Sunday, November 21, 2021

Interview with Dr. Charley Barnes

When Sarah was seventeen years old, she hid in a wardrobe while her mother was murdered in the bedroom. As the weeks and months passed, Sarah gradually moved on from the horror of that night and managed to settle into her changed family life.

After the police confirm that her mother was one of three similar victims the case goes cold. Until Sarah receives a letter: “I didn’t know you were there, or I would never have done that. Sincerely, Yours.” –synopsis for Sincerely, Yours

This month’s interview strikes closer to home. As I write psychological thrillers myself, interviewing a like-minded subject like Brit author and academic, Dr. Charley Barnes, is well-nigh irresistible. Last August, Charley’s latest book launch, the aforementioned, Sincerely Yours, met with excited anticipation and, in the brief time it’s been on the market, it’s attracted mostly rave reviews (especially on its native page).

15) Charley, first of all, I have to say the throughline, the concept, for Sincerely, Yours is, to me, the most original and seductive one to come down the pike in modern fiction in I don’t know how many years. At the risk of asking a cookie cutter question such as, “Where do your ideas come from?”, I need to ask from where this particular concept originated.

Firstly, thank you so much, because it’s a writer’s a dream to hear their work explained in such a way. I think, in terms of the idea, it’s largely the result of a pick and mix of ideas having come together. I’m especially attracted to “true crime” and the ways in which it a) becomes fictionalized to a degree (even in minor plot points, for example, that are tweaked to up the tension or the reveal of something) and b) how eager we are to consume it. I often think, ‘But there’s someone on the other side of that…’

Alongside that, I think there’s a wider circle of victims to consider when it comes to violent crime – both in fictional crimes and real-life ones – and that’s the people on the immediate fringes of it: characters like Sarah. Sarah’s mother was the victim of a murder, but what happens to Sarah, the young woman who watched that murder, in the aftermath of it?

Add in a serial killer who can’t quite let go – and you’re set! The killer in Sincerely, Yours is a lonely individual living a normal existence on the surface. But when Sarah “sees” him, both literally and figuratively, he can’t let go of that. While killers like this mightn’t find ways to keep in touch with their victims (obviously), there’s certainly a “brand” of killer that wants to be seen, wants to be known, somehow. For this particular novel, that kind of killer was the last ingredient for the plot.

14) When you were a girl growing up in England, who were among your favorite authors and have any of them informed or influenced your work today?

I was obsessed with P.D. James from a young age. A female, British crime writer with such a following; she was everything I wanted to be when I grew up! From there, I fell for the likes of Patricia Highsmith, who introduced me to mystery in its finest form, and later, Agatha Christie (she feels like a conventional response now but in recent years her books have ranked among some of my favourites so it would be remiss of me not to mention her).

I think all of the above have influenced and are still influencing my work to date, because they’re innovators. They all wrote stories that people recognized – i.e. plots that were familiar and comfortable – but they also pushed a lot of boundaries along the way, and that’s what I want from my writing life.

13) Let’s talk about DI Melanie Watton, your main series character. What makes her tick, what are her strengths and weaknesses and why do you think she makes such a compelling detective?

Mel is obsessed with her work; her work is what drives her. Unlike some other detectives I’ve read over the years, there isn’t a particular type of crime that drives Mel along though. She just feels this intense need to do her job, do it right, get it done. In many ways that’s her main strength and her main weakness! She’s determined, full of grit, knows how to get a case wrapped up. She also doesn’t have personal connections, at least not ones that she can maintain especially well, and it’s something that’s noticed by other characters, too, all of whom have their personal lives outside of the force. That said, I think it’s a convention of the genre that your main detective in a novel has that kind of work determination driving them.

Insofar as what makes her compelling, Mel begs, borrows and discards a lot of detective conventions – at least, that’s how I intended for her to read! She’s a strong female lead, which we’re getting more and more of in crime, but she’s a lone wolf at the same time, which I think is something that’s typically been afforded to male characters rather than female. I wonder whether the fact that we know so little about Mel, under the surface of her rank and occupation, is what makes her compelling to people; they want to get close to her, much like the surrounding characters. Mel is accessible in her own way, though, and she knows how to lead a team – and buy a good breakfast sandwich for the early meetings they’re forever arranging – so I think that likely wins her some points with a reader, too!

