Christina James and the Complications of Keeping it ‘In the Family’
When I found that Christina was going to have a crime novel published by Salt, I just had to see it. The thrill did not diminish with the reading. It’s one of those books that although once you’ve read it you can remember exactly what happened, you want to read it again, to pick up all the things you missed the first time round. It is not a lazy read, but an intensely psychological whodunit, without unnecessary on-the-page violence, and where nothing is quite as it seems. So if you fancy an engrossing crime read, with a literary feel to it, then ‘In the Family’ should go down nicely, curled up with a hot mug of tea.
Your book has the feel of someone who has come from an academic background.
It’s interesting you noticed that. I do come from a quasi-academic background, in that I have several degrees in literature and have taught in a university for a while. However, my main career has been in bookselling and I’m very proud to have been able to call myself a bookseller. My last job before I started working for myself was Business Development Director at Waterstone’s.
When I was working at Waterstone’s, it and HarperCollins actually launched the first commercially-available retail e-book in the UK, in the year 2000. I, therefore, had to get my head round all the e-book technology. You have to remember that, at that time, e-book platforms and formats were just emerging. The trade-name of the technology supporting this e-book was Glassbook; the company was eventually swallowed up by one of the other e-book producers. Because Glassbook had not completely finished building its product when the contract was signed, and also because I ran foul of the murky world of Permissions, it took a very long time to get the e-book jointly posted on the Waterstone’s and HarperCollins websites. Its title was the ‘E before Christmas’; my boss David Kneale, the CEO of Waterstone’s at that time, said, ‘You’d better call this book, ‘The E before Easter’, because you’re never going to get it out before Christmas.’! We finally managed to post it about two or three days before Christmas. I’ve looked up the hardback version of the book since; it’s become a collector’s item. It now costs around £50 from Abe Books.
Why did you decide to write a crime novel?
I suppose that, like most authors, I have always been a writer; it’s just that I haven’t always been a published author. I’ve written three novels that have never been published and, of those, I’ve only tried to publish one. That was a long time ago. I actually sent it to the old Jonathan Cape and got a rejection slip from Liz Calder.
I didn’t understand at the time how encouraging that rejection slip was; she had said, ‘You can write, but this is not a commercial novel.’
It was just before my son was born, so I gave up writing for a little while. I subsequently wrote the other two novels. When I went to a Bloomsbury crime writing event recently, I found out that most published writers will often have written six novels, some of them probably excellent books, before one is accepted by a publisher. Now that I know this, I think that I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been so lucky to have been encouraged by Chris and Jen at Salt Publishing. My first three novels were ‘literary’, but I’ve always liked reading crime. Research shows that academically-inclined women like to read crime for relaxation. I think that may be because, although they want something relatively easy to read, they also like a book that keeps their analytical faculties working away in the background. Another demographic group that shows a strong interest in crime is men in their late twenties and early thirties who have been educated to degree level. They’re also likely to have jobs that require using analytical expertise, so I guess the same applies to them. I put together all the things that I like and know about into In the Family. For example, I’m very interested in history and I’m still devoted to the Fens; I grew up in Spalding, in Lincolnshire. I knew that not much fiction has been set in the Fens. I also like biography and reading crime novels. So I put all those things together and thought, ‘Well, maybe I should be writing crime.’
I talked to Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing about this and asked him to mentor me. He didn’t spend a great deal of time on it; he told me to write some short stories first, as a kind of limbering-up exercise. I therefore wrote a series of short stories about the place in which I live now, a village in the Pennines, which I might try to publish one day.
After I’d completed the stories, I sent Chris an outline and three chapters of the crime novel and he provided me with some constructive criticism. We worked out a kind of timetable and, after that, all he did was check in periodically to see that I was broadly following it. This helped tremendously, because it gave me both the impetus and the confidence to keep going. Although he had helped me in this way, it was on the understanding that Salt wouldn’t necessarily accept the book.
I think Salt Publishing sets the bar quite high and so I’m absolutely delighted that Chris did accept In the Family. The work that Chris and Jen are doing is wonderful; they have created a very interesting publishing house. They struggled for years before Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse provided them with a well-deserved breakthrough for Salt. It has not only helped to increase Salt’s profile, but also contributed to the financial resources needed to publish further top-quality books.
I used to facilitate the publisher advisory group for Lightning Source, the Print on Demand company, in the first years after it set up in the UK. Chris was one of the founder members of the group. Salt Publishing used Print on Demand (POD) exclusively at first. It now uses a conventional printer for initial print runs; some of its titles are still made available via POD, but only after they’ve been conventionally printed first. The initial print run of In the Family was 1000 copies; I think that shows a great deal of faith in a first novel.
So you were given an idea of how to get the writing started. But it’s such a complicated plot, full of subtle clues and set in different time periods. How did you keep control of the whole story?
