s performed by cops. The Edinburgh that Ian Rankin and Quentin Jardine describe or the Edinburgh of the current new wave of Scottish noir, is a very different place from the city in which A Charitable End is set, in the beautiful Georgian New Town where we lived ourselves amidst middle class respectability. Our friends were lawyers, doctors, journalists, academics (all men) and their wives who, in those pre-liberation days, didn’t have jobs, but probably did voluntary work – do-gooders, as they would later be derisively termed (would a do-badder be preferable?). I was writing about a society and a setting familiar from my own experience. But I’ve always insisted that everyone and everything else in the book was pure invention.

Or was it? With several decades of hindsight, I can see that I did borrow (probably unconsciously) aspects of people, places and predicaments that really existed; and I can recognize the naïve thought processes of the person I once was, a young woman who had been bounced into a kind of premature maturity by marriage and motherhood. A Charitable End reminds me of a happy period and lovely place, but there is much more I could and should have said about them. Perhaps, forty years on, my first book should have a sequel.'

Now, wouldn't it be great if a bit of blogging could inspire a sequel to a book dating back four decades?!


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thank you very much for hosting Jessica.

Jessica - Thank you for sharing your own experience writing your first novel. I hope you will consider a sequel :-).

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I enjoyed reading about the genesis of Jessica's first would be wonderful to have a sequel that was 40 years in the making!

Deb said...

I've been a fan of Jessica Mann (I feel as if I should say "Mrs. Mann") since I read THE EIGHTH DEADLY SIN, which has one of the most intriguing plots I've encountered in mystery fiction. I recently read (on Martin's recommendation) A PRIVATE INQUIRY, another plot with wonderfully intricate twists and turns.

Dorte H said...

Thank you Martin and Jessica for an interesting peep behind the curtain!

Martin Edwards said...

I'm glad the four of you liked this post - Jessica is a very interesting writer and I'm surprised she isn't much more widely discussed in the blogosphere.

Paul Beech said...

Martin, this is a delightful feast of a guest blog with much to savour. Thank you for hosting Jessica.

The writing of a fine debut novel in dribs and drabs, fitting it in with childcare and so on…there’s hope for me yet! (Grandchildren in my case.)

The “thin ice” point concerning civilised society is interesting. I’ve thought about it in different terms but it amounts to much the same thing: the way we can unwittingly pass through the veil and find ourselves in a parallel world where the normal rules do not apply, ill prepared to face the unknown. How terrifying, with the familiar world all around, to find it now beyond reach, with no way back…

Then there’s the fascinating point about the avoidance of self-revelation. Yes, even when determined not to give ourselves away, our subconscious can betray us in subtle ways… Of course, with authors under pressure to promote themselves these days, there’s the question of how far it’s possible to maintain privacy.

I really hope Jessica writes that sequel to ‘A Charitable End’. How fascinating, to see how the characters have fared over the years. And a feather in your blogging cap too, Martin, to have set the ball rolling…!

Regards, Paul

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Paul - yes, there is definitely hope!!!