I am grateful to the many authors whose writing plunges me into all sorts of adventures. But I am also to grateful to their partners, working away in the background making sure that, with their support, novels continue to be written for my enjoyment. So I decided, whenever possible, I would interview the silent partners of the writing world, to acknowledge their contribution to an author’s writing life.
First up is Mo, Mari Hannah’s partner, who kindly allowed me to interview her at the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival.
How did you both meet?
We met at a party of a mutual friend. We were sitting in a corner, both very bored. We struck up a conversation and hit it off right away.
What stage was Mari at then with her writing?
She was at no stage at all. She was in a bad place, going through a divorce, contemplating life as a single parent. She’d have liked to join the police but had young children to look after and would never have managed the shifts. Eventually, she applied to become a probation officer, a job she did for 15 years, until she was assaulted. That brought a sudden halt to her career.
It was a nasty assault that required surgery, after which she couldn’t use her right hand – not even this much. You’re recording this, Elaine. I feel like I should say: for the benefit of the tape I’m pinching my finger and thumb together. It was a struggle for her to work. She was a Crown Court Liaison officer. Being vulnerable, the service had put her there to remove her from a face-to-face situation with clients. The problem was, she’s right-handed and couldn’t make handwritten notes or use an audiotape in the courtroom. This effectively meant she had to be retired from the service.
Mari realised she was going to have major problems unless she got her hand working again. She began typing at home to get her fingers moving properly. This is when the writing started and hasn’t stopped. Writing was physiotherapy but also a way of keeping her mind active. When all of a sudden you don’t have a job and you’ve been cast aside because of a disability, you have to do something, and she was damned if she was going to be a victim for the rest of her life.
She’s always liked writing. She used to write funny little odes for friends. She never imagined she’d become a professional writer until much later. But when the story she was writing finally began to develop – she got huge enjoyment out of creating fictional characters – and began to dream that it might happen one day.
People don’t realise that behind most writers is a partner supporting them. During this difficult time you must have provided a great deal of emotional and practical support for Mari.
Initially, not a great deal because I was at work. Writing was something that Mari did alone. To be honest, I didn’t really have time to pay attention to what she was doing. It was only when she pitched ideas for a writers’ scheme – a project to write a movie – I really began to take notice.
Even at that early stage, I could see she had a lot of talent because she was noticed by the BBC and offered a place on a drama development scheme to write The Murder Wall as a crime pilot for TV. That’s when she began asking questions about the police, murder investigations in particular. She’d ask me, ‘What would happen in a situation like this?’ I’d tell her and then she’d say, ‘No, I mean, if it was you, what would you say to your team?’ So my input was largely dialogue and it developed from there. Having said that, I’m not Kate Daniels and the stories are all Mari’s.
Mari worked in the criminal justice system for many years and knew it well: in prisons, courts, as part of a family support team, in a generic field team and with victims. Not a lot of people know this but she used to lecture to Northumbria Police CID on her work with sex offenders in prisons. Not an easy task. Make no mistake: she knows her stuff. My contribution was and is very small.
When did you begin reading Mari’s work?
I’ve always read her work. It means a lot to me because I’m the only one who does. Close family offered but she chose me. She was too embarrassed to show anyone else. She went to a writers’ group for a while, which she found interesting, but it was too broad. It was made up of poets, playwrights and short story writers. It wasn’t specific enough. When you’re writing an extended piece of work, you need to be with people who are doing likewise and understand the structure, although she got a great deal of support and positive feedback. I read her work because I’m interested in what she’s doing. My input came later but it’s minimal, nothing significant.
You might not think so, but the ‘Devil is in the detail’.
Yes, that’s true. But there can be too much detail, too much procedure. As Mari’s agent has said – on many occasions – she knows too much! The tendency is to put it in. Lots of it gets edited out.
You’ve got to remember, Mari and I have been together for years. She knows many of my friends and colleagues, people she’s met at parties. Did I mention she likes parties? She soon became part of the gang. So she knows almost as much about the police as I do. Writing is all about observation. She’s really interested in people and they love her.
I know the procedural details but Mari studied law for her degree before she joined the probation service. This means she’s very knowledgeable in that regard, although I have been known to come out with the occasional funny anecdote.
It is clear that you are very much on board with Mari’s work, but it could be a situation where a writer’s partner might feel excluded from that part of their life.
Well, obviously writing is all consuming. If you live with a writer, you know that. You become attuned to it very quickly. I’ll often talk to Mari, telling her something I want her to know. It appears that she’s listening, but a couple of days later she’ll say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’ I’ll say ‘I did tell you’. ‘No you didn’t,’ comes the reply. Not wishing to use clichés, but if she’s ‘in the zone’ I haven’t a hope in hell of getting through. Talking to her is impossible.
