Christine Poulson – The Pig and the Sausage
‘I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognise a pig in a sausage.’ I love this quotation from Fanny Trollope, mother of the more famous Anthony and a successful novelist in her own right.
Personally I avoid using people that I know in my novels. I value my family and friends too much.
But I do use people that I don’t know. I once went to a party at a Scandinavian embassy – I won’t say which one – and years later the ambassador, with whom I didn’t exchange more than a word or two, ended up as the villain in my latest novel. No doubt the ambassador is a perfectly charming man of the utmost probity: it was just one or two aspects of his appearance that I wanted. More recently I saw a man waiting for a train and thought he would be perfect as a character in the novel I was writing. So I stole him. I know nothing about him and it is better that way. He probably isn’t in the least like my character as a person, but he looked just right, and now he is walking around between the pages of a book.
When I wrote my first novel Dead Letters (in the US Murder is Academic) I was writing about a world I knew well. I had been a lecturer at a college in Cambridge just like my fictional sleuth, Cassandra James. I had a lot of fun inventing a college, St Etheldreda’s. But, mindful of the laws of libel, I wrote about what I knew, not who I knew. I was careful to make the principal and the other members of the college as different as possible from my ex-colleagues. Even so I nearly came a cropper. The novel had got to the proof stage when it occurred to me to check the names of my characters against the university directory. I found that I had used the name of a real person in another college for my murderer. Hasty corrections were made.
Of course this is assuming that people don’t want to find themselves in novels. But some do. Charity auctions where people bid to have their name used in, say, the next Ian Rankin are commonplace these days. But they usually appear only as a minor character and I bet the writer is careful to make sure that they don’t appear in an unflattering light – unless of course they want to.
There is one person whose life I plunder mercilessly and that of course is myself. Although my family are off limits as individuals, I do drawn on my general observation of the way small children behave. When my daughter was a toddler, I used to struggle to get her buckled into her car seat. On one occasion when I needed both hands free, I put my handbag on the roof of my car. And drove off with it still there. It went a surprisingly long way before it fell off. The person who found it kindly took it to the village post office and it found its way back to me, but it set me thinking, and in my next novel, Footfall, Cassandra did exactly the same thing – but with dire consequences.
And that is one of the great things about being a writer. Even unfortunate episodes in one’s life need not be wasted. To end on another culinary note, the writer is a bit like a thrifty cook stripping the last pieces of meat off a chicken: any bit of experience can be used in a novel. But as Fanny Trollope suggests, it’s best not to throw whole people into the mix.
Before Christine Poulson turned to crime, she was a respectable academic with a PhD in History of Art and had written widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. Her book, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art 1840-1920 (Manchester University Press, 1999) was short-listed for a Mythopoeic Award for non-fiction. During her career as an art historian, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge.
The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens, with their unique and sinister atmosphere, provided the setting for her first novel, Dead Letters, published in 2002, which featured literary historian and accidental sleuth, Cassandra James. Stage Fright, the second in the series, came out in 2003, and Footfall in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in CWA anthologies, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere. One of them,‘A Tour of the Tower,’ was nominated for a Short Mystery Fiction Derrringer Award in 2011.
Christine’s new book, Invisible, a stand-alone suspense novel, will be published by Accent Press in 2014.