Sue Grafton: Thank you for the inspiration

Sue GraftonThe recent death of crime queen Sue Grafton caused me – and I’m sure many other crime writers – to take pause and reflect on the influence her Alphabet series had on me, both as a reader and a writer. I first encountered her books when I was an undergraduate, poring through the tiny fiction section of the independent bookshop at my university, resolutely ignoring the chunky textbooks I should have been buying. A is for Alibi, in the UK Pan edition, was small, almost pocket sized, with tiny print; it had been out for about 4 years when I bought it, and I remember being struck more than anything by not the synopsis on the back cover, nor the stellar review quotes, but what Grafton had written in her biographical profile on the very first page:

“For months I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I’d bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead.”

Most writers are asked ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. And most readers and fans would no doubt have been struck momentarily and delightedly dumb by Grafton’s candid explanation above. But the delight for me as a writer in Grafton’s work is not the myriad of clever plots from A to Y dreamed up of death, deceit and danger, but the quality I love most about these books: Kinsey Millhone’s character and voice.

Sequential, serial novels present a huge challenge to the writer not only to keep up the quality of plotting from volume to volume, but also to show both constancy and growth in the central characters. From a creative point of view, one might argue that Grafton set herself a tall order in planning to write 26 sequential stories in Kinsey’s life. And yet we all live complex, entangled lives within five years, the same amount of time spanned by the Alphabet books up to Grafton’s last published volume, Y is for Yesterday, set in 1989. That should easily provide enough fodder for what ought, in theory, be a background narrative, not a foreground one.

And yet – and this surely says more about me as a reader than Grafton as a writer – what I remember most are Kinsey’s experiences around the cases: the ship-like interior of her garage apartment rebuilt after the bomb blast in E is for Evidence; her bowls of breakfast cereal and pappy sandwiches; her long love affair with Henry Pitts and his cinnamon buns; the quirky menu inflicted on her at Rosie’s; her case notecards; her VW; her runs in the Santa Teresa fog. For a writer, I am remarkably dimwitted about plots, happy to re-read the same book once every 12-18 months without any recollection of whodunnit, but as a writer I am equally enchanted by how memorably and powerfully Grafton encases us in Kinsey’s world.

And that is exactly why I pick them up every 12-18 months and read them all again. Thank you, Sue Grafton, for creating  a world we can so memorably inhabit with Kinsey. The stories are wonderful, the crimes clever, but the imagination made fictional reality will live with me always.

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928

Don Juan in Soho – the death of the shocking?

Cadell Blackstock, author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’itself an adaptation of the Don Juan story, reflects on Patrick Marber’s latest production of his own play, starring David Tennant as the eponymous DJ.

DJinSohoEven Patrick Marber would admit that reviews of the new production of Don Juan in Soho, his contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s Dom Juan currently running in London’s West End, have been mixed. Reading them before I went to a performance last night, I was surprised by just how divided critics have been. It’s an energetic, well-staged production and Tennant is – to my mind – rakish in disposition as well as character, inhabiting the small stage with flawless poise and a beautiful control of his own physical space. But I left the theatre wondering if the critical reception had more to do with the problem that a contemporary adaptation of this particular morality tale creates, than any flaws in the production.

Marber has updated the play since its first performances in 2006, infusing some clever references to the current US President as well as more diverse cultural benchmarks. But what really stood out for me was DJ’s gorgeous late soliloquy where he lambasts and belittles the contemporary obsession with parading our lives in public for all to see. ‘Whatever happened to privacy?’ he demands before excoriating our desire to share every last fragment of all that should be kept to ourselves. It’s a theme I explore in Crash (though it was written before social media really exploded) through Crash’s sudden ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around him. As a celebrity, Crash has lost his own privacy, but he is the same willing conspirator in that as we are in our own loss of privacy now. He did it to himself and he has to pay the price for that. As beer brand Bud Light puts it in its current poster campaign, ‘The internet never forgets’.

