(This is fourth interview in my inspirational people series. To read more interviews please click here >)
I was thrilled when Kate Griffin said I could interview her for my website. Kate is a fantastic writer and I find her story very inspirational. She got her first book deal after entering a competition, how amazing is that! She writes novels for both adults and children… I really hope I can say the same this time next year. I’m determined that this is the year I write at least one fiction book!
Hi Kate, thanks so much for letting me interview you.
I thought we’d start by talking about what you were like as a child. Did you always love reading and writing stories?
Even when I was tiny and couldn’t read a word I remember flicking through the pages of picture books and trying to imagine what the story might be.
I think it was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books that gave me the key. I know they’re not fashionable now, but I loved them so much that I raced through them all. By the time I was around seven I was a really confident reader.
At my primary school there was nothing I enjoyed more than disappearing into a fantasy world. I either wrote very long, elaborate stories – often involving dinosaurs – I or acted them out and forced my long-suffering friends to join me in the plays ‘wot I wrote’. I was the Ernie Wise of Watford’s Knutsford School!
We had a dressing up box in the corner of the classroom and I loved pretending to be historical characters like Anne Boleyn. I was quite a gory child and I was fascinated that she’d had her head chopped off!
I don’t think it’s surprising that my books are gothically historical.
What were your favourite books as a child?
Anything involving history or fantasy. After I moved on from The Famous Five I discovered Susan Cooper’s magical The Dark is Rising series which involves Arthurian legends, quests and the battle between good and evil. I also loved the Narnia books, Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea series, anything by Roald Dahl and books by a writer no one seems to remember now called Leon Garfield. They were historical tales and often quite spooky. I always liked slightly macabre stories – I really was the child who reads with a torch beneath the bed covers.
Who were your favourite teachers at school? What were your favourite subjects?
My favourite subjects never changed – Art, English, History and Drama. At my secondary school – Westfield Girls School in Watford – I was lucky to be taught by several fantastic English teachers. The two I’ll always remember were Jackie Fairall who was young and amazingly stylish (she had a photo of David Bowie pinned up in her cupboard!) and Beryl Smith who must have been in her 60s. She terrified the life out of everyone, but she was a brilliant English teacher and I think she had a soft spot for me because I loved books and performing.
Both of them were fascinated by the theatre and they directed many of our school productions.
I also had an incredible history teacher, Betty Saunders, who was wildly eccentric and a fabulous story teller. Looking back I know I owe her a lot.
Did you have any big parts in school productions?
I was quite a shy, nerdy child, but I loved acting. Looking back I think I relished the chance to be someone else. Maybe it was an escape? I think even now writing gives me the chance to become someone different. It’s definitely a sort of performance.
I was never the most glamorous girl in the school so, despite the fact that I was also pretty much the smallest girl in the school, I always played men. My most memorable parts were The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. In the sixth form I was Mr Beetle AND Chief Ant in something called The Insect Play. I remember it horribly clearly. We’d just started having joint lessons with pupils at our associated boys’ school. Appearing in front of them all at the age of 16 dressed as a dung beetle and then as an over-sized ant (with pipe cleaner antennae) was mortifying.
How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a journalist/author?
To be honest, I fell into journalism. After university I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and I ended up working for an antique dealer in London for a year. I was terrible – part of the job involved heavy duty china dusting and I’m incredibly clumsy. I kept having to sneak out to Woolworths in my lunch break to buy super-glue to repair the damages, and then I lived in fear that he’d find the evidence.
The one bright spot was that I wrote and produced a glossy catalogue for his shop and had to research and describe every item. I really enjoyed doing it, so when I saw an advert for five trainee journalists at the Watford Observer I applied and was lucky enough to be offered one of the places.
I soon discovered I didn’t really have a ‘nose’ for hard news. All my journalist friends wanted to do the juicy front page stuff (murders etc), but I loved being sent out to golden wedding interviews which mainly involved visiting friendly old couples and listening to their life stories while drinking their tea and eating their biscuits. Most of them had lived through the wars and had amazing experiences. Writing up those interviews was a pleasure.
