I grew up in one of the roughest parts of Manchester but always did very well at school. I went to Cambridge to study German and Dutch and really loved it. After graduation I tried to get into creative jobs; I did a stint at the BBC doing research for Rough Guides to the World, but I didn’t enjoy it. Eventually I became a professional fundraiser for children’s charities and educational courses, and that career lasted 20 years. I was good at it but hated it because it was so boring. I’d always hankered after a creative career, but when I reached my mid-thirties I was earning a pittance and I was really miserable.
I decided to write. When I was at university I’d written and abandoned a novelisation of a Dutch poem about Charlemagne the Great, so I developed that into a young adult historical thriller. My first agent got me a deal of six children’s books, the Time-Hunters series, for Harper Collins under the pseudonym Chris Blake. It was great fun but my tastes are much darker, so I started writing The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die which was my debut crime thriller. Much of it was set in Amsterdam and it actually won an award for its location.
I’d fallen in love with Stieg Larsson’s character Lisbeth Salander, and realised that having a young protagonist is a really great idea. They can do all the stuff that you can’t do in your thirties and forties – not only are they more physically able, there are also fewer consequences of speaking their mind. It’s a great time in your life. I had adored my time at university as formative years, and other than Larsson nobody else had made use of a younger protagonist in crime fiction, so I thought it was a perfect opportunity.
I originally planned the George McKenzie series as a trilogy, but it has developed so each book can be read out of sequence. It’s wonderful for readers to be able to grab standalone thrillers and start at book three without it being a problem. Having said that, the same characters do come and go throughout the three books. It was brilliant for me, because although I absolutely loved writing my debut, by the time you get to books two and three all your characters feel like old friends.
Bringing familiar characters back allows you to get deeper into their psyche. Ultimately, story comes from characters, so it makes it that much easier – you know exactly how your characters are going to react to certain situations. As a writer, producing a series is very satisfying. If you’ve got a great imagination, do plenty of research and keep your eye on the news, you’ll always come up with a new story – but your main characters will always feel like a comfy shoe.
George is all the things that I as a 44-year-old with kids, a mortgage and responsibilities would like to be. Like me, she’s grown up on a rough estate, but in South East London. She’s mixed-race of Jamaican descent so there’s a strong cultural tang in the books. I’m very much into diversity in fiction so this was key for me. She’s outspoken and loyal but she’ll sleep around if she wants to, and that’s her right because it’s her body. She’s got boobs and hips and a terrible diet, and she smokes and drinks. But she’s also bright as a button. In the first book she’s doing an undergraduate degree in Social Politics, and in the second she’s studying for a PhD in Criminology.
Lots of readers love George because she’ll do and say things that someone who’s older wouldn’t. But I wanted to go against this pink, fluffy notion you get in commercial fiction where your heroine must be ‘likeable’, which usually means your heroine has to be really passive and girly. She’s a real woman’s heroine – confident and abrasive and daring – and she’s a council estate kid made good. Those aren’t represented enough in crime fiction, which is often dominated by middle class white people.