But watching the play last night, I wondered whether Marber’s problem now is one that didn’t exist 11 years ago: that the world has become so chaotic and we have been exposed to so much awfulness, transgression and disdain for decency and truth, that our ability to be shocked has diminished exponentially, almost to nothing. Marber has written comically, to be sure, to save this from being a miserably dark tale of self-destruction, but when you really get down to it, absolutely nothing DJ does is remotely shocking. He does not transgress. We accept his behaviour in the context of what is common now: everyone’s right to do as they please. So what saves a modern adaptation of Don Juan from being nothing more than fluent comedy?

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverI asked myself that same question when I wrote Crash. Though I borrowed more from Mozart’s Don Giovanni than Moliere, I chose to tell the story of his decline indirectly by considering whether he has any relationship whatsoever with his own conscience.  There is a point at the end of Don Giovanni as he faces up to the statue of the Commendatore where you sense a filament of doubt in Giovanni’s mind: has it all been worth it? It would depend on the ‘it’, of course. What sort of ‘it’ might genuinely cause him to wonder? And what sort of ‘it’ would still be shocking enough to our contemporary state of mind?

Conscience is a difficult thing to explore, especially through the eyes of someone who doesn’t apparently have one. In the opera, the moment of uncertainty is so fleeting you might not notice it were the music not so deeply unsettling in itself. And it wouldn’t be a retelling of Don Juan if he had regrets from the outset. His flagrant disregard is part of what makes him so compelling, so charming. So I decided to explore where the tipping point is of understanding the terminal impact of his own actions. And one of the best ways to do that in the context of the original story was to approach it from the other side of the moment when it would matter: his death.

When Crash wakes up at the start of the novel from an almost fatal incident, he has physically passed the tipping point, but he can’t remember what it is. Suspended virtually at the point of his own death, and hostage to those who have kept him alive, he must retrace his steps through his filthy disregard for others to find out what he did, and why someone has tried to kill him over it.

Marber’s DJ ultimately doesn’t care. He is living the life he most wants to lead. ‘At least my lies are honest,’ he claims at the start of that soliloquy. He cannot shock himself. But for me – and perhaps for the critics of Marber’s current production – the absence of genuinely shocking behaviour for anyone, particularly Elvira’s brother Aloysius, creates a narrative dilemma. DJ is simply being as self-indulgent as the rest of us when we tweet our every thought. He is not shocking us, not any more, because in 11 years since this play was last produced, life has become so appallingly predictable in all its awfulness.

It will remain to be seen whether my choice of shocking behaviour for Crash will last the test of time or not. But there’s so much more to Don Juan than how finely he treads the line between right and wrong, or how that line moves. It’s how his voice – and that of the statue – echoes in us.


You can find out more about Crash here on the allonymbooks blog, you can read about the similarities between Don Giovanni and How I Met Your Mother here, or you can download the book at Amazon.

What I’m really thinking: the failed novelist – A Response

I was saddened, humbled, and moved to respond to this week’s column in The Guardian’s ‘What I’m really thinking’ column this week, written by ‘the failed novelist‘.  It’s such an emotive word, ‘failed’, isn’t it?

I could have written that column myself. At least a good part of it. Feeling that writing was ‘my destiny’. Having a reputable and confident agent. The flurry of initial interest from publishers. Writing a second novel that was better than the first.

And in particular, I lived every word of this paragraph:

But, over several months, my manuscript was rejected for reasons that bewildered me: often because all the slots for debut literary fiction that year were taken; once because I was a woman; but mostly because editors “just didn’t love it enough”. When I took the call from my agent saying we had no deal, I cried like a little girl.

I also understand the feeling of being scarred. There is something very perilous about putting your novel, that very personal part of yourself out there for public scrutiny, even in a world of social media heart-on-your-sleeve exposure where there are seemingly no boundaries of the personal any more. It feels like trolling, when an editor says they just didn’t love it enough.

