Marnie Riches and Katerina Diamond in conversation
Marnie: Before The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – the first book in my George McKenzie series – was published, I had been writing for nigh on ten years, hoping to make it as a children’s author. The experience gave me the confidence to believe in my writing. I had earned my stripes. How long had you been writing before The Teacher got a deal and how did you feel about its success?
Katerina: Before The Teacher, after the birth of my son around 15 years ago, I decided I wanted to write a movie. I taught myself how to do that and wrote 3 movies, a 15 episode TV series (with a friend) and a webseries that interwove into that series. The webseries went into production but was never finished. I also wrote a novel and a children’s book – I didn’t have the confidence to send anything out and my pitching is woeful. All of this left me a little disillusioned with the whole thing and so I attended a local novel writing group where I started writing The Teacher – the rest is history. I’m still coming to terms with the success because despite all of my experience writing, this still feels very sudden.
So Marnie, I struggle sometimes to keep disciplined writing times or even stick to my own outlines – Do you have a strict writing regime? And are you a plotter or a pantser?
Marnie: They say that practice makes perfect, Katerina, and we’ve both had plenty of practice, though I feel I’ve still a great deal more to learn about the writer’s craft.
As for plotting and pantsing, I write two books per year and I have to be extremely self-disciplined to make deadlines and provide my editor with a clean manuscript. I kept writing even throughout the terminal illness and death of my mother, through divorce and through moving house. I haven’t missed a deadline yet and hope not to in the future. If I need to, I work seven days per week until the book is finished. I don’t cut corners. I just sit at my machine each day until I’ve bashed out my daily word count and I make sure they’re good words. It’s my job. I take pride in doing it well. Also, I really value trustworthiness, diligence and reliability in others, so I make sure I deliver that, myself. As for plotting, I work to a synopsis, several pages in length, so I know how my stories begin and end and roughly, what happens in the middle. But I pants the bulk of the content – I like to leave room for a little magic to happen. I would not want to plan a whole book in meticulous detail first. What about you?
And when you’ve answered that, I want to know more about the dark content of your novels… What inspired you to write crime and write it so dark?
Katerina: I have often admired your work ethic, Marnie – you leave no room for procrastination!
I like to start with a synopsis and then ignore it completely, For my fourth book I have a much more complete synopsis than I have worked with before – but there is still a lot of room for manoeuvre. I tend to write whole strands of story, then weave through them with other strands. That’s often hard when working with a synopsis as I don’t write in a linear way at all. I also feel the police investigation needs to be a reaction to the things that have happened, and so I write it into the story much later on.
As for the dark content of my work, I got a way into The Teacher and felt there was something missing, I tried to look inside myself and be honest about what it is that I like to read or watch and the truth was that I liked to be shocked and disgusted. I like to be challenged about ideals that I think I have and I like to question my own morality. With that in mind I tried to write something that I would like, something that made me uncomfortable. I think you learn more from books that are challenging and I certainly learned a lot about myself while writing both The Teacher and The Secret. I have always liked reading crime books and I felt that I had enough ideas to keep me writing books for a while. Also I wanted to be published, and I wanted an agent so I knew I needed to grab the attention of whoever was reading the novel pretty quickly.
So, Marnie, your protagonist George Mackenzie is a black woman, why was it important to you to have a BAME character at the centre of your series?
Marnie: That’s fascinating, Katerina, and a sentiment I agree with. I too like to take my inspiration from the worst of true life crime and present readers with the psychology behind why murderers, rapists and traffickers do what they do.
As for George being black, yes, diversity in fiction has always been important to me, since starting to write seriously. Though I’m white, I’m minority ethnic. The white, middle class, Christian characters in many novels simply never spoke to me. They didn’t depict growing up in a mad, shouty, poor, minority-ethnic extended family. There were none of the fireworks or passion or cultural quirks that you get in a BAME family, so I wanted to write stories that did feature those backstories in my protagonists’ lives. There was little realistic, nuanced or overt racism in existing novels – I grew up with racism, so it was important not to whitewash that out, if you excuse the pun. Also, I realised that there were simply hardly any brown or black lead protagonists in mainstream fiction, and this irked me. I worked at a grassroots literary development agency called Commonword in Manchester, where the organisation was black-led, and many of the writers involved were BAME. During my time there, I set up the Puffin/Commonword Diversity in Children’s Fiction Award, which is still thriving. So, this has always been part of my agenda as a writer – to paint the world as I see it in its true colours.
What are your ambitions as an author of crime fiction? Do you seek to change the genre in anyway? What are your influences and how do these come to bear on what you write?
