Tag Archives: Ruth Rendell

Other People’s Bookshelves #39; Jenn Ashworth

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jenn Ashworth, another fine example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see in reviews over the next few weeks. So let us sit down with Jenn in her office, have a nice strong cup of northern tea (always the best) and possibly a bourbon biscuit or custard cream and  then have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…

Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

books in the office 2

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I mainly keep hold of my books – I still own anthologies of seventeenth century poetry that I last looked at in my first year of Uni. I’m very minimalist and restrained about all other kinds of stuff. Books are my indulgence. There’s always money for them, and I’m a member of a couple of libraries and have a kindle too. I have been promising myself I will go through and have a cull for ages. But I can’t predict where my interests will take me to in the future. Maybe that collected works of Aphra Benn is going to be just what I need to get the next novel into gear. Who knows? My shelves aren’t quite full, but they will be soon – even though I do buy plenty of e-books these days.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Nothing so organised as any of those things. There’s a vague system. I keep cooking books, reference books, books about nature and wildlife, astronomy, the weather, local history, maps, guides to pubs and walks and days out in Lancashire, loads of pop science books, books about card games and stuff like that – all at home in my red bookcase in my living room. We’ve got piles of board games and DVDs and National Geographics from the 1970s in there too. And paints for the kids, and their old shoes. It’s a sort of ‘everything in here’ bookcase. We could probably get rid of most of these books and rely on the internet, but I like looking up facts in books.

books in the office

At home, I have a pile of current reads next to my bed and a couple of stacks of recently-read-and-need-to-be-taken-back-to-the-office on a shelf over my desk. It’s one of those floating shelves that look quite nice but can’t really hold that many books. When it starts to wobble I take the books to work and dump them in my office. Where they stay. You can see there’s no order at all – maybe a rough chronological one in that the books I’ve read most recently are always closest to hand. I almost always remember what I have and find it when I need it, but I must clean it out sometime.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

It was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and I bought it from Sweetens with book tokens my aunt in Glasgow posted to me. She used to send John Menzies vouchers but that year it was book tokens. I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish house, though I always had a library ticket and my Uncle worked at Askews and would sometimes bring spoiled and damaged books back for me to keep. I don’t own any of the books I did have as a child – we moved when I was thirteen and left everything behind – but I have tracked down and rebought a few of the special ones I want to have with me since then. What Katy Did. Stig of the Dump. The Brothers Lionheart.  The Baby and Fly Pie. The Whitby Witches books. There’s one I’ve never been able to find – I can’t remember the title or the author – but it was about a boy who refused to go to school, built a raft and sailed away on it on the Mersey. It was narrated, I think, by his younger brother. Ring a bell with anyone?

books in the office close up 3

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I’m not guilty about any of my pleasures. Fighting fantasy game books. I’ve just rebought the reissued versions of the Fabled Lands adventure book series, in the hopes I can convince my daughter to give them a go. Ian Fleming – the boxed set of all the Bond novels. I don’t hide anything.  But now I really want to know what is on your hidden shelf and where in the house it is. Spill the beans! (Simon isn’t telling, he might after a few sherries.)

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

The Brothers Lionheart. And all the books I’ve borrowed and forgotten to give back.

books over my desk

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I used to read anything I could get my hands on. My mum had Danielle Steele books in the house and I remember reading them and being thrilled by the dirty bits. I had a library ticket and would borrow all kinds of weird stuff – there was a huge book called The Empty Fortress which was about children with autism written by an American consultant – I used to borrow that when I was eleven and renew it as many times as they’d let me. I don’t have it anymore but I would like to have it – if only to try and work out what it was that enchanted my younger self so much. I read Agatha Christie – all of them, lots of D. H. Lawrence – textbooks books about deaf culture and British Sign Language, books about wild flowers and foraging and self-sufficiency. I was probably quite an odd child. I suppose because I didn’t have much to do with school and didn’t have a bookish family there was no-one to tell me what kinds of books were the right ones, and which ones weren’t.  Indiscriminate and guiltless reading is something I’ve tried to carry into my adulthood.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I do borrow copies of people’s books and am terrible about giving them back. Horrific. I would give it back if pressed. And yes, probably buy my own copy if it was something that had altered me. Most books do, in some ways. I’m feeling guilty now.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I bought the Fabled Lands books – all six of them – and The Secret Lives of Trees by Colin Tudge which I am currently reading. I also bought A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherly which I’m reading alongside the trees book. A strange and completely satisfactory combination, like fruitcake and cheese.