I think my editor realised quite early on that I wasn’t cut out to be an investigative reporter, but he thought I was amusing and gave me a weekly column where I could write about anything I wanted. Luckily people seemed to like it.
I think it was then that I began to realise how much I enjoyed writing for writing’s sake, but it wasn’t until many years later that I had the confidence to do something about it.
What did you study at college & university?
I studied English at London University (at Royal Holloway College) and then I did a PGCSE (post graduate certificate of secondary education) in English and Drama at London University’s Goldsmith’s College, mainly because I am a thwarted actress and wanted to do a drama course! I never did go on to teach, which is probably a good thing.
What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve ever faced?
I think it relates to my answer to your next question. When I found out that I’d won the Faber / Stylist magazine competition to find a new crime writer it was October 2012 and I was on holiday. I was massively excited for a day or two and we popped open a bottle to celebrate, but then I came down to earth with a bump. Reality set in when I realised that I had to write almost a whole book in three months.
I don’t remember much of the frozen winter spanning 2012 – 2013 because I spent most of it hunched over my lap top.
I work in a room in our basement with a half window to the street. When I looked up for inspiration all I could see was people’s legs scurrying about in the snow outside. When I re-read Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders I realised that the snow had made its way into the book.
Can you tell me about the Stylist / Faber crime writing competition? What made you enter? How did it feel to win?
It was pure luck – in every possible way. I work part time in London and I picked up a copy of Stylist one evening on the way to the station (I live in St Albans). I saw the competition and stowed the magazine away in my bag for future reference. When I got home I pushed it under the sofa and promptly forgot about it.
It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I thought about it again. It was the weekend of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and I was at a loose end – my husband was working and the weather was awful.
I burrowed under the sofa to retrieve the copy of Stylist and came up covered in fluff balls. (Dusting isn’t my strong point – see earlier answer J )
The rules were clear and simple – entrants were asked to create a crime novel with a strong female protagonist and the judges wanted to see the first 6,000 words. That was all, really.
I thought I knew exactly what they were looking for: something contemporary, perhaps something with a bit of a Scandi feel to it, maybe a detective with lots of personal demons etc etc…
I thought: ‘Yes, I’ll give it a go.’
I went downstairs, switched on my lap top and started to type, but what appeared on the page was nothing like the above. Instead I wrote a conversation between terrifying, raddled, opium – addicted crime baroness (Lady Ginger) and a ‘mouthy’ girl who worked in one of her music halls (Kitty Peck). The date was 1880 and the action took place in London’s Limehouse.
I’m still not sure where it all came from, although my mum’s family lived in Limehouse in the nineteenth century and I knew that, at some level, I was imagining their lives. Also I was inventing a tawdry, intensely gothic theatrical world that appealed to me immensely.
So, I sent it off, thinking it really wasn’t what they were looking for and then out of the blue a couple of months later I got a call from Stylist Magazine inviting me to a ‘finalists’ meeting at Faber and Faber.
I was amazed and completely terrified.
How long had you been working on your book?
Ha! That was the terrifying bit. When I went to Faber and Faber and met some of the judges they asked how much of the book I’d written. When I admitted that the 6000 words they’d read was all I’d done, the room went a bit quiet. I was asked if I could write the rest of it in around three months and – like an idiot – I said I could!
I really didn’t expect to win. That’s why the call I received on holiday was such a massive surprise, and why, when I really thought about it, the ominous words ‘what have I done?’ started to ring out in my head.
What are your favourite TV shows and movies?
Anything historical – I do love a good costume drama. The element of escapism appeals to me. I quite like a satisfyingly creepy horror film too. I saw Crimson Peak before Christmas and loved the lushness of it. I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones (the female characters are so good) and last year I adored Wolf Hall.
On a modern note I loved London Spy too – but as it was really a gothic melodrama maybe that’s not surprising?
