Christina James. The editor’s cut.
Just before Christina James launches DI Tim Yates into another investigation in Sausage Hall, I managed to run her other half, Jim (aka Mr J), to ground and interrogate…sorry that should be interview… him on what it was like not only living with a crime writer but also editing her work.
How did you first meet?
We were students together at Leeds, following the same English course, and so we knew each other from lectures and seminars. Then some mutual friends, already an ‘item’, suggested we went as a couple with them to a hall of residence ball. Nothing, for the romantics reading this, came of it. However, two years later, we were both in Leeds during the vacation and I asked her to keep an eye on my car for a week, whilst I went rock climbing with a minibus group in Derbyshire. I took her for a meal by way of thanks and we’ve been together since. As a matter of fact, in these days of separations and divorces, you might be interested to know that all our close student friends have sustained their marriages.
Had Christina started writing fiction by then?
Oh, yes, but not as Christina, of course, which is her published pen name. She’d written about the Lincolnshire Fens, too, in a kind of sequence of historical snapshots beginning way back in time when ancient peoples lived on the few bits of higher ground that existed amongst the impenetrable swamps of the Wash hinterland. I remember joking about the fact that present inhabitants had not developed very much since, so maybe, after hitting me for that, she thought some more about the psychology of the inhabitants of the area; perhaps I might have influenced her interest a little – who knows?
So, when did she start writing novels?
Quite early on, in the seventies, she wrote some unusual literary fiction; I think, however, that she was stretching her authorial muscles, and she certainly suffered a series of rejections which, like all would-be published writers, she found tough. She produced several full-length novels. I remember, however, the rejection she got from the very well-known editor, Liz Calder, who spelt it out quite bluntly: ‘You can write, and write very well, but what you write is not commercial enough.’ She took this harder at the time than since and she now, of course, realises that the bottom line is what governs acceptance. I remember having to provide some moral support (not that I succeeded very well) so that she wouldn’t be permanently discouraged, but it was a very long time before she put her fiction under professional scrutiny again. Fortunately, her career path took her writing in a completely different direction.
That sounds interesting! What did she do?
Without charting the entirety of her career, I can summarise by saying that she took a job in bookselling, at a library supply company, and it proved to be the starting point for a lifetime’s dedication in a whole range of different jobs and companies to the commercial provision of books to the public: a lovely irony, I think. From the word ‘go’, she interacted with publishers’ reps, read thousands of books, fiction and non-fiction, frequently in proof form, and organised functions for authors. As she moved on, technological advances were being made and she found herself with what, to me and many others, was a remarkable knowledge of product, market and selling mechanisms (She now has a formidable global grasp of e-book systems and developments).
Over time, she fitted in an MBA and then spent a couple of years leading an MBA course at a university, which added some academic strength to her portfolio of skills, but she returned quite quickly to the cutting commercial edge of the book trade. Her writing developed accordingly, in the form of published reports for all aspects of the business, and she worked across all components of the industry.
So this meant Christina had to put her fiction writing ‘on hold’ at this time?
Not so. I can recall many discussions about her original fiction and when she would find time to ‘write properly’. I don’t think I ever really convinced her that her business output, itself huge in range and impact, was an equivalent in terms of significance; she persisted (and computers made a huge difference, of course) in drafting and editing her fiction, little of which I got to see, but I suppose my contribution to the mental wellbeing of the incipient author was to let her get on with it.
And what were you doing, all this time?
Well, I’ve spent a working lifetime in secondary education, which, when it came to managing our joint careers and family demands, was helpful in its provision of holidays and the opportunities to take a shared part in childcare.
Do you write?
I’m not a published fiction writer, that’s for sure. I do have an educational publication to my name, for a book which met a temporary demand at a crucial national change in school examinations, but my writing has been mostly in editing and proofing the work of others and producing promotional magazines. I have a bent for making the less readable more readable; I’m precise in my use of language and it’s a strength which others seem to need to call on.
Does that mean you work on Christina’s books?
Yes, I’m her editor. It was a natural thing to happen, I suppose. Not that, as I’m sure people who know her powers of expression will confirm, she needs much of the nuts and bolts stuff of linguistic accuracy. I have the much happier task of addressing the things that she herself admits to finding challenging in the course of putting a novel together: consistency, factual accuracy, plot connections and sequencing. ‘Sausage Hall’ presented some interesting editorial problems for me to resolve, as she had a very long hiatus in her writing of it, caused by overseas business travel, ‘day job’ (as she calls it) commitments and jury service. Plot threads got entangled and chapters out of synch. By the time I got my hands on the draft, she was already working on the next DI Yates book and I had a struggle to bring her back to Sausage Hall reality.
Does your work as her editor cause any fiction friction?
Hah! Of course! After a lifetime of healthy disagreements, there’s nothing new about a falling out over her work. Rarely, however, do I not succeed in persuading her of the absolute necessity of making alterations, but I’m sure you’ll love to hear that the process of persuasion does make inroads on my supply of patience. Bloody authors! Fortunately, Christina has just ‘come out’ as the crime commissioning editor for Salt Publishing, so I can happily mention here that I can reach her on editorial territory when the authorial side of things is hard going.
Do you help her as an author in any other ways?
Though I’ve retired from teaching, I’m still working and self-employed in those capacities I’ve already mentioned. However, my time is now more flexible and I do a fine job as a chauffeur (I draw the line at a peaked cap!) and help Christina to get to places without the stresses of driving on top of her astonishingly busy life in the ‘day job’. So, I do airport runs, because she is frequently abroad for business, and take her to conferences in Britain. As well as that, I join her in her author events, participating where appropriate in workshops and talks. We’re a good team. When it all gets too much, I go and spend time in the garden or manage my honey bees.