This episode of the Crime Cafe podcast features my interview with crime writer and bestselling author Fiona Barton.
Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two eBooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy inks for both on my website, debbimack.com under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
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Here’s a PDF transcript of the interview.
Debbi (01:46): Hi everyone. We’re back with our first episode of Season Eight and I’m so excited to have with me a distinguished journalist and a New York Times bestselling author. Previously a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph and chief news reporter at the Mail on Sunday, she’s had lots of experience covering crime in her 30-year journalism career. She is also, as I said, a New York Times bestselling author of The Widow, The Child, and The Suspect.. Her latest book is Local Gone Missing. I’m pleased to introduce my guest, Fiona Barton. Hi Fiona. I’m so happy. You’re here today.
Fiona (02:32): Hi, it’s so good of you to have me on. Very pleased to be here.
Debbi (02:36): Well, I’m extremely happy to have you here, and I’ve gotta tell you, I was looking over your books and the first two books concern your sleuth, Kate Waters, who’s a journalist. Now, I suspect that a lot of that writing was inspired by your 30 years as a journalist. That’s just a guess on my part. What do you have to say about that?
Fiona (03:01): Pretty good guess, pretty good guess. Well, it’s interesting, because when I started writing The Widow, my first book, I didn’t have a reporter in it. It was about a marriage with secrets. It was gonna be told by Jean, my widow in the title. And I thought, oh, I need somebody for Jean to be telling this to. So, Kate came knocking at her door, and gradually her part in the book sort of got bigger, because I loved writing her. It was coming home, you know, she’s been everywhere. I’ve been. And so I kept her for The Child, the second book. And she was the investigator really in the second book. And then the third book, The Suspect, she was still there, but I turned the tables on her poor lady. And she became the story and I thought at the end of The Suspect that I probably ought to let her have a lie-down. She’d been through a lot. So, I rested her and started writing about a whole new cast of characters.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I started writing The Widow, my first book, I didn’t have a reporter in it. It was about a marriage with secrets.
Debbi (04:18): Hmm. Did that lead to the book that you have now? The latest?
Fiona (04:22): Well, it did in the end. Um, yeah, I had a bit of a false start with Book Four. I wrote something different and didn’t quite work as I wanted it to. And so I asked if we could set it aside. And my wonderful editors, wonderful publishers said yes. And so then I went to, then I started writing Local Gone Missing.
Debbi (04:51): Mm-hmm yeah. I noticed that this is kind of a deviation from what you’ve done before. Would, that be fair to say?
Fiona (05:00): Oh yes, very much so. So instead of having a journalist, I’ve got, a woman, a female murder detective who is at a real crossroads in her life. She’s one of these women who she knew where she was going. She knew what she was gonna do, driven, didn’t want a family, all about the job. And that was brilliant until her life imploded. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and her long-term partner left, uh, rather brutally. And she’s moved to a new town, a little seaside town where she’s kind of, she’s on sick leave and doesn’t know whether she could, whether she can go back to doing what she used to do, whether she can ever be that woman again. So very vulnerable, feeling very vulnerable. And so she’s at the heart of the book, a brand new character. And I think the themes of the book are me, anyway, Elise King, D.I. Elise King. It’s her journey, a personal journey. But also, going back to work through this rather amateurish investigation that she, uh, that her neighbor persuades her to get involved in. But it means that, you know, she’s using all her skills. So, it’s a really positive thing that she’s doing.
About the latest book: She’s one of these women who she knew where she was going. She knew what she was gonna do, driven, didn’t want a family, all about the job. And that was brilliant until her life imploded.
Debbi (06:45): I find that rather fascinating, the concept of a skilled trained investigator being sidelined by a health issue and wondering if she can continue to do it and trying to find ways to do it.
Fiona (07:00): I think, you know, you are seen differently when you’ve had a life threatening illness, and the treatment is so brutal. It, you know, it does leave you feeling vulnerable. And, you know, she’s not sure that. She’s frightened, I think, that she might drop the ball, because she has brain fog from the chemo and, and her strength isn’t as it was. And all of those things, she thinks she’s gonna be judged by her colleagues. She is a woman in a man’s world. So yeah.
Debbi (07:40): Do you think this kind of plays a little toward what a lot of women might feel at a certain age?
Fiona (07:47): Yes, absolutely. Yes. Welcome to my world.
Debbi (07:51): Amen.
Fiona (07:53): Yeah, exactly. Yeah, no, absolutely. There’s been a lot of discussion here. I don’t know whether it’s been the same in the States about women’s health, especially around the menopause and HRT, and lots of issues about that. About how, you know, women are sidelined when they get to a certain age, they become invisible. And it’s true. I mean, it is astonishing, but it is true that people just don’t notice you, anymore. So yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Debbi (08:29): I’d say there’s a certain amount of discussion about that here, for sure.
