Festival Exclusive Interview: 2009 Programme Chair Laura Wilson

I read Stratton’s War last week and thought it brilliant and beautifully written – such a great sense of the era and Stratton feels like a much loved character for you – tender but tough – was he based on real influences?

I’m glad you liked it. Stratton is based partly on my father, and partly on various male friends. His home in Tottenham (Northeast London – but a lot more rural then than it is now), where he lives near his extended family of sisters- and brothers-in law, is based on my mother’s childhood home.

Was it scary or intimidating moving away from what you’ve described as the ‘closed world of domestic settings’ with Stratton’s War?

Very intimidating. There had to be a much larger cast of characters, and keeping track of them all was – and still is – difficult. The other difficult thing was the knowledge that Stratton’s War would be the first in a series. I welcomed the chance to examine character’s lives more slowly and intricately, over a number of books, and to be able to show, through Stratton’s eyes, how London – and, indeed, the rest of England – changes over the period of his working life, but it felt – and still feels – like a big, daunting project. I do enjoy writing about London, though, as (bar a disastrous 3-year sojourn in the country), I’ve lived here all my life.

You’ve said your influences are quite literary – you’ve named Evelyn Waugh for example – and that’s evident in your style. Why do you choose the crime genre to propel your books?

This may sound disingenuous, but when I was writing my first novel, A Little Death, I didn’t consider it to be a crime novel, because at that time I thought of crime books as being purely detective-led. When my publisher asked me if I wanted it to be classed as a literary novel or a crime novel, I plumped for crime because, by that time, I’d cottoned on to the fact that crime is the perfect genre for exploring social and psychological issues. I think that narrative – a good story – is very important, and I appreciated the discipline of the ‘framework’ that crime fiction provides.

Mark Billingham quoted Laura Lippman saying genre fiction was judged by its worst, literary fiction by its best and it wasn’t a fair fight. Do you ever feel frustrated by that?

Absolutely! It’s snobbery, pure and simple. I’m afraid I don’t hold out much hope for a level-playing field, especially in Britain. European countries, on the whole, seem to be more sensible about it. There’s also, I think, quite a lot of self-deception involved here – it’s like the people who say that they only ever turn on the TV to watch wildlife documentaries, and then you discover that they can fill you in with every last plot detail from all the soaps… I really don’t see what’s wrong with that, and can’t fathom why people don’t just admit that they like both.  Also – at the risk of sounding like a bra-manufacturer – there’s a lot of crossover between literary and crime, and plenty of examples of high-quality work (and tosh, of course), from both camps.

As crime critic for the Guardian, does it help or hinder as programming chair – do you feel compromised being critical of fellow novelists – especially if they’re appearing at the festival?

Hmm… wriggle, wriggle… Occasionally, yes. You just have to remember which hat you are wearing. I think the important thing, in both jobs, is not to be dismissive – it takes a lot of time and effort to write a book, and it’s not fair to reject something just because it doesn’t happen to be to your taste.

You must read voraciously – which crime writers are you a fan of and why?

Most of my spare moments are spent with my nose stuck in a book. Writers I re-read most often are Patricia Highsmith and Patrick Hamilton, and the ‘British noir’ writers Gerald Kersh and James Curtis. Current favourites are Andrew Taylor, Natasha (now N.J.) Cooper, Mark Mills, Gillian Flynn, Andrea Camilleri, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Andrea Maria Schenkel – for different reasons, but what it boils down to is that they are good story-tellers who write intelligently and well.

As programming chair what have been the highs so far? And the lows?

I was delighted about The Wire event, with David Simon – I think that’s going to be terrific – and I was thrilled when Barry Norman agreed to chair our ‘Shoot the Book’ panel about screen writing and adaptations.
It was a shame that the Festival dates had to be changed, because it meant that Donna Leon, who is one of my favourite authors and a fascinating speaker, couldn’t make it this year, and I was very sorry about that.

Is there a particular event or author you really felt passionately about bringing to 2009?

I think that the event with Reginald Hill and Benjamin Black (John Banville), chaired by Mark Lawson, is going to be particularly interesting, because of the business of literary vs crime fiction, and the preconceptions – and misconceptions – that surround the whole debate.

Did anyone you really want say no?

Several people – they were committed to other things, unfortunately. Programming literary festivals (or, I imagine, any sort of festival) is, ultimately, the art of the possible.

Can you describe your vision for 2009’s programme – what unique qualities do you feel you’ve brought to Harrogate?

Not sure about ‘unique’ – that’s one of those dangerous words, like ‘original’. However, I think we’ve widened the remit a bit with panels such as ‘Nursery Crimes’, which deals with children’s literature, and ‘Dangerous Dykes’ which asks why lesbians make such successful crime-fiction writers. I wanted to include some of the things that crime writers often talk about amongst themselves, which I felt would be equally interesting to a wider audience.

You said you were still in the honeymoon period with Stratton in 2007 – how do you feel about him now? What’s next for him?

We’re still very happy together, thanks. His next outing is An Empty Death, which will be published in July, just before the Festival. This time, the action takes place in 1944 and the plot revolves around imposters and the whole question of identity.

You’ve said a few years ago, major themes in your work include love, loss, loneliness and dysfunctional families – why do these themes preoccupy your writing? Are they still a preoccupation?

I can’t imagine a time when love, loss and loneliness won’t preoccupy me – they are major themes in any kind of writing. As for dysfunctional families, I think I’ve pretty much been there and got the t-shirt, although, of course, the topic comes up again and again in crime fiction, with good reason. When I first began to think about the character of Stratton, I was determined that he should not be a conventionally flawed protagonist, carting about a lot of personal baggage, which would then impact on his family. The pressures on the Stratton family in the first book come from outside – the children have been evacuated, and there is the daily struggle with rationing and the nightly trauma of aerial bombardment. The ante is upped considerably in An Empty Death, but I shan’t go into details because I don’t want to give anything away… However, I’m currently more interested in portraying how people who are basically good and decent do their best in intolerable situations.

Crime authors can deal with pretty dark materials – you’ve written about sexual abuse in A Thousand Lies for example – how do you cope with submerging yourself in these worlds?

I think it’s important to keep some distance between yourself and your material. Some of the things I’ve encountered while researching – especially for a book like A Thousand Lies – have been profoundly distressing, but just beating your breast and howling about them really doesn’t help you (or anybody else). That said, I found myself in the National Archives a few weeks ago, surreptitiously wiping my eyes on my sleeve… But too much emotional engagement gets in the way of the writing. I think the best ways to cope are hefty dollops of gallows humour, a loving partner, a nice dog, and a few glasses of wine at the end of the day.

Crime authors can inspire some intense fans – a lot of male authors have a very open online presence compared to female authors – do you feel you have to be more guarded?

I do have a website, but I don’t blog, because a) I don’t have the time, and b) I’m not sure that I would have anything particularly interesting to say. On the whole, writer’s lives are not particularly eventful – whether your stuff is hard-boiled or cosy, you’re still just sitting there tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard. As to intense fans – there is a person who writes notes to me on paper napkins and slips them through my letterbox from time to time, but as he or she is commenting on the colours I’ve chosen to re-decorate my sitting room and kitchen, rather than on my work, I’m not too fussed. PS: If you’re reading this, whoever you are, you might want to think about improving your spelling…

I imagine life as an author is pretty idyllic, or is this romanticized?

Well, it’s indoors and there’s no heavy lifting (bar the odd typescript), at any rate… but it does involve spending long periods of time on your own, and a lot of frustration (mainly self-generated, in my case), doubt, and uncertainty. That said, I think it’s a great privilege to be able to make a living doing a job that you love.