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Thursday, 5 October 2017

Christine Poulson

Carol Westron talks with Christine Poulson

Christine Poulson is one of those remarkable people who can write both page-turning fiction and excellent non-fiction. She has a PhD in History of Art and has written widely on nineteenth-century art and literature as well as working as a curator for some prestigious art collections. Her most recent work of non-fiction, a book on Arthurian legend in British Art,1840-1920, was short listed for a Mythopoeic Award in the USA in 2002.
Christine’s first three fiction books feature Cassandra James, a literary historian at Cambridge, where Christine herself had lectured in Art History. Her more recent fiction, Invisible and Deep Water are powerful novels that both have a moral issue embedded in their hearts. Her next novel, Cold, Cold Heart, is the next book in the series started in Deep Water and will be published in the autumn.

Carol: When I looked at your website, I loved your wry comment that you’d been a ‘respectable academic’ before you turned to crime. Had you written any fiction before you wrote your first Cassandra James novel?
Christine: No, Dead Letters was my first foray into fiction, if you don’t count the long stories that I wrote about ponies at primary school. In the late 1990s, I was made redundant from my teaching job in Cambridge, when my department was closed. I felt very sore about it. Writing my first mystery allowed me to murder people with impunity and made me feel much better after that. And then I had another idea for a novel featuring Cassandra . . . and another . . .

Carol: Setting your first three novels in and around Cambridge University, with an academic as your protagonist, obviously had many advantages but what problems did you encounter when fictionalising an environment with which you were so familiar and in which you were still working?
Christine: I wasn’t actually living or working in Cambridge when I began the first Cassandra James novel and I think that distance helped. I was careful to make my fictional world quite distinct from the real one. I had a lot of fun creating a new college, St Etheldreda’s, deciding on the architecture, and inventing a suitably eccentric cast of characters. Cassandra is really a fictional version of myself. I made her a literary historian rather than an art historian, but my first degree was in English.
It helped in writing the first novel that this was a setting I knew through and through and some of the incidents in the novel were based on real stories that I had heard over the years. There was one sticky moment when the book was at proof stage: I looked up the names of my characters in the University directory and I discovered that I had given my murderer the name of real person. I had to change that!

Carol: You have written both non-fiction and fiction books. What are the differences in the skills and mind-set needed to write non-fiction, with its academic constraints, and fiction, where the essential need is to keep the reader ‘hooked.’
Christine: I really struggled with this to begin with. I was used to having to back up every statement I made with evidence. Of course, even in non-fiction there is an element of subjectivity, but you are always trying to align what you write with an objective reality. You are not allowed just to make stuff up. But when you write fiction, that is exactly what you have to do. You are responsible for every detail of your fictional world.  You have to decide what the weather is like, what people are wearing, everything, and this was hard at first. But the experience of writing non-fiction also really helped. The experience of sitting down and writing every day, and knowing that the main thing is to get a first draft down on the page: those stood me in very good stead.

Carol: I really enjoy the Cassandra James books and like Cassandra as a character. Were they always intended to be a trilogy or are there likely to be more books about Cassandra in the future?
Christine: I’m so glad you liked the Cassandra books. I had no plan, just went on from one novel to the next and I’d intended to write a fourth. But my then agent thought I ought to write a ‘bigger’ book, which eventually became Invisible. I don’t think there is likely to be another Cassandra, because Hale who published them are no longer in business and publishers don’t like picking up a series in the middle. But a short story might not be out of the question . . .

Carol: Although your first three books were all great reads, your last two stand-alone books are stunning and incredibly powerful. They are both what I’d describe as ‘issue-based’ books in which people are facing moral dilemmas. Did you first consider the situation or issue and then fit the characters into that scenario, or did you think of the characters first and then discover their problems?
Christine: I am very flattered! With Invisible it was mostly the scenario, but also the setting. It was inspired by a three-week trip to Sweden with my husband. I decided that I very much wanted to set part of a novel there and as we were driving around on a rare trip with no children in tow, I thought about how difficult it is to keep a relationship fresh in everyday life, clogged up as it is with cooking and cleaning and negotiating who puts the bins out or picks up dry-cleaning. I had an idea about a woman and a man who meet once a month for a week-end and have absolutely no involvement in each other’s day to day life. It is pure escape for her, but he has a different and more sinister reason for not wanting more. And then one day he fails to turn up . . .

With Deep Water, I knew that a patent lawyer was going to be a central character, but the engine of the novel was a plot twist which just came to me out of the blue. I’d better not say more!

Carol: Having written both, do you prefer to write stand-alone or series books?
Christine: I do like a series. There is a chance to develop the characters and really get to know them and a feeling almost of coming home when you go back to them. Having said that, I loved writing Invisible and I didn’t know that Deep Water was going to be the first in a series until my publishers suggested that it might be and offered me a two-book contract. I have just finished the second book, Cold Cold Heart, which will be out in the autumn.

Carol: In Invisible and Deep Water you tackle, with great sensitivity and compassion, the heartbreaking situation of parents dealing with their children’s disability. Is this a coincidence or does this subject have particular resonance for you?
Christine: I haven’t had personal experience with dealing with a child with a disability, but the parent-child relationship is something that I am drawn to as a writer. The problems my characters face are just a more extreme version of the difficulties and dilemmas that all parents face. It’s hard to say why exactly this fascinates me so much. I feel it is a bit like Harry Potter and the wand. I haven’t chosen the subject, the subject’s chosen me! Having said that, my circumstances of my own life have led me to reflect on the nature of parenthood. I became a stepmother to two children when I married my husband and later we went through the long and arduous process of being approved for adoption. Perhaps some of that struggle found its way into my novels.

Carol: What are your writing plans for the immediate future?
Christine: Cold Cold Heart has just been copy-edited and I am mulling over an idea for another in the series. It’s at a very early stage, so it’s too soon to say much about it. I’ve got a short story or two that I plan to write, while the novel is percolating.

Carol: Last of all, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your hobbies and interests?
Christine: Since my husband died last year, I’ve been a single parent, so I don’t have a lot of spare time. But I do like to get to a salsa class when I can. And of course, I read a lot – all kinds of things, including plenty of crime fiction, both contemporary and Golden Age – a great love of mine. I like a good crime series on the TV. My daughter and I are working our way through The Good Wife on Netflix and I’ve just finished watching a Danish crime series, Unit One, which I loved, on DVD.

Cassandra James Mysteries set in Cambridge
Dead Letters 
  Stage Fright  

Other books
Deep Water  
Cold Cold Heart  (Autumn 2017)


Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

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