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In preparation for the publication of Paying the Ferryman – Severn House – I was asked to fill in an author questionnaire and a couple of the sections dealt with influential and treasured books. I’ve been asked many times which books or writers influenced me and it’s not an easy question to answer because there have been so many – and that process is an ongoing one. I love to read, I love stories, I’m hooked on the way different writers can take the same idea, the same scenario even very similar characters and create something which is unique and exciting and thought provoking – or is simply a really good trip.
But anyway, I gave it my best shot and had a really hard think about which books have consistently influenced me. Which ones do I still recall and talk about and which still make me angry, bring tears, evoke memories? The list turned out to be a slightly odd one and the funny thing is, a lot of these books are from my childhood or teenage years. They still matter to me after all this time. That has to say something very special about the authors.
So, below, is an extract from the author questionnaire complete with my – sometimes weird – choices.

• Cherished books. My very tatty Penguin copy of TS Elliot’s collected poems. The covers fell off years ago and have been restuck many times, but I acquired it secondhand when I was about fourteen and it’s been with me ever since.
• An odd little book called Clater’s Farrier. It’s appeared in at least one of my novels and the one I first knew belonged to my father. When he died my brother claimed it, so I had to find another copy. I finally managed to get one – all the way from Australia. I suppose it’s a kind of step relative to the original but the connection is still there. It’s a strange Victorian publication, a mix of advice on the treatment of horses and also advice and information on everything from how to make wine to how to cure cold feet.

I’ve gone on to collect quite a lot of books in the same idiom. Following their advice, I could probably build a house, make a fretwork clock and brew honey beer.

• Books that have influenced me…Can I only have five!
• Most come from childhood or teenage years. I think the love of story was born then – it took a lot longer for me to want to write my own! Strangely, none of the really influential books is Crime, though I read a great deal of it and continue to do so, it was stories from the more fantastical genres on the whole, that first really appealed.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. I read a lot of SF in my teens and this one made a big impact. It was the first time I’d really understood time dilation and one of the first really ‘adult’ books I’d read. I still use it with students to demonstrate ways that character and place can be built at the same time.

Alan Garner’s Moonstone of Gomrath and Wierdstone of Brisingamen . There’s a scene when Susan is riding with the Wild Hunt and they slowly pull away from her and she’s left alone. It made me cry when I first read it and it still makes me cry now. I so wanted to be Susan! But I didn’t want to be left behind. Alan Garner came to talk at DMU last year, so I finally got to meet him – and managed to be totally inarticulate!

Just about anything by Malcolm Saville. I read his ‘Seven White Gates when I was, maybe 8 years old and was hooked. Later, I especially loved his Marston Baines books – the mix of adventure and history really appealed – and got into real trouble at school for reading it under the desk when I was supposed to be listening to my English teacher.

Gordon Honeycomb, Dragon Under the Hill. It was published in 1973 and I must have read it about that same time. Vikings, mystery – and rather tantalising sexual glimpses! – it was a book that lived with me for a long time and spurred a major interest in Viking and Anglo Saxon culture. I got into trouble for reading that in class too…
And, sadly, I still haven’t made it to Lindisfarne.

The last is a short story.
No, sorry, I have to have two short stories.
Guy de Maupassant’s story Châli is the first. I read my way through his collected stories, again when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and loved them dearly because of the mix of intimate character development and social commentary. Chali sideswiped me, initially with the injustice of the conclusion and later with the strangely detached storytelling that somehow added to the emotional impact.

The second is a long short story by Mary Gentle, The Road to Jerusalem, which I read in Interzone in about 1991. I’m still not sure what it was about the story that clicked, but I knew as soon as I’d read it that I really wanted to tell stories like that. It was an impulse that coalesced, I suppose over the next eighteen months or so and led to a determination to be published in Interzone too….though things didn’t quite turn out that way and that’s an ambition still to be fulfilled!

Paying the Ferryman

Writing wise it’s quite exciting at the moment. I have a new Naomi Blake book called Paying the Ferryman out this month with Severn House

and added to that, the first book in the series, Mourning the Little Dead has also been resurrected as an ebook by Endeavour Press  (link)

I’m very happy about this as I’m quite fond of ‘Mourning’. It was a bit of a departure for me; up until that point I’d always written male leads and Naomi Blake was the first time I’m written a woman in the main role. I’m also happy about it because it reminds me of my dear, late agent, Bob Tanner at International Scripts. A man who could create an entire, nuanced vocabulary out of the words ‘really’. and ‘I see’ – the latter usually being an indicator that he thought I was talking rubbish and needed to go away and think about things again.

People often ask authors where they get their ideas from and The Naomi Blake series was initially Bob’s idea.
And on that occasion I thought it was his turn to go and sit on the naughty step until he realised how daft it was. Severn House had approached us about the possibility of my producing a series for them and we were trying to come up with new angles. Bob’s suggestion was along the lines of ‘what you need is a blind detective, and she’s got to have a big black guide dog called Napoleon.’
His reasoning was kind of sound; it was an unusual idea, hadn’t really be done in a while and – as far as I know- the last blind detective popular in the literature was Max Carrados, created by Ernest Bramah and whose skills at detection using his other senses was almost superhuman.

But I just couldn’t figure out how I could approach this or who my character would be,
Bob, being Bob just said he’d leave it with me, knowing that the idea would nag and that, in the end, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist.
Of course, he was right, but the odd thing is that the eventual shape of both character and first book came from a completely different direction. I heard a snippet of an item on the news about a young couple who had just bought their first home and while some building work had been done a body had been found. Suddenly, their dream home had turned into a disaster zone. The floor taken up, the whole place turned into a crime scene. The remains were believed to have been there for a long time.

And I knew I had a starting point. I had the picture in my head of a woman sitting beside an open window, listening to the news and knowing…just knowing who the dead person was.
In the event, the plot veered off from that a little, but Naomi –and Napoleon – had finally appeared and I had the start of a story.
Bob, of course, was sanguine about the whole thing. ‘Really,’ he said. ‘I told you it could be done.’
So I’m glad to see the book available again – and in ebook form, which it hasn’t been before – so new readers can discover the start of the series and old readers may like to reprise the genesis of Naomi Blake.