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MARGARET MURPHY Under the Scope

Written by Ayo Onatade

Margaret Murphy was born in Liverpool, and now lives on the Wirral. She read Environmental Biology at Liverpool University and taught first as a biology teacher and later became head of a dyslexia unit at an independent school. She used to work freelance as a dyslexia tutor but has had to give this up. She is the author of 6 stand alone novels and co-founder and member of "The Murder Squad".

Her latest book Darkness Falls is a chilling tale of abduction and claustrophobia and is due out in paperback by Hodder and Stoughton in August. Weaving Shadows, the sequel to Darkness Falls is due out in April 2003.

 

Ayo: What was the very first crime fiction book that you read and whointroduced you to the genre?

Margaret: The VERY first would be something from The Famous Five series, but in terms of adult fiction it would probably be Agatha Christie - don't ask me which title, I was eleven or twelve at the time, and read anything I could scrounge from my parent's bedside table. Mum's favourites were Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, whereas Dad read the big thriller writers - Maclean, Bagley, Neville Shute etc.

Ayo: Who were your influences when you decided to start writing? What books influence your writing?

Margaret: I'd never have started writing if it weren't for Stephen King. Not that we're buddies or anything, but I'd been intimidated out of putting pen to paper by my O' level reading list – Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Harper Lee - you get the drift. Then I started reading Stephen King and I realised that you could write engaging intelligent prose with contemporary themes and a direct style.

My first memory of wanting to be a writer was influenced by film noir, and I actually began writing a 'novel' at the age of ten, based on a character from an old B&W film, starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps my earlier reading influenced me on a subliminal level, but I can't remember ever reading a Christie and thinking 'I want to write a book like that', for instance - in fact, I didn't read any crime fiction between the ages of fifteen and thirty. I was convinced that my first novel, Goodnight my Angel, was going to be a supernatural thriller and when my agent suggested that was a crime novel, I felt slightly depressed. Then I began reading modern crime fiction and I cheered up considerably. You see, I had the notion that crime fiction was still stuck in the fifties and sixties, and when I realised how contemporary the themes were, and how much modern crime fiction relied on good characterisation, I was really excited by the genre.

Influences - earlier, probably Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, but now I'm increasingly drawn to fast paced work with sharp dialogue, Elmore Leonard is a prime example - and I still watch film with an eye (or should that be an ear?) for dialogue - how it's put together, how it moves the plot along, and, of course, how it can misdirect the audience.

{short description of image}Ayo: What other books are you also attracted to?

Margaret: My tastes are eclectic: I think Margaret Atwood is one of our finest living writers; I also enjoy Helen Dunmore, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen (despite the fact they scared me off writing for years), John Banville, Susan Hill, John Fowles, Shirley Jackson, Russell Hoban.

Ayo: What do you enjoy reading about in crime fiction? Have you got a specific sub-genre that you read the most?

Margaret: I do like psychological suspense - for me people are more important than plot - and from this point of view, I think Thomas Harris is the master - but as I said earlier, I also enjoy snappy dialogue. Val McDermid's Brannigan series positively fizzes with wit, and across the pond, John Connolly combines the two well, as does Dennis Lehane, but I try not to stay with one author or one theme, I like to be surprised.

Ayo: Your debut book Goodnight My Angel was shortlisted for the First Blood Award in 1996. How did it feel to be nominated? Do you think being nominated added extra pressure when you came to write your second book The Desire of the Moth?

Margaret: Nomination was a strangely equivocal feeling: the crime fiction reviewers set up The First Blood Award as a kind of protest, I guess, against the CWA's decision not to award the Creasey Dagger that year, so there was a measure of frustration that new crime writers like myself and Manda Scott and Chris Brookmyre had been overlooked. But this was mixed in with a large degree of gratification that the nominees were recognised after all, and by people whose job is to criticise crime writing.

