St. Stephen’s Day 2010. I curl up with a copy of Darkside by Belinda Bauer that I won in a Twitter giveaway. Hours pass. I forgo food and drink, but that’s okay because I’m still in a food coma from the day before and my brother, worried that I haven’t appeared in the kitchen for a while, brings me cups of tea. Finally that evening, after darkness has fallen again, I reach THE END and sit for a time with the book closed in my lap, trying to process the electrical shock of its ending. It is so twisty and clever and unexpected that I go downstairs, accost the first person I can find – the aforementioned brother – and tell him the entire plot of the novel, just so I can tell him the twist at the end. “Oh, that’s good,” he says. “That’s really good. Who did you say wrote it again?”
Belinda Bauer burst onto the crime fiction scene back at the beginning of 2010 with Blacklands, an atmospheric novel set on the bleak and foggy hills of Exmoor, told from the perspective of twelve year old Steven Lamb who, unbeknownst to the adults in his life, is pen-pals with the serial killer he believes may have murdered his uncle. It went on to win the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of 2010, no small feat for a debut. Darkside and Finders Keepers came next, both set in Exmoor too, followed by a series of standalone novels: Rubbernecker, The Facts of Life and Death and, most recently, The Shut Eye which Sophie Hannah called “possibly her best yet”. I meet far too many crime fiction fans who haven’t discovered Bauer, and when I do I’m jealous. Darkside still ranks five years later as one of the best crime/thriller novels I’ve ever read; I’d love to read it for the first time again.
On July 16th at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival – an event you have undoubtedly encountered on your Twitter stream, but perhaps referred to as “Harrogate” – Bauer will find out if she’s won the festival’s Novel of the Year award for the second time in a row. Writing.ie caught up with her to say congratulations, to see if we could steal any writing tips and tricks and to find out what she’s working on next…
Welcome to Writing.ie, Belinda! First of all, congratulations on being long-listed for the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award! You won in 2014 for your standalone novel, Rubbernecker, and you were also awarded the CWA Gold Dagger for your first novel, Blacklands, too. What do these awards mean to you? I’d be afraid that after the initial squeeing, they’d start to pile on the pressure…?
They do pile on the pressure but the squeeing never gets old! Seriously, so much hard work and skill and attention to detail goes into writing ANY book that I am incredibly grateful to have that recognised by my own mother, let alone a panel of judges. Without the Debut Dagger I might not be a writer, and when aspiring writers ask for my advice, I ALWAYS tell them to enter good competitions. It guarantees you an unbiased read, forces you to make your book the best it can be, and even being shortlisted can bring you that break you need. Plus, writing is a lonely profession, and having something out there, entered for a prize, can bring you much-needed hope, and the excitement of anticipation. Winning is a fantastic bonus.
Tell us a little bit about your path to publication.
I was a journalist and then a screenwriter before writing a book. I only wrote Blacklands because I was so despondent about not selling my own original scripts. My mother nagged me like crazy to write a book and finally I thought that writing one and then adapting it into a movie might be an easier route. I lived off my savings while I wrote Blacklands, but nobody wanted to read it, so I stopped sending it out because that was too depressing! I saw the CWA Debut Dagger advertised in a magazine. It required the first 3000 words of a crime novel. I didn’t think Blacklands was a crime novel but I figured that they probably couldn’t tell that from the first 3000 words. Turns out it was, and they could! It didn’t win the Debut Dagger, but being shortlisted did mean that people were interested and within a week of the awards I had a two-book deal. A year later, Blacklands won the CWA Gold Dagger.
Darkside is one of my favourite crime/thriller novels ever, mostly because of the incredible twist at the end. I can’t even fathom how you wrote it. Without spoiling the surprise for anyone, how on earth did you write it? Did you find your background as a screenwriter helped?
I find my background in screenwriting helps with ALL my writing. It means I think in pictures and do a lot of editing in my head, which helps the pace. Darkside was an idea I threw out there on a whim and my editor, Sarah Adams, pounced on it like a puma. Then I realised how incredibly difficult it was going to be to write! Yikes! I did some eye-popping research (there’s a secret piece about it on my website at belindabauer.co.uk) and it turned out really well. As with all my novels, there’s the crime story, and there’s the human story and the human story is ALWAYS more important. In Darkside the true heart of the book is the relationship between Jonas Holly and his wife Lucy, who has multiple sclerosis. It was a heart-breaking and twisted journey.
Writing crime has been a lucky accident for me. I had never read a crime novel and had planned to write a sci-fi novel as my second book! Blacklands was published as a crime novel even thought I felt it was really a story about a boy and his grandmother. Shows how much I know! At first it was very daunting to have to write in a genre I’d never read, but I’d seen a lot of crime and thriller movies and so it wasn’t that big an adjustment. Actually MOST books and films have some crime element driving them if you think about it, so it’s almost unfair to put ‘crime’ in a separate category. My only concern is to tell a great story with great characters – crime is just the spotlight I shine on them all.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished the first draft of my next book, The Beautiful Dead, which is about art and obsession. During the summer I will be editing that, and researching the novel after that. I’m really getting excited about it!
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
Find out more about Belinda Bauer on www.belindabauer.co.uk.
Book your tickets for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival here – there will be a strong Irish contingent going, come and join us!
Catherine Ryan Howard is the author of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, Mousetrapped and Backpacked. Her blog www.catherineryanhoward.com has been voted one of the top 10 self-publishing blogs in the world. She is represented by Jane Gregory. Catch up with her latest news here: How I Didn’t Get Published.