Thursday 16 November 2017

With Criminal Intent

My interviewee today is Danuta Reah with whom I co-authored The Writers’ Toolkit several years ago. I mention that just so I can flag that Fantastic Books’ editors took it up as their recommended text, badgered us into an expanded second edition called How to be a Fantastic Writer and that new edition is just out.

Danuta is a crime novelist. She was Chair of the Crime Writers Association a few years ago. However, her specific expertise is in English Language and linguistics, and this adds a particular weight to her views. As well as being a novelist, she’s a book reviewer; the sort with a growing following. She pulls no punches but to be reviewed by her can give a book a real boost.

What came first, the academic writing or the novels?

She tells me, ‘I started out writing academic stuff - a general book about text analysis, a book about the language of newspapers. I learned a lot about writing in general that way - learning how to structure a long piece of work and, of course, with text analysis, you learn a lot about the writer's craft from studying the way other writers do it. I used a lot of what I gained from that in The Writers' Toolkit and later in How to be a Fantastic Writer.’

In what ways does her academic writing impact on her novels?

‘I know some people get a bit nervous that my novels are going to be very “literary” (whatever that means) and that they won't enjoy them - and then they are surprised to find that they're tense, suspenseful, scary - not the same as an academic text book at all.’

‘I do use my academic background. I have written three novels that make use of my work in forensic linguistics - the analysis of language in the context of crime - identifying the writer or speaker, identifying forgeries, voice recognition, that kind of thing. I used it a bit in Silent Playgrounds, and even more Night Angels.’

The books above, Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels are three of Danuta’s Yorkshire quartet. The fourth in the series is BleakWater.

The mystery in her most recently published novel, The Last Room, centres entirely round the forensic investigation of language.

In this series of interviews, I have spoken to some people who write in genres I’ve never heard of. Danuta writes fiction in one of the most popular genres. Does being part of a big all-embracing genre cause any problems?

‘There's a tendency to get lost in the crowd. I know when I go into a book shop and look at the crime section, I'm overwhelmed by the choice and let myself become too influenced by the table displays and book shop recommendations. My reviewing has led me to authors I've thoroughly enjoyed, but probably would have missed on the shelf. I shouldn't say this as a writer, but there are too many crime novels out there and I suspect we are close to “peak crime”.

‘Another big problem is fashion and “the next big thing”. The problem is, editors want more of what sells, forgetting that quite often, the next big thing comes from a publisher who was prepared to move away from what everyone else is publishing at the moment. People forget sometimes that Stieg Larsson's books, which were very much the next big thing a few years ago are really structured as very traditional crime novels, but they seemed very new because no one was publishing that kind of thing at the time - and of course, Larsson did it very well. Right now, it's all psychology, unreliable narrators and final plot twists - great fun when handled by a good writer, but frustrating when a writer gets it wrong, and you suspect the book was written that way because the writer was pushed into it by the publisher rather than made that choice themselves. I don't want any more unreliable narrators, and I certainly don't want any more final “twists” that I can see coming from a mile away.’

Danuta has been published by a variety of publishers from the huge conglomerates to the small independents. I ask if she has any words of wisdom for other authors supposing they were in a position to choose?

‘It's horses for courses really. Small publishers are a lot more loyal to their authors and will work harder to help you publicise your books. The downside is a lot of them don't really have the clout with the bookshops, which makes it tough. You have to get out there and sell the book yourself. Amazon may be seen as the death of book shops, but it's also a lifeline for small publishers and for mid-list authors to get their books out there. Big publishers are pretty ruthless. If you don't increase your sales book on book by a certain amount, you're out, and there's a Catch-22 in this in that less than satisfactory sales means you get far less sales input.’

I ask if Danuta has ever self-published. When she says no, I ask why?

‘I don't know why. I know a few writers who got fed up with traditional publishers and went for it - but you have to be a very good self-publicist and be able to put in a lot more time than you do with a traditional publisher. If you're self-publishing ebooks it can be very profitable as once you've paid off your initial costs, you can just keep on selling. Self-publishing hard copy is very tough. It's expensive, you have to get your books into bookshops, in front of reviewers and in front of your audience. That's very hard and I would only consider that if I already had a massive market.’

Danuta’s next novel is called Life Ruins, and it turns out it has had expressions of interest from both a small publisher and one of the big 5. Which will she go with?

‘Until a contract’s signed, my lips are sealed.’

Find out more about Danuta and her writing on her website.

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