I am delighted to welcome Mary-Jane Riley on the blog today.
Mary-Jane Riley wrote her first real story on her newly acquired blue Petite typewriter. She was eight. It was about a gang of children who had adventures on mysterious islands, but she soon realised Enid Blyton had cornered that particular market. So she wrote about the Wild West instead. When she grew up she had to earn a living, and became a BBC radio talk show presenter and journalist. She has covered many life-affirming stories, but also some of the darkest events of the past two decades.
Welcome, Mary-Jane. Tell us a little bit about you…
I was one of those children who read widely and voraciously – my three brothers were away at school and so I was pretty much an only child and quite lonely, too. The local library and my Great Aunty Alice were my saviours. The library because I could borrow just about anything I wanted (though sometimes I had to smuggle books past my Mum and Dad), and Great Aunty Alice because she introduced me to Agatha Christie and thriller writer Alistair McClean. And all this reading meant I wanted to write my own stories, so I used to bash away at my Dad’s old (very old) typewriter until my parents gave me a Petite typewriter – I don’t know if they’re around any more, but they were a child’s typewriter and I have never forgotten it. But of course life got in the way and my love of writing fiction lay pretty dormant until after my children were born. By then I was a journalist but still wanted to make my own stories up, so I began writing short stories for women’s magazines. I tried my hand at a romantic novel with absolutely no success. Then one day an idea for a thriller popped into my head (honestly). I wrote it, that got me my agent, but it took another book – The Bad Things – to get a publishing deal, first with Germany and then with Killer Reads/Harper Collins. Then, of course, I had to write a second book. I felt that Alex, the journalist protagonist from my debut novel, still had a story to tell, so I sent her from Suffolk to North Norfolk to help a friend whose daughter was found dead at the bottom of a crumbling cliff. Did she fall or was she pushed?
Your inspiration for After She Fell?
I live in Suffolk and am totally in love with the East Anglian landscape. There really are wide open skies and a vista that goes on forever! The Bad Things was set in a Suffolk coastal town in the winter, so I wanted to set the next book during the summer. I also wanted to go to a small village, again on the coast, but one that suffered from coastal erosion. I wanted the village itself to feel as though it was decaying. And I wanted to point up the fact that rural life isn’t always idyllic, particularly for young people. There also needed to be a clash between the village youth and more privileged kids – so what better than bringing a private boarding school into play. And I’ve always had a fascination with boarding schools – midnight feasts, close friends, lots of sports – but after writing After She Fell I’m really glad I didn’t go to one! So Alex went to Hallow’s Edge to look into the death of her friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter who had been a pupil at The Drift boarding school. Her death was ruled a suicide, but there are so many ways to fall….
Do your own plots ever give you nightmares or make you paranoid?
Only when I can’t resolve a plot point! Then I tend to wake in the night and wrestle with it – often to no avail. It’s usually a long walk with my dog that helps me untangle stuff. But, seriously, for the last few years I worked on the BBC News Website and covered a lot of crime stories – some of them pretty grim. I think fact rather than fiction can be the stuff of nightmares.
Where and when do you write?
When I was working I used to do early shifts, so did most of my writing between about 5pm and 7pm (children have left home), and I still find that a good time for me. I try and do a couple of hours in the morning too, which works as long as I ignore the housework/washing/shopping! If I start on any of that it gets difficult to sit my bottom in front of the computer. And two hours is about as much as I can do in one chunk. I usually tell myself I’ll do half-an-hour and that usually morphs into more. I have a computer in a spare bedroom and I like to do most of my writing in there with no music or radio. I also try and write outside sometimes when the weather’s nice, or on the dining-room table for a change. Not on the table, obviously. In a notebook. Or on an iPad.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
Mostly a panster in that I have an idea, a ‘what if’ question and a couple of characters and then plunge in… I actually enjoy the physicality of typing! But I usually have a couple of false starts and then, at about 20,000 words I have to stop and make notes (longhand) about what I have done, how the characters are developing and what’s going to happen in the next 20,000 words. By then I also hope to have more than a vague idea of how it’s going to end. So, as you can see, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride – to use a well-worn cliché!
Do you do any research? If so, any sites or sources you care to share?
I do as much research as I need to! For After She Fell, I had to look into the whole boarding school thing – mainly Google, but I also know people with children at a couple of boarding schools, and in fact one contact gave me the low-down on – no, I’d better not say… I went to North Norfolk and to Happisburgh (re-named Hallow’s Edge in the book) and Mundesley (fish and chip lunch – delicious!). Then there was looking into post-mortems. The effects of drowning. Drugs. Overdoses – I only hope no-one looks at my search history too carefully. Also, as part of the book is told from the dead teenager’s point-of-view (in the weeks leading up to her death), I asked my youngest daughter and the seventeen-year-old son of a friend to read some of those chapters.
Do you read inside your genre or out when writing?
Both. I do read a lot of crime, thriller and suspense fiction because I love it. I also review books for the Mystery People e-zine, so have two or three of those a month. I like a bit of literary, a bit of romance, a bit of dystopian, and I LOVE well-written zombie fiction…
Your author heroes?
Ruth Rendell and PD James – both of whom I interviewed when working for BBC radio. Patricia Highsmith of course. Daphne Du Maurier. Kate Atkinson. Louise Doughty (I so wish I could have written Apple Tree Yard) and Lee Child. Stephen King. And I recently re-read Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, which was just as fabulous as when I sneaked it past my parents to read under the bedclothes.
Thank you, Mary-Jane, for joining us today.
THE BAD THINGS: What would you do if you had the chance to talk face-to-face with the person who tore your family apart? Would you take it, or let the past lie? Alex Devlin took it. And wished she hadn’t.
AFTER SHE FELL: Journalist Alex Devlin understands the pain of not knowing. It took fifteen years to find out the truth about what really happened when her four-year-old niece and nephew were abducted. Now her old friend Catriona Devonshire needs help. Catriona’s seventeen-year-old daughter Elena was found dead at the bottom of a cliff near her exclusive boarding school in North Norfolk. The death has been ruled a suicide, but Catriona is not convinced. When Alex arrives at Hallow’s Edge to investigate, she quickly finds that life at the boarding school was not as idyllic as the bucolic setting might suggest, and uncovers a culture of drug-taking, bullying and tension between the school and village. No one is quite who they seem to be, and several people might have had reason to want Elena to fall.