Books: A Passion for Reading
Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival is a celebration of the wonderful world of books. Ahead of the event, Velvet’s Sarah Ingram talks all things literary with headliner Nicola Upson, the Cambridge-based author of the popular Josephine Tey detective novels
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. I certainly never wanted to be far from the world of books and storytelling, whether that meant working in a bookshop or a theatre. There were lots of books in the house when I was growing up. My father collected them avidly, which is a habit I’ve inherited, and my mum always loved reading and told a pretty good story herself, so there was a certain amount of inevitability in it.
What was it about Josephine Tey that inspired you to make her your heroine/sleuth?
I loved her writing. She was utterly different from any other crime novelist, with such original ideas and settings for her books, a wonderful sense of place, and rich, fully developed characters who are impossible to forget. She was a modern writer, way ahead of her time, who gave the Golden Age detective novel a more psychological, edgy feel that paved the way for today’s crime fiction. She was a playwright, too, and I’ve always loved theatre, and she was witty and sharp and forthright – someone whose company would have been a joy.
I set out to write Tey’s biography – I’d only ever written non-fiction - but she rolled the carpet of her personal life up cleverly behind her and there wasn’t enough information. By that time, the gaps were as intriguing as the facts, and the idea of following her life and celebrating her work through a series of novels was irresistible.
How difficult was it to put a real person into a fictional world? Did you feel you had to be true to the real person or did you find the fictional character taking over?
While researching the biography, I spoke to Sir John Gielgud, who starred in Tey’s most famous play and became her lifelong friend. He told me wonderful, gossipy stories of the West End in the 1930s, as well as personal anecdotes about Tey, and all that information feeds into the series to create an authentic backdrop to each murder mystery.
I love those interwar years and the real people who lived through them: the abdication and coronation, the shadows of one war and onset of another, pioneering days in film and detection, fascinating people like Hitchcock and Noel Coward, not to mention a glut of intriguing true crimes – who wouldn’t want to write about that without straying too far from the facts?
But yes, there comes a time in every book when the plot takes over: Josephine is very much my character now, whilst remaining deeply rooted in the writer for whom people have so much affection.
Do you have a favourite Josephine Tey novel?
Can I have two?! The Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes.
And what about your own Josephine Tey books?
Probably The Death of Lucy Kyte, which is set in Suffolk, where I grew up, so it’s a personal novel in many ways, and it’s also a ghost story, something I’d always wanted to write. In the story, Josephine inherits a cottage in Polstead in mysterious circumstances, which gave me a chance to explore the first crime story I ever heard – William Corder’s murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn.
I remember summer days out in Polstead with my parents, walking past Maria’s house or William’s, fascinated even as a child by what had happened there and by the real people behind the legend, and I passed the gaol where Corder was hanged every weekend on the way to my grandmother’s house. I lived a stone’s throw from Moyse’s Hall and its macabre exhibits - so thrilling and horrifying to a little girl – so it will be very special for me to talk about the books there.
Nine Lessons was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger award - how important was that to you?
Very, because it’s a nod from people you respect, many of whom are writers who have shaped your own ambitions. But there’s still nothing better than someone coming up to you at an event and telling you what your books have meant to them.
Are there any crime novelists that you particularly admire, apart from Josephine Tey?
PD James had a great influence on me, as a writer and a friend. And my partner, Mandy Morton, writes crime fiction, too, so there’s no greater joy than hearing her new story for the first time.
Your latest novel, Stanley and Elsie, features the artist Stanley Spencer and his housemaid, Elsie Munday - what drew you to this story?
A small pencil sketch of Elsie that I saw in an exhibition of Spencer’s work at the Fitzwilliam Museum. I was touched by the affectionate way that Spencer wrote about his maid, and I knew that Elsie - living with the family through a crucial period in their lives - would be the perfect witness to the creation of his paintings and the simultaneous breakdown of his marriage. Spencer’s personal life has been described as the greatest soap opera in the history of art, but seeing it through Elsie’s eyes gives it a human, emotional quality that’s often eclipsed by the scandal.
Your eighth Josephine Tey novel, Sorry for the Dead, is due for release in November - what can we look forward to?
It’s set partly at Charleston during the First World War, so readers will meet Josephine as a much younger woman. Twenty years later, she’s faced with the accusation that the death which marred that apparently idyllic summer was actually murder and that she was complicit in the crime. In many ways, it’s a tribute to The Franchise Affair – the first Tey I read, and the book that inspired the whole series.
You can hear Nicola Upson in conversation on October 25 at 7PM at Moyse’s Hall, Cornhill, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1DX.
All Booked Up
“All of my small team love books and we want as many people as possible to be able to come to hear these amazing authors and, hopefully, to share our passion for reading,” says Julia Wakelam, organiser of Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival. Julia and her team have certainly put together an impressive programme, featuring writers as diverse and fascinating as award-winning poet Wendy Cope, Sunday Times bestselling novelist Ruth Hogan and 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction long-listed author Sam Byers. Here are three highlights.
If you’ve never had the entertaining pleasure of hearing Sophie Hannah in conversation then you’ve missed a treat. Sophie is a Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling writer of crime fiction, whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide and whose 2013 novel, The Carrier, won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards. In 2014, Sophie was given the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and estate to publish a new Poirot novel, the Monogram Murders, since when she’s written two more. Her talk, Agatha, Poirot and Me, tells the story of how she met the Christie family and found herself agreeing to work as Agatha’s sidekick and Hercule Poirot continuation writer.
Author and film journalist Joshua Winning writes for Total Film, SFX, Gay Times and the Radio Times. His latest novel, Vicious Rumer, is a gritty YA thriller featuring a powerful young heroine that Heat describes as a ‘thrill-ride’ that will ‘delight and enthral’. We may not be teenagers any more, but we do love a good thriller!Joshua will be talking about his fantasy series, the Sentinel Trilogy, much of which is set in Bury St Edmunds, and he’s looking forward to sharing these stories with an audience that will probably know the locations and who will “hopefully get a kick out of seeing their town from a newly spooky and action-packed perspective".
If you’re into local history, folklore and magic then you’ll love this. Francis Young is an historian and folklorist who specialises in the history of religion and supernatural belief. His interests include the history of magic and ritual, early modern Catholicism, and the history of East Anglia. He’s the author of Edmund – In Search of England’s Lost King, which explores the theory that St Edmund’s remains lie beneath the tennis courts in the Abbey Gardens (is that better or worse than a car park we ask ourselves?). Francis’ talk is called Holy and Unholy Suffolk: Adventures in Suffolk’s History and Folklore.
All three authors are speaking at the Unitarian Meeting House, Churchgate Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1RH on October 26: Joshua Winning at noon, Francis Young at 2pm and Sophie Hannah at 7.30pm.
The Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival runs from October 25 to 27. Tickets cost between £12 and £10 (which includes a glass of wine), with concessions for ages 18-25. Under-18s get in free. For more information on the programme and how to book, visit facebook.com/BuryLitFest/