Saturday, March 20, 2021

Interview with Jane Risdon

Stella had one night to live before her operation, convinced she’d die under the surgeon’s knife; her uncle had succumbed on the operating table after all, and so she’d allowed herself to be dragged to the local village hall to watch Narnia’s Children perform. What had she to lose? She was sure she’d be dead by the following night…” Only One Woman

     This week’s Author of the Month is a real treat, not to mention an honor, as we have bestselling author Jane Risdon for the next few minutes. Jane’s one of the most oft-anthologized crime authors working in the UK today. One of her latest releases is 2019’s Undercover Crime Shorts and is about to launch a new series featuring former MI5 agent Ms. Birdsong.

15) Jane, I’d like to start in the future then work my way back into the past. Tell us about Ms. Birdsong, her history, strengths and weaknesses, etc.

Robert, thanks so much for asking me to natter with you about my writing and my life. It is a great honour for me to have been asked, and to be your ‘Author of the Month.’ I am really chuffed.

Ms. Lavinia Birdsong is a 40ish former MI5 Intelligence Officer who has spent her career defending the British public from terrorists, organised crime, and those wanting to harm our country. She’s worked her way up through the Security Services gaining experience in many areas such as Counter-Espionage and Running Agents.

She had her eye firmly on becoming the third only ever female Director General of MI5 when her world came crashing down around her and she found herself forced to take ‘voluntary’ retirement following a botched joint operation with MI6. She got frog-marched out of the Security Services and her MI6 partner (also her now ex-lover) Michael Dante, got sent back to Moscow and was allowed to carry on with the operation.

Lavinia moves into a rural village in The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire, to lick her wounds whilst she tries to think how she can inveigle her way back into MI5. She sees an opportunity to do this when a young local woman goes missing and Lavinia sets about investigating her disappearance.

Book One is called, Ms. Birdsong Investigates Murder in Ampney Parva: Operation Matryoshka.

Ms. Birdsong is a highly intelligent and experienced officer, who speaks several languages and is trained in martial arts and firearms. She is quick thinking, has a wicked sense of humour, and is obsessed with her weight. She is not over-weight, far from it, but she is paranoid about putting any on. Lavinia is almost always on a diet or about to start a diet.

She has a weakness for good wine and whisky. Another vice is her love of liqourice and Twiglets. She is a rock music fan although she enjoys Doris Day and the musicals of the 1930s. And talking of weaknesses, Lavinia is very attracted to men, but when she was with Michael Dante, she managed to behave herself; but now she is free…

Ms. Birdsong does not suffer fools gladly. She has a devious and creative mind and often relies on her intuition – her zing as she calls it – which hardly ever lets her down when faced with a sticky situation or problem. She is very physical and fearless when she has to be and can ‘handle’ herself when the need arises. Lavinia thrives on adrenaline.

Since leaving the Security Services she’s been devoting herself to finding a way back to her ‘family,’ as she calls it. After-all, as she often reminds herself, she has spent more time under the roof of Thames House (home to MI5) than she has ever spent under any other roof, and until she is ‘home,’ again, she will never settle and be truly happy.

14) You’d spent several years, going back to the psychedelic 60s, cultivating and creating the careers of some of the biggest names in popular music. How did those experiences shape your fiction today?

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and met my husband when his band came to live next door to my family in 1968 when they came to England to record and tour the UK and Europe. They were from the Channel Islands (Jersey) originally, and this was their first time in England playing together as a band.

For many years, our lives were based around his career and I had to work in the real world whilst he (they) were becoming successful. It was a struggle back then, communications, transportation, and the way the music business worked was very different to the way it operates now.

Eventually, he got tired of touring and I got fed-up with working for the government, which I had been doing since leaving school, and we decided to go into business together working on the other side of the music business – in international management and production. We used our experiences, knowledge, and energies, in working with young musicians, songwriters, singers, composers, and record producers, to achieve their dreams of success. We also facilitated the placement of music on to TV and Movie soundtracks around the world.

