Crime writer Steven Dunne’s creative collaboration
This is another in occasional interviews that acknowledges the partners of writers who are the unsung heroes of the books that give you so much enjoyment. Their quiet presence in the background provides the vital support in the way of keeping the food and hot drinks going and cheerleading when the writer is going through tough times. It’s not easy being a writer’s partner, particularly when you might not get any recognition from the outside world. So what happens when, after a very busy and successful career, you retire and are now home with a husband who disappears into his writing cave for hours at a time? If you’re like Carmel McKenna, the ‘better half’ of award winning crime writer Steven Dunne, you recreate yourself in a whole new career.
Tell me about yourself, Carmel.
I used to be in a very demanding and responsible job, but have recently retired.
Originally when I got the headship, we lived in London. Steve was very settled in a secondary school at that point, moving to Derby gave him the opportunity to go down the route of having writing as his main career. This is something I’ve been delighted to support because we really enjoy reading. One of the highlights of the year is when I’m handed the A4 copy of Steve’s new book. He doesn’t share the facts of the book being written until then. It’s not that he’s secretive. It’s just that he has to hold everything in his head until he’s able to reveal the whole thing.
This is something that I respect and prefer because when I’m handed the manuscript I’ll know absolutely nothing about it. This makes reading it all the more enjoyable.
I feel very privileged to be in a position where I live with someone who is so talented. When I finished reading the proof copy of Deity, the second book (which ends with a real cliff-hanger), I turned to him and said, ‘Go and write the other one now’.
Steve began his career by self-publishing Reaper, as his partner how did you feel about this?
I was really pleased Steve decided to go down that road.
Steve’s idea to self-publish was a great idea. It did make me feel a little anxious because I wasn’t sure how good a job the company he had chosen to print his book would make of printing The Reaper. But Steve did some very thorough research and went to visit the company to talk with them. This reassured me that it was going to be done in a way and to a standard that he was happy with. He was also able to commission the front cover of The Reaper, which was very striking.
Along with the way your book is promoted, the cover design is something that you do not always have as much influence in choosing once you become traditionally published. The cover comes to the author, and by that time the final cover is pretty much decided. But there are some things that he can get changed. As teachers, who both taught English, titles that have all lower case letters really jar with us. So now it’s upper case letters on the title.
There are an awful lot of crime writers at the moment because now there are other means by which people can now publish their work, for example on e-books and this is at very little cost. When Steve self-published this wasn’t an available option and he had to get his books printed at quite a high cost, which meant you had to be very serious about publishing yourself. When Steve self-published we had 2000 copies stacked up in the bedroom at one time.
I was in awe of how he organised the sale of this first book. Steve would go to book shops and sell himself. That was not easy for someone who is quite reserved. It required a lot of stamina as it was exhausting selling books that way because he used to be there the whole day. I am delighted to say it worked. I was very proud of him. Seeing him talk with customers so convincingly reinforced my opinion that at some point in the future he will become much more widely known. His writing is so interesting and clever and at times beautifully poetic. It is impossible to guess the plot as it is so well written. You never know what the final twist in the tale is going to be.
Getting known is certainly not easy for writers.
I’m definitely the more emotive of the two of us. I fervently believe in what he does. I’ve always been a person, who as a head teacher, has frequently had to fight against crazy bureaucracy to achieve what I feel is right. So when I see work as good as Steve’s, I do feel very passionately that his work is outstanding and on occasions better than the majority of crime programmes that are shown on television. That is why I want to see him better known so that a much wider audience can enjoy his work.
It was interesting that when Steve’s first book The Reaper was advertised on a cable channel. That resulted in incredibly good sales. In relative terms this investment is a small part of a publisher’s budget but it pays huge dividends in terms of book sales. In order to increase wider public knowledge of Steve’s work I would very much like to see more publisher promotion in the future.
How does Steve work when he’s writing?
The way he thinks is really amazing. I think in a very linear way. When I learn, one thing has to follow another and I have to write everything down. Steve’s notes are so complex and his memory is fantastic. He is able to write things that look a complete scribble to me. He had an enormous collection of notebooks with jottings that I think have become more and more complicated as his writing has progressed. These aide-mémoire are essential to his writing authentically because of some characters from the early books may reappear in later novels. I really don’t know how he does it.
When Steve’s writing he becomes very withdrawn and at those times I know not to interrupt or to speak to him. This is to the extent that I’ll avoid saying something important until he has finished writing for the day because I know he’s thinking.
