I’m delighted to welcome the crime writer Vena Cork to the blog. She is the author of the Rosa Thorn trilogy (Thorn, The Art of Dying and Green Eye). Her most recent books are The Lost Ones set in Notting Hill and Toxic set in Willesden. This Q&A is about Toxic set in Yew Court, a block of flats in North West London where dark forces are unleashed.
Q. I loved the Prologue and it reminded me immediately of Alan Garner’s books. I wondered if you’d read them and been influenced by them at all? That feeling of there being something ancient in the land just waiting to burst out!
A. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen many years ago, but I can’t remember anything about it except being totally gripped. So if there’s an influence it isn’t a conscious one. I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, though, which tinkers with the reality behind reality, so that may have rubbed of a bit, even though it’s a different genre. When thinking about Toxic I became fascinated by old photographs of places in London that in the very recent past were little villages in the countryside but are now part of the city. It made me envisage a time when there were no villages at all, just primeval forest, and then all that history flowing in between. It’s exactly the same place on the planet throughout, but forever changing. I do feel in certain places that the ancient past is still there lurking just under the concrete.
Q. Could you tell me a little about how you came to set it in the setting you did. Is there a particular yew in Willesden that caught your eye?
A. I love London and I love how each area has its own distinctive personality. My previous book, The Lost Ones, is set in Portobello Road, Notting Hill, which is a very high profile place. For Toxic I wanted to tackle somewhere that was the opposite, somewhere ostensibly without much atmosphere or known history behind it. I also wanted to tell a story about a tower on a hill, and I found a road on a hill in Willesden with several blocks of flats that absolutely fitted the bill and that also has a view over a wide open space to the neat suburban houses that I wanted Alma to be able to spy on. The yew tree came out of nowhere and became so important that in its latin form, taxus baccata, from which the word toxic derives, it even became the title of the book. Originally I noticed that the block of flats in which I was interested was called by the name of a tree and I thought that was a good idea for my block. That led on to the idea of having a sinister tree outside the flats. Then I remembered that yew trees can live to a great age, and that this would be the obvious link to the savage earth beneath the suburban concrete. Much later, I found out that not only were yew trees poisonous, but that they were also the symbol of The Furies. All this came about in a very round about and serendipitious way. In my experience this is something that often happens when writing a book: strange connections and coincidences surface that fit absolutely with what’s needed.
Q. It strikes me that what Toxic is really about is the marginalized and the vulnerable, those at risk of falling through the cracks and people who could easily disappear. You’re casting a bright light on society and saying look here. This is what can happen if we don’t take care of each other. Was there some of that feeling in you as you wrote the book?
A. Yes absolutely. We have, by and large, lost the habit of caring for our neighbours. In London the rich and comfortably off live cheek by jowl with the poor, but I don’t think there’s much communication going on. There’s a bit of wish fulfillment in Toxic because I don’t know whether in a real block of flats such a coming-together would happen. Although, having said that, I’m reminded of the play and film London Road, co-written by my son Adam Cork and the playwright, Aleckie Blythe, which tells the true story of the inhabitants of London Road, Ipswich, initially strangers, who united to repair their fractured community after the presence of a serial killer in the street had tarnished the reputation of the place.
Q. Now we’ve got to talk about Alma! She was one of my favourites. She reminded me a bit of the women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – there was that sort of gothic horror aspect to her but she was also very, very funny and I have to say I was rather upset about what you did to her! Did you enjoy writing her?
A. I loved writing Alma. Inventing characters who behave very badly is brilliant fun, in a way that interacting with such characters in real life often isn’t. In a book you can laugh at their all-consuming egos without having to actually deal with them. And inventing someone who behaves badly always feels slightly transgressive – making them do and say things I’d never allow myself to do and say.
Q. It was very brave to cast such a ghastly character as a bookseller. I’d never dare! Discuss (if you’d like)!
A. I didn’t set out to diss booksellers! I love booksellers – they sell books and books hold a central place in my life as a reader and a writer! David’s new wife was a bookseller by default. His ambition was to open a bookshop and I wanted his new partner to have something major in common with him. When I started the novel I didn’t know she would turn out to be either a bookseller, or so awful. I often find that characters go galloping off on their own path and become completely different from what I initially intended. I also find that sometimes those I imagine are going to be important end up as either minor characters or scrapped altogether, or, vice versa, a peripheral person suddenly begins to loom large and move to centre stage. In Toxic, Gary is one such character who started out with a very minor role and just grew.