The emotional, intellectual, psychological and professional investment that goes into writing a novel and asking others to judge it is perhaps unlike the production of any other art form. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about what self-publishing and KDP has done for levelling the playing field a bit, and that was a solution that helped me. But it would be trite of me to advise the author of that Guardian column to self-publish and be damned. It might be seen as patronising to suggest that writers are people who write, rather than only being those who are read by others.

We are watching a bereavement here, the passing and grieved-over loss of an aspiration. I have seen it many times before across many other professional lives outside writing. The inability to look with anything other than pain on the success of others, the incomprehension at the changing landscape, the feeling of neglect by ‘managers’ who should know better. These feelings are not unique to writers who have not been swept up by a publisher.

But when I look at those tables of books by new writers and new books by old writers and manufactured books by celebrities and those with talents in other fields that splurge into the literary realm, I don’t feel “pity and scorn for people with dreams”. I am just glad that I actually can write. Plenty of those I work with in all my other jobs struggle to communicate the things they want to say, in written or verbal form. The pleasure for me of writing is exactly that. The ability to say exactly what I want to say in the way I want to say it. How lucky I am. I would love for others to share in what I write under my other name, but it’s still a talent of its own that has brought me much joy, whether I am read widely or narrowly, whether I am praised or pitied.

And that joy, for all I have lost and mourned my once dearly-held aspiration, is still something I want to hold onto.


Cover Design for Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore Evie Woolmore is the author of magical realist historical fiction. Her novel Equilibirum was likewise signed by an agent and not quite loved enough by editors. But she loves it still.

Magic Realism Blog Hop 2016: Northern Exposure – all things mystical in the 49th state

mr bloghop small 2016allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock ponders the value of rules in magical realism.

I’m a complete sucker for beauty. Beautiful landscape, beautiful women and men, beautiful stories. I’m old enough to know better than to tell you how old I actually am, but if I tell you I was old enough to appreciate beautiful storytelling when I saw Northern Exposure when it first aired in the early 1990s, then you can figure that out for yourself.

For those of you who have never seen this gem of innovative, creative, just really funny writing that celebrates beauty in all its forms, Northern Exposure is a classic ‘fish out of water’, ‘stranger comes to town’ story. If you’ve seen Bill Forsyth’s movie Local Hero, you’ll get the idea quick enough. Joel Fleischmann, a newly qualified doctor from Queens, ends up in deeply remote and rural Alaska to pay back the costs of his education. Not only is he far outside his comfort zone, but his down-to-earth, Jewish rationality is constantly flummoxed and defied by the apparent absence of rules in this tight knit community; at least that’s how Joel sees it. Everything is crazy, no-one seems to do anything the right way, and Joel is frequently prevented from doing or getting what he wants. He can’t seem to get on anyone’s wavelength and no one seems to share his values.

NExp logoAgainst the major driver of Joel’s attempts to survive his isolation are set a number of sub-plots, interwoven with the themes of nature, independence, native American culture, isolation and ‘being your own person’. This last is cleverly set against the strength of the community in which Joel now lives – Cicely, Alaska – for in fact everyone in town has very clear rules of their own, but these are rules which are somehow both synergistic with each other and with the environment, while also acknowledging the fundamental differences and conflicts between the perspectives of many of the characters: Maurice and Holling, Maurice and Chris, Joel and Marilyn, Joel and Maggie.

The native American elements would be an obvious source for spiritual, mystical or magical realist elements, and there is in the series a very strong undercurrent of the continuity of native American spiritual belief as a kind of rule set of its own. What intrigues me as a writer is the way this undercurrent seems to infuse everything, both ‘bending the rules’ of story telling and upholding them. I’m a huge fan of magical realism because it’s all about bending rules, it’s all about saying some stuff is possible even if it defies belief. My own hero Crash Cole is, I guess, a version of Joel Fleischmann because his rational head says ‘this is just crazy’ while he has to learn to live within the ‘crazy’ if he is to function at all. That process of compromise and attrition is kind of fascinating to me, because it’s the opposite of the process of negotiation that goes on between magical realist author and their reader. Readers of magical realism go straight into the premise open-minded and open-hearted, living within ‘crazy’ and embracing it completely from the outset. I guess they are smugly willing the hero on to ‘get it’ too.