Fiona (08:32): Oh, good. All right. Yeah. Good. No, big.
Debbi (08:34): Whatever. Yeah. Whatever discussion we don’t generate ourselves, we steal from you guys, I guess
Fiona (08:40): , I’m sure.
Debbi (08:41): You guys have—
Fiona (08:42): Two-way traffic, isn’t it? Must be.
Debbi (08:44): Great television shows. I gotta tell you I’ve been watching some wonderful stuff on the BBC America.
Fiona (08:51): Excellent. Yeah.
Debbi (08:52): Yeah. Excellent.
Fiona (08:53): It’s an age for television drama at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic. Yeah,
Debbi (08:58): Absolutely.I was reading in one of your interviews that you like to write about ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations. I thought that was a great concept. One that I’ve always been fascinated with.
Fiona (09:11): Sure. And I think, you know, because so much of journalism is that, the sort of journalism that I was doing, the reporting I was doing, it was news journalism. So I wasn’t specializing in politics or health, or it was human interest stories. It was, uh, and crime and all sorts of things really, but it was a lot of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Some bad, most bad, and some good, you know. Sometimes there are happy stories. Thank God. But, yeah. So I did a bit of an apprenticeship, really 30 years writing about that before I came to fiction.
So I wasn’t specializing in politics or health, or it was human interest stories. … crime and all sorts of things really, but it was a lot of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Some bad, most bad, and some good, you know. Sometimes there are happy stories. Thank God.
Debbi (09:59): Very, very interesting. I was trained in journalism actually, but ended up going to law school.
Fiona (10:06): Ah.
Debbi (10:07): Go figure.
Fiona (10:08): Well, yes, there’s a lot of crossover.
Debbi (10:12): There is actually.
Fiona (10:13): Yeah.
Debbi (10:13): Yeah. I had a great period of adjustment from writing legal stuff to writing fiction myself. I saw that you spoke about that in another interview about the difficulty of, oh, I’m allowed to make things up.
Fiona (10:27): I know it’s a weird thing. Isn’t it? You would think it would, it would be an easy thing to do, but it is not. And still, I do like to be grounded in real situations, real people, even when I’m just sort of taking, you know, an expression here, you know, something that someone said there, but even so, you know, I don’t write science fiction or fantasy. I need real people. So, yeah, I’m stuck with that. I think.
Debbi (11:02): I know what you’re talking about. I like dealing with, you know, the gritty reality of things in a lot of my work and I appreciate it in others for sure. So what is it that you think your readers are getting from what you write that you’ve, your career seems to have just taken off like a shot.
Fiona (11:25): I know it was slightly surreal. I don’t know. When you go to reader events, I’m always struck and slightly in awe of what they have taken from my books. You know, I mean, I’m not, you know, this isn’t Tolstoy, so there aren’t, you know, great, grand themes and whatever, but they’re interested in such different fits of it. When I started, I was really worried that they’d hate me because I was a journalist and journalists at that time in the UK were absolutely, we were worse than the taxman. But that was the feeling that I got. But, when I met readers, it wasn’t like that at all. They were fascinated by a reporter’s life. They wanted to know more and they weren’t judgmental. And that’s what encouraged me really to keep Kate that they wanted to know more about that world and the dilemmas, the morals, you know, the ethics of it all.
When you go to reader events, I’m always struck and slightly in awe of what they have taken from my books. You know, I mean, I’m not, you know, this isn’t Tolstoy, so there aren’t, you know, great, grand themes and whatever, but they’re interested in such different fits of it.
Fiona (12:37): They wanted to discuss it. And they’re so detailed. You know, there was one where, there was an event at a bookshop, and a lady asked me, what did—I dunno if you’ve read the first one, but there’s a mother called Dawn whose child goes missing. And she has another baby. And this lady said, “What did Dawn call her next baby?” And I had no idea. I had to make it up on the spot and now I’ve forgotten. So I hope nobody asks me again.
Debbi (13:14): Oh my God.
Fiona (13:15): She was so invested in that character. She wanted to know more. And I’m the same as a reader. I’ll read something and think, oh, I need to know, you know, about this or that. And what happened next? So, yeah, it’s wonderful. I think, you know, the reader, you hand a book over and then it’s the readers, you know, they’ll take individual things.
Debbi (13:41): It’s fascinating, you know, it’s the same thing actually with script readings. There are times when I’ve heard people read screenplays I’ve written and they have a totally different take on what I’ve written in terms of the delivery. And I’ll be like, whoa, that was brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s fascinating. What authors have most inspired your writing?
