Joining me today for a cozy one on one chat is none other than author extraordinaire Alison Bruce. Drink in hand, real fire lit and her husband’s band playing an assortment of tunes in the background; the pub is buzzing! Celebrating the release of her third novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series – set in Cambridge – Alison took time out of her busy schedule to talk Elvis, her family, Cambridge and writing at an early age.
Alison, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Did you get one of those pivotal moments in school or did it come later?
I had an odd childhood; disjointed, illogical and weird in many ways. Of course, I didn’t really appreciate that at the time and it took many years to piece it into something that made sense.
Now I’ve said something that sounds frustratingly like the opener of the story when I’m not going to go into any more detail… although I could up the ante and add that it all dates back to the 1920s…
Anyhow, trying to understand motivations and read the subtext of conversations was a constant factor in my childhood and I was drawn to stories that gave an insight into the darker side of people’s personalities.
My dad read constantly, whereas my mum would watch TV shows. He disapproved of her choice of English murder-mysteries and US crime drama but later I realised he was reading Conan Doyle, Patricia Wentworth and buckets of America crime, Ed McBain in particular.
I started reading his books but between ‘lights-out’ and going to sleep there was often a period of several hours and it was during this time that I began to invent characters and stories. My best subject at school was maths and I think that love of logic also spurred me to create stories that revolved around traps, escape and problem solving.
My first published piece was a short poem in Pony Club Annual, ‘The Foal’. I received £1 and a copy of the annual, I think that was about 1980 and both have long since gone!
So, I liked writing and I had a bit of a flair for it I suppose but it was the creation of stories that motivated me. I eventually came up with an idea that I just couldn’t put down and I thought it would make a great film so I enrolled on a scriptwriting course. This was when I lived in Swindon and the course leader was David Yates, the same David Yates who has been directing the final Harry Potter installments but at the time had worked on a couple of TV commercials and an episode of The Bill. He liked the story but advised me that it was incredibly difficult to get a film made unless it had been a book first. I kind of shrugged and thought “oh well, I’d better go and write a book then.”
It wasn’t that I had anything whatsoever against the idea, more that I suspected that being an author was one of those things that only other people achieved. Undeterred, I also figured that I had read plenty of books in the past so “how hard could it really be?”
I have the initial idea in 1989 and the book has finally appeared as this year’s novel, The Calling.
Finally then, in answer to your question, I’d always loved the idea of a writer’s life; the creativity and freedom of expression but I’d say I knew I wanted to become a writer when I was most of the way through my first draft and began to believe that I could produce something good enough for publication. At that point I let the possibilities outweigh the inhibitions and that was my pivotal moment.
What books/authors have most influenced you most and why?
One of my very early influences was a dark and twisted tale of child kidnap, threats of murder and against the odds parental struggle. Yes, 101 Dalmatians. I read it over and over, although I was hugely disappointed when I introduced my daughter to it. In my early teens I loved Sherlock Holmes in particular. I think I read most of Agatha Christie’s but always preferred the standalones to either Poirot or Marple.
My other huge influence from that time was films. BBC2 used to show old classics around teatime, I’d quite often come in from school and watch one of those. Two stick in my mind, ‘The Night of the Hunter’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I was probably 11 or 12 when I saw them and I was riveted. One scene in ‘The Night of the Hunter’ haunted me for ages: the mum has been murdered and is tied in her submerged car with her hair swirling around her. In fact it’s still giving me the creeps. I read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird after I’d seen the film. Incidentally I’m sure that’ll be remade at some point but I hope it’s not…
Jane Eyre is a book that I’ve returned to every few years, Jane has that great combination of vulnerability and resilience and I felt a real affinity with her character.
As an adult my reading has been mostly American crime, Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay and Robert Crais are particular favourites, when a writer’s voice appeals to me I keep reading them. I enjoy the pace of their books but also love reading about characters whose life, motivations and experience I can relate to.
RJ Ellory’s ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, Mo Hayder’s ‘The Treatment’ and ‘The Plums of PG Wodehouse’ all have a special place on my bookshelf. I am currently reading ‘Love You More’ and I have a feeling that Lisa Gardner will soon be taking up plenty of space there too.
Talking of being influenced, at what point did music have such an effect on your life and perhaps more importantly – how did you “discover” Elvis?
There was no popular music at home at all when I was a child, my elder brothers and sisters had all left home by the time I was about six and I don’t remember hearing anything except classical music or (something muffled from behind my siblings’ closed doors). From the mid-seventies there was a big rock ‘n’ roll revival with American Graffiti, Happy Days, and even Grease all pushing the music and style to the fore. When I find something I like I stick to it and it eventually dawned on me that all my likes belonged under the same musical brolly.
I’d seen and loved Elvis films as a kid, they were often on TV in the school holidays, and when he died in 1977 suddenly everywhere was flooded with his music, it seemed like every shop was playing it and every news programme was full of Elvis. Of course I was sad that he’d died, and illogically I even felt some guilt over it, feeling that he’d been unhappy and I should have done something to cheer him up. But apart from worrying that I had contributed towards Elvis’s early demise I found myself in my element, and musically at least, I got stung!
We both share a love for Elvis Presley (as does your family) and have had many a chat about the King. If you could go back in time and appear as an extra in one of his films, what scene would you chose to appear in and why?
Bloody hell Miles, that is a nasty [Evil Laugh inserted here!] and below the belt question to throw at an innocent crime author! Firstly, I don’t want to be an extra, I want to be Judy Tyler in Jailhouse Rock, I want to be in the studio for Treat Me Nice and travelling 50’s America in cute outfits and fighting off a lustful Elvis with a slap across the face. How dare you relegate me to ‘3rd villager’?
