Hello Harriet, welcome to You’re Booked!
- We like to start our interviews by asking our authors to introduce themselves. Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
My American mother, Virginia Cowles had made a great name for herself as a trail blazing war correspondent, covering the Spanish Civil War when she was only 26. My mother went on be a very successful historian. My father, Aidan Crawley was a politician, a journalist and a very good writer too…so I guess you could say I had writing in my blood.
I had two brothers, Andrew and Randall. I was in the middle. The three of us spent our childhood on a farm in Buckinghamshire – my father was Labour MP for North Bucks. Later, he joined the Conservative party and was MP for West Derbyshire.
My education was unusual. When I was still a teenager, from 14 to 16 years old, I was sent to European schools, where I was on the only foreigner, to learn French, German and Italian. This changed my life.
Because I could speak these languages, I was commissioned aged 18, to write a book about the student riots of 1968. The book, called A Degree of Defiance, was published in 1969 when I was 20. I also wrote several major feature articles for the Daily Mail about the 1968 student riots in Paris.
At 21, after I had graduated from King’s College, London (BA degree in History) I had a column from New York for the Daily Mail. I also had a regular slot on ‘Start the Week’, Radio 4. At the same time, I had a career in television, appearing on screen and interviewing people.
In the 1970s I started an art business with my two brothers and from 1975-79 I lived and worked in Teheran. I also spent a lot of time in Hong Kong holding exhibitions.
In 1987 I stood in Brent East as the conservative candidate against Ken Livingstone in the general election. In 1989 I was the conservative candidate for London Central in the European elections.
My son Spencer was born in 1987. In 1988 both my brothers tragically died in an aeroplane crash and we went to live with my father (my mother had died in 1983).
I married my Russian husband in 1993 and then moved to Russia in 1994, after the death of my father. I represented a famous Russian photographer, and sold his work in Moscow, wrote articles for British papers. Then later, after the death of my English husband Julian Ayer (he was drowned in the 2004 Tsunami), I worked in the energy sector, starting a technical publishing business for a Russian friend and entrepreneur. The business collapsed in 2016 and I left Russia. I don’t think I shall ever go back. I cannot set foot in Putin’s Russia while this terrible war in Ukraine is going on.
- You’ve had quite the varied career – when did you start writing fiction? What made you want to start the long, often arduous, process of writing a book?
I always wanted to write fiction. As a child of six I wrote short stories about lost cats which I bound together with a ribbon and showed to my parents. From the age of about ten I devoured books. In my teens, I read all the ‘classics’ such as Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Jane Austin, Thackery, and also French writers (I read these in French) such as Stendhal and Proust, and Russian writers (which I read in English), Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. In my 20s I discovered Hemmingway and Virginia Woolf and was blown away by both. In later years, I loved Ford Maddox Ford, J.D Salinger, J. Coetzee, Marquez, Doris Lessing, Tom Woolf, Anita Brookner and many others. All these writers inspired me, in one way or other, to keep writing.
- Have you always wanted to be a crime writer? What drew you towards the genre?
First and foremost, I wanted to be a writer. The crime/suspense element came later. My first novel, The Goddaughter was published by Weidenfeld in 1975. My second novel, The Lovers and The Loved was published by Heineman in 1990. These are straightforward novels, love stories.
It was the remarkable Patricia Highsmith who steered me in the direction of crime/suspense with her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Also, John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy made a huge impression. My third novel Painted Lady was my first attempt at ‘suspense fiction’ and was published in 1994. And now, my second suspense novel is The Translator, published by Bitter Lemon Press, 29 years after my last book. So, there is hope for us all!
- Where did the initial idea for The Translator come from?
I started learning Russian at the age of 45, and I am still learning, and it is my fifth language, so the idea to make two interpreters my main characters was irresistible. Interpreters keep to the shadows; they are seldom noticed, or remembered, and yet they see and hear everything. I got the central storyline – a Russian plot to sabotage the internet cables which link the UK to the US – from a report written for the Policy Exchange think tank in 2017, called: Undersea Cables: Indispensable, insecure. The author was a little-known MP called Rishi Sunak!
- You lived in Russia for a significant amount of time – what influence do you think living there has had on your writing?
Russia changed my life, and without those Russian years there would be no novel. For over twenty years I lived and worked in Russia. I felt that I knew it from the inside. I understood the culture, the people; I spoke the language. Also, I travelled, as much as I possibly could. Twice I took the train from Moscow to Vladivostok. I went to the White Sea and the Black Sea, and many places in between, including the coldest city on earth, Yakutz in the Russian Far East. When I landed in Yakutz (after an 8-hour flight from Moscow!) in January 2014 it was minus 52. In my novel, I describe Kalomna, a town I loved 2 hours form Moscow, also Peredelkino, the writers’ village where I lived for 4 years, and of course Moscow, a city I knew better than London. My years in Russia gave me the sense of place I needed for The Translator.
