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Saturday, 25 July 2015

The 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate Part Two

Lisa Gardner
Saturday kicked off with a cracking interview between Ann Cleeves and Lisa Gardner. The day before Mary Jane Riley had assured me that I’d enjoy Lisa’s writing. I certainly enjoyed listening to her speak about her research and her novels. Lisa has over twenty-two million books in print (imagine that!), which is quite something given that she’s only in her forties. She has an engaging personality and charmed the socks off the hungover Harrogate audience. Lisa told us about her visits to the infamous Body Farm in Texas and how thoroughly she researches each book. The audience was surprised to hear Ann Cleeves confess that the only thing she does in the way of research is to sit in crofters’ cottages, chatting and drinking tea. Lisa has three main crime series, featuring three very different investigators - Detective D.D. Warren; FBI Profiler Pierce Quincy and Police State Trooper Tessa Leoni. Her latest novel is Crash and Burn about the hunt for a missing girl the father claims doesn’t even exist.
I then took some time out to chat to regular Theakston Crime Festival goers, Phil and Lauren. The ever popular New Blood panel at noon was packed out. Val McDermid hosts this panel every year and told us about the large number of first novels she’s been reading since last autumn. It must have been incredibly difficult to choose just four authors to interview. The new bloods were: Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go); Ben McPherson (A Line Of Blood); Renee Knight (Disclaimer) and Lucy Ribchester (The Hour Glass Factory). These four debut novelists have quite a plethora of qualifications between them. Lucy has a degree in English from the University of St Andrews; Ben has a degree in Modern Languages from Cambridge and is a TV producer/director; Renee has worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries and has written television and film scripts; Clare Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force, including CID and was a public order commander. It made me question whether a mere ex-Modern Languages graduate and teacher stood a hope in hell of getting a novel published. The New Blood panels are always exciting, because you know that these debut novels are going to be the creme de la creme. I always go home and purchase at least one (I’m currently reading I Let You Go, which is based on a real hit-and-run incident, which took place in Oxford). I was fascinated to hear about each and every one of these novels and how they came to be written. I then thought how useless I’d be, should I ever be invited to the New Blood panel (not that there’s much chance of that!). The question and answer session was interesting, as two ladies (who were both sitting next to each other) proceeded to give an in-depth critique of two of the novels featured, one of which wasn’t entirely positive. You could sense the rest of the audience squirming in their seats. And their question? There wasn’t one. Val then asked if there was anyone in the audience who actually had a question, which caused a ripple of laughter. Val, to her credit, did point out how much writers appreciated readers who had taken the time to study their work in enough depth to give constructive feedback. Well saved, Val!
After I spent half an hour trying to extract roast beef from between my teeth (lunch provided as part of my Rover Ticket package.... the Eton Mess was lovely, however), I had great fun playing Battleshots with Sharon in one of the tents. This was one of the publicity events organised by Crime Files Books to promote James Law’s novel, Tenacity. James is a sub-mariner and we had some wonderfully entertaining conversations with him last year. I lost the game, which was good, because I got to drink a fair few rum n’ coke shots (channelling my inner pirate). Quite a crowd had gathered to watch and the photographer was snapping away. You can see the pics here.
I did a bit of mingling, then was about to go to my room for a bit of a chill and a read, when I came across Sharon in Reception.
“Are you booking for next year?” I asked.
She told me that while relaxing in her room and scrolling through Twitter feeds, she noticed Theakstons Crime had tweeted that they only had seventeen rooms left at The Old Swan for next year, so she rushed down to book.
“And I’ve booked you in, too. I’ve paid your deposit as a present.”
How wonderful is that? I’m so very lucky to have such a generous friend.
The Forensics panel is another popular event at Harrogate and one I try not to miss. The panel was hosted by Lin Anderson, creator of forensic scientist, Rhona MacLeod. She did an excellent job of extracting extremely useful information from Lorna Dawson, a Principal Soil Scientist; Niamh Nic Daeid, Professor of Forensic Science and Director of Research at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee; forensic entomologist, Martin Hall; and Professor James Grieve, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Medicine and Police Forensic Pathologist. These experts gave us a wealth of insider information and no doubt triggered a series of plot ideas for some members of the audience. Body Farms got an honourable mention once more and so did pigs heads, which are closest to human heads in the way they decompose. Niamh talked about setting fires in sixty-odd cupboard-sized rooms and pointed writers in the direction of Cardiff University’s website for up-to-date forensic information, including fingerprinting.