Over Christmas I binge-watched The Last Kingdom – which your cousin David Dawson was so very good in! [Click here to read my recent interview with David]
I also like a bit of comedy. Hunderby by the brilliantly black-hearted Julia Davis is a fantastic mash up of every gothic Victorian novel I’ve ever read. And I have a very soft spot for the Carry On Films. For a while in the late 1940s, my mum was at school with (Dame) Barbara Windsor, who is one of my cockney heroes.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Since I started writing I don’t seem to have any! I do like walking round odd parts of the City of London when I have the chance. There are some fascinating ancient corners. I’m constantly surprised to come across medieval churches hidden in the midst of a forest of glass and metal skyscrapers, or to find parts of the old Roman wall.
I walk around Limehouse a lot to get a feeling for the place. It’s changed so much since my family lived there, but it’s possible to pick up so much by exploring, visiting the old pubs by the Thames and making a note of the wonderful old street names.
I enjoy going to the theatre too and I’m planning to do more of that in 2016.
If you could have written any book in the world, which one would you pick? I’d have pick Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – I love that book so much.
That’s a great choice! For me it would have to be Great Expectations, it’s such a rich complex and frankly weird novel. The more I read it the stranger and more troubling it becomes.
To be honest, my character Lady Ginger owes a debt to Miss Havisham. I enjoy all those fat Victorian novels, but Charles Dickens is the master. His characters are often completely baroque, but also so deeply human. I also love Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
How did you get your agent?
My agent is the wonderful Eugenie Furness, of James Grant. We were introduced by Hannah Griffiths my equally wonderful editor at Faber just after I won the competition.
How long does it usually take to write one of your books?
Well, that first one was a scramble, but my next deadlines were much kinder. Faber has asked me to write four Kitty Peck books. Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune came out last summer (2015) and I wrote it in nine months. I’ve just handed in the draft of book three, Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow and again, it took around nine months to complete the first draft. But, as you know, that’s never the end. After you’ve handed in a first draft there’s always a period of editing and fine-tuning. I really enjoy that bit; it’s like polishing dull silver and seeing the shine come through.
What usually takes you the longest – deciding on the plot etc. Do you have a plan on your wall, mapping out the story? I’m just fascinated by how you work
I think everyone works in different ways. Some people prefer to make detailed plans and story maps, but I’m not organised enough to do that and, anyway, I think I need the thrill of the chase. I’m a ‘seat of the pants writer’.
I switch on, set off and wait to see where the story takes me. Having said that, I generally know how exactly how every book ends. It’s getting all the characters to that point that’s exciting.
Do you like writing for adults or children the best?
Since the first Kitty Peck book came out I also wrote two books for children The Jade Boy and The Moon Child (both published by Templar). It won’t surprise you to read that both are historical horror stories. The Jade Boy is set against the background of the Great Fire of London.
The Victorian era and the Restoration era fascinate me. They are both, rich, decadent and vivid.
It’s difficult to say which I prefer to write. I think children’s books are probably harder because it’s a tough audience to please. Children are very clear (and very vocal) about what they like, and what they don’t like and they have a forensic eye for detail.
What are your top author special moments that you’ll never forget? I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I ripped open my first box of author copies and held my first Robert Pattinson book in my hands. Seeing it in bookshops and in my local Asda was also an incredible feeling. Finding out one of my books was a Sunday Times Best Seller was also incredible, my dad was telling everyone in our local newsagents and must have bought about 5 copies of the paper. I think my third special moment must have been doing my first book signing in the library where I used to work part-time.
Seeing the cover design for the first Kitty Peck was a big moment. I think I had tears in my eyes because it was real! But then again, it’s all been such an unexpected roller coaster. I was thrilled when The Jade Boy was shortlisted as book of the year for ages 8-12 by the BookTrust and subsequently long-listed for a Carnegie Medal. And also I was absolutely amazed and delighted when Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders, my first ever book, was shortlisted (it was one of five) for the Crime Writer’s Association Endeavour Historical Dagger Award. The daggers are the ‘Oscars’ of crime writing.
What tips would you give to children who want to become authors?