The pressure in writing The Desire of the Moth was entirely down to it being a second book, and having just one year to write it. Instead of waiting for inspiration, I had to become more disciplined, and I was committed to writing another crime novel - before, I had experimented with techno-thrillers and supernatural suspense.


Ayo: Your books are known as psychological suspense thrillers and in all of them you have dealt with the dual themes of alienation and social isolation. Why these two topics in particular?

Margaret: I didn't even know those themes recurred until a journalist a couple of years back pointed it out to me! I think we write about the things that preoccupy us. I taught children in the State sector who were alienated – who felt that society had nothing to offer them, and even when I switched to a public school, some of the dyslexic kids I taught were equally disenfranchised by the system. I was something of a loner myself at school, and I went through some fairly isolating experiences in my late teens and early twenties; I guess it seeped into my writing unawares.

Ayo: What made you decide not to write a series? Given the right opportunity would you write one?

Margaret: I don't think I ever made a conscious decision - the books simply didn't come to me in that way. I have written a sequel to Darkness Falls, however. It was stimulating to explore some of the characters further and to allow them to develop, but I found it hard to strike the balance between filling in the gaps and over-explaining, and although I'm really glad I gave it a try, and I'm pleased with the final outcome, it's not something I would rush to do again.

Ayo: How would you describe your books to someone who is about to make their first foray into the genre? Bearing in mind the fact that you do not have a series protagonist, which book would you suggest that they start with?

Margaret: Hmm, this is a tough one. My earlier books are very claustrophobic and dark - they're all psychological, but I think from Past Reason onward, there is a change in pace and perhaps a greater complexity of plot. My first two novels are now out of print, so that narrows the field. As a writer, you're always most in love with your most recent book, which for me is Darkness Falls, but for readers interested in seeing a progression, they might start with Past Reason, then go on to Dying Embers, before tackling Darkness Falls.

Ayo: Part and parcel of being a crime writer is the camaraderie that goes with it. What do you enjoy about attending conferences and book signings? Which events do you try and ensure that you attend and why?

Margaret: It's always great to meet other authors, and reassuring to know that the kind of anxieties and disappointments you experience are shared by others. But for me, the biggest buzz comes from meeting the readers. I'm a bit of a ham, and I do like reading my work aloud. It's surprising how many people come to readings out of curiosity, not knowing your work. If my reading persuades them to buy (or borrow) one of my books, I go home feeling great!

Ayo: You belong to a group of seven authors called the Murder Squad. What brought about the creation of this group and what exactly do you do?{short description of image}

Margaret: Long story . . . It stemmed from a discussion I had with my previous editor. She said that I got 'terrific' reviews, but it didn't really translate into sales. I wondered aloud if the publicity side wasn't her job, and she confessed that there was very little marketing and publicity money available for writers such as myself. I had two choices: sink into depression, or do something about it. I'm a practical sort of gal, so I did something. The other six authors I approached were very keen - and had similar experiences to mine. We now fund and produce our own colour brochure; we tour the country doing readings, workshops, murder nights and after-dinner speeches.

We have a website at http://www.murdersquad.co.uk which links to our individual sites and we release a periodical e-newsletter.

Ayo: What effect has the membership of the Murder Squad had on you and your writing?

Margaret: I've made some good friends on the Squad. We share our triumphs and disasters - and treat those two impostors just the same. It's given me confidence, having to deal with all kinds of events organisers; it's taught me a lot about publicity and marketing, as you can imagine, and it's also been a real pleasure talking to readers. An aspect I didn't expect, but is nevertheless significant, is that I don't think it did me any harm when I began looking for a new publisher - I have just moved to Hodder and Stoughton and I'm really happy with the move. Publishers like to know that you are 'media friendly' as a writer, that you can hold it together in an interview, or a debate, that you're willing to travel to promote your work, and that you can generate some of your own publicity.

Ayo: Murder Squad had an anthology published in October 2001. Do you enjoy writing short stories and what prompted you to write a story about two female country and western singers?