4-13-ed-one-who-waits2A great example of the fusion and (con)fusion of rules Northern Exposure-style is found in the Series 2 episode, “The Big Kiss”. Chris loses his voice to a beautiful woman who is passing through town, and Ed gets help from a 256-year-old native American spirit to find out more about his parents: these are two essentially magical realist concepts. We are ‘permitted’ to accept the native American spirit guide because we can respect other belief systems, but Chris having his voice stolen goes way beyond a belief system. It breaks the rules of rationality, but in Cicely, anything is possible. Perhaps the remoteness helps – surely this wouldn’t happen in a commuter belt town or an inner city?

Yet whether you see these two story strands as similar or contrasting, they are both managed in the episode by elegant references to story-telling. Chris is told stories by two different people in which a hero who loses his voice must have it restored by intimacy with the most beautiful woman in the village. Ultimately, he tries to recreate the story for himself in order to see if it will work for him. Meanwhile Ed reconnects with the narratives of his native American culture: the spirit One-Who-Waits is always telling him stories or fragments of stories, but none of them actually meets Ed’s purpose of learning about his parents. But at the end, when Ed happens upon a man who might be his father, the man tells his own miniature story of his life since Ed’s birth.

We long for Ed to find what he is looking for: the rules of disruption and resolution demand it, and yet we almost don’t get it because the rule-bending of One-Who-Waits’ existence is actually more fun to watch, though our eyes water a little when Ed realises who Smith is. We long for Chris to get his voice back – the whole of Cicely does – but the sexual tension between him and Maggie means that Maggie almost can’t go through with the intimacy required, and follow the rules of the story into which she has been written.

It occurs to me though that magical realism might, paradoxically, give us a chance to ignore those rules altogether. Would we let that happen? Or are we relieved that the very rules that are flouted are also adhered to so carefully? That stories that start must also end. We need resolution, I suppose. We need outcome. But could the rule-bending of magical realism overcome the rules of story-telling?

Perhaps. But ultimately, it’s still 42 minute TV, folks.


Cadell Blackstock is the author of the magical realist novel Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, available through all Amazon sites. He also wrote a blog a couple of years ago for the Blog Hop which he thinks is worth a second read …Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' cover

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added throughout the blog hop, so do come back to read more.  


Magic Realism Blog Hop 2016: Mortality and eternity in writing

mr bloghop small 2016Magic realist novelist Evie Woolmore ponders the permanence of words and the distillation of ideas.

I have lost two people very dear to me this year, and have suffered two more bereavements of a different sort. And as so often follows witnessing the mortality of people and situations, I found myself planning my own funeral and the things I wanted to remember. Yes, that I wanted to remember, not that I wanted others to remember about me.

My personal beliefs are, in a sense, irrelevant in this context but when I lose something important, I always end up back with my writing again to remind myself of what still belongs to me and is unaltered by the passage of what others do and are or don’t and aren’t. So I re-read all my books and a lot of my other unpublished writing, and picked two passages that I want to be read at my funeral, not because I want to impress, depress or profess to others, but because they crystallise what I feel the greatest sense of possession over: my ability to capture what I most want to say in my writing, and how magic realism allows me to do that.

Magic realism is, for me, the opportunity to go beyond the limits of others’ imagination and test only my own. Can I capture the potential of an idea without constraining it? So here is a single paragraph that I think shows what magic realism does best, and what I think it has allowed me to do best: to catch the most nebulous and intangible of ideas in a fleeting moment of sense.

