Hi Christie, welcome to You’re Booked!
1. We like to start our interviews by asking our authors to introduce themselves. Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
I live in Northumberland with my wife, Amy and our Labrador, Laddy. I come from Preston, Lancashire. I studied Journalism thinking that it was more practical than creative writing – it wasn’t. I was the first person in my family to go to university, so I had no one to go to for advice. I didn’t believe someone like me, from a working-class background, living in the north of England, gay, mixed race and with a long-term debilitating illness could or would be published. I became extremely unwell some years ago, resulting in me effectively losing about ten years of my life to hospital stays and everything that comes hand in hand with having a serious illness. In some ways had it not happened I might not be where I am with my writing today. Because once I fought back enough to be able to write again, I put everything I had into making my writing a success. I want to be as self sufficient as possible given the limitations my illness puts on me. Writing allows for that as I can write when I am able and give into the illness when I have no choice. It is also cathartic and a way back to myself and who I always dreamed of being. An author.
2. When did you start writing fiction? What made you want to start the long, often arduous, process of writing a book?
I have always written fiction, even as a child who was severely bullied due to the nature of my illness, which causes widespread inflammation that alters my appearance. I am also mixed race. I was a prime target for bullies, writing was my escape then and it still is now. I started working on a book before the illness made it impossible – that one hasn’t seen the light of day and never will, but it was good practice. Then a few years ago I started working on a new book whilst working on it I ended up with Sepsis for the fourth time. I was allowed home from hospital after another stint in intensive care and two or three days later I was due to attend my first ever crime writing festival. My wife had bought tickets for my birthday to the inaugural Capital Crime Writing Festival in London. Not only did I not want to let her down, but I didn’t want to miss out. So, off we went. I arrived in my wheelchair and was feeling awful, however something almost magical occurred – I was surrounded by my writing heroes, enthused by the atmosphere and adrenaline pumped through my veins. By the end of the weekend, I was rushing (as much as I was able) from panel to panel. I also realised that people like me could write books – I saw authors who were giving of their time and encouraging. It was an experience I will forever look back on as a true turning point in my life. From there I went home determined to do everything within my power to make my writing dreams a reality. I attended all the writing groups I could get to, I networked, I engaged with authors and other writers like me, I went on any courses I could afford, and I wrote every chance I got.
3. Where did the initial idea for The Raven’s Mark come from?
Initially the brand was not a raven, it wasn’t anything really except a mark that would denote that the crimes were linked. After doing some research I established the reason for the brand being a raven – hence The Raven’s Mark. In the first instance I wanted to develop characters that were diverse and representative of the world we live in. I wanted people to see themselves reflected in my writing. When I was growing up I either wanted to be an author or a detective, with The Raven’s Mark I get to try my hand at both. I did all the necessary research to give myself the tools that Beth would have so that as the case unfolded, I would know what steps she would need to take. This meant that the story played out very organically. Having said that all books are contrived to some extent, we purposefully place obstacles in our characters’ paths that they have to fight against and overcome. I loved throwing as much as possible at Beth and seeing how she would handle each given situation. I am essentially and for the most part what would be termed a pantser, as in I don’t tend to plan, I write by the seat of my pants. For me the characters themselves breathe life into the stories I create by almost jumping free of the page and dictating how the book will progress. In that way I can be as surprised as the reader will hopefully be.
4. You set The Raven’s Mark in your hometown of Preston – what does representation of your hometown and the North of England in literature mean to you?
I don’t think there is enough representation of the north of England in literature. As a reader I often find that books are set in London, posh suburbs or abroad in fancy holiday homes and all that feels very alien to me. It is not the life that I know and understand as I am certain is the case for many readers. Also, Preston is a vibrant city, which can have a dark underbelly lending itself perfectly to stories like this. It is a place I know, people I understand and coming from Preston I am aware that there is a hunger for stories based there. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in literature and the people in my home city are no exception. There are a lot of good people in Preston, they have their quirks and the typical ways they speak and communicate. There is a known northern charm and comradery within the community. I wanted to show that in the work that I produce.