So have you learned to work with her coming in and out of the writing ‘zone’?
Yes. If she’s at a particularly tricky point with her writing and needs time to think it through, I just leave her be. She’s absolutely in ‘the zone’ and I don’t get a look in. She’ll say to me ‘You never told me to come down for lunch,’ or ‘my coffee’s cold’. Of course, I did tell her. I can literally go in, put her coffee down, tell her it’s there and it’ll still be there when I go back with the next one. I can feel how intense it gets for her. I can sense it because she has an office upstairs, above the kitchen, where I spend quite a bit of time chained to the Aga. Occasionally I’ll hear the chair roll around the floor but, when she’s really into it, there’s not a sound from above. I know not to interrupt her then or I’d get my head in my hands to play with.
When I was a detective, Mari was a huge support to me in all sorts of ways. She did just about everything. So when she lost her career I wanted to support her in whatever way I could so she could do something else. Writing is her passion, just as being a copper was mine. You don’t become an overnight success. You have to work extremely hard to get there. I’m an all or nothing kind of girl. I totally get why Mari writes and the effort required. If you’re going to be successful – in whatever you do – it’s full on. It consumes you. No one makes it unless they’re prepared to give it their all.
It couldn’t have been easy when Mari had a period of continual rejection for her work, particularly when one of the rejections was very unkind.
Yes, it was really difficult – the one you referred to was very unkind – and I told Mari to keep at it. I hated seeing what rejection did to her. It was heartbreaking. I began to question if she’d ever get published but she never gave up and that’s the difference between an amateur and a pro. She’s a pro. She has a belief that drives her to do her very best. Before she was published, very few people knew she was scribbling away in an office. It wasn’t something she talked about. Those that did know would look at her sideways and change the subject, or say something like: yeah, yeah, like that’s ever going to happen. It’s a case of, when do you decide you’re writer, something they talked about on ‘The Good Old Days’ panel – a panel at the Theakstons Crime Festival this year –. One of the panellist said, if you write, you’re a writer. I totally agree.
As Mari’s partner, I’m in it for the long haul, just as she is. There’s a time in a writer’s career when they think: ‘You know what? I can do this.’ Partners are the same. I knew she’d make it because the BBC had identified her as an upcoming writer, Northern Film & Media in Newcastle had shown an interest and others were telling her they loved her stuff. These were key people with loads of experience of finding new voices. They couldn’t all be wrong. There had to be something there.
Do you think you think you’ve helped by putting things into perspective for Mari during the course of her writing career?
Mari doesn’t need anyone to hold her hand. She wrote for years without being paid or having a deal. Anyone who’s daft enough to think that you can go into it half-heartedly doesn’t understand what it’s about, or how much patience and commitment it takes. You write because you love it. If it’s your passion, you enjoy it, and that’s the way it should be. It’s like the police. You join because it fires your jets, not because you love the uniform or look forward to the pension. You do it because there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.
Does she get excited/worried when she’s waiting on a book deal?
When it comes to deals, Mari doesn’t concern herself too much with that. She has a wonderful agent whom she loves. He’s a super guy who takes that pressure off her so she can write. Self-publishing doesn’t interest her, the business side of getting a book out there, finding jackets, marketing and stuff. Her priority is the writing. She’s fortunate to have a publisher who believes in her, does all that for her. That gives her confidence.
Mari has her moments like everyone else. Publishing is in a state of flux. Don’t get me wrong, she’s neither over-confident or cutting her throat. But she’s an optimist by nature, prepared to listen to good advice. I’ve never needed to say ‘Mari, calm yourself down, there’s a book deal coming up.’ She takes it as it comes and has an agent to manage her expectations. I wouldn’t like his job! She’s content to leave him to it, pretty much. They share a vision and she trusts him.
If Mari doesn’t want to do something, she won’t do it. Life is too short to do things you don’t get pleasure out of. She loves social media, meeting other writers, in person and on Twitter. It’s a lonely business otherwise. We come to these events, because we love meeting people who are doing the same job – and we are both readers too. We just love books.
You really understand why a writer writes and the writing process, as well as all the social aspects surrounding it.
I don’t think it takes long before you understand the writing process. If your partner is a writer, then that’s what they do. They spend a lot of time on Twitter chatting with people. I’m more of a spectator but when I come to events like this crime writing festival I feel I know people I’ve never met face-to-face because I’ve seen them on social media. It’s great to be the company of people who love to read and write. Harrogate is a great place to be.