It also gave me my main characters, who are almost all Russians. I modelled Vera, Clive’s Russian teacher on my wonderful Aunt Galia, who died a few years ago. I was glad she never lived to see this dreadful war in Ukraine.
In Russia that I discovered Chekhov, particularly his short stories. I read him in Russian but what he taught me would affect my English writing. His minute observations are compelling as he puts men and women under the microscope. At the same time, in a few words he gives you the salient qualities, and appearance of a character. He can use a broad brush one moment, and the tiniest strand of hair the next, all in the same paragraph. And his sympathy and understanding for the human race shines on every page. I am in awe of his genius.
- How would you describe your writing style to a new reader?
I think my style is old-school, in the sense that I care about grammar and punctuation, but I hope it’s clear, and unambiguous. I like short sentences, and I think both adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly. Sometimes I work over sentences many, many times until I find a harmony between the words. As far as structure goes, I think of myself as a storyteller, and I like to take the reader from A to B without too many deviations. I work hard at my dialogue (which I love writing) and I hope it has energy and life.
- One thing we always love to know, what does your typical writing day look like?
I like to be at my kitchen table, where I write, by 10am, and since I don’t have lunch, I can get a good 4 hours in, which is about my maximum for creative work.
- What is your writing process? What’s the most difficult part of writing a crime book?
For me the plot is always the most difficult, and it is a huge challenge to make it watertight and plausible. If the plot is not credible, the whole book falls apart. A tight plot requires tremendous attention to detail…every piece of the puzzle must fall in place. Sometimes one piece will not fall into place, and you can spend days finding a solution.
As for the writing process, I try and work 10am to 2 or 3pm, and then take a break. I used to read through and correct later in the day, but on the whole, I have stopped doing that. With The Translator I was doing far too much rewriting and correcting, before my first draft was finished, and one day I just stopped and forced myself to keep going to the end of the book, finish a first draft, and only then to rewrite.
- 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?
The whole pleasure of writing is to unlock your inner being and surprise yourself. At the start of a novel, I do not know my characters all that well. At some point (usually near the beginning of the book) I write down all the main facts about their life, even if I am not going to use the information, but just to make sure I am on solid ground. But then I let them rip. Inevitably my characters do or say something which surprises me, and the novel takes a new turn. I like my characters to take charge. I feel that is how it should be. I want them to have their own lives, and are independent from me, their creator, if that makes sense. And when that happens (which is rare, but it does happen) you feel that you are flying on some magic carpet.
- We’ve heard of some unusual writing habits over the years, what would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
I don’t know if this is a quirk, but I do have stamina. During lockdown I sat at my kitchen table for 36 hours straight, reading through the book and correcting spelling etc. My son, Spencer was a witness to this extreme event! He was living with me in lockdown, and he went to bed and found me still at my desk in the morning, and when I finally finished he clocked me: 36 hours straight.
- Which writers have influenced your own writing the most?
I have spent so much of my life reading, it is hard to pick out any one writer. In English, the writers I admire most are Virginia Wolf and Hemmingway. In French, Proust and Stendhal; in Russian, Tolstoy and Pasternak- Doctor Zhivago is one of my all-time favorite books- and also Chekhov, especially his short stories.
In the last few years, I have read several outstanding novels: Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart; All the Light We Cannot See, by Andrew Doerr; Normal People, by Sally Rooney; La Promesse de l’Aube by Romain Gary; and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. All these books have influenced me in one way or another.
In the crime/suspense fiction genre, my favourite authors are Simenon, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Lynda La Plante, P.D James, Ian Rankin and John Le Carré.
- What advice would you give to any aspiring writers? What do you wish you’d known at the start of your own writing career?
I honestly don’t think you can say anything to a young writer except, write. Write and keep writing. You will find your own voice.
- And when you’re not writing, what are you getting up to?
I love to ski. In London I play tennis a couple of times a week, and I’m still a big reader. I go to the theatre quite often, and I love inviting friends over to dinner. I always do the cooking, which I enjoy.
- What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. It was turned down by 42 publishers and in 2020 it won the Booker Prize.
- Finally, what’s next for Harriet Crawley? What are you working on next?
I would like to do a sequel to The Translator, set in 2018.