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What, in relation to your writing, are you most proud of?
The readers who love my books, especially the ones who say they have never written to an author before.
Those who re-read the whole series.
The Premio Colosseo.
At what point in your life did you start to describe yourself as an author?
Around 1987, unpublished, but accepted for the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, where I was designated a Small Business and had to declare how I would trade.
What did you buy with your first royalties cheque?
I paid the mortgage with my first cheque; otherwise I would have lost my home. I was so poor initially, I paid no income tax for five years; I had no scope for fripperies.
Many, many years later I did buy a garden fountain that was called my Swedish Royalties fountain. I left it behind to avoid cleaning the pump.
What is the first crime story you remember reading?
Norman and Henry Bones, the Boy Detectives (Norman Painting)
Backlist of over 30 books, never out of print, over 2 million print/ebooks sold in the UK, plus USA, translations, audio, radio adaptations.
- 1985 resigned from ‘real’ job
- 1987 went on Enterprise Allowance Scheme, created a business plan, learned to keep accounts, declared self a writer.
- Late 1980s – serials published in Woman’s Realm. Shortlisted for Georgette Heyer Historical
- Novel Prize three times. Did not win, not even with subsequently published books.
- 1989 publication of the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, followed by 19 more in the series and Falco, the Official Companion. Awarded the Authors’ Club first novel prize
- 1990 joined CWA
- 1995 awarded CWA Dagger in the Library
- 1997 publication of first novel, The Course of Honour – ten years after writing it
- 1997 Honorary President of the Classical Association
- 1998 created personal website
- 1999 awarded CWA Historical Dagger
- 1999 Sherlock award for Falco as Best Comic Detective
- 2002 Chair of CWA
- 2009 publication of standalone, Rebels and Traitors. Became a pensioner
- 2009 awarded City of Zaragoza International Prize for career as a writer
- 2010 awarded the Premio Colosseo by the Mayor of Rome for ‘enhancing the image of Rome’
- 2011 awarded CWA Diamond Dagger
- 2012 Chair of the Society of Authors
- 2012 publication of standalone, Master and God
- 2013 publication of the first Flavia Albia novel, The Ides of April, followed by one book a year and accompanied by linked digital novellas.
- 2013 awarded Barcino (Barcelona) historical novel prize
- 2013 spine assessed, specifically in order to keep writing. Went home to Birmingham.
- 2014 began being ‘rebuilt’ by personal trainer
- 2014 publication of A Cruel Fate in the Quickreads series
- 2014 President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute
- 2020 Business Plan: continue writing Albia series to 20 books, finishing in 2032 (aged 83).
- Currently exploring possibility of ‘knit your own Falco characters’.
I am bitterly opposed to defining authors by spouse, children, age, sex, race, nationality, politics, religion, education, where born, where living, career mistakes, hobbies, pets, favourite colour, or what damned fruit they would be. Sometimes I believe authors should be quite invisible, though of course all the points mentioned affect how I write. Textual analysis possibly reveals a baby-boom Brummie brought up by ‘barrack room lawyers’ in the radio age who is kind to spiders.
What should define a writer is their strengths – plot, characterisation, dialogue, narrative, humour, themes – and their ability to sustain these through a body of work.
It was a good career. It was better than my previous work. I earned more, loved doing it, became famous, and had authority and independence. Despite now filling in a form for a Hall of Fame as if this was The End, even for a pensioner it is not over!
I’ve always been a campaigning author. I have no truck with mimsies who ‘only want to see their names in print’. It’s a job. It should be properly rewarded, with decent terms; all writers should read and understand their contracts and their royalty statements. No one should tolerate exploitation.
Writing a book is no different from making a good biscuit; each packet should have taste, distribution and a retail value. If readers are paying for what you produce, you should respect them. Don’t use bad recipes or cheap materials. You have to have faith in yourself, or why should anybody else? Edit yourself. Take responsibility. Finish your manuscripts. Finish them on time.
You might think everything has changed in 30+ years, but the basics remain: you write good stories then attempt to bring them to discerning readers, whatever embuggerance is put in your way. It will be. Getting an agent and publisher, keeping them, changing them when you have to, is really hard, perhaps harder than ever. But without writers, there would be no agents or publishers. Having a story told to you remains a joy.
Readers are an interesting lot! When necessary I engage with other people, even though I am solitary and find smiling hard work. I ignore social media. I don’t have time for it, I’m a writer; I’m writing. I do public events. Mine are a kind of stand-up, delivered sitting down. I talk normally without notes, sometimes even smiling, always being no-nonsense about writing. People are thrilled – but I have learned to organise organisers in advance. I make sure books will be available, I look up trains, I point out that a seven-hour journey for a ten-minute panel does not appeal to me, I explain why heavy handheld mikes are painful for arthritis and no good for reading book extracts, I elucidate that if they charge for tickets, the price of the tickets should cover fees for the entertainers without whom they would have no festival…
To be in a genre where I had colleague support, has been a boon. It’s a lonely profession, but this way I’ve made friends, some of whom were unexpected. I am a campaigning author, so as well as learning from more experienced colleagues, I hope I’ve helped share knowledge with newer ones. What I chose to write was obscure, so awards have always mattered and the Diamond Dagger, an award from my peers, was really important.
We are told much nonsense about publishing, such as: sales are down, ebooks are the death of print, audio is dying, social media is essential. The media has to warble. But Amazon reviews won’t matter to readers who don’t use Amazon. Some of my readers buy the same book in several editions; publishers can’t measure that. Readers don’t go back to an author who disappoints them; they stay loyal to those they like. This is often overlooked. And they are open to explanations. If as an author you say that you write to pay the gas bill and to fund your old age care, readers will understand why ‘free’ books are evil piracy. I regularly explain that ebooks are full price during the life of a hardback in order to keep me in Cava, which they also accept. I do talk to them about publishing; it’s easy to forget they don’t know how it works. Well who does? One thing that never changes is that publishing is often barmy.
From my perspective, the main about-face in publishing is that in the 1980s there was ‘no market for historical novels’. Ha, ha, ha. Any jumped-up celebrity can write one now and sell it – though perhaps only the one. I thought you needed to be original, unaware that marketers only wanted to risk what someone else had already made popular. Ha, ha again. An editor (not mine) once told me historicals don’t need to be accurate. She was wrong. I have stood my ground, maintained my standards and here I am. I knew readers would eagerly take to loveable characters, enjoyable plots, fascinating facts, jokes, food and nice dogs. Given the chance by my brave editor Oliver, I have supplied these with gusto. The Diamond Dagger (and, pardon me, the Premio Colosseo) show that it worked.
It’s been a good career. And it isn’t over.
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