Please tell us little about you, Susan.
I've been writing (and being published) for 30 years or so, mainly crime and suspense. In my time, I've been Chairman of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain, and World President of the International Association of Crime Writers. To be a writer was an ambition from my very earliest years and I constantly thank whatever gods there are for having been able to achieve this. I have so enjoyed all the activities associated with the job – because it is a job, and a hard one, too – especially the opportunities to travel. Some years back I was invited to be a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Tasmania, in Australia, where I met my Australian/Scottish husband John. Of necessity, we lead a nomadic life: between us we have children in Australia, Iceland, California and Denmark, and homes in England, Australia and France.
Give us some insight into LOSING NICOLA in a few sentences.
It's a book about childhood and the loss of innocence, and though the murderous events described in it never actually happened to me, I'd like to think it captures the essence of a place and time – the 1950s – which has gone forever, and the kind of slightly odd family I grew up in.
How did you come to write this particular book?
Casting about for a new book to write, I remembered a short story I'd written a long time ago, and thought that it had all the ingredients for turning into a much longer piece of fiction. It was also a huge pleasure to write about parts of my childhood, something I'd not done before. So although it is in no way autobiographical, it does contain a lot of my past.
If you have a favourite character in your novel, why that particular one?
Orlando, because he is based on and celebrates my much-loved brother, Barnaby, who died much too young.
Where can people buy your books?
I've written 28 books and nearly all of them have been published in the UK, as well as in many other countries (including the US.) Most of them are available on Amazon. (SA – see the full list at the foot of this interview).
What qualities does a writer need to be successful?
Perseverance, self-belief, ruthlessness and probably – though I hate to admit it because like most writers I'd prefer to believe that my work is good enough on its own! – a little bit of luck. Women writers especially have a hard time keeping to a writing schedule and at the same time fulfilling their traditional role of mother, wife, chef, cleaner and bottlewasher.
What is your working method?
At this point in my life, rather more haphazard than I'd like it to be. When I still had a child at school, it was easy: as soon as he had gone off for the day, I was at my desk and worked until he returned. Now, with a retired husband needing attention, it's a great deal harder. But basically I like to work creatively for about four hours, as early in the morning as possible, and the rest of the day, revise, answer emails, read, research, meet people, prepare talks etc etc. The difficult thing about a writer's life is finding solitary time, and at the same time realizing that unless you interact with others, you aren't engaging with the people and in the life that you're writing about.
What’s the single biggest mistake made by beginner writers?
a) Opening a book with a funeral or a dream.
b) Cramming too much information into the first chapter
c) Not differentiating between characters
But b) is the most usual
To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?
Absolutely vital. They are the main tools of communication and if they are ignored, the reader is lost. There is nothing worse for the reader than being pulled up short, wondering what the writer is trying to say and no writer should ever ignore her potential readers.
How much do you revise your MS before you send it off?
Revising a manuscript is not the same as redrafting or rewriting. These days, most publishers no longer use copy-editors, so a mss has to be as perfect as it can be before it is delivered I work hard at this but even then it's all too easy for things to slip past me.
For a book which is to appear next February, I've been asked to lose about 9,000 words. For a writer, this is like leaking blood, but it's such a good lesson: it's all too easy to fill a paragraph with wonderful but extraneous stuff.
As a writer, to what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?
Very useful: apart from anything else, it's helpful for readers to be directed to the area they enjoy. It also helps to identify the writer, both to the reader and to herself. I very much enjoy being labelled 'Crime Writer', and belonging to associated groups such as the Crime Writers' Association, the Detection Club and the International Association of Crime Writers.
Marketing is often considered a chore by authors. What's your opinion on this issue and how do you deal with it?
In today's market, we're all scrabbling for attention and should be grateful for any chance to raise the profile of our books. The vast majority of writers can't afford to be finicky or up themselves about it. I'm always delighted to be asked to 'market' my books in terms of signings, library visits, talks. Besides it's a great morale-booster to know that there are actually fans out there.
What sort of displacement activities keep you from writing?
Just about anything, from thinking about domestic chores to reading to the card games which came already installed on my most recent computer. Like many writers, I'm reluctant to take the plunge each day into that abyss of creativity which constitutes the imaginary world you are conjuring up, and it's fatally easy to find an excuse not to do so.
What support do you have from family and friends, or a writing group?
Family and friends are always supportive. I don't belong to a writing group but it's such a good idea and many of my colleagues do. Though eagerly encouraging and loyal, it took my husband John quite a while to come to terms with A Writer's Life as lived by me, especially the tantrums and temperamental door-slammings caused by the inevitable frustrations of authorship.
How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
That entirely depends on the book. I wrote one in 5 months last time I was in Australia; I used to write a Penny Wanawake in 3 months, but my bigger one-off novels take a year or more.
Who or what inspires you?
Nothing in particular. It's a sudden realization that there's an idea waiting, a story waiting to be told, a story that no-one can tell as well as I can. It's like hearing a long-awaited bus about to come round the corner and stop for you to climb aboard
If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?
Not getting paid enough!.
Is there an aspect of writing that you really enjoy?
Writing a novel is an organic process and there is absolutely nothing more wonderful than feeling the thing starting to gel, or your characters proving to be so well-realized that you know exactly who they are and where they are headed, so that writing about them is almost like taking dictation.
Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?
I don't think you can learn to be a writer, but you can certainly acquire the skills to be a better writer. That said, I also believe that writers are born, not made.
What are you writing now?
A book called DANCING IN THE DARK, due out in February. It's a romantic suspense novel about a young woman coming to terms with the fact that she was apparently abandoned at the age of 11.
Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
More or less what I have at the moment.
Where do you actually write?
In my house in France, I have a very small red-tiled stone outhouse called Chez Susanne, which has room for a table, a book-case, an armchair and a plug for an electric kettle so I can make endless cups of tea.
SA: Here is a list of Susan’s books; UK readers will find a buying link to most of them here. And US and the rest of the world can try this link.
Penny Black Macmillan, 1984
Penny Dreadful Macmillan, 1984
Penny Post Macmillan, 1985
Penny Royal Macmillan, 1986
Penny Wise Michael Joseph, 1988
Penny Pinching Michael Joseph, 1989
Penny Saving Michael Joseph, 1990
Playing With Fire Macdonald, 1990
The Hatchards Crime Companion (editor) Hatchards, 1990
Hush-a-bye Macdonald, 1991
House of Moons Hodder & Stoughton, 1993
Love Over Gold (writing as Susannah James) Corgi, 1993
Takeout Double Headline, 1993
Grand Slam Headline, 1994
The Italian Garden Hodder & Stoughton, 1994
King of Hearts Headline, 1995
Misselthwaite Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
Doubled in Spades Headline, 1996
Sacrifice Bid Headline, 1997
Dummy Hand Headline, 1998
Falling Angel Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
The Colour of Hope (writing as Susan Madison) Bantam, 2000
The Hour of Separation (writing as Susan Madison) Bantam, 2002
Touching the Sky (writing as Susan Madison) Bantam, 2003
Losing Nicola Severn House, 2011