recent arrivals at the office

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

The one I mentioned earlier about the boy who didn’t go to school. I am haunted by it. Perhaps I imagined it. I had it in hardback and it had a dark brown cover. The implication was that this boy had committed suicide in the Mersey on this raft rather than go to school. I was utterly undone by it. I hope I find it one day. Maybe I did imagine it. I might buy the Empty Fortress if I can find it.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I suppose they’d think I was a bit of a book hoarder, was tough on my paperbacks (they are always tattered and written in, with post-its hanging out and bent spines, watermarked from reading in the bath, curry stained, dotted with tea and tears (!) They’d probably notice I had particular obsessions and favourite authors but that I was a magpie generalist.

books by the side of the bed

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A huge thanks to Jenn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about Jenn visit her website here. I am still beaming at the fact Jenn loves the Whitby Witches which I loved too. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Jenn’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions? And can you help her discover what that book with a boy on the Mersey was all about?

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Savidge Reads Grills… Val McDermid

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting up with the lovely Val McDermid for a good long coffee and catch up thanks to the joys of twitter and knowing she was in the vicinity. I hadn’t seen her since she came and talked at Bookmarked Literary Salon last year, so we had much to discuss. When I got back I suddenly thought ‘hang on, didn’t I do a Savidge Reads Grills… with Val?’ It turned out I had last year when her latest novel ‘The Retribution’ came out and then very naughtily hadn’t used it, probably because I had done an interview with her for We Love This Book. Well ‘The Retribution’ is out in paperback now, you can see my review here, and so I thought that I would post it today as it seemed timely.

For those crazy people who haven’t read a Tony Hill novel yet, how would you describe the series of books he features in?

The Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novels are dark psychological thrillers that explore the extremes of what human beings are capable of doing to each other.  Tony is a psychologist who profiles for the police, Carol is a senior detective. Tony explores crimes by worming his way into the head of the killer; Carol uses more traditional detective techniques. He is motivated by compassion and empathy, she is motivated by justice. And at the heart of the books is the relationship between them, a relationship that is complicated by the damage they have both sustained in the cases they have worked.

Do you think people can come into the series at any point, especially with ‘The Retribution’ which sees one of Tony Hill’s old adversaries’s returning to the scene?

Each book in the series can stand alone but if you start at the beginning and read them in order, it will be a richer and more complete experience.

Have you ever liked one of you criminal characters, you see I think Jacko Vance is a brilliant psychopath… though that might say more about me as a reader maybe?

I don’t like them in the sense of wanting to go out for a beer with any of them. But I feel a sense of satisfaction when I think I’ve achieved a villain that feels like a three-dimensional character. Even if all three of those dimensions are pretty dark!

Each of your books is very different, be they in a series or a standalone, where do the ideas generate from? Does the murder come first or the story itself?

Occasionally it will be the murder, in the sense of a scenario for the crime or even an unusual method (such as the murder of the footballer in Beneath The Bleeding). But mostly it’s a situation or an interesting piece of information that sets me off on the ‘what if?’ game.  Sometimes it’s an anecdote told by a friend, or a throwaway line in a radio programme or a magazine article. It could be anything, as long as it piques my interest.

And how do you know if the story is one for a series or one that needs to simply standalone?

I can tell from the shape of the story, pretty early on. Rule of thumb – if it’s a serial killer, it’s probably Tony & Carol. If not, it’s going to need a whole new cast of characters.

Do you think Lindsey Gordon or Kate Brannigan will be coming back soon? Is there another series waiting in the wings?

I don’t know. And I don’t know. It depends what shouts loudest inside my head. I know the next two books will be a standalone followed by another Tony & Carol, and that’s all I can say right now.

How did it feel when Wire in the Blood the series was made, is it hard to see your work adapted?