Q. I was really impressed how you marshalled such a large cast of characters together and yet made them distinct and clear in the readers mind and also how you ratcheted up the tension. Is this the biggest cast of characters you’ve dealt with in a book? As I was reading it I thought I would really struggle with this technically. It’s a really skilled piece of writing. Did that involve very careful pre-plotting before writing began? Did you have a clear idea about what would happen and in what order from the beginning?
A. I knew about the beginning of the book and I knew the end would involve the destruction of the tower, and I knew a few points along the way. But that was it. I didn’t know who would bring about the destruction of the tower, or, indeed how that would happen. I initially thought that it would be blown up! I envy writers who are able to plot everything in detail in advance. I can’t do that. I have to crawl forward painfully slowly, wondering what has to happen next and who does what to whom. On the other hand I think I’d become bored if I knew too much in advance. This is the largest number of narrators I’ve dealt with and I often found it difficult knowing which narrator would reveal which piece of information and when. One thing I did do, though, was scribble out a plan of the tower and write in who was living where and at what number. Before I did that I found it very confusing trying to remember who was on what floor and how that would impact on the plot.
Q. I think I saw that you’re writing a Rosa Thorn novella. Could you tell me a bit about that?
A. The working title is Rosa and Revenge and in it we meet Rosa ten years on. Her children are grown. Anna is also an actor and Danny’s a journalist. Rosa’s just got her big break starring in one of the country’s top soaps, but as always when she’s around, death and destruction follow, as fellow soap stars start to die. I don’t want to say anymore about it in case I give away the plot.
Q. You can ask 5 writers to dinner which do you choose?
A. This is a very difficult question because there are so many. Would I choose the Victorians – Eliot, Dickens, the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope , Wilkie Collins, or would I go for Joseph Heller, Susan Hill, Steven King, Donna Tartt, John Lanchester, John Irvine, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Philip Pullman. Yes – I know – more than five, and added to this list would be all the writers mentioned in the next two questions. So more a party than a dinner party!
Q. Which crime writers do you like?
A. Again – so many: Currently Kate Rhodes, Lesley Thomson, Ben Aaronovich, Elly Griffiths, Harlan Coben, Val Mcdermid, Stuart Macbride, Karin Slaughter, Sabine Durrant, Mark Billingham. I could go on …
Q. Which crime writers influenced you?
A. It’s hard to say who’s had a direct influence on my writing. My first experience of crime novels and the things that have stayed with me from that time are Agatha Christie’s puzzles, the character of Albert Campion in Margery Allingham’s books, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and slightly later, John le Carre’s George Smiley books. But latterly there’s Elizabeth George, Nicky French, Tana French… The list goes on…
Q. Can you remember what book made you want to become a writer?
A. I don’t think there’s one particular book, although as a girl I read and reread Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women and a collection of Greek Myths. I also loved Enid Blyton, The Faraway Tree stories and The Famous Five. I was allowed to go to my local library by myself from about the age of seven and adored discovering all the fantastic stories that were there for the taking. It was here, aged eight, that I first came across Jane Eyre and I remember being terrified when she was locked in The Red Room, and amazed that anyone could write something so real and so gripping. From the moment I learned to read I’ve been hooked on books and I think I’ve always had this urge, both as an actor and a writer to tell stories. The first thing I ever did was a collection of children’s verse, which is sitting in a drawer somewhere along with a couple of short children’s books, and after that I wrote plays for several years. During my time as a drama teacher I was lucky enough to have a couple of these plays performed at the school in which I was working.
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
A. The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent, and I’ve just finished The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson.
Q. How do you work? Do you have a routine? Set place/hours/word count per day or is it more flexible than that?
A.I have a small study, but I don’t use it to work in. It suits me better to work on the sofa in my living room. I usually try to do an hour before breakfast, and then after a walk with my husband, who is also a writer, settle down from 10am and work until lunch time. After another walk I start again around 4pm and work until supper, and sometimes I do a late evening stint before bed. But I’m not rigid about it, and have various breaks during the week for seeing friends or doing other necessary tasks. I constantly live with the idea that I should be working harder and that when I’m doing one thing there’s another that I should be doing instead. With the novella I set myself the task of completing it in a month. I hit my target and then took another two weeks to edit, so six weeks in total, which was pretty full on, but very satisfying. Another source of guilt nowadays, is being told by the health police that if I don’t get up and walk around every ten minutes or so I’ll die. I hate doing things just for the sake of it so now I’m trying to build into my regime, little breaks where I do something useful like iron a skirt, or peel a potato. Needless to say that’s not working out brilliantly.
Thank you very much, Vena, for taking the time and good luck with your future projects.
You’ll find all the links to Vena’s books at http://www.venacork.com