These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here.
“Exceptional . . . absorbing . . . Fiona’s narrative sears the page.”– Kirkus Reviews
[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
I left banking in 1998, pulled from the industry by my wife’s illness and the lure of story. My wife was now vastly recovered. The Writers’ Workshop (aside from a long, eighteen month stutter around following the 2008 recession) was prospering nicely. I’d already burned through more writing careers than seemed quite decent … and yet, through it all, the lure of story remained. A pull too strong for this writer’s heart to resist.
In this case, it was not strictly story that drew me, but a character. The character is a young, twenty-something woman. Physically slight. A junior member of a regional police force. Very intelligent, as fictional detectives have to be, and with a strange affinity for corpses. Her name is Fiona Griffiths and she talks like this:
The cold is intense. It’s chilly enough inside the house, with the stove burning non-stop, but I venture outside a couple of times – simply to see and feel the diamond hardness of the night – and the cold has a physical presence I’ve read about but never previously experienced. It’s like the entire world is being tightened up. Waterfalls are being frozen into place, trees stiffened, the air clarified, the ground plated over with iron.
I like it. It’s easier to feel myself at times like this. In opposition to something, not just wading through Cardiff’s too-ordinary air.
When I get hungry, I eat Buzz’s biscuits. When I get hungry again, I cook the pasta and eat that.
She’s a tough cookie, even if her behaviour in tense situations isn’t always exactly by-the-book:
I take a rifle and shotgun for Roy, a shotgun for me. Plenty of ammo. Trot downstairs and get Roy tooled up. He looks better that way: sitting up and with an armful of guns.
‘Fucking hell, Fi. You’re something else, you really are.’
That sentence seems logically weak to me, but I’m not going to quarrel. ‘I told Katie I’d get you out. So here I am: getting you out.’
‘Thank you very much. I appreciate it.’
‘DCI Jackson once told me that you’re not allowed to just shoot the fuckers. You have to say “Police” first. Then you can shoot them.’
‘OK. Good to know.’
[…] I realise we need some sort of parting gesture. Don’t know why, but it’s what the moment calls for.
I say, ‘Do men do fist-bumps? Or is that just an American thing?’
‘No, we could do that.’
We knock our fists together. His huge one. Dark tattoos circling his wrist. Tattoos and a manacle. My small fist. I’m still wearing Jessica’s bracelets and even though Roy hits me gently, I can still feel the power in that arm. I don’t know what he finds in mine.
That’s her voice, but she’s more than just a voice. My little Fiona is a woman of action, and she does things like this:
He goes from the bedroom to the bathroom. I hear the shower run.
I stand outside the bathroom door, where I’ll be concealed as it opens. There’s a tune in my head – Adele’s Chasing Pavements. I don’t know why. It’s all I can do to stop myself singing it.
The shower stops. A tap runs. Tooth brushing.
He seems to take a long time in the bathroom. Longer than me, I think, and I’m a girl. I’m half minded to go in there and tell him to get on with it, but I don’t have to. Hamish, finally, is ready for me. He steps, naked, out of the bathroom.
I allow myself a second – a half-second even – to be present in this moment. To enjoy the sensation of being alive, here and now, in a place I want to be.
It’s not an idle moment, though.
I study the side of Hamish’s skull. Somewhat above, and forward from, his ear. The pterion, is what doctors call it. It lies at the join of four bones. A major artery lies beneath. The skull wall is thinner there than anywhere else. God’s little joke, as it’s known.
I mark the spot. Say, ‘Hi, Hamish,’ and, as he turns, hit him as hard as I can with the bottle of rum.
My Fiona is also a woman of a complex and troubled mental life. One who yearns to be normal, but is still far from that happy state. A woman who would love a steady boyfriend, but isn’t sure she has the emotional equipment to handle anything so ordinary. A woman whose father’s past may contain the clues to the most vital things about her present.
In short, I had an idea for a book, an idea which turned into a 120,000 word crime novel, Talking to the Dead. I spent perhaps two years letting the central character form in my head, then wrote my first draft in a heady rush of creation. I wrote it in the course of one winter and I particularly remember the joy of waking up one day to a snowfall so heavy that ordinary life – the visits of friends, the daily routine of the Writers’ Workshop – simply came to an end. We stuck a ‘closed because of snow’ notice up on the WW website. I took the dogs for long frosty walks – and wrote for hour after lovely, peaceful, uninterrupted hour.
Bill nurtured my vision from its early glimmerings to finished manuscript. He’s not, by any means, an agent who specialises in crime. Far from it: his best known clients are Hilary ‘Wolf Hall’ Mantel and George Orwell (who, though less productive than he was, still knows how to shift a book or two.) But Bill doesn’t need to specialise in a genre to navigate the industry effectively. He whipped the book out to all the right people. We held our breath – and held our breath – and got back two fine offers from two fine publishing companies.