My experiences working firstly in government and later in the international music industry has shaped my writing and characters without doubt.

I worked in Germany for the British Ministry of Defence, working on a huge Army Base situated in a small village in the Ruhr Valley which had been flooded by the Dam Busters during WW2. The buildings in the village had water marks up their sides where the water had reached following the bombing of the Mohne and Edersee dams by the 617 Squadron Royal Airforce - known afterwards as the Dam Busters - The bombs were purpose built and developed - and were known as ‘bouncing bombs’ - designed by Barnes Wallace. They caused catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr Valley and villages of the Eider Valley. Another dam, the Sorpe Dam, was not so badly damaged. The operation was known as Operation Chastise.

The Officer’s Mess was in a building from which Herman Goering used to deliver his speeches. He was one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi party and a veteran of WW1.

Working and living there had a huge impact on my life but I was not happy and wanted to get back to England, my boyfriend, and the Swingin’ Sixties. The Ruhr Valley was decades behind the UK in fashion, music, and life in general. So, I decided I needed to return to England.

After answering dozens of job adverts in The Lady magazine, which was available in the English NAAFI, I came to the conclusion I had to find a ‘live-in’ job because I could see that upon return to England I’d be homeless – it never crossed my mind to move in with my boyfriend and his band, although I did later – and I didn’t fancy being a ‘companion,’ to a rich lady or a Nanny to lots of spoiled posh kids which were mostly advertised in the magazine, so I turned my attention to working for the government who often provided accommodation for younger Civil Servants in hostels and I spotted an advert in the magazine which was the answer to my prayers.

I won’t go into the how I ended up working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall, London, and living in a Civil Service hostel in Lancaster Gate, off of the Bayswater Road; it would fill a book.  My time at the FCO was incredible and nurtured my love of anything to do with espionage and later, crime. I’ve always been an avid reader of crime, thrillers, mysteries, and espionage novels, and I dreamed of writing my own one day.

The late 1960s in London was a magical time, an experience never forgotten. Added to which I was able to see my boyfriend more often – when he was in the UK – and I became involved in the UK music scene which was to provide a wealth of experiences that would come in handy all those years later when I was able to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an author.

When my husband and I eventually went into business together we spent most of time in the USA, SE Asia (Singapore and Taiwan), as well as Europe, working at the heart of the music and entertainment business and, of course, along the way I managed to garner many experiences, getting to know so many characters from the music and movie business, who fired my imagination and have provided so much material for my writing as well.

13) Some of them, at least, found their way into a book you’d co-authored with Christina Jones, the ironically-named Only One Woman. It’s almost atypical for you, as it’s a period romance involving a pair of English girls in 1968 that live next door to rock band named Narnia’s Children. Besides your memories, what had impelled you and Ms. Jones to write such a book and is it part memoir?

My husband’s band had well connected management and they (and I) got to meet and know lots of well-known musicians, singers, songwriters, and DJs during the late 1960s and onward. As his band became more successful their manager thought it was time that they employed a Fan-Club Secretary. Christina Jones was a fan of the band and – at the time – a rock/pop journalist working for several magazines as well as writing for various teenage (girls’) magazines, so they asked her if she’d like to work for them.

I got to know her through her fan-club activities, and we found we liked each other and had lots in common. We both loved reading, and writing, and she eventually went on to become a best-selling, award-winning author of romance – bucolic frolics. We often used to talk about writing together. However, my life became crazier and crazier as my husband and I toured around the world, working overseas almost constantly. Our idea was put on hold.

Fast forward to 2012, we moved back to England and retired from music and with time on my hands I decided to begin writing in earnest. I’ve always written mostly for my own enjoyment, and sometimes I’ve written articles for music publications, but time was always a problem, and location. There isn’t much time for oneself when one is promoting the careers of others and spending more than fifty percent of the time in the air, on a tour bus, in a recording studio, or at concerts and festivals, and so writing a complete book was never possible.

