Cracking Academia

I know I put up a blog post earlier today but…well, this is a very special piece of news.

I found that this afternoon that my book – I don’t know which one(s) – will be part of the genre writing module in the creative writing degree at York St. John University (my friend Candace Robb is part of it, too).

I’d never seriously expected something like this. But I’m over to moon to find out about it. And I wanted to tell you.

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Two Events

I don’t often use the blog to talk about upcoming events, but there are two in the next couple of weeks that are going to be rather special.

My good friend Candace Robb is going to be in England promoting her new book, and we’re doing a couple of evenings together, one in Leeds – where my books are set – and one in York – the setting for her work.

I first came across Candace’s Owen Archer books when I lived in Seattle. They were so convincing that I thought she lived in York, or nearby. I found out just a few years ago that she’s a Seattleite. We were in the same place at the same time and never even knew.

We cover different periods. Hers is the late middle ages, the back end of the 1300s and into 1400. Mine is later. I’m a big fan of her books, I have been since I read the first of them around 20 years ago.

We share the same publisher now, and she’s just put out A Conspiracy Of Wolves, the first Owen Archer book in 10 years. I’ve read it, and it’s excellent.

And my new Tom Harper novel, The Leaden Heart, has very recently been published. Between us, we have a bit to discuss, and the events are a double book launch for us! Buy a copy, get it signed (please)

If you can, I hope you’ll come to the Leeds event (link here) on May 16 in the evening, or the York event, also an evening affair, on the 21st (link here). Both are free, you only need to book a seat.

It would be lovely to see you!

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The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

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In Praise Of…Candace Robb

Every writer has influences. In some cases it can be style, in others, on the way a writer approaches their work. I have several, but one of the most lingering is the historical crime novelist Candace Robb.

I first came across her work about 20 years ago. I was still living in Seattle then, and came across a couple of her books at my local library. They were set in York, always one of my favourite cities, and in the 1300s, a very interesting time. I borrowed them, devoured them, and after that devoured the rest of her Owen Archer series, followed by her three Margaret Kerr books. In terms of language they were spot-on that I assumed they were written by someone local, someone who understood the place and its people in her bones.

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Fast forward quite a few years. My partner came across a book about Alice Perrers called The King’s Mistress and raved about it. I read it, curious because Perrers had been a minor character in one of the Owen Archer novels. It was as good as she said. A little digging online showed that the author, Emma Campion, was…Candace Robb. And she didn’t live in York at all. She lived in Seattle. More than that, she’d grown up in Cincinnati, where I spent a decade before moving out to the West Coast.

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It was kinda weird.

By then I had a few historical crime novels of my own out on the shelves, the first volumes in my Richard Nottingham series. And the way Candace made family relationships such an important part of her novels had affected the way I put together my books. I owed her a debt.

I dropped her an email. She replied. And out of that, we’ve become good friends. We’ve never met, although we’ve been in the same cities at the same time before.  I’ve continued writing, and so has she: first another big historical, A Triple Knot, about Joan of Kent, and last year The Service of the Dead, the first in a new series set in York, featuring Kate Clifford, a young widow (that will see UK publication this year, while the second will be published soon in the US). I’ve read it; it’s every bit as good as her Owen Archer novels, which are my favourites.

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She’s an academic, a scholar with a very deep knowledge of the Middle Ages and especially of York, a city that seems to run in her blood. Everything detail is impeccably researched, but the scholarship is always in service of the story. It’s finely woven in – another influence she’s had on my work (well, I hope I’ve succeeded). And, most importantly for anyone writing about another time and place, she takes you there. When you read, you’re moving through York (or other places) in the 14th century. You can smell it, you can taste it. That’s a rare, precious quality.

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This June, Candace will be in England. She has an event – maybe more – in York. But happily she’s also going to do an ‘In Conversation With…’ in Leeds, on June 8 at the Leeds Library, a pop-up event by Leeds Big Bookend. I feel especially lucky, because I’m the one who’ll be asking her the questions.

For those who enjoy what I write, come along if you can, and discover one of the best historical crime writers. Or, if you’re a fan of hers – discover her if you don’t already know her work – this will be a treat.

A Conversation with Candace Robb

I feel I’m very fortunate to have become friends with Candace Robb, a novelist who’s had an influence on my work as a mystery writer. I’ve been a huge fan of her Owen Archer novels since I discovered them (they’re set in 14th Century York, but I found them in the library in Seattle). As Emma Campion, she’s written a pair of outstanding historical novels, and A Triple Knot, the newest, is set to be published very soon. Ironically, I did know that she lived in Seattle, too, or that, prior to that, we’d both lived in another city in America. Goes to show, small world. We exchange emails regularly, and when Candace suggested us having a conversation for her blog, I was flattered. The exchange has grown, so we’ve decided to split it between our blogs. This is part two – just follow the link here for part one.