Katerina: I really admire that commitment to enriching the genre. Aside from Alex Cross and Luther, I struggle to think of any minority lead characters that I have come across in crime fiction. I also come from a minority white background and struggled to put a finger on what exactly it was that I couldn’t identify with. Especially as our societal landscape is constantly changing and diversifying its more and more important to try and connect with readers from all backgrounds.
As to my ambitions as an author, that’s a hard one. At the moment it’s been a year since I got my publishing deal. I still feel like a bit of a charlatan and since then the world has opened to me in so many different ways that I really hadn’t considered before that. All I am really thinking about is the next book and maybe the one after that. I just want to stay true to myself and keep writing the hard stories. I really had to push my own boundaries to write both The Teacher and The Secret – concerned that they might expose a little more of me than I am really comfortable with – I hope I can continue to make myself uncomfortable! I don’t think I read enough crime fiction to know if I am changing anything. I like to keep it dark though. I don’t want to shy away from that – because nothing I write about is unreal. It’s happened or happening somewhere. I think it’s important to remember that. My influences are from all over, I am a huge fan of graphic novels, they are often gritty in a way that conventional books don’t explore. Reading the Watchmen when I was 14 probably influenced me more than most other books. Karin Slaughter is one author I will buy without reading the blurb, she got me into crime fiction properly. Also strangely the first book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, although I read it after I had written the Teacher. I found it hugely inspirational that a book that was quite shocking and dark could be so popular. It gave me the confidence to stick with my own instinct to write quite gruesome material. I’m not into horror movies at all and I don’t like being scared or grossed out for the sake of it, I like the psychology of it and that’s what I try to get across. I am also massively influenced by popular culture and TV in particular, I tend to watch almost everything in terms of TV drama and try to notice the themes or ideas that have the most impact on me.
What about your influences, Marnie? And then what’s next for you? Are there any new or exciting projects on the horizon? Is there anything you particularly want to achieve in 2017?
Marnie: I’m not a fan of horror, either, Katerina, despite having some violent scenes in my novels. The violence must be realistic and intrinsically important in telling the story, whether it be suicide bombings, organ removal or beheadings! It’s there for a reason.
As for my own influences, The Silence of the Lambs is my gold standard for a crime thriller, and I always set out to achieve something that guns to be as good as Thomas Harris’ most famous novel. I also love Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose– it’s that complex puzzle that I strive to reproduce in my own stories. I like to make the reader work. I’m a fan of multiple plot strands and non-linear timelines in my own reading and I believe that sort of thing makes my novels satisfying reads. In The Girl Who Had No Fear – which is out 1st December 2016 – the action moves from Amsterdam to Prague to Central America and there’s some chicanery going on with the timeline, so watch out for that! Of course, there are the usual themes of trafficking, family and love, and George is forced to become more daring than ever, with really high stakes, personally.
In the near future, I have a brand new series coming out in e-book and paperback next March, set in Manchester. This time, I’m all about the criminals. I suppose you could say I’m keen to offer a northern alternative to the likes of the mighty Martina Cole and Kimberley Chambers. I’d love to see that series – the first book of which is called, Born Bad, which should give you a flavour of the story – really capture readers’ hearts and minds. I’d also love to see the George McKenzie books in print. Obviously, it has started out as a digital-first series. But it has proven so popular and with such a loyal following that I think it really would go super-nova if those four – soon to be five – books were on shelves in bookshops and supermarkets. God knows, I’ve had readers clamouring for that for a long time, now. I guess, like my stories-to-come, the future is unwritten, but I plan to make it a thrilling yarn…
Katerina: I’m also a fan of a multi stranded plot, I find Jo Nesbo to be excellent with those. As for the future, in 2017 I have two books coming out, one in the spring and one in the autumn – both continuing with the DS Miles and DS Grey detectives at the helm. There won’t be quite as much time hopping in those stories as there has been in the first two. I am very excited with the plots of both so I am looking forward to getting them down. I suspect I will have a few stories with those detectives at centre stage over the coming years. I’m also tinkering with an idea for a hard-hitting graphic novel which I may try and collaborate with an artist on next year. Oh yeah and there’s that YA book I wanted to write and the standalone psychological thriller. The problem is never ideas for me, the problem is organisation and implementation. I also plan to attend some festivals next year as I didn’t go to any this year because I like being a hermit.
It’s been great conversing with you, Marnie – looks like we both have some busy times ahead. Good luck with all your future endeavours!
Marnie: Good luck to you too, Katerina!