In 2012 we decided to down-size. Our UK home had always been a base to return to and we found we had accumulated so much stuff over the decades that we didn’t want to hang on to following our move. Anyone who has ever decided to get rid of things will understand when I tell you how it is. I had three piles: one for stuff to keep, one for stuff to go, and one pile for uncertain items which could go or stay. Nightmare. The latter was the largest pile.

Whilst going through all our worldly possessions I came across a lot of memorabilia from our lives in the 1960s through to the present day. I found old diaries – I’ve always kept diaries – fan letters, posters, photo albums, all manner of things I had forgotten about. I began writing a list of items I wanted to ask my husband about; did he want to keep X Y and Z or not?  As I went through them all they brought back vivid memories, and I couldn’t help reading the letters and the diaries cover to cover as I made notes, and it occurred to me that there was a story unfolding which I could write.

By this time, I had already been published in many anthologies, my short stories were garnering attention and I was signed to a traditional publisher in 2012. I write mostly crime and mysteries but now and again I dabble in other genres, sometimes Ghost stories, sometimes music-based stories, the odd pirate adventure, and others with an espionage flavour to them.

As I made the notes on our life together for my husband to see, I got the idea for a crime story set in the late 1960s with a young girl, Renza, and a rock musician, Scott, at its heart. I didn’t have any plan for it to become a romance in the strictest sense, but as I wrote I realised I was going to find it difficult to kill anyone off. I completed the book and wasn’t too sure about it, after-all, I had never read a romance, let alone written one before, and it had turned into much more than a romance, so I decided I wanted a second opinion.

Christina has often read my work; I respect her opinion, and she has always been happy to give an honest one. I asked her if she would be interested in reading the story as I felt it needed something, possibly another lead character. She read it and agreed, then suggested she write an additional character, Stella. And so, we had our opportunity to write together at last.

She was incredibly clever because she had to add a new character and supporting characters to my completed story. Christina had to follow my storyline and the ‘feel,’ of the novel, which was based in 1968/69 in England - and other locations - at the height of the Cold War, when the world had just experienced, ‘The Summer of Love,’ when a man had landed on the Moon and social change and upheaval was worldwide. She did an amazing job; she managed to fit Stella into the lives of Renza, Scott, and Narnia’s Children brilliantly.

We are both published by the same traditional publisher; it was later sold to Headline Accent (Hachette) and Only One Woman was published in 2018.

The title Only One Woman came about because in the story – which features lots of musical and fashion references, including the food and beverages of the era – the song, Only One Woman, is central. It was especially written by The Bee Gees for a duo called, The Marbles, and it was a chart hit in 1968.

The singer from The Marbles went on to become one of rock’s iconic vocalists who has sung with legendary rock bands such as Rainbow, Michael Schenker, Richie Blackmore, Alcatraz, and others, and he is still singing with his own band today: Graham Bonnet is his name.

I originally thought it would be wonderful if Barry Gibb could write the foreword to Only One Woman, but he had recently become a Knight (Sir Barry) and was about to embark upon a tour, so he was unable to oblige. I had already considered asking Graham to do it if Barry couldn’t, and Barry agreed with me that Graham would be perfect.

I asked Graham if he would write it for us and he agreed as long as he could read Only One Woman first. It may seem strange, but so many men who have read it, love the novel, and several have read it more than once; musicians adore it.

Graham loved Only One Woman, and he has written an amazing foreword. It describes how he and his late cousin, Trevor Gordon - who already knew Barry, Robin, and Maurice from Australia – met up with The Bee Gees in London and through their manager, Robert Stigwood, were able to spend time in the recording studio writing and recording songs together – Only One Woman being one of the first.

My experiences in the music scene of the 1960s and right up to when I retired find their way into my writing, and Only One Woman is no exception as you may well imagine. I am writing the sequel now and this takes the story up to the 1980s. I might write a third novel which will carry on from there to the present day.  I have yet to write about the Hollywood years!