I wrote a very detailed outline. In fact, I found myself writing the novel as I was writing the outline. I condensed it and sent it to Chris. I wrote it in sections, because, of course, it has two kinds of voice: that of an omniscient narrator or authorial voice and that of Hedley Atkins. I had to revise it quite a lot, because I didn’t write it in sequence. I’d get on a roll with the Hedley Atkins’ part, so I’d concentrate on that. Then I’d go out for a walk with the dog (he is an English pointer, so he has to walk at least three miles a day) and I’d be thinking about the next bit while I was out walking. I realised, when I put it all together, that it needed quite a lot of tidying up to make sure it was all presented in sequence. Even after the proof copies had been sent out, an acute proof reader realised that one of the chapters was out of sequence.
It is a very untidy way of writing, but I have spoken to other writers and it would appear they also often don’t write their books in sequence. It certainly helps if you can do it, because otherwise you really are making the whole process of writing a novel very difficult. Almost Love (the next DI Yates crime novel) hasn’t been written in sequence either. It’s the way I work. It’s something I’m just going to have to live with; so I’ll always have to be very careful when I revise afterwards.
You have used a very intimate narration by one of the key characters, Hedley Atkins. Why did you choose to do that?
Although people told me you could never do it or you shouldn’t do it, I have flouted convention by not making it entirely clear who committed the murder. I know that there are other novels where you occasionally get a glimpse of the perpetrators, but they can be very one-dimensional (you are just meant to think that that person is really evil), whereas what I hoped to do with Hedley was to create sympathy for him and his predicament, with all the things that have happened to him and how he is part of a bigger mystery. In the same way, although Tirzah is a much darker character than Hedley, I did hope to create some kind of sympathy for her as well. Everybody in the family is meant to be a victim of their own circumstances to a certain extent. I would say that there is only one thoroughly evil character in the book and that character does not actually commit a murder.
On this theme of flouting convention, something that should irritate but doesn’t, because of how well the novel is written, is the delivery of minutiae in people’s appearance and behaviour. Why did you do that?
I think that’s just me. I have ‘flattened’ my writing a lot; it used to be more literary than it is now. I’ve made a conscious effort to eradicate ‘purple prose’. But if you talk to my friends, they think it’s hilarious that I can go back into the past and reproduce old conversations almost verbatim. I can also remember what people were wearing over thirty years ago. On the other hand, in some ways I’m totally impractical. I am always getting lost; I’m famous for having arrived late at a meeting in Cambridge (a place that I visit often) because I took a wrong turning and ended up in Saffron Walden!
The places, people and conversations in the book aren’t all drawn from memory. There’s much more fiction than real life in it. So the way in which it is written is probably the way I interact with reality. It’s about seeing things in pictures.
Much of the detailed observation is actually relevant to the whole mystery that DI Yates is trying to solve. The dialogue is an important part of this and needs to be very closely read to pick up all the nuances. One key example is when Tim and Juliet, his sergeant, go to visit Tirzah in her nursing home. The interactions that are going on there are extremely complex. How easy was this to write?
It wasn’t very easy, but generally I spend a great deal of time on writing dialogue. I have to go over it several times before it rings true in my head. I think I’ve read quite a lot of novels where the plot and the description are great, but the dialogue has let the writer down. So I do work on that quite hard, until it seems to me to ring true.
Clues are drip-fed in throughout the whole story; how did you make sure this was done properly?
I think my rather messy habit of not writing in sequence helps with trying to get this type of writing to work. Having said that, when I revised the novel, I had to take elements of it and work through them to make sure that I had done it correctly. For example, I had to make sure that the plastic Red Indians that feature so prominently in the story didn’t pop up in the wrong place.
The characters seem to live in the type of place that is just not seen today. Tirzah’s mother works as a housekeeper and Tirzah’s in-laws seem to have a house that’s part house, part shop. Where did you get the idea for these situations?
None of the characters in the book is drawn from life, although there are some characteristics or elements in the characters that I have noted in real people, but what very much is drawn from life is the picture of Spalding, particularly the house that Ronald grew up in. I didn’t realise it at the time, but both my grandmothers lived in extraordinary houses. In the story, the house where the first murder was committed was also a local shop. One of my grandmothers lived in a similar house, in which the front room had been made into a shop. The house had been built in the nineteenth century. The people who lived there when I knew it were my great-uncle and my grandmother; their parents had been the original owners. My grandmother and great-uncle had changed very little of it.
The furniture and other fittings had all been bought before 1900, when my great-grandparents were married. So this house was the kind of house that the National Trust sometimes buys today, in which everything’s been preserved at a point in time. As a child, I just thought that everybody’s grandmother lived in a house like that.
My other grandmother lived in an even more extraordinary house at a place called Sutterton, which is about eight miles from Spalding. I think it was the biggest house in Sutterton, and was called ‘The Laurels’, although the local people called it ‘Sausage Hall’, because it had been built by a butcher in the middle of the nineteenth century. Throughout my childhood, this is where my grandmother lived and worked as a paid companion. She’d been a domestic servant all her life. When my mother was a child, she had worked as a housekeeper for Samuel Freir, who was one of the last great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. She accepted the paid-companion post in the year that I was born and held it for about fourteen years. She was seventy-four when she finally retired. As my grandmother was the companion, she didn’t have to do the housework; someone else came in to do that. All she had to do was keep the old lady company and manage a bit of light cooking and washing.