We’d arranged to meet our lovely writer friend, Amanda Huggins at 4.30pm and found ourselves queueing for the TV Panel at 5pm as soon as we’d said hello. This is always another popular event. We were all gutted that Sally Wainwright had cancelled earlier that week, as we are big fans of Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey. She is up there with Jimmy McGovern as one of my favourite screenwriters. This was always going to be a particularly important event for me this year, as I’ve signed up for an Arvon Course in Writing TV Drama at the beginning of August. Sally Wainwright’s are the scripts I’m going to study before departing. Anyway, Paul Abbot replaced her and I don’t think they could have picked anyone better (with the exception of Jimmy McGovern, of course).
Paul Abbot

Paul Abbot’s CV is impressive by anyone’s standards: Coronation Street, Shameless, Clocking Off, State of Play, No Offence.. to name but a few of the TV dramas he’s written. He admitted that he directly ripped off his own family situation for Shameless, which is pretty shocking in itself. His mother abandoned the family when he was nine and his father left just a couple of years later. His sixteen-year-old pregnant sister took on the role of head of household and between them, all ten children redecorated the whole house, which took them two days, working through the night and skiving off school. He said the only reason they noticed their dad had gone was because there was more room.
Abbot’s humour deflects his obvious inner turmoil. He tried to commit suicide at fifteen, was sectioned and has been in therapy for years. A classic example of the writer’s tormented soul. Abbot is softly spoken and it was difficult to catch his punchlines. He had a couple of rude stories to tell, but we missed his point. He was interviewed by the stunningly attractive Steph McGovern. She’s obviously a big fan of Paul Abbot and said how much she’d love to live inside his head for a day. Abbot said that he’s currently working on seven different projects, two as executive producer and the rest ongoing writing projects. The fact that he’s working on another series of State of Play was very popular with the Harrogate audience. He also revealed he’s working on a musical set in the Old Bailey (and he hates musicals!). There is also going to be a second series of No Offence.
Saturday night was a blast. After a quick shower and change, Mandy and I met in Sharon’s room for a large glass of red. We then walked down to the town centre, as Mandy had booked a table at L'Albero Delle Noci in Cheltenham Crescent (highly recommended). We wended our way back to The Old Swan and sat with Stuart Neville and Steve Cavanagh before mingling with Paul Finch, Col Bury and co. Apparently, the Northern Writers beat the Southern Writers at the football match and injuries were sustained (Luca Veste came off worst with a fractured ankle).
I had a lovely chat with Mandy while Sharon flitted about trying to buy a bottle of white wine that wasn’t warm. Once Mandy left for her B&B, I found myself in the company of the ‘last ones standing’ in The Old Swan bar. An hour earlier the bar declared ‘residents only’ and I was conned into putting someone’s drinks on my room bill with the promise of cash to compensate which didn’t actually materialise. Lesson learned. (He wasn’t a writer) At 4am I staggered to bed.....
I just about managed to get up for breakfast and the 10am Celebrating Patricia Highsmith panel. This was one of the highlights of the festival for me. Highsmith published eight short story collections. I consider myself (so far) to be a short story writer first, and novelist second, so she is on my list of great writers. Andrew Taylor (who reviews crime novels for The Spectator) chaired this panel (brilliantly, it has to be said) of four crime novelists: Peter James; Sarah Hilary; Martin Edwards and Peter Swanson.