You asked if it is part memoir and I guess I would have to say it is, with a load of fiction added in just to keep on the right side of litigation! There are real people in the novel, many long dead, and all are heavily disguised.

12) Earlier in life, your career took a decidedly more sober turn when you began working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, essentially working with spies during the Cold War. I’d imagine some of those experiences in the Foreign Service greatly informed your first Mrs. Birdsong novel. Tell us an intriguing story or two from those days, barring national security concerns.  

Yes, my earlier career was spent in Germany with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and when I returned to England I worked at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – both of which have greatly influenced so much of my writing. I should also add that I managed to fit in positions with the AERE (Atomic Energy research Establishment), at Harwell – now a private concern I believe - and also with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAFF), as well as a stint working in Social Services over the years. I know, not quite the image for Rock ‘n Roll! All subject to the Official Secrets Act.

Working in the FCO was amazing. I expected it to be a stuffy, old-fashioned place with lots of old men in dark suits, bowler hats, and with their rolled brollies – boy was I wrong. Of course, there were plenty of them just like that – the Establishment - but there were also lots of youngsters from all around England and being London in the Swingin’ Sixties, I was amazed to see them arrive at work wearing the latest fashions and the boys having long hair.  Girls even wore hot-pants and see-through blouses. I was shocked!

To be able to work at the FCO you have to be thoroughly vetted – it is called Positive Vetting (PV), to ensure you are suitable, loyal, and without any skeletons in your closet which might make you susceptible to blackmail. It is a lengthy process, and their investigations cover every member of your family, past and present, and many of your friends are investigated too. You can imagine what it was like for a youngster going out with a musician and only just returned from Germany, leaving friends behind whose families had escaped from behind The Iron Curtain. But I got the job.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the FCO also had links with MI5/MI6 and other ‘funny,’ departments. By ‘funny,’ I mean links with spies - they were known as ‘the funny buggers,’ when I was there.

The commander (Special Branch, I assumed) who interviewed me frequently as part of on-going security checks which we all had to endure, was an interesting man. He gave me the results of my PV checks each time we met, and he used to love telling me about his career. He had been in charge of the investigations, eventual arrest, and imprisonment in 1961 of husband-and-wife Soviet spies, the Krogers, along with a British KGB spy, Gordon Lonsdale, all part of the infamous Portland Spy Ring. The Krogers and Lonsdale were eventually exchanged in prisoner swaps with Russia before their full sentences had been served.

You can imagine how exciting this was to the ears of a budding writer. I don’t want to be a bore, but there are many similar stories I came across when working for the FCO. We had an exciting time, what with the IRA, The Cold War, and tit-for-tat diplomat (spy) expulsions from various overseas embassies, and also the kidnapping of HM Ambassador to Montevideo (Uruguay), Geoffrey Jackson, who was held for ransom by Tupamaros guerrillas for nine months. Never a dull moment.

Ms. Birdsong was inspired by my time working for government. I have always wanted to write about an MI5 officer and link it into a crime novel. I am enjoying writing about her, I have the first novel out with publishers via my agent, and I have two other novels in the series underway now.

11) You’d gone into this at some length on your blog but for those of us who have to visit it, who are some of your favorite authors and who would you list as influences?

When I was growing up a great influence upon me was Enid Blyton and Robert Louise Stevenson – I loved adventure and read what were known as ‘boy’s’ books back then. I was not into reading ‘girlie,’ books, all fluffy and pink! I wanted adventure, danger, and excitement. I enjoyed and still enjoy, Daphne du Maurier’s books, especially Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and Rebecca - a mix of adventure and romance – not romance as in ‘love.’ Agatha Christie – I adore her still. Dorothy L Sayers is another.

Later, in my teens, I went on to John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Len Deighton, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, and many others. I still love their work and re-read books often.

Much later I found Michael Connolly, Peter James, Peter Robinson, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, David Baldacci, Stella Rimington, Andy McNab, Robert Ludlum, and so many more – you can see where I am coming from!

