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Andrew Taylor, Diamond Dagger winner in 2009, interviews the winner of the Diamond Dagger 2021, Martina Cole.
Martina Cole was born in Essex, the youngest of five children of Irish Catholic parents. Before embarking on her hugely successful writing career, she had worked in a variety of jobs, ranging from a wine waitress to an agency nurse. It was the publication of her debut novel, Dangerous Lady, in 1991, which set her walking down the mean streets of gritty crime fiction. Her novels, many of which have been adapted for television, have been praised for their keen sense of atmospheric realism and their strong, female protagonists. Her latest novel, Loyalty, is due to be published by Headline in 2022.
- What was your first childhood encounter with crime fiction?
Both my mum and my nan were crazy about true crime and detective magazines and, after they finished reading them, I used to take them to read later.
- How has your own life experience affected the novels you write?
I come from a big, Irish family, so many of my books have big, Irish families and I am Catholic, so I write a lot about moral dilemmas. There were also a lot of criminals where I lived so I used to hear a lot of stories about them.
- Your sales now run into the tens of millions, and you’ve spent more weeks at No 1 on the original fiction bestseller list than any other adult novelist. But what led you to write your very first novel? And when was the moment you knew it would be a success and that you’d carry on writing?
I have always loved to read books, for as long as I can remember, so it was a natural progression to start writing. When I wrote Dangerous Lady, I sent it to a couple of publishers direct and was knocked back. I rewrote it 10 years later and I remember sending it to an agent on a Thursday and on the Monday, he (Darley Anderson) called me and said, “You are going to be a star.” It was a life-changing moment.
- It’s been said that your novels are the most requested by people in UK prisons. Is this true? Why do think this is?
Yes, it is – my books are also the most stolen books from bookshops! When I take writing classes in prisons, they always say that they can relate to my characters.
- What have you found is the best thing about being an author?
I have always loved to write, so to get paid for doing it has been wonderful. Plus, I have had the privilege to meet many authors that I admire.
- How has the business of authorship affected your life?
The huge sales changed my life completely and has let me do things that I had only ever dreamt of; for example, opening my own book shop, which is in Northern Cyprus.
- Which is your own favourite among your novels, and why?
I will always have a soft spot for Dangerous Lady, as it was my first novel, but I love Two Women, as it was fun to create and led me to being ambassador for Safer Places Essex and Gingerbread.
- Many of your novels have been televised. Do you generally collaborate with this process or just watch from afar? Has television influenced how you write? Again, which is your favourite adaptation?
TV has never affected how I write, but I have been lucky to be able to collaborate with many people, for example Lavinia Warner, Debby Gray and Barry Ryan. My favourite adaptation is The Take, with Tom Hardy, as he really got the character of Freddie Jackson.
- What’s your next book about, and when is it due?
My next book is called Loyalty but I’m not sure about publication date!
- How do you write? Are you a planner?
I have never planned anything in my life, I have the beginning, middle and end and the characters, and I usually write 2-4 drafts, and each time it all changes.
- You’ve been a published crime novelist since 1992. How has publishing changed?
Publishing has changed drastically for many different reasons from dwindling bookshops to the rise of eBooks, but I have always loved the crime genre and it is good to see it being continued, with the likes of Kimberley Chambers.
- You do a good deal of charity work. What are the causes closest to your heart?
I have tried to encourage as many people as I can to read over the years, which is why I took creative writing classes in prisons.
- Is it true you have your own record label? What sort of music do you listen to again and again? Do you listen to music while you write?
I constantly listen to music while I’m writing, especially when I am writing about a certain era, like the 60s or 70s, when I listen to the music from the decade I am writing about. And yes, I do have my own label.
- With the benefit of experience, if you could advise your younger self while she was writing her first crime novel, Dangerous Lady, what would you say?
Hurry up, because you have a lot of stories inside you, you just need to write them.
- If you were asked to advise someone who was starting out as a crime writer now, what would you say?
I would say to think long and hard about plot and characters, but the most important thing is to just go for it.
- What are you writing now? What would you like to write next?
I am on my first draft of Loyalty, and am always thinking of new ideas for future books, which is why I always keep notebooks all around my house to write down any new ideas.
- As a crime writer, what would you like to be remembered for?
As an innovator, I created my own genre and I hope I will be remembered for it.
Our interviewer Andrew Taylor is the author of the successful Lydmouth series, as well as a number of highly praised historical novels. He is the only author to have won the CWA’s Historical Dagger three times, as well as being himself awarded the Diamond Dagger for services to crime fiction. His novel, The Ashes of London, was the number one bestseller for eight weeks in The Times/Waterstones chart.
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