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Chris:  How do you think writing backgrounds affect the way we work? For instance, you came to this as an academic. Did you have to force yourself not to put in too much history? And what stylistic changes did you have to make? I came to novels from music journalism and writing quickie unauthorized biographies, where I had to write and research a book in 30 days (much of this was pre-Internet). For both of these, deadlines meant getting it mostly right the first time, and being direct. I’m still that way, I think. I know you revise and revise endlessly. I do more of it, but I try to get the real sense and shape of a book on the first draft.

Candace:  Interesting question! I began my university studies in journalism, then switched to literature after a few years. I’ve taught business, academic, and creative writing, and I worked for over a decade as an editor of scientific research publications at a university. So early on I trained in getting it mostly right the first time. And as an editor I was always up against deadlines. For the first 10 Owen Archer novels and the Margaret Kerr trilogy I was under fairly rigid annual deadlines. I seldom did more than two drafts. I simply didn’t have time. For the Emma Campion books I’ve had more time. It was quite a change to work on The King’s Mistress for four years; I wrote one version in two years for the UK market and then rewrote it for the US and foreign markets because they wanted a shorter book. But I’ve always thought of writing as a process and an exploration. When I reread I find connections and undercurrents that I’ve rushed past, and work on them to deepen the story.

As far as forcing myself not to put in too much history, I haven’t been tempted with the crime novels, but I had a bit of a struggle writing The King’s Mistress and even more working on A Triple Knot. Joan of Kent’s story is so much a part of the beginning of the Hundred Years War, and that can’t be glossed over. Joan’s story was obscured by the historical detail in the first draft. Focus became my mantra in subsequent drafts, paring down to the essential.

Chris: We both have politics in our books. Yours play out more on national stages, both in York and with the Margaret Kerr novels. And even more when you write as Emma Campion. Mine are far more local, since my feeling is that the doings of Parliament and kings would matter little to ordinary people and everyday life in 18th century Leeds. In my new Victorian series, there’s more politics, but it’s the politics of the working man, the strikes. Do you feel that the politics are a vital strand?

Candace: I chose York as the location for the Owen Archers because of its political importance, and Owen’s identity as the Welsh outsider is an integral part of his character and his view of the world. So, too, I chose to lengthen John Thoresby’s term as Lord Chancellor of England in order to play with the politics of the realm. Owen’s return to Wales and his flirtation with Welsh rebels was something I very much wanted to do. And I wrote Margaret’s trilogy to explore the terrible burden of the Scots during their Wars of Independence, how the people suffered. So you might say that politics are my inspiration. Many of my plots grow out of political events.

Chris: What other things play important parts in your books? For me, it’s music. There’s folk music here and there in the Richard Nottingham novels, because it’s what people would have heard. Some of the ballads, people scraping on fiddles, the music of the people. And in my Seattle books, the music is integral to the story, whether it’s the local sound that’s in Emerald City, just before grunge became big, or the country music in West Seattle Blues. I have a novel coming out next January, Dark Briggate Blues, set in Leeds in the ‘50s. It’s noir, really, but jazz runs through it, and Leeds really did have a jazz club then, a place called Studio 20, where the protagonist goes regularly. It’s a way to combine my two passions.

Candace: I love how music runs through your books, how your language sings. As for me, I suppose the overarching interest is all aspects of medieval culture—music, clothing, drama, literature, ballads. And gardening, particularly medicinal gardens. So Lucie Wilton has a remarkable apothecary’s garden. Falconry. York and Yorkshire—I fell passionately in love with York and the surrounding countryside on my first visit and my love has only grown stronger with familiarity. That goes for Wales as well. A fascination with folk traditions that embrace the magical and the inexplicable.

Chris: I already knew York well when I first came across your books, and your love for it was obvious. But you seemed to steeped in it that I believed you lived there. And you really do bring 14th Century York alive so well, to the point where the reader can taste and smell it. Like my books about Leeds – and also Seattle – they seem like love letters to the place, truly immersive experiences.

Chris:  What made you become Emma Campion for the non-mystery novels? (as a confession, for some of my more teen-oriented quickie bios, I adopted the nom de plume of Anna Louise Golden. I imagine myself sitting in gingham and writing!)

Candace:  Gingham? Really? Hah! Emma Campion exists solely because the marketing department at Century, my British publisher, wanted a way to distinguish the mainstream historicals from the historical crime novels. I had fun coming up with the name and practicing a new signature. But Candace and Emma both write in leggings and baggy sweaters.

Chris: I know you’ve started work on a new Owen Archer novel, which will please many people. What else is in the future? The return of Margaret Kerr?