12) Now I’m going to touch on a subject that’s near and dear to your heart: The differences between true crime writing and its fictional analog. What are those differences?

I feel like I could write a whole thesis in answer to this one! Fictional writing, whether crime or not, comes with its own allowance of creative license. We can borrow from things that have happened in the world, or things that have happened to us, and make them read differently through a fictionalization of them. In a world packed with horrible crimes taking place every day, it’s sad to say but the headlines offer no shortages of creative prompts when it comes to things you might like to write about. We’re living in a “truth is stranger than fiction” world that makes crime writing a little easier than it used to be in terms of writing the far-fetched and the interesting.

True crime, though, I have some strong feelings towards. In terms of what it is, on paper, and its differences between fictional work, true crime relates to a sequence of events that has taken place. It is intended to read as a faithful retelling of events as they happened in real-life. With that definition in mind, it’s easy enough to say that true crime rehashes the real whereas fictional crime may only borrow from the real to get a writer thinking. Ordinarily, fictional crime might allude to real-life events, but it doesn’t typically claim, or at least I don’t think it does, to be an authentic retelling of them.

However, they are so many examples now of “true crime” wherein elements of the real-life have been changed. Very famous books – Capote, here’s looking to you – where there is evidence to prove the book isn’t quite telling the story as it happened. That isn’t a problem, I don’t think, but it becomes a problem when we’re dealing with a genre that prides itself on being “true” to something.

11) Describe your typical writing day, if there is such a thing. Do you draft exclusively in notebooks or journals or laptops or is it a combination of both? Do you set a word goal for yourself and, if so, what is it?

I get quite compulsive when I’m writing; I don’t mind admitting that. So, if I’m having a whole day where I’m writing – the dream – I’ll start by getting a couple of thousand words down in the morning. It’s always drafted on my laptop. Intention was drafted in messy handwriting across two notebooks and it was beautiful to see a book come together that way, but never again! So, I’ll get down my morning words on my laptop, then I might take a break to get some other work done or – ideally – to not work at all for a while. I might walk the dog, read, take a tea break of some description. Then I’ll repeat a similar process in the afternoon. On days like that, I generally expect myself to get 4,000 words written, give or take. But – and I can’t stress this enough – not every day is like that, not by a long shot!

When I say I get compulsive, what I mean is that when I’m in the throes of writing something that I’m really involved with, I’ll likely wedge in writing time wherever I can find it. So, I might teach in the morning, mark students’ work in the afternoon, then as soon as I’m home for the evening I’ll “blitz” 1,000 words or so, just to say I’ve got something down. When I was writing All I See Is You, I got into the habit of writing sprints – or blitzes, as I now call them – and I usually give myself 20-30 minutes where I’ll do nothing – I won’t check social media, reply to messages, nada – and I’ll throw myself in and then whenever that timer says I’m done, I’m done. That way on non-writing days, I know writing is still there.

10) Plotter, pantser or plantser?

I’ve never heard the term “plantser” before but oh my goodness, yes, that’s exactly where I live now. I didn’t have chapter plans for Intention, only a rough idea of what the plot arc for the book was. Now, looking back, I think that really slowed me down and maybe even caused one or two drafting problems along the way for me.

Since, I’ve been much more devoted to getting a plan in place. It’s different for every book, I firmly believe that. All I See Is You was planned – using a spreadsheet, no less – to within an inch of its life. Although I think that’s partly due to the fact that the narrator is a bit of a trickster, and I really needed to keep a track of what they were doing throughout the story.

Largely, the books around that have always been a mix. There have been some plans that have carried me chapter by chapter through writing but then bam (!), an idea came along that I couldn’t pass up and before I knew it, I was writing it into the book somehow. I honestly believe writers need that kind of balance. Having a plan is great, and it will carry you well through those “I don’t know what I’m doing” days because a plan means you often know what you’re doing, despite how it might feel. However, when an idea knocks on your front door, how rude is it not to even offer it a cup of tea and a minute of your time?