I have favourites for different reasons, and it would take me forever to say why, however, one does stand out, Kathy Reichs. She got me hooked on Forensic Science and I realised that as a writer I left myself open to criticism and ridicule if I wrote about things to do with death and investigation of death, if I didn’t have a clue about how things really work. One cannot rely upon TV series such as CSI to be accurate. I dreaded someone writing to me to say that when someone dies or is found as skeletal remains, this, that, or the other should or should not have happened, and I’d got it wrong.

I decided to learn, and I undertook seven Forensic Science and Criminal Justice courses and one Archaeology course in order to learn the basics. I don’t necessarily write about it in detail, I may touch on something in a story only briefly, but I felt I needed to know the background, the how and why if you like. I do not write police procedurals. So, over a two-year period I studied with several universities online, with tutors well-known and respected in their field, such as Dame Professor Sue Black from Dundee University.

10) Do you find writing about true crime or the fictional kind to be more interesting or is it 50/50 for you?

I have not written any true crime (yet), but it does fascinate me, and I watch lots of True Crime on TV, but for some reason I cannot read about it. I love reading fictional crime and writing it. I love puzzles and all crimes are huge puzzles. I find it all interesting.

9) Do you have any vision for the future of British crime fiction?

I love British crime fiction; I think we have had and still have some of the best authors in the world when it comes to crime, and many of the best are women. I think it can only get better. I imagine that more women will venture into writing about cyber-crime, will write about terrorism and organized crime – like I do – although I love cosy crime too, I am sure it will continue to grow, I think women writers will become a lot grittier and more adventurous.

8) Describe your typical writing day, if there is such a thing. Do you set word/page goals and do you exclusively draft in notebooks or laptops or both?

My typical writing day begins as soon as I am free from morning chores. I read what I have written the day before, make changes and edits and then stare at the screen for ages, go and make some tea, come back and stare for a while and then, whoosh, I am off. The cyber-fairy strikes. I never set goals or word counts unless writing to order.

7) Plotter, pantser or plantser? 

Pantser. I cannot plot. I often have no idea what I am going to write when I sit in front of a blank screen until a name, a headline, or an overheard conversation comes to me and I am off. I find my stories write themselves.

6) Is there any genre you’d like to try your hand at yet have not for some reason?

I’ve written in several. I let the story dictate the genre. I have written romance, crime, mysteries, thrillers, adventure, humorous ‘character-driven,’ stories, time-shift, ghost stories and of course espionage. I don’t think I have the imagination to write fantasy, horror or sci-fi. I don’t like blood and gore, or lots of sex in books so I doubt I’ll write any terror or something like Fifty Shades of Grey. I went to a convent school!!

5) Has your output been affected by the pandemic one way or the other?

Not really, I spend a lot of my time alone and rarely talk out loud to anyone except my husband or our son when he Skypes, so nothing is that different for me since lockdown. When I am inspired, I write. Often terror drives me – a deadline is a great motivator.

4) What inspires your fiction more, the locale or the locals?

Well, I would love to say the locals, but I don’t really know any. Locale – yes; Hollywood inspires me no end, so does Whitehall. Where there is money and power there is crime and corruption. Closed communities are always a big inspiration.

3) What is it about British crime, do you think, so that’s a favorite for mystery readers not only in the UK but abroad?

I am not sure, but I imagine it has something to do with the perception that we English are all ‘buttoned-up,’ and ‘proper,’ and would never stoop to doing the dirty deed because it goes against the grain. It could be locations. How can such a chocolate-box pretty village hold such horror behind the chintz curtains, perfectly tended gardens, with quaint cottages housing pillars of society, behaving so ‘properly?’ All the more exciting perhaps than a story set in South Central, LA – Crenshaw, for example – where gangs roam and guns reign and crime and death could be expected but hasn’t so much shock value as carnage at a vicarage tea party one Sunday afternoon, where the ladies from the local Women’s Institute have gathered to gossip and exchange Victoria sponge recipes. The appeal is universal, and I think the readers love the locations, the types of people involved, and of course, the dispensing of justice at the end.