Read as much as you can. Read everything – even the back of cereal packets at breakfast time. Try to read every day and explore lots of different types of books. After a while you’ll know what your ‘happy zone’ is – that’s the sort of thing you want to write. If you feel confident enough to write something yourself, go for it, don’t dream about it. Writing is a bit like a muscle – the more you use it the stronger it becomes. The most important thing is to have fun and ENJOY what you’re doing. The moment it feels like a chore or like homework is definitely the time to stop and do something else. Reading and writing should be an adventure!
Who has supported you the most during your author journey?
My husband, Stephen (who misses me when I’m writing because he hardly sees me) and also my lovely friends and work colleagues.
Do you have a writing schedule/particular time of day you like to write? I love waking up early and writing when everyone else is asleep. Ever since my daughter arrived two years ago, I’ve had to be more creative with my writing schedule and fit it around her. It’s been more tricky but since I’ve been a full-time author/mum it’s been easier. No more commuting into Manchester at silly o’clock to work as a copywriter in an office and then start writing as soon as I get home. How do you fit your writing around your day job? Do you write in a home office or somewhere else?
I work part time for a heritage charity. I’m in the office in London (an attic in a Georgian house in Spitalfields) three days a week so I try to fit my writing around that. The closer it gets to a deadline, the more time I spend tapping away in the basement at home eating cheese and panicking. I am definitely not a morning person! I’m almost bat-like in terms of my most productive hours. If my working day could start at 5pm and end at 10pm that would be perfect.
Unfortunately, my husband is a morning person. I have to adjust my writing schedules if I want to see him; otherwise he gets a bit glum.
Are there any authors who inspire you? I’ve been an author for about six years and I don’t actually have any author friends. Maybe if I lived in London rather than Widnes I would… I am so grateful I have a good editor and agent though, I can always call them up for a chat if I’ve got new ideas or want to talk things through.
As I mentioned above, I love Dickens and Daphne du Maurier. Also MR James and Susan Hill. I do like a chilling ghost story. Here’s a shocking admission, although I write crime stories I don’t read much crime, except for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and anything by Edgar Alan Poe.
…But don’t tell anyone
When you finish a chapter/particularly tricky part do you reward yourself? I usually have a tub of ice cream or cake on hand, and I don’t let myself have any till I’ve finished.
Rewards are so important aren’t they? As Kitty’s world is the alcohol-soaked environment of the music hall, I’ll admit to the occasional gin and tonic as a treat when things have gone well. And I do love a hunk of cheese or a bit of very dark chocolate.
Who is your favourite character [from your books] and why?
I adore Kitty because she’s witty, honest, strong, loyal and completely fearless and her great friend Lucca is faithful, brilliant, tortured and complex, but I also have to admit to a sneaking fondness for my ancient opium addict Lady Ginger because (I think) she is wonderfully twisted. I look forward to writing her scenes and I act them all out in the basement. My neighbours must think I’m loopy when they hear me reading aloud!
What is the hardest part of being an author? How does it feel to have fans?
The hardest thing is being disciplined. Making yourself write when the sun is shining and all you want to do is go outside is very painful. Also, I didn’t realise how long you spend sitting in a chair typing. My bottom has definitely widened since I began writing. And it doesn’t help that I keep wandering over to the fridge to cut myself a hunk of ‘inspirational’ cheese.
It can be quite a lonely process. When people take the trouble to tell you they’ve enjoyed your book it’s the most fantastic (and humbling) feeling. It certainly makes all those hours in the gloomy basement worthwhile.
Have you got any big plans for 2016? I hope I’ve not asked you too many questions, I just wanted it to be as in-depth as possible.
I’ve just finished the first draft of Kitty Peck 3 (Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow) and that will be published later this year. In the meantime I’ll be writing the fourth book in the series. My deadline is January 2017 which seems to be ages away, but probably isn’t. I’ll be at some literary festivals and events, which are always fun as it’s great to meet readers… and, most importantly, I’ll be booking a holiday!