Friday, May 12, 2023

Tracking Wolves and Seaside Slots: an interview with Fiona Cummins

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 232nd instalment of our long-running author interview series, 9mm - but the first in around 18 months. Not to mention the first post of any kind on Crime Watch for six months. 

Yikes, where has the time gone. 

I apologise for the long hiatus; 2022 was a rough year in many ways on a personal front, including the terminal illness and passing of a very close family member, so many things fell by the wayside, including my posting here about crime fiction.

For transparency and accountability: I only did 34 posts on Crime Watch last year, after averaging more than 200 per year the previous 12 years of this blog's existence. They were all pretty much reviews, some written by guest reviewers, and a handful of posts about the Ngaio Marsh Awards. While I did write some very cool author features for some magazines and newspapers, my mental headspace was stretched thin and I didn't do lots of the 'extra' things I usually did here and elsewhere. 

But I still love crime fiction, and I'm still reading it, writing about it, and discussing it in many ways (including being asked to be a judge of several prestigious awards in 2023-2024), so it seems only right that I give a little love back to Crime Watch, given this place is one of the earliest things I did as a crime reviewer, before I wrote for several major publications, or founded the Ngaio Marsh Awards and the Mystery in the Library series of events, appeared onstage at international books festivals on three continents, became an awards judge, co-founded Rotorua Noir, or wrote and edited my own books. 

Thanks for reading and sharing the 9mm series, and Crime Watch in general (and my work elsewhere) over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. You can check out the full list of of past 9mm interviewees here. What a line-up. 

With lots more fun to come. Thanks everyone. 

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been part of the 9mm series, please do let me know in the comments or by message, and now I'm back on deck more fully, I'll look to make that happen for you. We've got some more interviews with cool writers 'already in the can' that will be published soon, so lots to look forward to over the coming weeks and months.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome the fabulous Fiona Cummins, a terrific British crime writer who I had the pleasure of chairing onstage at two superb Scottish festivals last year (Bute Noir in August, Bloody Scotland in September), before I went back to Aotearoa for three months. 

Chairing the 'Without A Trace' panel about missing persons stories, with Fiona Cummins,
Alex Dahl, and Tim Weaver at Bloody Scotland, September 2022 (audience photo)

Fiona Cummins is an award-winning former journalist and a graduate of the Faber Academy "Writing a Novel" course. Rattle, her debut novel, was the subject of a huge international auction and has been translated into several languages. It received widespread critical acclaim from authors and reviewers. She has since written bestsellers The Collector, The Neighbour, When I Was Ten and Into the Dark in which she introduces DC Saul Anguish, a brilliant young detective with a dark past.

I got to chat with Fiona about Into the Dark in particular, at last year's festivals. It's a fascinating, dark thriller that kickstarts with an entire family vanishing, seemingly without a trace. Fiona takes us on a writhing journey into some dark waters that flow beneath the 'picture perfect' surface of various relationships - marriages and friendships. Betrayals and nasty people abound. It's a great read that also sees the (re)introduction of DC Saul Anguish, a detective with a deeply troubled past (he featured in Cummins' first two books as a youth, before being a cop), and Dr Clover March. An intriguing duo who I hope we'll see more of in future - there's lots to dig into there with both of them. 

But for now, Fiona Cummins becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.  


Who is your favorite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
This is a tough one as there are so many writers who have influenced my love of crime fiction, but I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with MW Craven’s Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw series. I love their dynamic, and Mike’s humorous and accessible style.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Hmmm. This is HARD. I read voraciously as child, literally anything I could lay my hands on and some of it wildly inappropriate. My earliest memories are of reading almost all of Enid Blyton’s books, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and other authors including Judy Blume, Virginia Andrews and Stephen King. But the first novel that blew me away was Crooked House by Agatha Christie. I was laying on the grass in the back garden of our family home and I remember putting the finished library book down, stretching out in the sun and thinking, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ I bought myself a first edition from Goldsboro Books when I signed my first publishing deal.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was a journalist for twenty years before I signed my first deal, so I’d written a lot of newspaper and magazine articles. A bit of poetry. A few short stories which had never seen the light of day and a chunk of a children’s novel. I’d also written about 30,000 words of a crime novel, but the only part of that which survived was the character of DS Etta Fitzroy, who appears in my debut Rattle.

Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love photography, particularly nature photography. I’m interested in wildlife and the natural world. In another life, I’d be living in Mexico, documenting whale sharks, or tracking the wolves in Yellowstone National Park or chasing tornados in Oklahoma. I enjoy walking, singing (badly) and dead-lifting (I’m up to 110kg). I love travelling, going to gigs and the theatre. Reading and baking always make me feel good.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Oooh. Good question. I live in Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast. It’s a pretty seaside town with slot machines down the road, fish and chips aplenty, and sandy beaches. But if I was going to recommend something off the beaten track, it would be a visit to Ten Green Bottles, a tiny pub with great food that hosts live music most nights.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Ha! No idea. Over the years, I’ve been likened to Christina Ricci, Claire Danes (in her My So-Called Life era), Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud and Gok Wan, so take your pick!

Of your writings, which is your favorite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
This question is like asking me to pick a favourite child, but I think When I Was Ten is particularly special to me because this book almost wrote itself. I decided its three-part structure very early on and the words flowed onto the page. I wonder now if this was partly because the protagonist is a journalist and I wrote myself into her character. The novel I’m just finishing – All Of Us Are Broken − also feels important because although it centres on a horrific spate of killings, it’s about love too, in its various forms.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I set myself a deadline of getting a publishing deal by my 40th birthday and I squeaked it by a month. I cried my eyes out when we received our first offer, and at every offer after that. I think because it felt like validation of some kind. I remember walking into Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus and seeing Rattle on the shelves for the first time. I bought a copy and the bookseller who served me said, ‘This looks like a great book to read on a winter’s night,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard it’s very good.’ Ha! I didn’t tell her I was the author.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I travelled to an event in Germany, but neither my publicist or publisher was coming, and the details were a bit sketchy. The driver who picked me up from the airport spoke no English and I don’t speak any German. We drove for two hours in silence. I had no idea if we were travelling in the right direction or where he was taking me. I had no idea what time my event was or where I was staying. When he dropped me off at the hotel, I asked him if he was picking me up in the morning to take me back to the airport but he didn’t understand and walked off before I could ask someone to translate. It was like being in the middle of a slightly creepy and bizarre film. Happily, all was well in the end, and I lived to tell the tale, but it did teach me the importance of obtaining details!

Thanks Fiona, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch.

Fiona's new novel ALL OF US ARE BROKEN, which sees the return of DC Saul Anguish, will be published on 20 July. You can keep up to date with Fiona and her writing by following her on Twitter. 

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