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What, in relation to your writing, are you most proud of?
Probably my first published book The Religious Body
At what point in your life did you start to describe yourself as an author?
The first time I described myself as an author it was with greater certainty than the second. I was about 8 or 9 years old and I have a distinct memory of sitting at the kitchen table and writing a play in red ink in a school exercise book. (Mercifully it has not been preserved – the resurrection of juvenilia is a great worry to those of us who are not instinctive tidy-uppers.)
The second time is more difficult to pinpoint. It just comes. For many years I simply thought of myself more of a writer than an author (although I would be hard put to define the distinction). On one occasion, though, I decided that ‘wordsmith’ might be more appropriate. I live next door to a railway line and one day a man from a gang who were working on the line came to my front door and said that he understood that I was a writer. I said as modestly as I could that I tried to be. ‘Well, in that case,’ he said, ‘would you mind stepping out in the road and writing something?’ Writing down the gang’s sentiments about their foreman, whom they liked very much and wanted this to be recorded, I was probably nearer the true function of a writer than before or since: writing down what other people feel, not necessarily what I feel. (Whether the opinions of a character in a book are those of the author is a subject endlessly debated.)
What did you buy with your first royalties cheque?
I went on holiday to Greece – something I had always wanted to do. And found that ‘The Glory that Was Greece’ was every bit as magnificent as it had always been said to be. The Acropolis in the early morning is a sight to behold and it was useful to learn that the oracle at Delphi couldn’t really be relied upon. . .
What is the first crime story you remember reading?
The title of the first crime story I read eludes me but it was probably John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I read all those in the genre that I could get my hands on – Sapper, Leslie Charteris, Christie, Allingham, Marsh, Sayers, Chandler. There was an important rite of passage at the Huddersfield Public Library when, at the age of twelve, a reader could take out 12 books at a time – and I did, training myself to read as I walked to school. This, of course, was in the war when cars were few and far between.
My first book was accepted in 1965 and published in 1966. Later I became the first recipient of the Hertfordshire Library’s Golden Handcuffs Award – a much-cherished accolade. I had a Nerine named after me which I thought could have described me as well as the plant: ‘A very late flowerer. Weatherproof, deep blue pink. Flowers Nov to Jan, Hardy. An old hybrid found in a Kent garden (Still growing.)’ The most significant sales figures I ever achieved – a breath-taking number – was when one of my books was translated into Polish but alas the royalties were then only payable in blocked zlotys. These I could only receive by spending them in person in Poland, something not practical at the time. Then as you know there was the Diamond Dagger. . . (My speech at its presentation had been carefully crafted, only for me to have seriously underestimated the effect of the very powerful painkillers I had been given for osteoporosis of the spine, driving every word out of my mind.)
My biographical details are of necessity sparse – I am unmarried having had a lot of ill-health when young and before the discovery of steroids which nowadays help, but not cure, the condition from which I suffered (the nephrotic syndrome). I was born in 1930 and went to Greenhead High School in Huddersfield until I was 16, when I became ill. Since 1946 I have lived in a large village north of Canterbury, some of the time acting as practice manager and dispenser to my father who was the sole general practitioner here at the time. I have always taken a great interest in parish history and have edited and published several of them. I was for eleven years chairman of the United Kingdom Girl Guide Finance Committee and for a time the Assistant Treasurer of the World Association of Girl Guides and Scouts.
I was overwhelmed to receive the Diamond Dagger, having so much enjoyed being a member of the CWA since 1966. While my own writing might be considered to be rather fossilized, I am aware of many changes in the genre since then: police detectives seem now often to be men or women undergoing personal strain – divorced, recovering alcoholics, corrupt, oppressed by their superiors and so forth. It appears to me that a normal honest hardworking professional and impartial policeman or woman is seldom featured in fiction these days.
Something else that is new since I started writing is that crime writers themselves cannot possibly (or legally) keep up with the modern scientific developments available to the police these days but not available to them. This must necessarily have some bearing on their writing: especially so must have been the development of DNA. This is important in solving real-life crime but has the effect of making that of writing fiction more difficult. Forensic laboratories are more important in fiction than ever before, while the drug scene has entered the written world big-time as well as the real one. Unfortunately, I understand an actual response from a police laboratory take a fortnight and no writer keen on keeping up the pace of their narrative can make their characters wait that long.
One bonus in writing fiction that I have found is the license to research whatsoever one wishes – it’s such a wide world. One bizarre search led me into five men’s outfitters in succession, asking each of the assistants if one could work out the height of a man from his inside trouser measurement. The first four said ‘No’; but the fifth said ‘Certainly, madam.’
Publishers change, too. They get younger for one thing, while copy editors whose expertise I so admire, get even younger. I have never forgotten the traditional first lunch to which I was invited by my publisher. Bidden for half past twelve and early by habit I sat in a grand London restaurant alone while the quarter hours passed with no sign of him. By the time a quarter to two was in sight I had almost decided to retreat to the country. He swept in just before I did, full of apology but not wholly with it. He kept on murmuring that he hoped he’d done the right thing and that he’d done something that he’d never done before: buy seven novels written by hand in exercise books. He was sure, he said more than once, that he had done the right thing.
He had. The author’s name was Cookson, Catherine Cookson.
A Going Concern
A Hole In One
A Late Phoenix
Amendment Of Life
Chapter And Hearse
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