I was very well served by the adaptation. I thought we ended up with excellent TV that felt like it occupied the same fictional landscape as the books. Coastal Productions took an unusually collaborative approach in the development and making of the show, and that is a large part of the reason it ended up being something I was very comfortable with.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your books or is it something you avoid at all costs?

It’s a great way of getting the word out about books that excite and fulfill readers. There are so many books out there and relatively few are reviewed in the traditional media. There’ s a huge range of bloggers but once you find a few who are in tune with your own tastes, it can be a fast track to finding new writers to enjoy. I have my own personal preferences, and yes, it’s gratifying to read good things about my work.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it an easy thing for you to do?

I first knew I wanted to be a writer when reading the Chalet School books revealed that being a writer was a proper, paid job, not just something people did out of the goodness of their hearts! I came from a very non-traditional background for a writer – I grew up in a working class family in a mining community. But I was always encouraged to read, to educate myself and to work hard. All of which came in very handy. I had a couple of false starts in my creative writing career – including enough rejection letters to paper the bathroom — but once I began to write crime fiction, it all came together.

Is there anything you wish you hadn’t written in a book?

Nothing I can think of except maybe one dedication! And no, I’m not going to tell you which one.

You have always loved crime fiction, what is it that you love so much about the genre?

I love that it gives me the opportunity to put characters under pressure and see what that makes them do. I love that moment of delight when I finally get the plot to make sense so that all the other elements of the book can fall into place. I love that there’s room to write decent prose while still moving the story along. And I love that crime writers take their work but not themselves seriously.

Do you ever think a crime book will win the Booker Prize?

Why does it matter? Really, crime writers and readers need to stop being so chippy about this. We know the quality of the best of our genre. We don’t need the imprimatur of the Booker or any other prize to justify ourselves.

Which books and authors inspired you to write?

Elinor M Brent Dyer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Norman MacCaig, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Sarah Paretsky. And many, many others.

Are there any books you wish you had written yourself?

Treasure Island.

Which contemporary authors do you turn to?

Margaret Atwood. Ali Smith. Reginald Hill. James Sallis. James Lee Burke. Kate Atkinson. Michael Robotham.  Andrea Camilleri. And many, many others.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I get out of bed, I shower, and I drink two cups of coffee. I eat bacon and beans and a portion of fruit. I go out to the office, turn on the music and start the writing day revising what I wrote the day before.  That’s pretty much it.

Which one book must all Savidge Readers run out and buy right now, which is your very favourite?

I don’t have a favourite. I really don’t.

What is next for Val McDermid?

A standalone called The Vanishing Point. Then another Tony & Carol. And maybe another radio drama serial, because I really enjoyed the one I did this spring.

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A big thanks to Val for doing this. If you want to see any of the other previous Savidge Reads Grills then do pop and have a look. Reading this interview back and seeing Val last week has reminded me I must read ‘Wire in the Blood’ very soon. Which of Val’s books have you read? Have you stuck with the series, the standalones or both?

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Savidge Reads Grills… Sophie Hannah

Sometimes you just have to be a little bit cheeky and when I emailed some of my favourite authors about books they would recommend for the summer I then cheekily followed it up with ‘you wouldn’t want to do a Savidge Reads Grills too would you?’ One of the authors who instantly said ‘yes’ was Sophie Hannah who has become a favourite with me ever since Polly of Novel Insights told me I simply had to read the short story collection ‘The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets’ (when I was a bit vaguer in my reviewing) and then I moved onto her rather addictive crime series, the latest of which ‘A Room Swept White’ comes out in paperback today, what a pleasant coincidence…

For those people who haven’t read any of your series (we can call it a series, can’t we?) of crime novels as yet, can you try and explain them in a single sentence?
They are psychological suspense novels with a police procedural element.  That was the single sentence; now here are some more sentences, because I’m a rebel and hate doing what I’m told: the mysteries in my novels tend to be ‘high-concept’, because I love impossible-seeming scenarios which are then made possible.  I might also describe them as emotional-psychological mysteries.  The mystery element is crucial to me – as a reader of crime fiction, the main thing I want is to be desperate to turn the pages and find out what’s going on, and so that’s the feeling I try to create in my books.  I have heard some crime writers say that their main aim is to make a political point or discuss social issues, or dissect contemporary Britain/America/Belgium (er, actually, no one says it about Belgium) in their crime novels, but I am all about story.  A great novel can manage without a politically relevant theme, but it can’t manage without a fantastic plot and complex, interesting, problematic characters (though it often thinks it can and it sometimes wins the Booker Prize for thinking so!)