There are times where he works to a deadline which is pressured. One time he came downstairs at six o’clock in the evening and said, “I’ve got it.” (meaning the resolution of the book)
Earlier in the day when I’d asked, “What time do you want dinner?” he had said “I don’t know because I’ve got to get this done.” But it was great to know he’d made this breakthrough because intellectually writing a good crime novel is so demanding.
As time’s gone by and the importance of blogging has increased, I have become increasingly concerned about the amount of time Steve has to spend on the internet. This is ongoing throughout the evening when I would prefer him to be shutting down mentally, relaxing for his own good, being able pay attention to what is going in the world around us beyond his work. I try and makes sure I keep him connected with the outside world. But he never really loses that connection with his writing. So I hope that doesn’t have a negative effect long-term.
Do you think because writers get very introverted and focused, as well as having to keep the pressure on to get the book written, that having a supportive partner is a good thing?
Yes. Since I retired two years ago our roles have completely changed. Whilst I was working full-time Steve was also doing a lot of things in the house, like cooking and ironing. Now our roles are reversed and he completely shuts off from all of that. Even though we’ve been together for nearly 37 years, it took a few months for us both to get used to it.
When Steve writes he has to be in a quiet place. Since I’ve been at home I keep the volume of my music down and close the doors if I have the washer on. I do try and keep quiet so he can work but if I have music on I usually start singing to it. When Steve can hear it in his office he gives me feedback. Apparently I’m not as great a singer as I thought I was!
I now have my own studio at the bottom of the garden, so we’ve both got our own spaces, which really helps. We tend to meet when I come to make us both a cup of tea.
It does seem important for the partner of a writer to have a sense of their own identity and their own independence. You retired from a very responsible and busy job, but you are keeping yourself very occupied.
In my latter years as a head teacher I had a few health issues that I knew would become worse if I didn’t take notice of them. Fortunately we were in a position where I could retire early. I’m the sort of person who has always given a hundred percent and I knew that when I retired I would have to do things to keep me occupied. I always need a challenge. At school it was full-on most of the time with a lot of people asking questions, requiring supervision and needing a lot of emotional support. Of course that doesn’t happen very much now, but I’ve developed friendships with people that I didn’t have time for before because I was so busy with work. My family live in Manchester, so I’m also able to see them a lot more.
I see from the artwork on the walls that you’ve developed your creative side.
I began to paint in watercolours before I retired as a means of relaxing. I’d never done anything creative in terms of art before. I did dance at college as part of my PE and history degree. Although I loved to choreograph dances I didn’t really consider myself to be a creative or artistic kind of person. I didn’t want to go to Art classes at that point because I wanted to develop my own style without being influenced by anyone else. I particularly like painting in vibrant colours which might not be acceptable with some watercolour tutors. I haven’t yet done a watercolour class although I wouldn’t rule it out. I realised fairly quickly that I was painting things that people really liked and I had pictures professionally framed as I produced more paintings and got more experienced.
What are you particularly interested in?
Something I’d always wanted to do whilst working was to go to a pottery class. I am now taking classes on a regular basis. I love it, because I have been able to let my creativity free in producing unique pieces and it was great to get back into an educational environment. I love the buzz that comes with that. Even though I’m a very novice potter in terms of using a wheel I have made some fantastic slab ceramics.
What is it about pottery that fascinates you?
I love the fact that you are experimenting with the forms that you make and the glazes that you use. What often happens is that you put a glaze on that you think will be a specific colour, but when it comes out of the kiln it is a completely different. Sometimes that’s disappointing, but sometimes it’s so much better than you had imagined. I’d had my fair share of lifting things before bisque firing that have disintegrated in my hands, but this is all part of the learning curve. There is a real excitement in wondering how things are going to turn out. I am now transferring some of my lino prints onto my pottery designs These have been made into wall plaques for the garden as decorations.
What have been the benefits of all this creativity?
I’ve become good friends with my next-door neighbour and she comes to classes with me. As a retired teacher it’s interesting for me to see the different types of people who are in the class. The pottery tutor is brilliant and pushes all of us to more creative levels, even though our abilities are so different. It’s not just about improving my skills and providing learning challenges it is also about meeting people and exchanging ideas.
I’ve done two pottery sales organised by the adult learning service and did particularly well in the second one. I had some of my paintings made into postcards and posters. As well as original watercolour paintings and pottery, I also sold hand knitted beanie hats. As I love both cooking and gardening on my allotment I also sell jars of home-made chutney. I will be very happy in the future if I can make enough to buy new materials to carry on my hobbies and experiment further.
What does Steve think of all your artistic endeavours?
When I first began painting Steve cast a thoughtful eye over my work and said “You’d better not become more famous than me.” As Steve is a man who is remarkably honest with his praise so it made me realise I can now actually call myself an artist.