‘It’s not easy, cutting off a head.’ The first line of ‘The Rotting Spot’, from the Skull Hunter’s blog, came to me early on, and I, as a semi-lapsed skull collector myself, know it’s true…my interest in forensics and anatomy has been fostered by working with scientists on a Wellcome Trust-funded poetry project on death, and my Residency at a Pathology Museum. Having degrees in Maths/Theoretical Physics, and in English, I’m a sci-art specialist, inventor of the Quantum Haiku, for example Quantum Sheep, infamously involving poetry spray-painted onto live sheep, and another on inflatable beach balls (in BBC2’s recent Why Poetry Matters), as well as four anatomy-themed, electroluminescent Embedded Haiku, currently installed on windows at St Thomas Hospital, London.
My anatomical interest was also sharpened by multiple fractures in a disabling car crash. I had for some time been haunted by the idea of a particularly tragic crime, which is revealed at the end – not only a whodunit, but a what-was-dun. A lifelong crime fiction fan, I’m fascinated by why someone kills, and if they get away with it, how it changes them and those around them. How they live with guilt, fear of discovery, the memories.
Eventually I couldn’t live with the guilt of not writing the book any more. With seven published books of poetry, drama, language, and many play commissions for stage and radio, I could ‘do’ lyrical description and zippy dialogue, but the thought of a whole novel after years of vicious verbiage pruning was daunting. I started writing it amid other commissions and projects, developing my protagonist, Erica Bruce. Homeopath, borderline anorexic, Blake’s prophecies fan, she also indulges in Geordie semi-naked nightclubbing, whence Stacey the ‘charva’, excess and appetite personified, barged into the story pregnant and drunk, refusing to be murdered or shut up. Stacey’s obscene and pithy one liners salt the book, while saturnine DI Will Bennett is as sceptical of Erica’s ability to find her missing friend as of alternative medicine.
I set the book on the Northumberland coast where I grew up, in a fishing village, and nearby clubbing mecca, where I still live: beauty and squalor combined. I won a Northern Writer’s Award, including a year’s mentoring by crime editor supremo, Lisanne Radice. Further generous advice from Ann Cleeves encouraged me to reach the final version, published by Northumberland-based Red Squirrel Press, first of their crime imprint, with jacket quotes kindly supplied by Ann, and Val McDermid. The book’s being promoted as a chosen Read Regional title by New Writing North this year, and I’m promoting it myself with readings and signings nationwide, with gratifying reader reactions. It’s hard getting a small press book ‘out there’, but it’s wonderful to be a crime novelist at last.
Valerie Laws (http://www.valerielaws.co.uk )