5. How would you describe your writing style to a new reader?
I would say that my writing style is accessible and immersive. I think it is vital to have characters readers can understand and/or relate to. I want readers to feel as though the characters are real and to have them miss them when the book ends. I have aimed to make The Raven’s Mark a page turner, which I am told it is. One quote by an author I greatly admire, Lisa Jewell, said of The Raven’s Mark; “The most assured crime debut I have ever read.”
6. One thing we always love to know, what does your typical writing day look like?
Well, on a good health day (as good as they get) I would get up, take my medications, and have breakfast then I would go through to my office with a fresh cup of coffee. While booting up my computer I would gather any material that I might need, such as research books, notes etc. I then open up my work and set up all the other pages I might need like the online dictionary, google and suchlike. I use the find icon in Microsoft Word to search for ‘up to here’ – what I type at the end of the section I am up to. Then I will reread the last chapter or so, until I feel suitably engaged with the story and characters again. Once all that is out of the way I get writing. I have trained myself to write a lot when I am able otherwise, I would never be able to finish a book. This means that on a good day I can write about 10,000 words. I will start in the morning and only turn the computer off at night. My wife will come in with coffees throughout the day and nag me to take my medications, eat and rest my eyes. But all out of love of course – I often don’t listen if I am absorbed in what I am doing. Writing for me is very submersive.
7. What is your writing process? What’s the most difficult part of writing a crime book?
I tend to think up the characters and an idea of what the story/plot is and where it might end up – then I sit and get writing. I speak dialogue aloud as I write it so that it feels and sounds natural. I let the work take control and will often have characters chatting away to each other in my mind when I am doing other things. When I am stuck and need a part of the story untangling these moments can be how that is achieved. I might be trying to sleep, or driving somewhere, I could be sitting beside the sea or in the supermarket – and that epiphany moment will hit. Aside from those difficult areas it all seems to come together naturally. It doesn’t take long for the characters to take on a life of their own and start dictating the story and by that, I mean they might do something or say something I hadn’t expected. The book can go in a direction I hadn’t anticipated because the characters actions have dictated that outcome. Then when it comes to second and third drafts, I will ensure that any red herrings should be there, and all story arcs are correct. I will make sure there are no loose ends that shouldn’t be there and that every question posed has an answer.
The hardest part for me is when I have that inevitable crisis of faith and imposter syndrome. It always happens and inevitably I always come out the other side at some stage.
8. We understand that you have overcome chronic, severe pain resulting from an autoimmune disease to write the book. How has your illness and the experience of overcoming the challenges it poses influenced your career as a writer?
I have suffered with my illness since I was seven years old, but it wasn’t until my twenties that it suddenly became extreme. I ended up so unwell that I was almost completely bed ridden and if I did go anywhere, it was in a wheelchair and not for long. I spent more time in hospitals than I did at home. I’ve lost count of the number of times I was in intensive care or how many times Amy and my family were told to prepare and say their goodbyes. In 2015 I wanted to go to Dignitas for legal assisted suicide. I felt that my life was no longer one worth living. The pain was constant and excruciating to the point that putting my feet on the floor sent my body into spasms of agony. I was on copious amounts of opioids to try and cope with that pain, at one point I was put on Ketamine. Amy and my family were opposed to me going to Dignitas and begged me to try anything else. So, we researched and came up with Stem Cell Replacement Therapy, which was only available in the USA.
I agreed to fundraise, fully believing I was placating them as I didn’t think there was even a remote possibility of raising the almost £15,000, we needed. However, I was wrong. I was written about in news articles, magazines, I went on television, my cousin did a sponsored sky dive, a friend did a sponsored head shave, and we held a fundraising event. Within just three months we had reached target. Not only was I able to pursue the treatment but my faith in humanity was restored. I had expected to be ridiculed and have people say unkind things online and in person, but it didn’t happen. What happened instead was that so many people I knew and people who were then complete strangers (and are now cherished friends) came together to help save my life. Amy and I flew out to Santa Monica, and I had the treatment, which in time made me well enough to start the infusions I am on now. I receive them every four weeks at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. I also go to Guys and St Thomas’ in London and have a dedicated medical team looking out for me. I withdrew from all opioids after a neurologist advised that she had been to a conference where they stated opioids should not be used for chronic illnesses and only in the short term. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I did so while suffering with sepsis, e-coli and a UTI – I also did it over the course of a week. Once home I was still withdrawing for months, they say it is like coming off Heroin, so I am sure you can imagine how hard it was. I was climbing the walls, I felt like I had bugs under my skin and the pain was terrible – it would have been so much easier to give in. Eventually I’d done it and my mind cleared for the first time in years. All these things combined to mean I could read again and better still I could write again. And that was the beginning of this new chapter.