Patricia Highsmith
Gay, but isolated, Patricia Highsmith was considered ‘unlovable’ and ‘unloving’... quite a character assassination. She kept pet snails and insisted on taking them to parties and smuggled them out of the country under her breasts when she moved to France. Anyone who does this obviously has a human side. She couldn’t have been all bad. Patricia Highsmith was an alcoholic. ‘Write drunk; edit sober’ was Hemingway’s infamous quote. Someone on a panel had talked earlier about tapping into the sub-conscious by writing in a dream-like state on waking. Many writers experience a more enlivening dream-like state while drinking alcohol. I think Patricia Highsmith has to be one of my all-time literary heroines. Sarah Hilary is obviously a Mr Ripley fan. This panel injected so much enthusiasm into Highsmith’s work, that I’m sure, like me, most of the audience would rush home and seek out some of her novels or short stories. Highsmith’s criminals often get away with their crimes. Now that is close to my own heart... What happens to the ones who get away?
More coffee and chats outside as well as a few goodbyes before heading off to lunch at Hales Bar. Already that feeling of anti-climax and sadness that it’s all over for another year. How can one weekend go so quickly? To compensate there is that warm feeling that I’m booked for next year.
The journey home was long and tiring, but there was the promise of telling my family all about it and feeling enthused about my crime novel once more.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate Part One

The Old Swan, Harrogate
Fast paced, intense and addictive. No, I’m not talking about the work of Patricia Highsmith nor the latest novel by Eva Dolan, but The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.
I’ve been trying to work out how many of these festivals I’ve been to. I was definitely at the 3rd one in 2005 (highlights were Kathy Reichs and Ruth Rendall) and the 4th in 2006 (highlights Ian Rankin, Jeffrey Deaver and Kate Atkinson). I was there last year and the year before (here’s a blog about the 2013 Festival). If I’ve been to any more in between, then my memories of them are hazy, to say the least.
Anyway, this year was the very best experience for me. It could well be because my good friend, Sharon Birch (aka Effie Merryl/Ash Cameron) had introduced me to so many lovely writers last year, so that this year I felt part of the gang.
Soon after we arrived at The Old Swan, Sharon and I met in her room for the obligatory bottle of pink fizz followed by Prosecco. I met her lovely husband, Steve, who polished off the complimentary bottle of Theakstons Old Peculier in my goody bag within minutes. Then after a quick change, Sharon and Steve treated me to a lovely meal at The Crown (more wine was consumed). Then it was back to The Old Swan for another drink to take into the Crime Novel of the Year Awards hosted by Mark Lawson. (If you’re getting the impression that this festival is a very boozy affair, then you’d be right). We were thrilled that our mate, Sarah Hilary won with her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin. The after-party was fun and gave us a chance to chat to more friends (I made the mistake of ordering a complimentary pint of Old Peculier instead of a glass of wine.....). Then it was time to mingle outside and drink even more wine. I had a lovely chat with both Paul Finch and Cally Taylor, as well as enjoying a brief conversation with Mark Billingham about Eddie Izzard’s marathons (Mark even offered to buy me a drink). I was one of the sensible ones who went to bed before 1.30am... Enough said.....
I admit I didn’t feel great on Friday morning, but I did make it down to breakfast, even though I couldn’t face anything cooked! I did have to go back to bed afterwards, but managed to pull myself together sufficiently to attend the 10.30am panel, They Do Things Differently There... a marvellous selection of historical crime novelists (Lindsey Davis, William Ryan, Manda Scott, Christopher Fowler and Elly Griffiths) discussing crime solving in the past. Some of the most interesting points made were that Neanderthal man actually spoke in a high-pitched voice (makes sense when you think they were much closer to apes - http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/could-neanderthals-have-high-pitched-voices); Roman buildings like the Coliseum would have been painted in bright colours and weren’t plain white; how the Romans completely changed the cultural landscape of England and how we wouldn’t recognise Boudica’s Britain at all.
Before this panel started, I had a serendipitous moment. A lady sat down next to me, leaned forward and said, “Jo?”. I felt bad for not remembering her name, but then she introduced herself as Mary Jane Riley. I’d published Mary Jane’s stories in QWF many years previously. She told me that her crime novel, The Bad Things, was coming out in August. After the panel, we went for coffee together and had a wonderful discussion about our experiences of writing crime fiction. Being able to talk about the problems I was having with my novel face-to-face was incredibly useful. We then went off for lunch together and we caught up on mutual writer friends and our families. Of course, we then had the obligatory glass of wine in the bar area, where we were joined by Sharon, clutching a bottle of water and a sandwich. She had only just surfaced (it was 2.30pm by now) and missed both breakfast and lunch. (Warning: Attending this festival can seriously damage one’s health.) We discussed the possibility of the first festival attendee to be found dead in their room.