They are all very different.  How does each book come about?  Where are the ideas born? 
Firstly, I’m so glad you think my books are all very different!  One of the challenges of writing a series – and, yes, they are a series, even though they are also standalones, because I like to have my cake and eat it! – is to make each book sufficiently different to the others so that readers don’t get bored, at the same time as making them similar enough to reassure readers that they are still in the same imaginative world. 

For example, Ruth Rendell can move from London to Kings Markham and back again in her fiction, and that’s interesting and creates a healthy sense of variety within her oeuvre, but if she suddenly wrote a novel set in Nashville in which all the protagonists were Stetson-wearing country and western singers, I might (as one of her avid readers) feel rather alarmed! 

To answer your question (ahem!), the ideas almost all come from my own life and (extensive) suffering.  So, I once nearly mixed up my baby with another baby (Little Face), once had a very problematic relationship with my mother-in-law (Little Face), many times have fallen in love with poisonous narcissistic tossers (Hurting Distance), have been a stressed and bitter mother of small children, wondering who invented the strange form of torture known as parenthood (The Point of Rescue), have been and still am obsessed with art and doomed love (The Other Half Lives).  In fact, the only one of my books that was not inspired by my own life was the latest one, A Room Swept White – that’s about controversial cot-death murder cases, and was inspired by true stories such as those of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel and others.  Though even in that book, there’s an autobiographical element – although, since the book is so new, I’m still at the stage of pretending the autobiographical bits are fiction! 

Do you find it hard thinking of the impossible and then making it possible?
Yes, I find it very hard – but that’s the challenge.  And you’ve neatly summarised my mission statement as a writer – well, almost.  It’s not so much about finding the impossible and making it possible, it’s about demonstrating, via gripping stories, that what most people believe is impossible is actually possible.  In our lives, we often say, ‘But that’s impossible’, or ‘I just can’t believe it’ – but once you know the full story, suddenly it’s a lot more believable.  I have a plausibility test that I use for all my plots, which is, ‘Could this story happen once?’  If the answer is yes, then the story is plausible, in my view.  Whereas I think, for a lot of people, plausible means, ‘Does this happen regularly and have I been told about endless instances of it by Huw Edwards on the BBC news?’

Do you mind your books being labelled crime, as they are more than that really, aren’t they? The fit into the Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill world of literary crime…
I certainly don’t mind my novels being labelled as crime – it’s a label I’m proud to wear.  As a reader, I like being able to head straight for the crime section of a bookshop, knowing I will find books there that contain mysteries.  I know a lot of writers protest about being labelled, but it’s useful for people buying the books if they are divided into categories.  ‘Crime Fiction’ is a category that contains, as you say, writers like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill, Barbara Vine, Karin Alvtegen, all of whom are great writers.  I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of anyone’s crime novels being ‘more than’ crime fiction, because that suggests there’s a limit to what a crime novel can be, and I don’t believe there is.  Look at Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Black Prince’ – undoubtedly a crime novel, and also one of the best novels ever written, full of depth and substance and ideas.  I like to think that my novels are novels as well as crime novels – just as a Calzone is an Italian meal as well as a pizza.

Your novels are becoming a TV series – how much involvement are you having with it? Was it hard to say yes, because it’s something you created? Who would be your dream cast?
I’m hardly involved at all – I’ve had the odd lunch and phone call with the TV people, and they send me updates, but I’m definitely at one remove.  I feel rather like a parent of a child at boarding school, and Hat Trick and ITV1 are the house master and…  Hm, this metaphor’s getting too complicated.  It wasn’t hard to say yes – I love the idea of the books being adapted for telly.  The telly versions will be very different, but that’s fine, because the books will still exist.  My dream cast?  Well, the cast is being assembled at this very moment, so I know almost definitely who is going to play Charlie Zailer for example (can’t say, I’m afraid, in case it falls through!).  My dream cast will be the actual cast, once I know who they are.  I will be so chuffed that they are willing to play my characters – it’d be outrageous of me to prefer anyone else to them.

