The Hard Graft: An Interview with Martina Cole

Martina ColeThere are many things you can call Martina Cole, arguably the queen of contemporary British crime fiction, but pretentious she is not. I believe first impressions last, and mine of Martina Cole could be summed up as follows: attractive, outgoing, down-to-earth, and oh so friendly.

Though Martina is the author of fifteen bestselling novels, she didn’t have an easy time growing up. Born in Essex in 1958, Martina was raised in an Irish Catholic family and educated at a strict convent school. Unhappy with the place, she left school with no qualifications. By the time she was nineteen she was crashing in a rundown, carpetless council flat, fending for herself and her new-born son. She knew early on what extreme poverty is and what it can make people do.

As we talk, the poverty of the English underclasses surfaces time and again. It’s a subject that deeply affects her and the protagonists of her books. In a husky voice, spiced with a strong east-ender accent, she says, ‘Our government keeps going on about a classless society, but it’s absolute crap. There is an underclass. So many people work hard, and do the best they can for their families, but they’re still poor. My son and me, we were quite hard up at a stage, and it was difficult at times, but I think it’s done us good to be hard up.’ I ask Martina how these hardships have affected her as an author. ‘It made me an independent person, and certainly I’m one of the few crime writers that’s actually lived in a council flat.’ She laughs, thinking about those times, an edge of relief in her voice despite the intervening years of success. ‘At the end of the day, I’d like people to know what it’s like to be poor, and to be faced with difficult choices. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. There was a point at which my life changed dramatically, but I reached that point by working very hard.’ Martina Cole 2

What attracted her to crime writing? ‘I didn’t start out specifically to write crime, but I ended up drawing a great deal from my background. I was also always interested in what goes through a criminal’s mind. I mean, what makes them do things, why do people commit crimes?’ One of her favourite characters is Magwitch in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, because he is a rogue, but essentially has a good heart. Great Expectations

‘There’s a human side to criminals that people tend to forget about. Cosy Crime just isn’t me.’ I ask her to elaborate. ‘Cosy Crime is the simple story of a detective who solves murders and hunts down this killer who is all bad. No one is ever all bad.’

Martina is clearly a person who tries to stay true to real events, real people and the community she was brought up in. For example, Martina used the experiences of a prostitute known to her as the basis of her novel Faceless. ‘True events do appear in my books, and I think it’s that sense of reality that keeps people reading.’ Martina Cole Faceless

It’s this respect she has for reality that has earned her much adoration from criminals, prisoners and police officers alike. She laughs out loud. ‘The funny thing is my books are some of those most frequently stolen from bookshops.’ The East End seems to identify closely with Martina and her novels, and the author reciprocates that relationship. She doesn’t just write about crime, she is regularly involved with creative writing workshops in prison rehabilitation programs. She wants to offer criminals an alternative. Says Martina, ‘Some of these people have never even picked up a book much less read it. I always say to them I’m one of the few people for whom crime actually does pay.’ Her laughter is easy, natural. ‘These people have so much time in jail, and I want to help them make the best of it.’ I wonder if some of these prisoners have had successes. ‘Yeah, definitely. A few have gone on to bigger things, but it’s difficult. Sometimes you work hard to build up a bond with some of them, and then they are abruptly transferred to another prison. It’s sad and difficult loosing someone that way, because what do they do next?’The Business

I ask her how writing has affected her personally. ‘It’s an odd life,’ she says, ‘especially for women. It’s not for everyone, because it’s lonely work. Other people can’t really join in, and feel pushed out all the time.’ It’s strange comparing this intensely private author with the sociable woman she is at parties. When she’s out, she’s always laughing, touching a shoulder here, an elbow there. She radiates interest in what you have to say, and who you are.

One thing is for certain about Martina Cole, and that is that she cares. After all, she’s been there, done the hard graft, and come out on top.

Watch a clip from the new TV series The Take, based on Martina Cole’s bestselling novel of the same name on Sky.

Find Martina Cole here:
website
Goodreads
Amazon

This interview originally appeared in The Citizen.

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