The Writing Life interview: Barbara Nadel

One of the jobs authors are required to perform to help promote their work is the strange task of procuring from other authors something called a “blurb”—the praise you’ll find on the back cover of books. They ought to come from authors whose readers might also be interested in your book--that's the idea. In 2006, when I sent out advance copies of my first novel “The Collaborator of Bethlehem,” I had no doubt I wanted one to go to Barbara Nadel, winner of the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger the previous year. Her fabulous series of novels about Istanbul detective Cetin Ikmen delves into a society that we think we know a great deal about – only to demonstrate how much more complex is the reality. That’s one of the things I was trying to do with my Palestinian detective Omar Yussef. I’m pleased to report that Barbara recognized that, and she was kind enough to read and comment (favorably!) on my book. She’s published 11 terrific Turkish novels and is about to publish a new novel in her other series, in which the hero is a London undertaker. The two series are rather different and make varied demands on this intelligent writer, so I thought it’d be fascinating to ask her about The Writing Life.

How long did it take you to get published?

I first started trying to get published in 1992. At that time the notion of a mystery book, much less a series set in Turkey, was rejected as almost laughable. I’ll be honest, I gave up and put my first book Belshazzar’s Daughter in a drawer for 7 years. The only reason I ever took it out again was because in 1999 I was, yet again, totally broke and I thought, ‘why not give this old thing one more go? Maybe someone will give me some cash?’ So I sent it to an agent who, on this occasion, liked it. The next thing I knew I was involved in a three book contract! Now ten years on, I write two mystery series; the Inspector İkmen stories set in modern Turkey and the Francis Hancock mysteries set in 1940s London.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I have to admit that I’ve never read any!

What’s a typical writing day?

I live in the north of England and so my first task of the day is to look out of the window and see what the sky is doing. That done, I try to get to my desk by about 8am and then work through until lunchtime. I don’t generally do lunch – a legacy of past chain-smoking – but just have a cup of tea and maybe, just occasionally, a cigarette. I’ll then work through until about 5 or 6pm. I don’t do this every day but try to work this schedule Monday to Friday if I can. I have pretty heavy family commitments and so it’s not always possible.

Plug your latest book. Why is it so great?

I have two books out next month, one paperback, an İkmen mystery called River of the Dead, and a new Hancock hardback called Sure and Certain Death.

River of the Dead sees İkmen and his protégé Suleyman, in pursuit of an escaped prisoner. Yusuf Kaya is a murderer and drug dealer and when he escapes from prison in İstanbul it is suspected he has had help. Also because Kaya’s home town is in eastern Turkey it is strongly suspected he has gone back there. And so while İkmen pursues the investigation in İstanbul, Suleyman flies out to the eastern city of Mardin. There he finds not only drug dealing, gun running and the threat of terrorist attack, but also an exotic mix of people including Kurds, Suriani Christians and those who believe in an ancient snake goddess, the Sharmeran. This book came about as a result of a trip I made out to Mardin in 2007 and is I hope imbued with the same sense of magic and unreality that I found there. That said River of the Dead is also a tough book which address very real issues I talked to people about in Mardin, like the Iraq war. I think it’s great because although it is a crime story it is also a social commentary as well as, hopefully, introducing some people to the glories of south eastern Turkey.

Sure and Certain Death is about a series of killings that take place in the London Borough of West Ham in 1941. Middle aged women are being attacked and eviscerated. Local people start whispering about Jack the Ripper being on the prowl again. One such victim is discovered in a bombed out house by undertaker Francis Hancock. A veteran of World War I, Francis suffers from shell-shock which means that sometimes he doesn’t always know that what he is experiencing is actually real. But soon the murders come close to home and he finds himself fearing for his own sister. Sure and Certain Death is a story about World War 2 that has its murderous roots in the darkest corners of Word War 1. I think it’s a good book because it is not either an obvious murder story or a straightforward story of the London Blitz. My father experienced the Blitz when he was a child and although the Hancock books do tell of the heroism of that time, they also aim to tell it like it was too. Francis Hancock’s world is therefore one of privation, dirt, anxiety and sometimes madness.

How much of what you do is dictated by genre formula, personal formula or complete originality?

My aim is always not to write to formula but to produce something fresh every time. However within the crime/mystery genre there are certain constraints, like having a ‘tidy’ ending. Not to do this is unsatisfying for the reader, even though I do sometimes want to reflect the sheer messiness of real life. In addition series characters do have back stories which have to be addressed in some form in every book and so formula could be said to apply there too. In the main however I don’t write to formula.

What’s your favourite sentence in all literature and why?

From Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. These are the first words Miss Havisham ever speaks to Pip. They sum up both the bitterness and the tragedy of her situation perfectly.

‘This,’ said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, ‘is where I shall be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.’

She knows that her relatives will only ‘come and look’ at her. They won’t grieve. They are only interested in her money. All this is conveyed so well in this cold little sentence.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

Quite a lot, although of course it does depend on the book. For River of the Dead I had to go to Mardin and its environs and talk to people so that was pretty full-on. With the Hancock series of course I have to do historical research into aspects of World War 2 every time. Enjoyable but time consuming.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before you could make a living at it?

For the first 6 years of my writing career I couldn’t make my living just from my books. I had a day job in a psychiatric hospital and wrote at night and at weekends. Since the Hancock series began however (4 years ago) I have (just) been able to survive on writing. However it’s not easy and I do have to supplement my income by writing short stories and bits of journalism.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I had one academic book published before ‘Belshazzar’s Daughter’ but no fiction. Not that I didn’t try. I wrote two books which I haven’t had published. Goodness knows if they’ll ever see the light of day!

What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you on a book tour?

Meeting an old man who was called Mr İkmen and then, not twenty four hours later, seeing a Turkish policeman who looked just like my internal vision of İkmen’s protégé, Suleyman!

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

A horror story about a Victorian side-show man who kills people and then places them in sentimental tableau which he charges the public one penny to view. Ghastly and weird and clearly the product of a brain that is not what it should be. Mind you, Goths would like it I am sure!

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