Are you working on any poetry at the moment? Have you always wanted to write both fiction and poetry or does one have a particular place in your heart over the other?
I am writing the occasional poem at the moment, but mainly I’m concentrating my energies on my crime fiction.  This isn’t as unfair as it sounds – I have written hundreds of poems, if not thousands, and only six crime novels so far, so I think a little bit of positive discrimination is in order!

Do you think that having two rather literary parents has anything to do with you becoming a writer either by genetics or the environment you grew up in?
Genetics – I doubt it.  Environment?  Yes, definitely.  Everyone in my family was and is obsessed with books.  I was a writer waiting to happen.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it an easy thing for you to do?
I was never aware of wanting to be a professional writer – writing was simply my hobby, what I did when I was supposed to be doing school work, college work, university work and then, later, secretarial work.  I never had the chance to want to write, because I was always writing.  Then, at a certain point, people started to suggest to me that I should send stuff off to publishers, and I did – and it was great when my work started to reach an audience, but I don’t remember ever thinking, ‘I’d like to be a writer.’  It sort of happened organically.  I always assumed I would never make any money from writing, and that was fine – and then, when I started to earn my living as a writer, that was even better.  But I will always write, whether people pay me to do so or not – I’m obsessed with writing.

How long have you been writing for? Which books and authors inspired you to write?       
I think I wrote my first poem when I was six.  It began, ‘However young, however old/a bear will never catch a cold’.  My free-verse-loving detractors might argue that my style hasn’t evolved much since then!  Many, many authors have inspired and continue to inspire me: Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Daphne DuMaurier, Iris Murdoch, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Karin Alvtegen, Jill McGown, Wendy Cope, Edna St Vincent Millay, George Herbert, Robert Frost, E.E Cummings, CH Sisson, Douglas Kennedy, Diane Setterfield, Robert Goddard, Jesse Kellerman, Nicci French…  Oh, and my favourite newish writer: Tana French, who is absolutely brilliant.  I would advise anyone who cares about fiction and crime fiction to read her latest, ‘Faithful Place’.

Are there any books you wish you had written yourself?
No – because I’d rather read my favourite books, in awe of the writers, than have written them myself and be unable to see them clearly and appreciate them.  One’s own books are always viewed through a veil of neurosis!

Which contemporary authors do you rate who are writing right now?
Everyone on the above list who isn’t dead, plus: Jane Hill, Sophie Kinsella, Tim Parks, Geoff Dyer, M R Hall – there are so many!

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
I write between 11 am and 7 pm, with an hour’s break for lunch – weekdays only, unless there’s a deadline emergency!  Since giving up smoking, I have taken to chewing a needle while I write.  It’s a mental thing to do, but it’s non-carcinogenic.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your books or is it something you avoid at all costs?
You’re asking the wrong person!  I regularly complain that I can’t put a video tape into a machine any more and record TV programmes, and when people start talking to me about SkyPlus I nod and smile, but have no clue what they’re talking about.  I’m not against new digital thingies, but I’m too busy to find out what they are or take part in them – so I’m stuck with the technology that existed before I became too busy.  But I do sometimes read blogs, especially yours, because you say nice things about my books.  I also find time to surf property websites, I’m a Phil and Kirstie addict…

What is next for Sophie Hannah?
Funnily enough, my next thriller (out next Feb) has a property website theme.  It’s called ‘Lasting Damage’.  Here’s the blurb: It’s 1.15 a.m. Connie Bowskill should be asleep. Instead, she’s logging on to a property website in search of a particular house: 11 Bentley Grove, Cambridge. She knows it’s for sale; she saw the estate agent’s board in the front garden less than six hours ago.

Soon Connie is clicking on the ‘Virtual Tour’ button, keen to see the inside of 11 Bentley Grove and put her mind at rest once and for all. She finds herself looking at a scene from a nightmare: in the living room there’s a woman lying face down in a huge pool of blood. In shock, Connie wakes her husband Kit. But when Kit sits down at the computer to take a look, he sees no dead body, only a pristine beige carpet in a perfectly ordinary room…

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