We all trooped in to The Morality of Murder panel at 3.30pm (Belinda Bauer, Wiley Cash, Jonathan Freedland, Nicci French and Cath Staincliffe). ‘Is there anything you couldn’t bring yourself to write about?’ Cath Staincliffe asked. Husband and wife writing team Nicci French said that they were asked the same question many years previously when their children were growing up and said then that they couldn’t write about the murder of young children, then subsequently wrote about it in their next book. The general consensus was that we make sense of the senseless and of evil by writing about it. Through fiction we can bring victims justice and this doesn’t always happen in reality.
There was just time to nip off to The Slug and Lettuce for a bite to eat and a glass of wine before the next panel, Yorkshire Pride (Steve Mosby, Peter Robinson, Lee Child, Nick Quantrill and Frances Brody). Having recently decided that I must get out of the house to write, as I’m finding it impossible to write at home these days (too many distractions), it was interesting to hear that Steve Mosby wrote in Leeds pubs. Does he buy a pint and make it last three or four hours? I think a cafĂ© or library might be a safer bet for me! I was thrilled that Winifred Holtby got two mentions as being a writer who put Yorkshire on the map. South Riding is one of my favourite novels.
Sharon and I noticed that the panelists’ geography was a little shaky. Peter Robinson said that one of his Yorkshire heroes was Captain Cook, who was actually from Middlesborough (however, that may have been classed as Yorkshire at the time he was born) and another panelist mentioned that Get Carter was filmed in Yorkshire, when it was, in fact, Newcastle. Reginald Hill was born in a village two miles outside Hartlepool when it was part of County Durham, so not strictly a Yorkshireman. One more interesting fact (this time from Sharon, not the panel): There are three pub/restaurants in Benidorm called Yorkshire Pride!
Friday night was a heavy one in that there were two more events I didn’t want to miss. Mark Billingham in Conversation with Eddie Izzard followed by The Black Art of Criticism with Ann Widdecombe, Stav Sherez, NJ Cooper, SJ Parris and Jake Kerridge. The Criticism panel wasn’t quite as controversial as I’d hoped. Ann Widdecombe said that it was generally the writer who was criticised, not the work,. I liked Jake Kerridge, if only because he made it clear he thought Dan Brown was a terrible writer (‘Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal, he is now just very poor’). I couldn’t believe that ‘Widders’ had written a crime novel based on Strictly Come Dancing. Sharon foolishly parted with £10 for a copy of this self-published tome (and she was stone-cold sober!). I read the first page and was appalled at the over-long sentences and poor punctuation.
Mark Billingham

The colourfully dressed and heavily made-up Eddie Izzard was funny and weird. Mark Billingham, his old Comedy Store buddy (and fellow struggling stand-up comic back in the Eighties), was funnier, in my opinion. I am one of those people who don’t ‘get’ Eddie’s surreal humour. To think he can now fill The Hollywood Bowl at one of his stand-up nights... He has recently turned to acting and I’m told he’s very good at it. Mark Billingham, of course, turned to crime fiction writing and he’s excellent at that (I have a bit of a girl crush). Eddie left us with his answer to the theory of the universe after he revealed he drank gin and tonic while sitting in an ice bath once he’d completed each of this forty-three marathons. I hope Mark Billingham will conduct more interviews with guests next year.
After the last event of the evening, I was lucky enough to be asked to meet with Eva Dolan to discuss my novel. Eva has been so supportive of my writing and I can’t thank her enough. She always seems two steps ahead of what is happening with agents and publishers. I feel so privileged to have access to such inside information. We then joined Cally Taylor, Mark Edwards, Phil Viner and others for a lively chat about LSD and stalkers amongst other things! Phil Viner was also very generous with his advice.
The lovely Cally Taylor

This blog is going to have to be a two-parter. Writing it is proving almost as exhausting as attending the festival!