Margaret: Ha! Me - "enjoy" writing short stories? The first I ever tried was, coincidentally, my first serious foray into writing, way back in 1990. It weighed in at a hefty 40 000 words. Not my forte, short stories. The country & western singers were the product of a fevered brain - literally. I had a horrible nightmare about these two girls who are set upon by a beefy truck driver. . .

Ayo: What were the last five books that you read?

Margaret: Sunset Limited, James Lee Burke, The Chill, Ross MacDonald, Zlata’s Diary, Zlata Filipovic, At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien and Dubliners by James Joyce.

Ayo: What do you think of the state of crime fiction today? Do you believe that authors are given enough support?

Margaret: Crime fiction is extremely healthy, judging by the writing, but it's distressing to see so many friends and colleagues dropped from crime fiction lists. It seems that publishers are less interested in building writers over a period of time, requiring them to make a commercial impact with the first two or three books. Robert McCrumb, The Observer's literary editor, summed it up recently when he wrote 'Big publishers need big books.’ There's bound to be a tension between the commercial enterprises of publishers and the artistic concerns of writers - books are a product, like it or not – but they are unlike like any other. Writers have to accept this reality, but the other side of the argument is that writers, and writing talent, need nurture. Artists can go to art school, their work is showcased, and they seem to have more access to bursaries and grants than the average crime writer does. Maybe this is something the Arts Council could address.

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Ayo: Do you believe that crime fiction by women is given enough recognition?

Margaret: It's generally accepted that men fiction writers get more reviews than women, but I think women crime writers have an even tougher time getting their work reviewed. I'm dismayed by the imbalance in the Sunday broadsheets, which seem to favour male, American noirish writers. That said, some of the biggest names in crime writing in the UK are women: Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, Minette Walters, Frances Fyfield, and Laura Wilson etc. 

Ayo: Your latest book is called Darkness Falls. How did you go about doing your research for this book?

Margaret: The story centres on the abduction of a female barrister. Although there are no courtroom scenes, I really needed to know what their life is like, to be able to understand the character, but I had tremendous difficulty making contact. I phoned court liaison officers, spoke to clerks to chambers, wrote letters, made more calls but couldn't get anyone to speak to me. Finally, I got the name of a barrister in a particular chambers - she didn't return my calls either, so after a month of chasing her, I wrote her a letter, giving my editor's name and direct line, stuffed it into a jiffy bag with a couple of paperbacks and took it in to her chambers. She replied within two days, inviting me to shadow her and she even gave me her home phone number.

The police research was just as hard - I'd tried for several years to find someone who would talk to me about police procedure, with no success at all. I was doing some background research at Chester Crown Court and after the morning session I was feeling brave, so I marched straight across to the police headquarters, which is just over the road, and asked to speak to somebody. They were so surprised, they gave me a name. His initial reaction wasn't encouraging: he laughed and demanded to know who had put me on to him. But he did pass me on to their liaison officer, a police inspector. Once I'd made that initial contact, I was on a roll. Dave has been brilliant. He got me interviews with a HOLMES specialist (they run the computer system in major inquiries), the officer in charge of the robbery squad - he even set me up with two senior mortuary technicians after my own approaches to mortuaries were met with deep suspicion. Can't think why . . .

Ayo: How do you build your story? Do you begin at the beginning or start with the solution to the murder and then work backwards?

Margaret: It starts with the murder. That's how they all come - with the death. The rest comes any old way it feels like: I develop a kind of skeleton as I do the research. I loosely term it a synopsis; it has ideas, snatches of dialogue, characters, motivations, and so on. When this reaches critical mass, I begin to write. As to the solution of the murder, I often get that wrong, first time - I'm convinced it's X and it ends up being Y.{short description of image}

Ayo: Is there any topic you would not write about in your books? If there is, why not?

