David Mark is another writer for whom his relationship with his partner, Nikki, is an integral part of writing life. It’s all about the details and writers are not the only ones with a talent for observation.
How did you meet?
David was a journalist when we met and I was a landlady in a pub in Hull where I lived with my son. David came in one day because city councillors used to come in and someone was having a leaving do. That was the first day he’d ever come in and not the last. He kept coming back. But I had so much drama going on in my life, the last thing I needed was David hanging around.
Because of my job, he kept coming in and asking me if I knew what was going on in the old town. I told him ‘I’m not telling you anything, you’re a journalist. You’ll just get me into trouble with my customers.’
After six months of this I finally agreed to go for a drink. Three months later we moved in together. That was ten years ago.
David began as a journalist, but did he want to be a writer at that time?
His family have told me he always wanted to be a writer. He was always writing when he was little. His Nan’s got stories they’ve kept from when he was five. All he ever did was write stories and make up things. I don’t think he had lots of friends because he always had his own plot lines going in his head. As far as David was concerned, if the kids he was with didn’t know the story, they weren’t playing right. It’s strange, our daughter’s the same way, because she lives in her imagination. She has the same commitment to her own plot and can’t be bothered with anyone who’s not prepared to go along with it.
I know that some author’s partners are a good source of inspiration for their writing. Has that been the case with you?
Yes, primarily because my life has been filled with drama and I’m a bit older than David. I’ve been all over the place, because my family live in Australia. There’s lots of stories and I’ve got lots of stories to tell my family, because we’re all chatterboxes. I’ve also gathered up lot of stories from customers over the years, because I’ve lived in pubs for a long time and you learn about people when you work in that sort of environment.
They’re only so many types of people, they just have different names, depending on where you live. It’s weird, because when I started reading David’s books I knew who the characters were; or I could see parts of people in those characters. There would be tiny little things that only we would know about. For example, he would include funny things the kids had done. So I’ll be reading something and think, ‘Ah…that’s when we were on holiday’. It might be just twisted a little bit, but I know just what that piece of writing relates to.
When I first read David’s writing I found that a bit difficult, because I couldn’t get past that realisation. In everything I read, I recognised something or someone, which made it difficult to concentrate on the story. When he asked me what I thought about a story, I would go through who I thought everyone was in real life and that would get on David’s nerves a bit. I would get into trouble because I was supposed to tell him what I thought about his writing.
Then David would get on my nerves because he would stand over my shoulder saying ‘Where are you at?’ I’d tell him to stop doing that and leave me to read it.
You have made some contribution to David’s books, by providing descriptions of people or places. How did he get this information from you?
Through chatting with each other. The whole family talks all the time and we’re good at telling stories. So the places and people in his writing are just things he’s picked up from me in the time we’ve known each other. Or they may be things we’ve experienced together. Then he’ll combine that with technical knowledge he’s got from being a journalist; when he went to murder trials, crime scenes and talking with the families of girls who’ve gone missing. Very often I’ve also met some of those people in the street, because David and I both know them.
I think the books are a combination of what I know and David knows. David also has a really good sense of the place where McAvoy works because he has been there. This is what gives the books an authentic feel. But then he also has the experience of the funny side of family life that interferes with your work, which he puts in his writing. If your kids are younger, you’ve usually got some muck on your clothes, because the kids have tipped food on you, but you still have to go to work anyway and you have to wipe it off. That sort of detail is from our own personal experience. We’ve had children to deal with, businesses that have gone under and all the usual dramas that he puts in his writing; all the sorts of things that have happened to many people in the last ten years.
Between us we’ve got plenty of stories and we knew people who had more stories because of the pubs and because David was a journalist. So we not only have our own stories, but also other people’s stories as well, because they’ve given them to us.
You’re not writing the books, but it does seem you make a useful contribution to them. Does David ever talk over problems he’s having with a piece of writing.
Sometimes he does. But if he’s stuck, the best thing he can do is go for a walk. We live in rural Lincolnshire so there’s plenty of woods to walk in. We go for a long walk with the dogs and I know they’ll be something on his mind. As we walk I’ll let him talk to me. I just nod at intervals and say nothing. Or I might say ‘Well what are you going to do that for?’, or ‘That just sounds daft, who’d do that?’ Then he’ll get annoyed with me, then think about it for a bit and say ‘I see what you mean’.
I leave him to talk out his problems because I’m just there for him to talk at. While were doing that, he’ll usually unravel what he wants to do, and I’ll chip in every so often and say what I think.
