Karen Campbell is the author of four contemporary crime novels set in Glasgow. Her new novel, This Is Where I am, is due out in February 2013.
I interviewed Karen at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday, between the author’s yurt and the press yurt. It was a pleasure. I want to thank her again for her time – and, yes, the tents are called yurts!
Q: The American writer Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would describe it essentially as an act of courage.” Do you think it takes courage to write and if so, how much courage did it take you to start writing?
Yes, in two ways: there’s the courage you need to face the blank page and actually start. There’s also the courage it takes to have faith in your own ability and to ignore the doubt that no one will want to read what you write. That said, it wasn’t hard for me to start writing because I’ve always liked to express myself through words. I was one of those annoying kids who was always making books for my mum . However, writing to be published was different. My creative writing degree helped give me the courage to do that. It forced me to take my writing from a private place into a public place. I had to share my work with others and discuss it. This gave me the courage to send stuff out to publishers – you have to have a thick skin to face rejection and the course helped me do that.
I heard about the course through an article in the Glasgow Herald by Anne Donovan. She was halfway through her creative writing masters degree at Glasgow Uni and she talked about what it was like. The idea of being with other writers sounded brilliant – I’d never even been in writer’s group or anything like that before. I wanted to do that course. I had some stories I’d written and put them together to create a portfolio of work and applied.
I love art nouveau and William Morris and AS Byatt’s writing and so maybe I’d go back to the period around the turn of the last century. It seemed to be a time full of change and fluidity and artistry. Although, on the other hand, the war was also waiting to happen, and it was also a time of a lot of inequalities. So maybe I’d only go there if I were rich and as long as I wasn’t a serving girl with a brother who was in the war.
Q: Did you like school?
I loved school. I consumed things and wanted to know everything. There was something called the SRA reading scheme. What I loved about that was you were left to work your way through it on your own. I would devour the levels. That was when I learned how powerful words could be, and I loved to push myself to move up the levels.
Q: How do you keep sane as a writer?
Writing keeps me sane and I need to do that in a quiet place. I can’t sit in a busy cafe, listening to the hub of the world.
A thick skin helps to cope with rejections and that helps keep you sane too. A thick skin also helps you to cope with negative criticism, or at least it helps you not get too influenced by it.
I don’t wait for the muse to tap me on the shoulder. If you wait for inspiration to bite you in the bum, it’s not going to come. I shut out the outside world and focus on my writing. Sometimes it comes, sometime it doesn’t, but I’m ready for it when it does.
No. Not at all. I had little to do with forensics in the force because I was a uniformed officer and not in CID. I could have learned about it if I had been interested, but I wasn’t. I began writing because I wanted to show that there was so much more to policing than masses of leaps of coincidences and dead bodies everywhere. For example, in six years of policing I was never at a murder scene or saw a murdered body. In my books I wanted to show the reader what it’s like to be a beat officer: a beat officer has to be so skilled in so many things because when you turn the corner you have no idea what you are going to be dealing with. You have to deal with a cot death during the day and then go home and make the tea. You change when you put the uniform on and you change again when you take it off. It’s not an easy job at. I have so much respect for beat officers.
Q: Your latest book is not a crime novel. Is this a permanent change of direction for your writing?
I’ve never seen myself as a crime writer. Yes I wrote about crime but my books are more about social issues. When I was in the police force I saw a side of people that most of us don’t see, and which is usually kept hidden behind closed doors. I saw a lot of unfairness and injustice and it made me angry. These are areas I want to explore in my writing. My new novel is a continuation of that exploration – except there’s no one in a uniform in it.
I’m working on book that I started years ago. I don’t know when I’ll finish it and I’m still not sure what it’s about… I hope I’ll have a first draft by the end of the year.
Q: If you could peek inside someone’s head, whose would it be?
I’d like to have wee peek inside a man’s head, just to see if they do think differently from women.
Q: Any regrets?
I was accepted to study law when my little ones were very young and I didn’t do it. I worried it would be too much work with a young family. My daughter is now studying law and sometimes I think about what would have happened had I accepted the place. I think I may have enjoyed law more than policing, but it’s not a regret really, just something I think about it occasionally.
Q: What are you most proud?
My two girls.
Q: Did your childhood have an impact on your writing?
My whole life has had an impact on my writing, especially working in the police. All writers mine their life to a certain extent and it’s natural. I’m no excpetion.
A thank you to Clicket and the EIBF for the ticket to Karen’s event. Karen read from her latest novel and talked about how much she enjoyed using a pallet of characters in her books. She also discussed the pressure on the novelist to follow up a first successful book with a second book and how much she enjoys the writing process: as long as a book isn’t finished, there are endless possibilities. I’m looking forward to reading her new novel This Is Where I Am coming out next year.