Margaret: There's nothing I won't tackle, but there are details I won't go into, because I don't think it's necessary, and because I prefer the emphasis to be on the victim as a person, and not as an object. In a radio interview, the presenter said when he had read a scene in Dying Embers in which a teenage boy is subjected to abuse, at first he'd thought, 'That's disgusting - she's gone too far!’ Then he went back and realised that there were no details - he had filled in the gaps in his imagination. Sometimes details can be a distraction - you can and should allow the reader to do some of the work.

Ayo: Can you describe your writing style? Has it changed since you first started to write?

Margaret: You're talking to the woman who didn't know that the themes of alienation and isolation recurred in her novels! I really think I'm too close to it to make that kind of assessment. Has my style changed? I hope so. Your aim as a writer is to improve your technique and refine your style (whatever it may be) with experience. I hope I have done that.

Ayo: Do you have any foibles when you are writing?

Margaret: Atmosphere is important, so I tend to write best after dark, in subdued lighting, with candles lit. I write the first draft of a scene longhand, using a blue Bic medium point biro, on A4 wide rule paper. I then type them into the computer, scene-by-scene, or chapter-by-chapter. Oh, and I read each 'polished' chapter aloud to my husband.

Ayo: What do you enjoy the most when you are not writing?

Margaret: I should say reading, shouldn't I? And sometimes it is, but I do tend to read critically these days, so it's harder to lose myself in a book than it used to be. So, I'd have to say watching a good film.

Ayo: At the end of a novel, do you ever have trouble letting go of a character to which you've grown attached? Do you ever find they've taken on a life of their own, away from where you'd started with them? If so, which character in which of your novels?

Margaret: Difficulty letting go? No - although you might challenge me in that and ask in that case, why did I write a sequel to Darkness Falls? As for developing a life of their own, often minor characters want to take on a greater role: Lobo and Leanne in Past Reason, and Mitch in Darkness Falls. Clemence, who appears in Weaving Shadows, the sequel I've just completed, is a difficult and certainly a dangerous man, but he's also charismatic, and I feel wilfully drawn to him.

Ayo: I have enjoyed all your books but consider Darkness Falls to be one of the best. Have you been pleased about the amount of praise that Darkness Fallshas received?

Margaret: Delighted! It's had the approval of two writers I admire greatly: Val McDermid and Mo Hayder, and every review, from the broadsheets to the regional newspapers, has been favourable.

{short description of image}Ayo: Have any of your books been influenced on true crime events? Would you consider writing a book with a true crime event as the background?

Margaret: Dying Embers was prompted by a terrible series of murders in Sunderland. The killer went undetected for some years. I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the families and the people close to them. The families were pilloried by the press, and the boys were unfairly labelled as wild or bad, simply because they were from a working class estate. The fact was, they were ordinary lads - neither angels nor demons - but they were categorised and dismissed, and - unforgivably - a killer was left at large, free to kill again.

Ayo: Killing Me Softly by Nicci French has just been made into a film starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham. Also later on this year Val McDermid's The Mermaid's Singing will be shown on television. What are your thoughts on crime books being made into films or television series?

Margaret: If it's done well, I have absolutely no qualms about novels making the transition to film. You have to accept the difference - film is, of course, essentially a visual medium. Much of the internal dialogue we writers work on and craft is redundant in film - an emotion we have expressed and expanded upon in a paragraph, an actor can convey in one look. Inevitably, there have been disasters, but many of the classics of crime fiction, from Highsmith and Chandler; through to Elmore Leonard and Ruth Rendell, have been well served by their screen adaptations.

Ayo: Is there any possibility that any of your books will be filmed for television or the cinema?

Margaret: There's always the possibility, but I'm under no illusion that these things take time. Past Reason was optioned in the past, though that has now lapsed, and my agent is in discussions concerning Darkness Falls, but you only have to look at Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, two top-ranking British crime novelists, to see that they have had to wait some time before their work made the transition to screen, and I’m prepared to be patient, which, since I have no choice, it seems a sensible approach.