This extract is from the first chapter of my novel The Salt Factory, about a little girl who has extraordinary healing powers. Thelonia Jones, reluctantly returned to England to face up to her past, has just observed the girl bring a dying seagull back to life. The extract I’ve chosen however is not the healing itself, but what happens shortly afterwards as Thelonia’s worlds of wintry Colorado, an English summer, her past and her present begin to coalesce around her. Thelonia has just met the little girl’s protective relative, and the hostile reception has disorientated her.The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

I shiver in the baking heat of the yard, slow to notice that the little girl is tugging at my hand. I bend down quite in spite of myself, and feel the girl’s lips brush my cheek. The smell of the sea and the cry of seabirds blossoms and fades like a night-flowering cactus, and for the briefest of moments I wonder if this is what the gull felt like when the little girl put her hand on it.


There is nothing strikingly magic realist about the sentences in this paragraph. It could be taken quite literally that a rush of blood to Thelonia’s head has augmented her sense of reality, her senses themselves, much as I outlined in last year’s blog hop post. But for me, magic realism often relies on that very conflation I described when introducing the paragraph. It is about the layering of one thing on top of another, images, senses, ideas. Thelonia shivers in the heat. The sensations of being beside the sea remind her of something altogether more exotic from the dry heart of the America she has come to call home. She dislikes children but she allows the little girl to kiss her cheek. It is the promise innate in the contrast, in the space between the two extremes. And in magic realism, the ‘extremes’ are reality and magic, the actual and the possible. They push each other further away and pull irresistibly towards each other.

In this short paragraph from another of my novels, Equilibrium, Epiphany – an Edwardian medium – is about to conjure up the physical form of her spirit guide Rosina in front of a packed theatre and several close witnesses.

equilibriumThrough the strands of her loose blonde hair that fall in front of her face, she can see the conductor’s beady gaze peeping over the edge of the orchestra pit. He has watched her a dozen times already but still his eyes widen when he glimpses her ankles, so distracted by this enchantment that he is oblivious to what he really sees. But that is at the heart of Epiphany’s success and she has learned to be glad of it.


Do our eyes widen when we read magic realism because we want to be distracted by the enchantment? Do we wish to be confounded, transported, challenged, thrown out of our imaginative literary comfort zones into some place we have never been before? And are we willing co-conspirators in our own oblivion, determined not to see the joins between the magic and reality?

I think so. In fact I depend upon it. I relish it, love it, respect it and cannot really live without it in my writing. I’m playing a game with reality, I suppose. But that game is ultimately about contrast. It is about the eternity of ideas juxtaposed with the very temporaryness and mortality of words. There is a theory in creative analysis (I think) that suggests that art works or pieces of music only actually exist when they are seen or heard by someone. I am certain that my writing will cease to have relevance after I have died. But the ideas will live on, and for a fleeting moment when my words are read, the magic in them will become real.


Evie Woolmore is the author of three magic realist novels, available through all Amazon sites. To find out more about Evie and her writing, have a wander around the allonymbooks website searching by the tag Evie Woolmore or magical realism, or download some free samples for your Kindle. You can also find some great novels by other allonymbooks authors here too.

And if you follow this link, you can read fellow allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock’s magic realist blog on Northern Exposure.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.  Zoe does a great job curating this every year, and the blogs are always worth reading!  



Restoring the equilibrium

When you write for a living, sometimes you forget that not all writing is the same. I’ve spent much of the last 24 months writing non-fiction for work, creating masses of new material for lots of different contexts.

It’s all had a lot in common with writing novels in many ways: strong voices, understanding your audiences, great structure, readability, distinctiveness, imagination. But even for someone who writes as quickly as I do, it has felt mechanistic, process-based, and – paradoxically – very uncreative despite the enormous amount of innovation involved.

But I have missed my own writing so much. So much it has almost broken my heart. And although I have retreated to the short form of songs to keep assonance, rhythm and, above all, storytelling in my words, there is nothing to replace the all-consuming encompassing soul-enriching obsession of writing a novel.


