The starting point for a novel, the spark that ignites an idea, varies. It can be a location that sets my imagination alight or an item in the news, it might be a particular image, or a question that is troubling me. The Girl in the Green Dress sprang from something very close to home, my experience as a parent of a transgender child. In the novel, teenager Allie Kennaway heads off for Prom night, cheered on by dad Steve and her little sister Teagan. But Allie never comes home, beaten to death in an apparent hate crime because of her transgender identity. I’ve written about hate crimes before, crimes rooted in racism, in Stone Cold Red Hot and Split Second. But never about a transphobic crime. When I shared early chapters of the book with my writing group, people found it illuminating – no one had friends or family who were transgender. And I realised there weren’t many transgender characters in the fiction I’d read (with some notable exceptions like Breakfast on Pluto and Tales of the City read years ago and more recently the wonderful The Sunlight Pilgrims). I had a lot to learn myself, from my child and from reading information on transgender advice and support sites. Crime fiction is renowned for being a very effective genre for exploring social issues and contemporary hot topics and with this novel, at a time when increasing numbers of young people are questioning their gender identity and turning to gender identity clinics for support and health care, I wanted to shed some light on what it is like to have a transgender child, and hopefully to increase understanding of transgender issues.
The big question I ask in the book is how far you would go to protect your child – what if you suspected them of involvement in a terrible crime? Is your duty to keep them safe and shield them? Or to respect the law and make them take responsibility for what they’ve done? The parents involved have very different responses to the dilemma. Responses that put the search for truth and justice, for Allie and her family, in jeopardy.
And as is only right, the book is dedicated to my wonderful daughter Kit, the inspiration behind the story
I read as widely as I can, my only criteria is a good story. By that I mean a satisfying narrative, characters who draw me in (I don’t have to like them but I do have to be interested in them) and a well-realised setting or world where events unfold. This latest selection includes contemporary and historical fiction as well as some crime novels. But, whatever the genre, in my opinion they’re all criminally good. See what you think.
My last blog described writing about victims and survivors in my novel The Silence Between Breaths which examines a terrorist attack and its impact on people caught up in it. Nineteen days after posting that blog came the brutal attack on Manchester, where I live. The response of people to that violence, the shared humanity and compassion and resilience have been humbling – and also made me so proud. This poem, written sometime ago, says something of what I feel about my adopted city.
My recent novels explore the impact of crime on ordinary people. They are not experts, not professionals, not detectives or forensic scientists, career criminals or lawyers or investigative journalists but people like you and me who are suddenly caught up in some horrific tragedy. They are victims and survivors. Their stories are about situations that frighten me and disturb me, the sort of thing that could happen to any one of us but that you never think will happen to you. In The Silence Between Breaths that tragedy is a terrorist attack. The current threat level in the UK is severe, meaning a terrorist attack is highly likely, and in recent weeks we’ve seen the attack at Westminster while others have been thwarted. The book follows nine characters to look at a range of responses to the threat of danger and the experience of trauma. Among those perspectives is that of a member of the terrorist’s family – a viewpoint I’ve heard little about in news and analysis. There are questions to be answered in the writing: how would each character cope, what they would do under such pressure? Questions I’m also asking of myself. When reading about real-life incidents I’ve been struck at how in the most harrowing of circumstances we have such great capacity for humanity and that’s something I’ve tried to capture in the story.
Most of these books I heard about through reviews in the press or from recommendations on Twitter. A few I found while browsing the shelves in my local library. One of the pleasures of reading is entering new worlds and finding new voices. All these novels gave me that buzz. Happy reading.
The first question people ask me when they hear about this book is not what the story is, or how it’s selling, or if it’s a crime novel but whether the title is a quote from something. It isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, but it does have that sort of ring. You can imagine it in a Shakespearean speech or a classic poem. It took months to find it. While writing the novel I’d used a working title that was way too cheesy (nope, not saying). Then I spent weeks exchanging emails with my publishers, even during my holiday on Kefalonia, chewing over possibilities. Long lists were compiled and considered. The book tells the story of a group of strangers on a train from Manchester to London who are caught up in a devastating event. Some proposed titles reflected the randomness of such tragedy: A Day Like Any Other, Out Of A Clear Blue Sky; others aimed to capture the characters’ response to sudden violence: You Can’t Kill The Spirit, The Kindness of Strangers; but nothing had the emotional resonance we were after. The Silence Between Breaths appears on the last list I submitted, along with other suggestions none of which had half the impact. I love how it echoes moments of the story, mirrors both the tension and the rupture that tears lives apart but also the contemplation that comes with such an experience. It’s an intriguing phrase and calls up a physical response in the reader. It’s perfect. And how I dreamt it up remains a mystery.