… delay while failed actress reconciles herself to background role…
Think I would like to either be at the Hollywood pool party in Jailhouse Rock or in the wedding scene at Coco Palms in Blue Hawaii, but then again, in the audience of the Lovin’ You concert would be phenomenal. No, final decision, looking sleazy alongside Carolyn Jones, watching Elvis singing Trouble in King Creole.
And while we are talking Elvis – name the one track from his entire catalogue you would have loved to have sung backing vocals on!
OK, forget my ability, lack of, or the fact I’m a woman. I love doo-wop, especially a good bass vocal and the one song I can NEVER resist doing backing vocals on is ‘A Fool Such as I.’ I’m no Ray Walker, but I try!
What do you find the hardest part of writing a novel – research, ideas, characters?
No those bits are great, the worst bit for me is the actual fear of putting pen to paper, I find it incredibly difficult to write anything that I’m not happy with, even at first draft, so I deliberate at sentence level over scenes that I may ultimately ditch. I need to learn to let the writing flow and trust myself to go back and edit later. On a bad day I’m calm on the outside but the inside of my brain is painted with a large Edvard Munch mural.
For those readers who haven’t discovered the Goodhew series could you tell us a little about it and why it’s based in Cambridge?
Gary Goodhew has wanted to be a detective since he was 11, he’s intelligent and focused and has worked his way up to DC in just about the shortest time possible. In Cambridge Blue he is the youngest detective at Cambridge’s Parkside station and is faced with working on his first murder investigation. Fulfilling a childhood ambition can be a dangerous thing to do, a child’s view can be wide of the reality and I thought it would be interesting to find out where this leads Gary.
In the summer before he started secondary school his parents inherited money and his mother packed him off to a boarding school where he really didn’t fit in leading him to take refuge in crime books and old films. This has given him an overly black-and-white sense of right and wrong and it will be interesting to see how his slightly idealistic view of crime solving is reconciled with the practical challenges he has to face.
Goodhew is really the detective I wanted to meet in other people’s books but didn’t seem to be able to find anyway. It is inevitable that he will become a middle-aged, cynical, substance dependent copper with a string of failed marriages and family relationships behind him? And if not, how will dealing with the aftermath of serious crime actually impact upon him? It is really interesting having this opportunity to explore a detective at the start of his career, and I’m very glad that I have chosen Gary Goodhew as my protagonist.
Setting the books in Cambridge was initially a practical decision which came about because my husband is from this area and when we decided to get married it was the most logical place to settle. I quickly realised it was also the most logical place to set the books. Cambridge is small enough that it has that community feel and it is totally viable for people’s paths to cross, and recross. But Cambridge is also a city, it is culturally diverse, historic and world-renowned.
Gary loves Cambridge more than anywhere else, he has grown up here and the Cambridge he knows, and introduces the readers to, is partly observed from the point of view of a lad who has probably learnt the backstreets and quirks of the place by riding round on his bike and being inquisitive enough to explore.
Do you relish the writing procedure or are you prone to distractions?
There are lots of sides to writing and my books are in my head the entire time. I am very prone to distraction, part of this is having children which seems to change the way your attention span works and I find I think in smaller, but faster bursts than I used to. I quite often write late at night but a few days of this and not being able to sleep in in the morning soon becomes a nightmare. Once I do hit my stride though I absolutely love it and am very disappointed when I have to stop at the end of the day.
If the series was optioned for television, who would you want to play Gary Goodhew and why?
I don’t think about it too closely because I assume it’s one of those things that rarely happens and also, if it did, I know that I couldn’t have any say in that kind of thing. Having said that there have been 2 occasions when I have seen something in an actor that I think could suit them to play Goodhew. I saw an interview with Richard Fleeshman and Leap Year with Matthew Goode and in both cases thought ‘mmm, maybe’. (Simon Baker from the Mentalist is totally, totally, wrong for the role but I am prepared to meet him and discuss at length.)
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing The Calling?
The main case character is a girl who is one the edge of a breakdown, she is self-harming and suffering from panic attacks. I spent a long time getting to know her and one particular quote from B Burstow’s Self-Mutilation in Radical Feminist Therapy states ‘When a client routinely self-mutilates, we know that certain that this woman has been badly included on in childhood. What you don’t know is how.’ It was research like this that taught me about the subject and also about the importance of back-story and research to character development.
What fictional character would you most like to have been?
That’s tricky, some of the great ones come to a sticky end.
Clarice Starling might be too scary. Cat Woman might be fun but I don’t think I could breathe in that outfit. Ditto Wonder Woman.
Final decision? I think I’ll be Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep.
Social Media – yes or no?!
Yes. I like being accessible and being able to communicate quickly and directly with people, I just hate spam. Alison on Twitter.
What’s the one question you wish you were never asked?!
Awkward silence in the waiting room then the consultant’s door opens. “Would you like to come through now?”
And finally (although I know one person for sure) – if you could invite three people/characters from the past or present to a dinner party who would you invite and why and what would be for dessert?!!
Yes, Elvis. Dr Neill Cream the Victorian serial killer would be interesting (although I might avoid the soup), plus Patrick Jane and Raymond Chandler I think.
Hold on, I’m dropping Dr Cream in case he really is bad for the appetite. Hawaii’s a nice neighbourhood for bad habits and I’d really like to enjoy sitting on Poipu Beach, just me and the boys and a few fresh slices of after-dinner pineapple.