As part of the Bloody Scotland blog tour I was very happy to get to ask Helen Giltrow a few questions about writing, reading and find out a little bit more about what she will be doing at this year’s festival.
First of all, tell us a little about what inspired you to start writing in the first place. ?
I started writing aged five or six, producing little books. I’ve no idea why. By my teens I’d progressed to full-length novels. Writing’s just something I’ve always done.
Is there one childhood read that you always remember?
Hah. Has to be ‘Black Beauty’. I remember my dad reading it to me and my twin sister – he had one of us on each knee so we must have been quite small. All three of us were in tears.
When reading now, what types of novels appeal to you most?
Good writing always grabs me. I like a smartly executed, clever crime novel, but books that feel controlled or calculated leave me cold. I want to feel that underneath it all – under any amount of skilful characterisation, swiss-watch plot construction and telling turns of phrase – the author gives a damn about his or her subject matter. That this isn’t just puzzle-solving. I like books that have an anger running through them, whether it’s explicitly expressed or not. And a desire to take a risk – to push beyond the comfort zones of the subgenres. I’d rather read a book that courts audacious failure. So many of the books I love are flawed … and sometimes the flaw, the thing that throws a book out of whack, is also the element that keeps drawing you back to it, and has you turning it over in your head for days after you’ve read it.
Where did the idea specifically for “The Distance” start forming for you. ?
When I started writing, I thought my lead was going to be a hitman, tasked with breaking into a prison to kill an inmate in a revenge hit. But in an early chapter of an early draft, he had to pay a visit to a woman who ran a successful business selling information to criminals. She was very smart, and self-possessed, and focused. She was also hiding something, and I couldn’t work out what it was. I kept coming back to her. Still, it took me months to realise that she had to be my lead.
I tend to start with characters, rather than with an idea I want to explore. The idea comes later. Even the experimental prison within the book developed out of my male lead’s psychology: I wanted to find an environment that would challenge him, and force him to define his own moral limits. The concrete details grew from there.
The great thing with writing about criminals is that it instantly brings you nose-to-nose with issues of morality. We tend to assume that even the most flawed of cops will end up on the side of the angels. With criminals, we can’t.
One of the great things about The Distance is that it is something a little bit different to standard thrillers – how hard is it in the burgeoning market of Crime Fiction to bring something unique. ?
The issue of uniqueness is an interesting one. I think most writers love the subgenres we’re working in. Their conventions provide our anchor points; they form the walls we bounce our ideas off. But at the same time we want to surprise our readers and ourselves. Go somewhere new. At very least, take a conventional scenario – one we may have read a dozen times before – and spin it on its axis.
Yet self-conscious, gimmicky reinvention just won’t cut the mustard. It’s got to be more than that.
And some readers want ‘the standard item’. I’m sure publicists would tell you it’s easier to sell a crime novel if it fits into a neat subgenre package, complete with soundbite – which The Distance doesn’t. Though I did like one reviewer’s TV-literate subgenre-crossing tagline, ‘It’s Spooks meets Prison Break.’
You’re appearing at Bloody Scotland this year. What can people expect if they attend the festival?
This will be my first Bloody Scotland but it’s a big event in the crime calendar, with a reputation to match. I know crime writers who’ve rearranged their diaries to be there. And the line-up this year is phenomenal.
Events like Bloody Scotland tick so many boxes. You get to see, hear, even meet your idols. You get to discover writers you might otherwise have missed completely. And you get to hang out in the bar with like-minded souls. There will be impassioned debate. There will be jokes. At least three things will happen (in a panel or in a bar) that will pass into crime festival legend. You will talk too much and return home with more books than you can safely carry, no voice, and a significant sleep deficit. You will be buzzing and you will immediately want to rebook for next year.
What will you be doing at Bloody Scotland?
I’ll be on a panel with Mel (MJ) McGrath and Louise Millar – the founders of the Killer Women collective, of which I’m a member. We’ll be talking about women, violence, crime and fiction, and tackling the question, ‘Do men and women write and read crime differently?’
Killer Women started as a salon – or to put it another way, a chance to get together with other crime writers, usually over a pizza and a glass of wine, to talk about the genre. The idea of doing events together grew from that. There are currently 16 of us, writing across a range of subgenres and all with different areas of expertise and interest, so put us together and we tend to strike sparks off each other. I’m really looking forward to it.
Over the coming months we’re also organizing giveaways and workshops – anyone who’s interested can find us at http://www.killerwomen.org.
Finally, can you tell us a little about your next novel?
It will be the sequel to The Distance. That’s all I can say. Right now everything else is under wraps!
Helen Giltrow and the Killer Women will be at Bloody Scotland on Saturday 12 September – please see here for more details: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/event/killer-women-deadlier-than-the-male/
About The Distance:
They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison.
Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do.
The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there.
It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.
So why can’t she say no?
Buy the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Distance-Charlotte-Alton-1/dp/1409127346/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438727648&sr=1-1&keywords=9781409127345
To find out more about the event’s and authors you don’t want to miss at this year’s festival follow the tour:
Happy Reading Folks!
Sounds like major fun!