Interview: Mari Hannah | Living North

Interview: Mari Hannah

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Mari Hannah by Ian Wylie
Living North caught up with Corbridge-based author Mari Hannah following the publication of her 10th crime novel, The Insider
When it comes to crime scenes, a personal visit is a must in order to capture the drama. You can’t work in a vacuum – you have to get out there and talk to people, otherwise you’re writing blind.

How did you feel after the publication of your 10th book? It’s such a huge achievement 
It was such a milestone for me, an amazing celebration. The Insider was launched by Forum Books at St Andrew’s Church in Corbridge, which also happened to be a crime scene in my debut, so the booksellers were all dressed up in forensic suits. We had cake, we had In(c)ider to wash it down with, and a lot of fun. I can’t tell you what it meant to be surrounded by so many friends, family and readers who made my tenth book birthday possible. 

Publishing number 10 made me realise how far I’d come. I began my writing journey with a feeling of excitement, but also of trepidation. It's one thing sitting at your desk writing a story that no one may ever read, but it’s an entirely different matter trying to attract an agent and publisher. When it happened, I was unprepared for the public side of a writer’s life: meeting readers (on and off social media); the appearances; promotional videos; live radio and TV interviews – things I consider second nature now.

The whole point of putting yourself out there is to engage and entertain. These days I'm more relaxed about the whole process. My dream of writing professionally has far outweighed my expectations. If someone had told me that in four years I’d become reader-in-residence at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, the biggest event of its kind in the world; that in five, I’d win the Dagger in the Library; in six, become TOPCWF festival chair, I’d have thought them delusional. 

How many books do you see in the Stone & Oliver series?
That’s something I never think about – as long as readers are enjoying the series, I’ll continue to write it. My new detective duo are an interesting pair . . .  

Stone is a charismatic loner with fifteen years under his belt in the Metropolitan Police. He’s taken a demotion and come home to Northumberland where he was born and brought up. His name doesn’t fit his character – he’s no hard man, but a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate officer doing a job that chips away at his spirit on a daily basis. One incident in particular sits on his shoulder like a heavy weight, a closely guarded secret he’s unwilling to share. 

His second-in-command, DS Frankie Oliver is a third generation, enigmatic cop who followed her father and grandfather (both Frank) into the job. She’s ambitious, funny, confident in her abilities, the kind of officer you would not cross, but with a hidden vulnerability. Like Stone, she has a dark past she’s keeping under wraps. 

There’s a lot of character development to come from Stone and Oliver. They’ve been hugely popular with crime fans and I won’t be ending my association with them anytime soon.

Why crime fiction?
Crime fiction was an obvious choice for me, as I used to work in criminal justice so I knew the world and the main players – police, judges, lawyers and, of course, offenders. I hear their voices and would like to think that this transfers on to the page. I lost my career in Northumbria Probation Service following an injury at work, an event that turned my life around. Unwilling to play the role of victim, I began writing crime for my own pleasure. Never did I believe that a short story penned while my partner – a murder detective – was on night shift would later become a TV script and then a finished book, much less that it would ever be published. 

Would you ever dabble in other genres?
If I didn’t write crime, I’d love to engage with a younger audience. I have great respect for any author who can fire the imagination of children. JK Rowling is the obvious name to drop here, David Walliams, Jeff Kinney . . . And, for a younger age group, Julia Donaldson, whose work I adore. 

My parents moved around a lot when I was a child and books were a luxury they couldn’t afford to take with them. Library books were therefore important to me. Reading increased my understanding of the world around me. As an adult, I decided that my own children would not miss out on the joy of reading.

Where did your love of writing start?
I’ve always written for my own pleasure but had no ambition to do it professionally. As I said, it was forced upon me, a way to keep busy as I got over the assault that ended my probation career. While I was in recovery, I wrote a short story which, over time, developed into a much longer piece of work. I went the scenic route, turning my hand to scriptwriting, winning a place on the BBC drama development scheme ‘North East Voices’ to write a crime pilot for television. When the scheme ended, I adapted the script to a novel: The Murder Wall. 

I’ve now come full circle. The Kate Daniels series is in development for TV with Sprout Pictures, Stephen Fry’s production company. Once I began writing prose, I got the bug and couldn’t stop. I can’t imagine a day without writing. It’s like an itch I need to scratch – my keyboard has become an extension of my arms!

Who are your literary inspirations?
Michael Connelly introduced me to crime fiction. His debut, The Black Echo, simply blew me away. As I read it, I remember thinking that I was in safe hands – this guy knew what he was talking about. Real or imagined, there was an authenticity to his writing that’s hard to come by. It’s this strong and long-lasting connection with readers that I aspire to in my own work.

I could cite other authors whose memorable characters stuck with me and the crime reading public – Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan; Lee Child’s Reacher; Ian Rankin’s Rebus and James Patterson’s character, Alex Cross.    

What would you do if you weren’t an author?
What I’d like to do and what I’m capable of doing are not the same thing. My creative fantasy would be to write lyrics as well as Joni Mitchell, paint like Slater, and get into character like Judie Dench. The other part of me would love to get close to nature, a marine biologist perhaps – climb a mountain or live on a desert island, a life free of social media, computers and politics.       

What is it about the North East that inspires you?
A sense of place is crucial when you’re writing. It’s what makes a book work for a reader, whether they know an area or not. All my books are set in and around Newcastle and the dramatic wilderness of Northumberland where I live. The diversity of the area and the people that live in it affords me the opportunity to slow or quicken the pace. It makes each book stand out.
I visit locations at different times of the day and night. Some of my best plot twists have come from visiting scenes, hearing and experiencing the vibrancy of a place. You need to feel the landscape and listen to what it tells you, including where your main characters live and work.

When it comes to crime scenes, a personal visit is a must in order to capture the drama. You can’t work in a vacuum – you have to get out there and talk to people, otherwise you’re writing blind.

Describe your perfect weekend. 
I’m a cheap date and I’m happiest near water – summer or winter, a weekend at a coastal retreat is my idea of bliss: a rucksack, sturdy walking boots, warm kit, a pair of sunnies, no makeup. A cosy cottage, Spotify, a stack of crime novels, a few good videos to binge on, logs for a fire, and the ingredients for a picnic and I’d be sorted.  

You can find Mari at www.marihannah.com or on Twitter @mariwriter 

Published in: December 2018

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