I have been through hardships in various ways, I have been in a hospital room for months on end unable to leave it. I have been to the darkest places a human mind can go and so I feel very well placed to understand the extremes of human nature. I find psychology fascinating, the capabilities of humans and the limits we can push beyond despite everything going against us. It has influenced my writing because I know myself and I understand others. I have been in hospital and made friendships with so many people I have gone on to lose. There has been almost unbelievable tragedy in my life because of all this. I know I can empathise with my characters whether they are good or bad. And, for me that’s paramount to any story.
9. DCI Beth Fellows is a very realistic character, flaws and all. How do your characters develop? Do you find that your characters take on a life of their own when you are writing? Or are you always completely in control of what they say and do?
As I have previously said, my characters do very much take on a life of their own. When I initially think them up, they are my creations and only that really but as I write and see them develop, they become real. They tell their own story and influence the overall story in doing so. I feel it is important for characters to be relatable and genuine. For Beth, she has had a traumatic past and as such she would have anxiety and issues surrounding that. I didn’t want her to be someone who always wins, and never struggles. Beth and all my characters have real world problems like the rest of us. We as humans are all flawed and that means my characters have to be too or they wouldn’t be realistic.
10. The cast of characters in The Raven’s Mark is incredibly diverse – how important is this for you when writing?
Diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry is severely lacking and always has been. We have started to take steps in the right direction. Joffe Books for example began running the Joffe Books Prize for Crime Writers of Colour and are still doing so, and now with Audible on board as well. I wanted to do my bit even before I’d heard of the competition. Growing up I didn’t see myself reflected in books and I know so many people feel the same way, it needs to change. I am a big believer in following the ethos of ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ – I want to see more diversity and inclusion and so I will strive to achieve that in everything I write. It is also extremely important to not create caricatures in the name of diversity but to create real, three-dimensional people that we recognise.
11. We’ve heard of some unusual writing habits over the years, what would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
My wife often says that when I am writing my whole demeanour changes depending on the scene and character I am writing. I speak the dialogue and will be so absorbed that if they cry, I cry, etc. Amy says my expression alters – and that if I am writing an evil character, doing something despicable I can look scary! So, that being said – I don’t write in public.
12. Which writers have influenced your own writing the most?
I have a list of authors I greatly admire and who have been influential to me and supportive. These authors include Diane Chamberlain, Dorothy Koomson and Lisa Jewell. They all create rich characters that jump free of the page and settings I could walk through. I love their work and their abilities to tell stories that are completely captivating and enthralling.
13. And what advice would you give to any aspiring writers? What do you wish you’d known at the start of your own writing career?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to authors for guidance and advice, people are far more giving than you will imagine they have time to be. Attend all the writing groups and courses you can. Hone your craft. Work damn hard to always improve. Know that writing is a constant learning experience, you should aim for everything you write to be better than what you have previously written. Never give up. Show support to other writers – helping each other is what it’s all about. Research before you start writing, if you are writing a police procedural then read about interview techniques, crime scene investigation etc. If you are writing about a certain era, then read about that.
14. And when you’re not writing, what are you getting up to?
Usually fighting through the bad days, because on my good days I write. However, I also attend as many festivals, writing events and launches as possible. I love visiting beautiful places with Amy and Laddy and we are lucky enough to live in Northumberland, which is stunning.
15. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Fiona Cummins’ The Neighbour and Olivia Kiernan’s The End of Us, both of which I read on holiday and LOVED.
16. Finally, what’s next for Christie J. Newport? What are you working on next?
I am currently editing the second in the Beth Fellows series. So watch this space…