2) What’s one rock star from the 60s you wish you’d met but didn’t and why?

A difficult one. In my former line of business, I met so many and sometimes it is not a great experience meeting a person you thought you admired! I’d love to say Elvis, but he was hardly rock. I adored him.  Cripes, there are so many and from so many genres of rock too. Let’s see…

Rock?  My husband met Roger Daltry years ago – a couple of times – and he said he was such a lovely guy to talk with and as I adore The Who, it would have to be Roger. Such energy, amazing stage presence, and that voice! Attitude and talent all in a small bundle. He could tell me all about Pete Townsend and their punch-ups, and of course the amazing and completely lunatic, Keith Moon. I would've loved to have met Keith Moon too – imagine. I expect we’d have ended up behind bars!! 

1) 1) So, what’s next for Jane Risdon?

I don’t know where to begin. I am very excited at signing with an agent. It never crossed my mind to have one, but it takes the strain off me looking for a publisher for Ms. Birdsong Investigates.  My publisher, Headline Accent, is not the right home for her at the moment mainly because I am published as a Women’s Fiction author with them. My agent is incredibly enthusiastic about Lavinia Birdsong and her series and is approaching publishers as I write.

In addition to the Ms. Birdsong Investigates series I am writing the sequel to Only One Woman, bringing the story into the 1980s and possibly beyond in a third novel, I shall see.

I have several other partly finished crime novels on my computer, all waiting to see the light of day, and a couple of non-crime novels, including a music business memoir - along with dozens of short stories - I guess I should find a home for them.

Perhaps another Undercover: Crime Shorts collection is called for? My short crime collection is very popular with those wanting to dip in and out of a story when time is tight and want to have a quick story fix, and thankfully the reviews have been amazing.  I am thinking about it. Otherwise, I shall just keep on writing and entertaining myself. If people read my work and enjoy it too, I am a happy camper.

If you're interested in learning more about Ms. Risdon's work, then follow the handy links below:

GoodReads

7 Comments:

At March 21, 2021 at 10:00 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

Robert, thanks so much for asking me to be your guest author and for making me Author of the Month and Author of the Week on Book Whores. I am chuffed to bits. I hope your followers read and enjoy my post and they all apply to the FCO for a job and some excitement! Much appreciated. Thanks again, Jane xxxx

 
At March 21, 2021 at 6:01 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

It was a pleasure having you, Jane.

 
At March 22, 2021 at 5:47 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

The pleasure is all mine. xx

 
At March 22, 2021 at 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ra ra and hear hear, Bravo!
Well done for an enthralling interview.
I feel an urge to pen a letter, Dear Lavinia xxx

I cannot wait to read it.

Thank you Dear Jane Risdon.

 
At March 24, 2021 at 5:59 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

Anonymous, glad you enjoyed it. Do write to Lavinia. She would love it. Have a fab day x

 
At March 24, 2021 at 1:12 PM, Blogger Kit Domino said...

Fascinating and entertaining interview. Thank you both.
Kit

 
At March 24, 2021 at 1:38 PM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

Kit, thanks so much for commenting, cool of you to be here. Appreciated x

 

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  • Find Articles.com, the next-best thing to Nexis.
  • Altweeklies, for the news you won't get just anywhere.
  • The Smirking Chimp
  • Don Emmerich's Peace Blog
  • Wikileaks.
  • The Peoples' Voice.
  • Dictionary.com.
  • CIA World Fact Book.
  • IP address locator.
  • Tom Tomorrow's hilarious strip.
  • Babelfish, an instant, online translator. I love to translate Ann Coulter's site into German.
  • Newsmeat: Find out who's donating to whom.
  • Wikipedia.
  • Uncyclopedia.
  • anysoldier.com
  • Icasualties
  • Free Press
  • YouTube
  • The Bone Bridge.
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