The winning offer came from Orion, one of the semi-independent bodies that form the British arm of the Hachette Group. The editor at Orion was none other than Bill Massey: the man who had so dismally failed to lay on a flattering celery garnish back when Hodder was bidding against HarperCollins for The Money Makers. I’d said no to Bill then. I wasn’t going to do so now.
I accepted a £140,000 ($230,000) three-book deal. The other Bill – my agent, Bill Hamilton – began the process of auctioning rights elsewhere as well. He, and his foreign rights supremo, Jennifer Custer, sold that book to Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and elsewhere in Europe. Over in New York, Random House acquired the book for $60,000 in a two-book deal. We sold the TV rights to a small London production company, Bonafide Films, who swiftly secured a broadcasting deal with Sky.
And the book sold! My friend and reader, the book sold! Not in huge quantities overnight – the crime market doesn’t usually work like that – but it enjoyed some wonderful support from Waterstones, the Barnes & Noble of the British market. The first book sold decently, the second sold still better, the third – and, to my taste, the best so far – is yet properly to test the waters. (That third book, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, has only just launched in the US. It’s out in Britain, but only in hardback/trade paperback; the mass market paperback launch is due a little later this year. You can buy it though, no matter where you are: here if you’re American, here if you’re a Brit. It’s a cracker.)
Reviewers have been very kind. When Talking to the Dead launched in the US, it got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. It enjoyed a 4/4 star rating in USA Today. It was chosen as a Crime Book of the Year by the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. I’m quoting American reviews to start with, because the ecosystem of British book reviewing has degenerated sharply over the years. That’s not a snide comment about the quality of our reviewers; it’s simply to note that, faced with the coldest of commercial headwinds, British newspapers have been forced to slash the space reserved for books. Since there are still plenty of authors who have to be reviewed (Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson, and their very classy ilk), everyone else is on starvation rations.
Even so, Orion’s consistent championing of the book, plus the deluge of those lovely American reviews, meant that by the time the second Fiona Griffiths novel (Love Story, with Murders) launched, the British press had begun to take notice. The title for this blog post – ‘brutal, freakish and totally original’ – comes from a wonderful review in the Sunday Times. The Daily Mail called me ‘a crime talent to treasure.’ American reviews for that second book have remained consistently generous. (‘A dark delight’ – Washington Post. ‘Superb … an even more intense plot and richer character study than his first.’ – Publishers Weekly.)
I promised you a happy ending and here, finally, it is. A career that has finally found its perfect conjunction of book, theme and publisher. Indeed, if I’m honest, I think I really only came of age as a writer with Talking to the Dead and (still more so) the two books that follow. I still like my earlier work, but the Fiona Griffiths novels are what I came into writing to create. I feel privileged to share head space with her, and no matter that she’s fictional.
I’ve also been blessed with wonderful publishers. The two best English language publishers I’ve ever had are Orion and the Bantam Dell wing of Random House in New York. If that sounds like a modest statement, given that I’ve only mentioned HarperCollins and Bloomsbury so far, I should perhaps add that my full publishing experience is, by now, quite extensive. Aside from the incidents I’ve discussed in this series of posts, I’ve also had substantial – sometimes very substantial – editorial input into three further books, which were handled by three major publishers. I’ve also watched as numerous Writers’ Workshop clients have made the journey into print, with outcomes good, bad and disastrous. So I know a good publisher when I see one, and Orion and Bantam Dell are right up there with the very, very best.
That’s true at a corporate level. Orion, indeed, feels so collegiate, so united and so welcoming, that to refer to it as ‘corporate’ somewhat undersells the experience of being one of its authors. It may operate with capitalist efficiency, but it feels almost like family. Indeed, whereas every other publishing relationship of mine has left me with a different editor at the end than I had at the start, Orion is alarmingly stable. Same editor, same publicist, same marketing guy, same sales guy, same paperback mastermind. It’s a very good way to run a company.
That culture manifests in countless ways. Both Orion and Bantam Dell have excellent production standards, Bantam Dell’s being particularly good. Orion’s range of book covers are the best, boldest, most confident, most buyable book covers I’ve ever had. Bill and Kate have been the best editors I’ve ever had. Of all the rest, only Mitzi truly belongs in that same top rank of excellence. (Jenny was great too, but she was perhaps a businesswoman more than an editor: she was slightly misplaced in the role where I encountered her.)
These things, inevitably, produce results. The nice reviews I’ve had owe something to my writing, of course, but the praise needs to be shared with the editorial acumen needed to get the best from Fiona’s distinctive and alarming voice, and of course the sheer bloody push needed to get book reviewers to take a given title seriously. Oh, and if I’ve said more about Orion than about Bantam – well, you need to remember that Oxfordshire is a lot closer to London than it is to Manhattan; I simply see a lot more of the Orion mob.
So much for the happy ending, but I promised you a twist and that twist is now fast approaching . . .
[The story continues here.]
The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.