Ayo: Not many people know but you are an accomplished actress and you quite often take part along with your husband in the Murder Mystery events arranged by Mystery Women. Is this one way of letting off steam?

Margaret: Like I say, I'm a bit of a ham. I even did amateur dramatics for a while. When I'm working on dialogue, I often speak it, to try to get the nuances and rhythms of speech. It's as if I'm 'trying on' the characters, to see if they feel right. Acting is an extension of that. There's also a delight in 'being' somebody you really are not in life - taking liberties, dressing in a way that you wouldn't normally do, and saying outrageous things, because you're not constrained by the usual social conventions. Life, I believe, is all about guise and disguise.

Ayo: Do you miss teaching full time and have you managed to bring any of your experience as a dyslexia teacher to your writing?

Margaret: Teaching was hard graft. I suppose writing is, too, but when I was teaching, I would come home exhausted, knowing that I had two or three more hours of work to do in the evening. It was rewarding, seeing children gain confidence and skills, but no, I don't miss it. It's an important part of my past, and I think my involvement with children has made the children in my novels more credible.

I was a biologist before I taught dyslexic students, and my understanding of biology has been useful in descriptions of murder and death: I did a lot of dissections over the years, so I have a reasonable knowledge of anatomy. As for dyslexia - I use a system called 'mind-mapping' to help me plan scenes. It's a study skill I taught my students; it works as a colour-coded spidergram, giving key words, emotions, actions etc. The beauty of it is, you can quickly jot down ideas as they occur, and it allows the brain to work in a kind of starburst of energy, rather than being constrained into a linear structure.

Ayo: If you were an author just starting out now, in hindsight is there anything you would do differently?

Margaret: Everything! But it's like life - you know the old cliché - 'If I knew then what I know now . . .' but the fact is, you don't, and you can't. It's a truism, but experience is something you can't pre-empt. The new author can help him- or herself by asking questions - don't be afraid to say you don't understand when people go on about USPs and POS and worse yet, EPOS. Tell them you are keen to get involved in the marketing side of things.

You'd be amazed the number of times at the start of my career that publicists phoned me and said, 'Is Nottingham too far for you to travel?' or 'We would have invited you, but you're so far away in the north.'

Ayo: Finally, if you were hosting a dinner party and you could invite five crime writers (living or dead) who would they be and why?

Margaret: Ross MacDonald, because I've discovered (belatedly) that he was writing psychological novels in the 1960s, and also because he created Lew Harper. When his books were adapted for film, Paul Newman played Harper, and I fell in love with him.

Raymond Chandler: Because I enjoyed the low-key wit in his novels, and there are one or two of his plots I'd ask him to unravel for me .

Can I sneak in Stephen King? Misery is a beautifully crafted and realised psychological novel, the characterisation is excellent, and Annie's descent into madness on one hand and Paul's despair on the other is totally convincing. I'd like to thank him for the enjoyment and inspiration he's given me over the years - when I'm stuck on a piece of writing, I know that reading a King novel will get the creative juices flowing again.

Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine - there are times in her novels when I wonder just how deeply she becomes immersed in the disturbed psyche of her characters. I would like to hear her talk about her research, and the technical skills needed to keep the reader guessing even when there are only two or three characters to choose from.

Thomas Harris: Silence of the Lambs is a superb piece of writing - cleverly constructed and beautifully crafted. Clarice Starling is the most sympathetic female character I've read since Jane Eyre, and since Harris doesn't give interviews, it'd be great to get a privileged insight into the man.

Margaret Murphy’s books: -

Goodnight, My Angel
The Desire of the Moth
Caging the Tiger
Past Reason
Dying Embers
Darkness Falls
Weaving Shadows (Forthcoming April 2003)

More information about Margaret and her books can be found on her web site: - http://www.margaretmurphy.co.uk


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Margaret Murphy



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