Fiona (14:07): Oh, goodness. Well, I’ve been reading since I was about four, so there’ve been a few, but I think in terms of psychological thrillers, my mom loved Agatha Christie. So, you know, the house was full of her books and Sherlock Holmes. I loved that, but there was a bit, there was a real step change when I read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, where the whole thing changed from being very clever Dicky. You know, I know I can spot all the different, all the different clues and red herrings and all that to being inside somebody’s head, and working things out, not knowing the truth of something because it’s from different perspectives and it was just brilliant. And so that was, that was the step change for me for psychological thrillers. But, you know, I read very widely and I love Kate Atkinson because, well, for many reasons, because she’s brilliant.
Fiona (15:17): But, because she showed me that you could tell a story from many narrators and that was important for me and, you know, Maggie O’Farrell and, you know, just great story tellers, Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. I love it when somebody absolutely, you know, turns you on your head, because you think you’ve read quite a lot and you’ve seen how people do things and then somebody like Hilary Mantel comes along and just does something completely different. I loved it, absolutely loved it. And, you know, I was absolutely in her world. Even though it was, you know, 1580 or whatever it was. And, um, it was a long time ago, but I was, she still made it relevant and wonderful.
I love it when somebody absolutely, you know, turns you on your head, because you think you’ve read quite a lot and you’ve seen how people do things and then somebody like Hilary Mantel comes along and just does something completely different. I loved it, absolutely loved it.
Debbi (16:14): Exactly. It’s amazing how things that are old can be equally relevant now today.
Fiona (16:22): Absolutely. Yeah.
Debbi (16:24): I had the most extraordinary experience just today. A younger woman, somebody in her twenties, I think, had put up a video, analyzing, basically reviewing The Prisoner. That old show.
Fiona (16:38): Really?
Debbi (16:39): With Patrick McGoohan. Yeah, I was struck by how thoughtful her review was and how interested she was in the show. And how, and she said that she liked the last two episodes and I was like, oh my gosh, you are a Prisoner fan then. .
Fiona (16:58): Yeah, absolutely.
Debbi (16:59): But, I mean, there’s a show that’s so relevant to today. It’s not even funny. .
Fiona (17:04): No. Quite, yes. It’s strange. Isn’t it? How things come round again?
Debbi (17:08): Isn’t it?
Fiona (17:10): Yeah. Very much so. Yeah.
Debbi (17:12): What kind of writing schedule do you keep?
Fiona (17:17): Gosh,I should be staying, you know, I get up and blah, blah, blah, but, um, I try and be, I try and stick to a schedule but, so what I normally do is I wake up quite early, and I start writing in bed, because I know that as soon as I get up, I will be distracted. I’ll be, you know, doing other things, putting washing on, all that kind of thing. So I do stay in bed. Very bad for your back. I don’t advise it. I have got a writing shed, which is a shed, in fact, not , it’s just, this is it chaos. But I write best in the morning, and I usually sort of dribble to an end at about one, so probably about eight till one.When I start writing, you know, drivel, and then I have lunch and then I come in the shed and I edit, I read what I’ve written. I’ll do some research, listen to some music, and think about what I’m gonna write the next morning. So, yeah, mornings are best for me. I’m not very good in the evening, you know, I’m in bed by 10:00, 10:30. So, yeah.
Debbi (18:48): Mm-hmm yeah, I can relate. Yeah. As a journalist, what are your thoughts about the future of journalism?
Fiona (18:58): Oh my goodness. That’s a big subject.
Debbi (19:03): Can you describe it in 25 words or less?
Fiona (19:06): Oh. OK. Gosh, uh, the thing is, it’s so important and I think sometimes we lose sight of that because we have, in the west, we have a free press, in most countries in the west. And you know, we’ve taken it for granted. So I’ve taught journalism in countries where reporters are murdered, if they write the truth about the government or about powerful figures. And so, and yet young people want to be journalists still. And so I’m, you know, I’ve, it’s recalibrated what I feel about the future of journalism because, you know, social media and the new platforms has changed everything. There was a point where everyone thought they were a journalist. Luckily that is now passed. But it does mean that, you know, people have got a microphone and can be heard, and that has changed everything. I think we got a bit too excited about the platforms and forgot about the quality of the content to be honest, but I do think that’s coming back, that’s coming back. You know, journalism lives on and, and will always, in some form or another. Now what that form will be, I don’t know. The newspapers are struggling terribly here, I don’t, I think they are in the States as well. Aren’t they?
I think we got a bit too excited about the platforms and forgot about the quality of the content to be honest, but I do think that’s coming back, that’s coming back. You know, journalism lives on and, and will always, in some form or another.
Debbi (20:58): Oh, yes.
Fiona (21:00): So, you know, print is on its way out, but the journalists who, who worked for print are still producing excellent reporting, international reporting, long-form journalism. So, I’m optimistic. You’ve got to be really, haven’t you?
Debbi (21:20): That’s right. Got look on the bright side, even if there isn’t. I paraphrased, I think, Dashiell Hammett.
