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Cathi Unsworth: 'Keep going until you get to the end of the novel... Everything can be fixed in editing'

BY Katie Smart
12th Jan 2021

Cathi Unsworth is the acclaimed author of four crime novels, most recently That Old Black Magic; plus two further (non-genre) novels, all published by Serpent’s Tail. Cathi is a mentor for our new Breakthrough Writers' Programme which offers nine months of free one-to-one mentoring to under-represented aspiring authors. She is also a co-tutor on our upcoming six-month online Writing Your Novel course.

We caught up with Cathi to find out more about her approach to crime fiction, teaching creative writing and her top tips for writers...

Hi Cathi, we love having you in the CBC tutor team, you’re going to be teaching on our upcoming six-month Writing Your Novel course. What is the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?

I look at these courses as a great adventure that a team of us go on – it’s very exciting and quite some privilege to be let into other writer’s worlds, meet the characters they have created and learn the stories they want to tell. My part of it is sharing some tried and tested techniques that have helped me up the mountain of writing a novel and giving encouragement and support when the terrain gets heavy or the fog comes down. The most rewarding part is when a writer who has been struggling suddenly realises there is a solution to their problem – the fog lifts and the way to the summit becomes clear!

As well as being a novelist you are an editor and journalist. You started your writing career in music magazine journalism. How did this help inform you novel-writing style?

I think I got three very important things from journalism. One is the discipline and technique of structuring a story in a way that keeps the reader interested and entertained. Two, writing about music involves a certain amount of creative flair as you are trying to describe something that is notoriously hard to put into words and has many layers of meaning which are all open to interpretation. The third thing is the musicians I met who told me their stories and, in certain cases, inspired and encouraged me to head off into the realms of fiction and produce my own novels (thank you Lydia Lunch, Joolz Denby and Barry Adamson) and, in the case of Gallon Drink, introduced me to Derek Raymond, the literary figure who determined for me that my novels should follow his footsteps down the noir end of the street.

Your crime fiction has incorporated supernatural elements (That Old Black Magic) and has drawn on real criminal cases (Bad Penny Blues). Where do you tend to get your inspiration from?

My first two novels were set in worlds I knew and times I had lived through, probably naturally enough as I think everyone has to write themselves out of the story first! Bad Penny Blueswas inspired by a terrible true crime that happened before I was born and was never solved, the so-called ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders of 1959-65. All the victims were working girls who lived and plied their trade in Ladbroke Grove, then the biggest red light district in London, where I have lived for the past 30-plus years. These women had been treated horrendously in life and in death and I wanted to try and resurrect their lives to give them back the voice they had been denied.

That Old Black Magic was based on two cases that had long intrigued me, which I first learned about while working for Bizarre magazine – the trial of Helen Duncan for witchcraft and the Hagley Woods mystery – both of which came to a head in the dark days of World War II. Both had strong supernatural elements about them that I realised I could incorporate them into a work which, like Bad Penny Blues, looked into the lives of women who lived on the edge of society, and how that society treated them.

Many of your novels vividly recreate the past. How do you go about researching a time period?

With Bad Penny Blues it was the local connection that drew me in and taught me a vivid lesson on how to recreate an era. Interestingly, music was the way in there too – the first thing I did was to look up what song was number one when each of the murder victims were found, which provided a vivid feel for the era in my mind. I was also fortunate that Ladbroke Grove has a very good psychogeographer in Tom Vague, whose fanzines on the connections between the place and its people were an invaluable map of the territory; and that a friend from Portobello, Laura Del Rivo, had lived there since the 1950s and written a pivotal novel The Furnished Room I could talk to her about and draw from. I also talked to a retired detective who had begun his career on the same day as one of the scenes I wanted to write about, when Oswald Moseley was out canvassing for votes in the Grove in 1959. As well as reading as widely as possible from historical sources I watched every film I could from that era – fortunately a brilliant time for the British New Wave – read all the popular literature, visited the V&A fashion collection and listened to all the music until one day I felt like I actually knew what it was like to live in the parallel universe of Ladbroke Grove in that time. When I talked about what I was doing with people I knew, information just came to me, so it is also very much like a pop art collage, which is very much in keeping with the era.

With That Old Black Magic, I was again fortunate that, while working for Bizarre, I had remarkable publisher in Dr Mike Dash, who is obsessed in weird history and the techniques involved in digging it out and has written many distinguished books ranging from the history of the Mafia in America to the Tulip Mania of the 17th century. I wanted to write about Helen Duncan, ‘The Blitz Witch’ as Bad Penny had led me to the door of some Spiritualists operating in Ladbroke Grove and their strident opponent Harry Price, the Ghost Hunter. Dr Dash was adamant that I should work in the Hagley Woods mystery – the body of a woman found interred in a witch hazel tree on a private estate in the West Midlands by trespassing schoolboys looking for game – which became the focus of a case so strange you couldn’t make it up, involving elements of espionage, witchcraft and showbusiness. Reseraching all of that took me to those same woods (where I did a bit of trespassing myself) and to the haunts of a number of remarkable literary types who worked for the secret services during WWII, including Dennis Wheatley, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming. It was the best literary adventure I have yet had!

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

There isn’t really a typical day, as sometimes you are researching, reading up, interviewing, or visiting archives and sometimes you are using that fresh information you’ve gleaned to plot out the course for the book to take. But every day I do try to follow the advice that was given to me by crime writer Ken Bruen – to write two pages of the actual novel. When I had a full time job, this was enough to fit into a lunch hour or an evening and the advantage of it is that it keeps everything fresh enough in your mind so you don’t lose the thread, but it isn’t such a massive amount of writing that it becomes overwhelming. It’s something I encourage everyone who takes a CBC course to do.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Sherlock Holmes was my first crime fiction love and is someone I keep coming back to – currently I am having a binge on the Jeremy Brett complete collection that I got for Christmas and he still seems incredibly relevant. He is such an outsider! Ambiguous in his sexuality, very probably on the spectrum, a drug user – although everything he took was legally available and could be procured from the Harrods’ counter in his day – he has much in common with all the characters I have been drawn to writing about in my work. Also – something that Derek Raymond said to me long ago – the crimes haven’t changed. People still kill each other and seek to swindle each other for the same reasons, largely related to class, poverty, ignorance and want. So how much has society changed since Victoria’s reign?

What book do you always recommend to others?

So hard to just pick one! But I think the book I love the most is The Man With The Golden Arm by Nelson Algren, patron saint of the waifs and strays.

Can you share your top three tips for aspiring authors?

Follow Ken’s Kommandments – two pages a day, every day.

However hard it gets, keep going until you get to the end of the novel. Everything can be fixed in editing.

Do try and impose a structure on your work – most first time-novelists rebel against this notion but it will really help you if you can try and work out a rough plot. Of course you won’t end up sticking to it, but all great adventures need a map and compass!