Writing fiction has always been a matter of equilibrium for me. I have written for so many years alongside other work that it has always balanced out my service to others in my job with my service to myself in writing. It has been my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and my way of working out what matters. Does that mean that when I was writing only for others that I lost those things? Well, the songs gave me back my sense of perspective and a way of working out what matters. And, to be truthful, when things have not gone well of late the first thing I have done is write a song.

But now it’s time to go back to novels. It is time to prioritise my sanity, my passion, my escape, my sense of perspective, my abandonment of logic, my beliefs, my cynicism and go back to my way of working out what matters. As a writer, I have lost my equilibrium by writing for others and by prioritising their stories in my life.

Is writing for myself, my themes and my stories selfish? Perhaps.

But am I a better person when I write for myself? Oh yes.

Lucille, where have you got to after all this time? I hope you’re still around, because I’m coming home now.

In Admiration of…. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels

In a timely addition to the series of occasional blogs about other crime writers, allonymbooks author EJ Knight ponders the crime novels by Lawrence Block from which the imminently released  film A Walk Among The Tombstones is drawn.

I’ve visited New York many, many times over the years and, much as my allonymbooks stablemate Evie Woolmore found Warsaw an inspiration for her novel Rising Up, so my slow wanderings around one of the world’s great cities inspired me in my writing. But unlike Evie, the majority of my visits to New York have not been by plane, car or train. They have been in the pedestrianised byways of my imagination, walking slowly, patiently, doggedly in the long shadow cast by Matt Scudder. For while the upcoming adaptation of Lawrence Block’s tenth Scudder novel is being widely praised already for Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Block’s complex ex-cop, for me the Scudder books feature another powerful and dominating character: New York City.

AWATTLNCities are notoriously as fickle as unfaithful lovers, as sparklingly delightful in summer sun as they can be menacing and unpredictable as the winter twilight encroaches. Yet New York is a faithful mistress to Scudder, much like Elaine, his ex-prostitute girlfriend. She knows him well, her constant presence a reassurance, even if he must share her from time to time with strangers. If man’s inhumanity to man continues to etch deeper marks in Scudder, if – despite all that he has seen and learned of the victims he helps – he still strives to take everything in his stride, it is not the city that will let him down, desert him, shock or betray him. Indeed, while Scudder rarely comments objectively on New York, Block’s characterisations of its inhabitants – racially and culturally diverse, corrupt and noble, timeless and rudely modern, drunk and sober – are New York as much as the basements of churches, the diners and bars, the streets of the Village and the hotel room on the 50s Scudder inhabits. Likewise, Scudder lives around the clock of the twenty-four hour city, as able to assume the respectable routines of the worker bees as he is to sit out the small, dark hours in bars where the truth glistens deep in a glass of honey-coloured bourbon. He is both constantly Scudder and compellingly desperate not to be him any more. And if New York is a city where one can be anyone one wishes to be, then Scudder’s strength is his silent empathy with the victims who surely wish this had not happened to them.

For Scudder is, it seems to me, in pursuit of the restoration of equilibrium. Nothing can alter the path taken by the wayward bullet that killed Estrellita Rivera. And if in solving the crimes he is not in pursuit of justice as such, then he is certainly watching both sides of the scales, minutely and patiently adjusting and arranging the weight of consequence that will restore some sense of balance to those destabilised by the crimes that happen to them. Over the course of the series of books, Scudder’s own scales are eventually quietly and minutely adjusted by those close to him: Elaine, TJ, Jim Faber. And if the ground beneath him creaks and stirs much as it does when the A Train rattles through columns of steel, then it soon settles again.


EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928, available for Kindle from all Amazon sites.

A review of AWATT will appear shortly on this blog. In the meantime, check out Cadell Blackstock’s consideration of the pluses and pitfalls of adapting Scudder to the screen.