Fiona (21:28): It’ll be okay, because it’s so important. I don’t, it can’t disappear, because you’ve got to be able to hold power to account. And it’s one of those, you know, it’s one of the planks in that, in democracy.
Debbi (21:45): Hear, hear. Let’s see, what advice would you give to someone who would like to write for a living? Oh,
Fiona (21:53): Oh, when I started, my agent said, don’t give up your real job just yet.
Fiona (22:02): Making a living is really hard as a writer. But, if you want to do it, you know, you’ve got to start. That’s the main thing. I was saying to someone the other day, what I would say is get going and don’t rush. So, a bit of a contradiction, but get going in that, you know, write down your ideas, get things moving in your head. But then don’t rush to finish. Let it cook, let things unfold, give yourself time to develop. But I would say, you know, it is all very well saying I’ve got, you know, I’ve got such a good idea and then doing nothing about it, you know. Write it down, see what it looks like on a page, and carry on.
Making a living is really hard as a writer. But, if you want to do it, you know, you’ve got to start.
Debbi (22:56): That’s it. Keep calm and carry on.
Debbi (23:01): Are you a Doctor Who fan? .
Fiona (23:06): I used to be. I was terrified of it when I was a child. My best friend, who’s still my best friend, she used to terrify me, and we would, she’d put it on and the music alone would make me hide behind the settee.
Debbi (23:25): Oh, my gosh.
Fiona (23:27): Oh my Lord. Yeah, it terrified me. And then I kind of, we, I carried on watching, but actually my kids weren’t fans. I don’t know why really. But, so who’s your favorite? Who’s your favorite doctor?
Debbi (23:42): Oh, well I have to say Tom Baker. Because he was the first doctor I got to know.
Fiona (23:48): Oh, right. Okay.
Debbi (23:49): He was my first doctor
Fiona (23:50): And truly bonkers, Truly bonkers.
Debbi (23:53): I loved him for that.
Fiona (23:56): Yeah. Yeah. I did too.
Debbi (23:58): I have to admit that also like Sylvester McCoy for the same reason that he’s so bonkers.
Fiona (24:03): Oh wow. That’s controversial.
Debbi (24:06): Is it really?
Fiona (24:07): Yeah. It’s controversial. Controversial. Well, Hmm.
Debbi (24:11): I knew there was some controversy about making him a doctor.
Fiona (24:14): I don’t, I can’t remember, but he’s a bit of a Marmite doctor, but—
Debbi (24:18): Marmite. Oh wow. I love Marmite.
Fiona (24:22): Oh, well you see Marmite, you either love it or hate it. uh, cause it’s not, it is not middle of the road, is it it?
Debbi (24:28): That’s right.
Fiona (24:28): It’s um, but uh, yeah, David Tennant, I thought was fantastic, but he’s fantastic in everything.
Debbi (24:34): He’s wonderful. He was wonderful. I thought Matt Smith was good, too.
Fiona (24:39): Yeah. The modern ones have been great. But when I started watching it was William Hartnell. I’m that old.
Debbi (24:45): Oh yeah. William Hartnell. Yeah. I’ve seen the older ones. Yeah, yeah, He’s a character.
Fiona (24:52): You see the scenery moving now, but when you look at it now, but, and Patrick Troughton I thought was great, too.
Debbi (24:59): He was, he was wonderful. He had some good companions too. I liked them. I was always a big fan of Jamie,
Fiona (25:05): It was a great concept. Wasn’t it? What a great concept it was and still is, you know, they’re still reinventing it.
Debbi (25:12): Absolutely. Mm-hmm , it’s something that can just keep regenerating as time goes on. Let’s see. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish up?
Fiona (25:24): Um, um, this has been lovely.
Debbi (25:28): Great.
Fiona (25:29): I really enjoyed it. Yes. And I’m so happy that you liked it and, that you liked the book and I’m working on Book Five, which again is D.I. Elise King and she’s still there. And so is Ebbing, the fictitious seaside town and a different, a different scenario, as they say.
Debbi (25:54):So maybe a series then?
Fiona (25:55): Well, you know, having invented the whole thing, I thought blimey, I’m not gonna just discard it. So, and I did enjoy being in Ebbing with her and I like her very much. So, yeah, I decided I would do another book and we’ll see for Book Six.
Debbi (26:15): Okay. Well done. Thanks. Thanks so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Fiona (26:21): Not at all. It’s been great.
Debbi (26:24): So, in any case,don’t forget to check out our Patreon page, everyone out there, who’s listening. And we are offering bonus episodes, exclusive content for patrons and more, and you can also get copies of the crime cafe ebooks there for free with your patronage. So please hit subscribe and leave a review, if you would. It really helps a lot. Until next time, happy reading.
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