Martina Cole is in Preston tonight to publicise her latest novel The Good Life. Malcolm Wyatt spoke with the best-selling crime writer.
Martina Cole is a publishing phenomenon, having made a habit of smashing sales records with each of her 21 novels.
She’s sold in excess of 13m copies, three years ago surpassing the £50m sales mark – the first British female novelist for adult audiences to achieve this.
Her hard-hitting, uncompromising writing is in a genre all of its own, yet she left school at 15 without qualifications, and was a single mum in a run-down council flat at 18.
With little or no money, she wrote to entertain herself, and aged 21 – having lost both parents within six months – started on what became her debut novel, Dangerous Lady.
Almost a decade later, she gave up a job running a nursing agency and bought an electric typewriter. The rest was history, her 1992 debut bought by Headline for a record-breaking advance, becoming an instant best-seller.
Martina’s now the acknowledged queen of crime drama, with The Good Life her 13th consecutive original fiction chart-topper, taking her to 60 weeks at the summit.
And it all still seems a little surreal for this Kent-based, Essex-raised writer, the youngest of five from an Irish family.
“It does, 13 hardbacks straight off! I’ve been lucky really. It’s a great feeling.”
The Good Life follows wrong ‘un Cain Moran, wife Caroline and mistress Jenny in a typically-gritty tale.
It’s hardly a twist on the Richard Briers/Felicity Kendal ‘escape from the rat race’ sitcom of the same name.
“No, although Cain’s got quite a nice house. Then again, I do grow my own veg!” says Martina. “But I love writing powerful men and women, and the mum was a joy to write, so funny.”
Has there been an element of life experience in your characters over the years?
“Nothing at all. They’re just stories.”
So it’s more an outside interest in the world of violence?
“I grew up on a huge council estate, and anyone who does has a working knowledge of that kind of world. People find all that fascinating. I know I do.
“Because I had the patois and jargon, people think it’s all true. When I do book signings, people ask ‘Is that about the so-and-so family?’ Even in Manchester and Liverpool!
“And mine are the most stolen books in shops, and the most requested in prisons.”
Do you find those interviewing you a little scared of what they might find?
“I’m not even five feet tall. I’m a tiny little thing. I think they’re surprised, expecting some six foot woman drinking pints, getting in fights or something.”
Several of her novels have been adapted, most recently The Take and The Runaway for Sky One, and Two Women, The Graft and Dangerous Lady for the stage.
How about The Good Life?
“Something’s in the pipeline, but we’re making the feature film of The Ladykiller now for Genesius Pictures, who’ve just done Northern Soul.”
Are you already working on the next novel?
“Well on with that! It’s the third in the trilogy for The Ladykiller, so I’m back to my Essex roots for this one.”
Overall, it’s 21 books in 22 years. I’m guessing the inspiration well’s not running dry.
“I’m always getting ideas. I’ve reams written down. Sometimes they might make a book, sometimes just a chapter. I have two or three scenarios going at one time.”
Are you still a night owl?
“Yeah, always have been – typical Essex girl! When it’s 10 o’clock and everyone else is getting settled down for the night, I’m turning my laptop on, getting ready to go.”
Did Martina’s Irish upbringing make her an outsider?
“No! We all started school with Irish accents. My Nan came for the weekend once and lived with us the next 11 years.
“Mum was from Dublin, Dad from Cork, all the Nuns were Irish, all the kids were Irish, Italians…”
Dad was a merchant seaman and Mum was a psychiatric nurse. Did their work ethic come though in Martina?
“Mum worked every Christmas, night-shifts – double-money. When you’re grown up and have children of your own you realise how hard they worked.
“I remember her coming home in the early hours, cooking the turkey then trying to get a couple of hours of sleep.”
Did you read a lot as a child?
“I was always reading, still am. I’ve a house in Northern Cyprus, and this summer read over a hundred books there – a book a day!”
Martina, who has two children and two young grandchildren, is also a great advocate of public libraries.
“I loved the library then and still do now. Not everyone’s lucky enough to be in a family where books are everywhere. Not everyone thinks the ‘be all and end all’ is going to the Bluewater, Lakeside or the Trafford Centre.”
Did you have aspirations of making it as a writer, or was that just for posh kids?
“I would lay in bed dreaming about it. I saw a documentary on Jackie Collins, saw this walk-in wardrobe and thought, ‘Oh my God, look at her house!’”
And how old will her grand-kids have to be before they’re allowed to read her books?
“Not until they’re 15 or 16! My books aren’t for the faint-hearted. But my daughter’s at college and she’s reading The Good Life, and enjoying it.”
Martina Cole is at a SilverDell book event at Preston’s County Hall on Tuesday, November 11 (7pm), talking to BBC Radio Lancashire presenter John Gillmore before a Q&A and signing session.
Tickets are £5, redeemable against copies of The Good Life on the night. For details call 01772 6823444 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org