We have some very funny conversations. We have friends who own a restaurant. They’ll be working behind the bar when we walk in and say to them ‘If someone was sitting on the chair over there, how would you murder them?’ That’s when everyone, including the bar staff, join in with their ideas. So when people who aren’t regulars come in they must be wondering what’s going on.
A friend of ours who’s a criminology student knows how a body would decompose, and we have her in a regular basis to pick her brains. So while we’re all having tea the questions might be ‘So if you put a body under burning tyres, or a pile of horse manure, how long would it take for the body to decompose?’ Even the kids get involved and come up with the most bizarre ways to kill someone off. Our son George came up with a way to murder someone that never made it through the final edit, because the editor thought it was too extreme. George wasn’t happy about that.
David knows what his storyline is, but I think we contribute to the details. It’s all there, but it’s all a bit of a muddle, and he has to unravel it a bit. So by talking it through with us, or getting alternative views on something he’ll know what he wants to do with it.
David also says that our personalities help him, because we’re all a little bit ‘out there’. We’re a gregarious family and we’re never the same people from one day to the next. David says I have about ten personalities, which means he can pick one of them and he has another character. Apparently I’m a combination of Trish Pharaoh and Roisin. Roisin is who he’d like me to be, but I’m just more like Trish. It’s also how he saw me when I was working.
The problem comes when David thinks I should know all the stuff Roisin does, about herbal medicine and what all the berries and plants are in wood. I do find that stuff interesting, so I will begin to learn about that so I can help him.
People talk about a writer’s life being really isolated, but it sounds as if this isn’t true.
The whole family’s involved. My aunt still lives in this country and can’t wait to read the first proof, so she can give her opinion on it. She’ll always be really constructive and because she was a manager she knows all the buzzwords.
I try and do that. With the first book Dark Winter the original manuscript, I told David there were bits in it I didn’t like. I felt really nervous about saying this because by then he’d got an agent and it was a big deal. So he asked me what I didn’t like and I told him about the parts I thought interfered with the flow of the story, but I felt maybe that was just me and I’m a slow reader. He was a bit put out by this, but when it went to edit they came back with very similar comments.
How important is your review of the book to David?
I’m not sure how much, but he does want me to tell him what I think. At first there were books that weren’t published, because it took him a long time to get a publishing deal. So I’ve seen him go through that whole process continually sending work out and trying to get an agent. We didn’t know anyone in the industry or how it worked. It’s something you’ve got to learn from scratch. It’s not often you have to do that as an adult, because you know how the job market usually works, or you know someone who does.
So ignorant of the whole industry, we just kept ploughing on and I kept seeing David getting rejections. Knowing him so well, I could see it wasn’t good. But what I do know is that you have to support the person you’re living with because they’re your family. So you have to build them up a bit and tell them, ‘You’ll be all right, you’ll be all right. I’m sure the next one’ll be okay’. It doesn’t help when the parents and grandparents are all saying ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ A writer’s partner has to be a buffer and fend them off.
This is important because all the reader ever sees is the writer and doesn’t realise how much support goes on behind the scenes.
I think it’s important to be there to support your partner, in good and bad times. When you’re partner’s getting rejections you have to live with that. You go to sleep with that person, or don’t sleep because they’re tossing and turning so much with the worry of things. It’s also new for you because you have to deal with them in that state when neither of you have been there before. So it’s a learning curve for the whole family and you have to take their tantrums on board.
I have to leave David to it for a bit, because you have to put yourself in their shoes and think ‘What if it was something really important to me, that I’d always wanted to do from childhood and someone says, “No it’s crap”’. I would be devastated and crying. So you have to be there and say ‘Right now what are we going to do? What next’ and you have to help them move on.
You have to let them have their moment, because they’re entitled to have that moment, because if they bottle it all up who knows what will happen. They’ll be standing on top of a building with a shotgun, where the publisher’s offices are. You certainly don’t want that, so you have to help them get it out of their system, within reason, and then encourage them to carry on. Although when they suffer from the rejections, you do suffer along with them, but in a different way.
So if you are living with a writer you have to understand what it is to be a writer or it will make for a very difficult relationship.
Yes, because they live in their head all the time. Sometimes they think they can make real life just like a book. So in their head they’re thinking, ‘This should be happening now’, only it isn’t. But it is happening and we need to deal with it. That’s when I have to remind David that this is real life and we have to get on with it.