My grandmother was born in 1892 and the old lady was fifteen to twenty years older than she was; the old lady’s husband had been about twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the 1850s.
That house was quite extraordinary. The old lady’s husband had been a gentleman farmer, who had spent a lot of his time exploring in Africa. There were a great many sepia photographs in the house of him, often standing around with naked African women. I just took all that in my stride, because I thought everyone’s grandmother lived in a house like that. It wasn’t until I met a few of my friends’ grandmothers that I realised that most of them lived in council flats or modern semis. I regret not having asked more questions than I did, although I was interested in family history as a child.
Without revealing too much, can you talk a little bit about the crime that has been committed when the book starts and where you got the idea from?
It was based on a snippet of true crime. I can’t remember the name of the female victim. The case was covered by ‘Crimewatch’. (I’m a ‘Crimewatch’ addict; I think that started when I was doing an MBA part-time. I used to get home some time after nine o’clock on the evening that ‘Crimewatch’ was shown, because straight after work I would go to the MBA class. I usually arrived home at the tail end of ‘Crimewatch’. I found the programme intriguing and a great way of unwinding from a busy day.)
The skeleton of a woman who been murdered about twenty years before was found on a motorway reservation. I remember my husband saying, ‘If I ever committed murder, I would bury the body in the middle of a motorway reservation, because no-one ever goes there’. I think she was identified through her dental records. Her parents appeared on the programme and what they said stuck in my mind: ‘The worst thing for us was that she was just tossed away like an empty crisp packet.’ I actually use that sentence in the novel. That was what the story grew from.
Would you call the book procedural or a psychological crime novel?
I don’t think of it as a procedural novel. You have kindly said that you think of it more as a ‘Morse’ novel or something by PD James; it is like them, in that the police procedural stuff is kept to a minimum. I don’t write like Patricia Cornwell, who puts in a great deal of forensic detail, keeping everything exactly as the police would do it. I’m much more interested in the way people think, than in showing people the techniques that police use to solve a crime.
DI Yates seems to be a very unusual policeman, in that he has very little angst in his life.
That’s partly because of the character I wanted to create in Tim Yates. I’d read so many crime thrillers in which the detective is not only a middle-aged man but also a disillusioned middle-aged man with a failed marriage, who’s probably an alcoholic. So I wanted Tim Yates to be quite different from that. The problem is, it’s always much easier to write about a character who is riddled with angst. My favourite crime novel character, Smiley, is a prime example of what I mean. There had to be something about Tim that was interesting, but wasn’t about his private life being totally screwed up. He’s a historian by training and interested in psychology. He is also a young man going places and not an old man who’s seen it all before.
His wife is also very interesting, because she appears to be an intelligent, attractive and independent woman, but you don’t see much of her in this book. Will we see more of her in subsequent novels?
There will be more of her in the next novel, particularly with respect to her work as a police researcher and how it helps to solve the crime. She’s very bright, as well as fluent in German and the Scandinavian languages and this forms a very important part of the next book, Almost Love. I wanted her to be someone who understood Tim’s job and the strange hours he might have to work without sharing in them directly; so I wanted her to have something to do with the police, but not be a policewoman.
Specialised police researchers research stuff that will help the police with a case. It may be anything from looking at forensic detail to working out obscure links or associations. For example, they might have to look at how various political movements operate, currently and in the past, or how secret organisations have functioned. That is what Katrin, Tim’s wife, does.
What about Juliet, one of his team? This is not the first time this type of working relationship has occurred in a book. I’m thinking of the Peter Robinson and Inspector Lindley novels. So how have you made Juliet’s relationship with Tim different?
I wanted Tim to have two women in his life, each with a different role. Katrin supports him as a partner, while Juliet supports him at work. Juliet will always play some part in solving the crime by doing the spadework that Tim can’t be bothered with. She also saves him by picking up on the things he overlooks. It is very much a subordinate relationship, but Juliet also does quite a lot off her own bat, in spite of her superior.
In the next novel, Katrin and Juliet play an instrumental role in helping Tim out of a hole, by working on a case together.
I noticed that there are a couple of policemen, Andy and Ray, who haven’t yet been developed fully. Is there a reason for this?
Yes; there are also other policeman in the novel, such as PC Gary Cooper and PC Chakrabati, because it simply wouldn’t be feasible for Tim and Juliet to solve the crime on their own. At the same time, I don’t want to introduce too many characters from the police, as they may then get in the way of the story.
In the Family is not a book that you can skim over. The way it is written means that you do have to read it very closely or you miss clues. How do you think that’s going to affect the type of readership it can attract?
I don’t think consciously about the readership when I’m writing, but, having said that, because I have been a bookseller, I am very conscious of the way in which publishers and market researchers categorise book buyers. As I’ve mentioned, there are two groups of people who read crime novels; young men in their twenties and thirties who tend to like fast-paced, big-picture thrillers and a larger group of women who are aged forty-five plus, who are probably buying books for the whole family. The books that these women buy are probably subsequently shared by several people. But I certainly didn’t write with a particular audience in mind. I don’t think that Salt authors do, on the whole, because I don’t think Salt is commercially ‘grabby’ in that respect.