Guy Fraser-Sampson, an author whose Mapp and Lucia novels have all been optioned by BBC TV, and whose most recent novel, Miss Christie Regrets, has achieved critical acclaim (read my review HERE) talks me through his work and the writers that helped shape it.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?
I think it’s very important for an author to find their own distinctive voice and stick with it. It’s certainly something I look for when I read other writers myself, and it’s surprising how often I don’t really hear it, perhaps because they’re writing a book which their publishers want to publish rather than one which they want to write.
My own narrative style took shape while I was writing my three Mapp and Lucia novels and I have tried to tinker with it as little as possible when moving on to other things, apart from cutting out as many bitchy asides as possible!
I know that some people will find my style old-fashioned. In particular, many people seem to have a problem with adverbs these days. I have even had reviewers and publishers say they don’t think they add anything to the story, which is so breathtakingly silly as to require little further comment.
It’s only fair to add that I’ve been blessed with two wonderful editors (Olivia Bayes for my Mapp and Lucia books and Matthew Smith for The Hampstead Murders) who have been happy for me to write in my own way and who have never suggested any significant revisions.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
I have been variously a lawyer, an investment banker and an investment manager. I have also taught for the last ten years at a leading business school. My introduction to writing was along the path of non-fiction, partly with some big publishers such as Wiley and Macmillan, and partly some small independents such as Elliott & Thompson. I have written about finance, investment, economics, and cricket. Olivia, the editor of my cricket book, is a huge Mapp and Lucia fan, which is how I came to launch my career as a fiction writer.
I try very hard to write about things I have experienced myself, places I have been, etc. and so wherever possible my scenes are drawn from life. The courtroom scenes in Death in Profile would be a good example, though one reviewer did suggest I had made the barristers too pompous (not possible, actually).
When writing your Mapp & Lucia novels, why did you choose to undertake the process of taking established characters and reinvigorating them?
I said earlier that a writer has to find and nurture their own voice. I think it’s also terribly important for them to be able to create their own world and draw the reader into it. Again, it’s amazing how many don’t really seem able to do this, at least not for me. If they are really, really good at it then the world stays with you long after the books are finished. This happened to me in particular with the world of Mapp and Lucia (Tilling rather than Riseholme) and the world of Lord Peter Wimsey ,created by Dorothy L Sayers, which I rather cunningly incorporate into “Death in Profile” in a way that will not excite the copyright lawyers.
So the world of Mapp and Lucia was ever present in my head and I’d always regretted that there were only three ‘real’ Mapp and Lucia originals, so once I found a like-minded publisher I leapt at the chance to write some more.
The characters I pretty much took up where Benson had left them, though inevitably with my own subjective gloss; no two people’s interpretations of a book can be the same because they are shaped by our individual imaginations. I did however endeavour to make the subsidiary characters a little less cardboard by fleshing out some back-story wherever I could.
I also took the view very early on that I would not try exactly to copy Benson’s style (nobody could) but to write in the spirit of the originals, which I think I have pulled off. It was nice that people like Tom Holt, Gyles Brandreth and Sandy (Alexander) McCall Smith were happy to endorse them.
Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?
Modern crime fiction seems to resemble a barbell. At one end of the bar is a big ball representing the “noir” world so beloved of the publishing industry and TV production companies, with bleak, desolate locations, graphic gore and violence, and deeply damaged detectives recovering from a nervous breakdown and a failed relationship and suffering drink, drugs or gambling (delete whichever do not apply) problems. Real life isn’t like that. At the other end of the barbell is the cosy crime ball, also beloved by publishers and TV, frequently with a period setting. But real life isn’t like that, either. In between these two extremes there is very little.
I deliberately set my books right in the middle. I want to write about ordinary (though unusual and thus interesting) people doing ordinary things, and I draw deeply on my own experiences. For example, I have worked in many different work environments but I have never once been sworn or shouted at, so why put anything like that in a book? It would be phoney and done entirely to shock.
I also treat my readers as intelligent and well read. There are quirky references back to crime writers of former ages, some explicit, some less so. I expect my readers to understand and appreciate these, and I think they do.
Another big difference about my writing is that I establish fully rounded private lives for my central characters. They don’t disappear from view when they leave the police station in the evening and magically appear again the next morning; you see what happens to them at home. John Creasey was the inspiration for this, first with Inspector West, but even more so subsequently with Gideon. Internal police politics have a role to play too.
So, their popularity is probably due to a number of things: a fantastic location (Hampstead), a cast of likeable central characters about whom you want to know ‘what happens next’, an on going love triangle, and a credible portrayal of ordinary, everyday real life.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
I don’t plan my books in advance, I just write them as I go along, so writer’s block is a frequent companion! My approach is to create the characters and then see where they want to take me. That may sound rather anarchic, but it has worked so far up to now. You just have to trust that the “ah, so that’s what happens” moment really will come along. I’m usually writing at least two books at once, so you can always just put something aside for a week or so while you think about it.
I do try to write something every day but I don’t think people realise how much time a writer needs to spend on non-writing activities. As a general rule of thumb I probably spend at least three hours ‘promoting’ for every hour of ‘writing’, and if it’s around the time of a book launch then it may be ten or twenty times as much.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I think the ultimate ‘writer’s writer’ was probably George Orwell. There is a tautness about his prose, and a cadence and rhythm in his sentences that I have always admired. However, another of my writer heroes is Lawrence Durrell, and I suspect he might be rather more fun to work with, provided you could keep him away from wine and women!
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
The third in The Hampstead Murders, A Whiff of Cyanide is due out in June, so I’m already planning some events around that. It features suspicious death at a convention of crime-writers, which meant that I had a lot of fun writing it. Fans of the Peter Collins character will be glad to hear that he plays a more prominent role in this one.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I always look forward to whatever is the next Bryant and May book to be emerging from the pen of Christopher Fowler. He is a true one-off. I love his characterisation, his plots and the intelligent, quirky London references, all of which I would shamelessly copy if I had the ability.
Ruth Dugdall, another writer whom I really admire, also has a new book coming out.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Speaking as someone who has taught at business school for many years, and has also advised various businesses over the years, it does seem to me that there are huge inefficiencies at just about every stage of the book industry’s business processes. Demand for books (particularly physical books) is holding up, which is better than was feared a few years back, but everyone – writers, readers, publishers, agents, and booksellers of all types – needs to find ways to work with each other rather than against each other. I am sure technology points the way here, but it needs the right attitude of mind from all concerned.
Thanks ever so much to Guy for speaking to me. You can learn more about Guy and his writing HERE.