Candace:  Yes, I’m working on Owen Archer #11, A Rumor of Wolves. Then Emma wants to complete Joan of Kent’s story with The Hero’s Wife (title subject to change) and to give Queen Isabella her own book, tentatively titled Birthright. Isabella intrigues me—or, er, Emma, so she—no, we want to tease her out, find her passion. I have Owen Archer #12 in mind, the return of a popular character in the series. And then there’s something at the back of my mind, a concept and a few characters who are haunting me. The woman is much like Maggie Kerr, but I’m trying not to pin anything down, just jotting down impressions, not struggling to understand….

What’s in the future for you, Chris? Will you bring back my favorite sleuth, Richard Nottingham? How about John the carpenter from The Crooked Spire?

Chris: It was my publisher’s decision to end the Richard Nottingham series, but they specifically said they didn’t want him dead (which, with my track record, was probably a good order to give). I do believe that Richard and I have unfinished business, and there are wheels slowly turning in the back on my mind. So he’ll be back, sooner or later. As to John the carpenter, I did start a second book with him, but it wasn’t working. Again, I have some ideas, so when the time is right, there’s a good chance he’ll see the light of day once more.

Right now, I’m working on a standalone set in Leeds in 1971, currently called Sympathy for the Devils, set in the period when Britain went decimal and leading up to the Stones playing Leeds University (which was a great gig). It’s still a crime novel, but a little different – so far, anyway. I’m also finishing revisions on The Golem of Leeds, the sequel to Gods of Gold. At the start of next week I’ll be sending it to my publisher, so it’s fingers crossed that they want to put it out. Next January there’s another Leeds standalone, Dark Briggate Blues, coming out. That one’s set in 1954, the year I was born, and it’s ‘50s British noir – plenty of jazz in there, as Leeds had a jazz club at the time, a place called Studio 20. It wasn’t intended to be a noir, more an exploration of the ‘50s, but like all books, it took on its own tone…

Finally, I’d recommend A Triple Knot to anyone who likes historical fiction. It’s the start of the tale of Joan of Kent, and it’s a superb read (I’ve been lucky enough to have already devoured it – you won’t be disappointed). And if you haven’t yet discovered the Owen Archer and Margaret Kerr novels, you have a treat in store.

We’d both love to hear your comments, so feel free…

Time, Place And the Quote Of Great Joy

Back at the start of 1986, a decade after moving to America, I ended up in Seattle. Once I had the chance to find my feet, the city felt like home. For those who don’t know it, it’s a place that lives up to the hype in its beauty, scenery and people. I was happy there. But there was that lingering feeling of being a man without a country, not quite American, not quite English.

Four months ago I finally came back to Leeds. It only took 37 years for me to find my way home. And home is a real, deep feeling. I do feel like someone who’s found his true place in the world. Considering that most of my novels have been set here, it’s taken me a while to realise that this is where I belong. I feel this city deep in my bones, the way I can feel no other. I understand it, and in an odd way I feel that it understands me.

I’ve been writing about Leeds quite a bit lately. Not just the monthly history blog (which has now migrated to the Leeds Big Bookend website), but my books. August sees the publication of Gods of Gold, the first in a new series set in the Leeds of 1890. I’ve completed another one set in Leeds, Dark Briggate Blues, a surprisingly noir novel – well, that aspect surprised me, anyway – in 1954 Leeds, and I’m at work on the second Victorian novel.

This is the place that moves me, that makes my heart beat a little fast.

And yet. And yet…I can’t fully say goodbye to Seattle. It’s a place with plenty of memories, the home of my son, and where I made many friends. I’m not ready to see it sail away just yet. My way of dealing with all that, to try and make sense of the past, is to write about it. Out of that comes West Seattle Blues. It’s the second of my Seattle books, and this one takes place in March and early April of 1994. For anyone who knows music and Seattle, that’s a time to ring big bells. A time when the course of history altered a little. Here’s the cover.

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But it’s going to be Leeds that fills my time for a while yet. Not just living in the here and now, but also with my head in 1890/91.

And I teased with that talk about a quote, didn’t I? It’s one that’s made my month, probably my year. I had one a year ago from Candace Robb, one of the great historical crime novelists (and someone who’s become a treasured friend), whose work influenced the way I’ve looked at mine. My publishers used it on promotional material and it really helped. For Gods of Gold I plucked up my courage and approached the wonderful writer Joanne Harris, who’s read the Richard Nottingham books, to ask if she’d be willing to read this new one and, if she liked it, to write a few words about it. Well, she was willing, more than gracious and once she’d finished it, this is what she replied:

Gods of Gold creates a vibrant sense of living history and of place, with strong, well-drawn characters and dialogue that’s just made for film, as well as a damn good story.”

Happy? I was over the moon. I still bloody am. As was my publisher. Thank you, Joanne. That, very proudly is going on the book cover.

And I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day.