9) Do you pick the brains of British police officers when doing research for a Watton novel or is it all academic?

To date, it’s been largely academic. However, I’m currently working on a new thriller and some real-life officers or former officers have been kind enough to lend me some of their time for questions, which I’m so grateful for.

Another handy thing that I found along the way is an app called Ask the Police. This might be for UK-only folks (sorry!) but it’s essentially a bank of questions that relate to everyday police work. For the grittier stuff you’ll need a good old-fashioned search engine. However, if you’re dealing with some slightly more minor crimes, it’s a great resource to have to hand.

I’d say that reading about real cases is a great source of accurate information, too. I think looking at certain things in practice and considering how loyal we’re able to be to them, to ensure authenticity for a reader that is, is a really good route for any writer to follow, whether you’re working in crime or a different genre entirely.

8) Has the pandemic affected your writing routine, output, sales? If so, how?

The pandemic has actually made me a lot more productive. I think the world was and is such a mess off the back of the Covid-19 outbreak, I spent a lot of time sticking my head in the proverbial sand. When I’ve had this conversation with people before, I’ve told them that I “panic wrote” my way through the UK lockdowns, and I stand by that. There were a lot of times when I would come up for air to see what was happening, see that we were in fact still in a right mess, and I’d go back to writing – where I at least had some control over events! I think writing, throughout the pandemic, has been a source of comfort to me more so than anything else. It’s given me a space to breathe, play in a sandbox with my characters, and given that I haven’t written the pandemic into any of my 2020-2022 stories, it really did become a place to escape things that were happening.

I’ve done better with sales, too, because I’ve had more time to connect with readers and other writers, which has genuinely been so lovely, and I’ve written a silly amount. It’s one of the few pluses from the pandemic so far!

7) It’s difficult to reconcile the sweet, gentle, pixie-ish Charley Barnes one sees on Facebook Live with the bloody tales that come from that same mind. What is it about the dark side of human nature that fascinates you so much?

I get that a lot! I’ve been lucky enough to do a few interviews over the last twelve months or so, one of which was actually a video interview. The immediate responses to the video one especially was how it was hard to marry the funny-bubbly Charley with the serious and grim stories I tell. And in a strange way, I’m quite happy people have that perception of and reaction to me!

In terms of what fascinates me about the dark side of human nature, that’s an easy one to answer: We all have it. That’s not to say I’m a psychopath or a killer, nor am I accusing my nearest and dearest of such things, but we all have that brain capability somewhere – if one thing were only wired slightly differently.

I also find it very interesting to consider – whether someone is sweet, gentle and pixie-ish or not – what might happen when any individual is pushed in the right (or wrong) way. There are so many famous historical incidents of people who “don’t know what came over them”, especially when we’re talking really violent crimes. If one person can be swept up by that, why not another person; why not any one of us? It’s terrifying and brilliant and packed with potential for stories.

And by our very natures, humans love a good monster and pitchfork…

6) Do you believe that crime authors, at least the ones you’ve read, are agile enough to keep pace with the constantly evolving criminal mind or should they go beyond that and to try to anticipate these developments?

I have great respect for fellow crime and thriller writers; especially those I know through my publiher. In fact, I think it’s because crime writers are agile enough that they shouldn’t anticipate the next thing; there’s no need for them to, when the present is so rife with developments, materials, plots on a plate. I think crime writers’ abilities to roll with the times at short notice is exactly what keeps the genre at the top of best-selling charts – where you’ll often find it, still, as has historically been the case.

Crime, as a genre, is able to serve up stories that are topical, relevant, and therefore hard-hitting. I think in anticipating the next steps, crime writers might run the risk of overlooking the here and now, where stories have the potential to impact people in an even bigger way because we’re likely writing about things they recognize from the present. Additionally, if we start looking too far ahead then we start looking outside of our genre entirely – which isn’t a problem, of course, there are some brilliant genre blends on the market. But there’s the risk of tumbling into speculative crime if we don’t spend enough time in the here and now, and that’s a whole other beast to consider.

5) Have any of your psychological thrillers been inspired real life murders or a series of murders?

They actually haven’t, no. I think, because of the shaky relationship I’ve developed with true crime over the years. I would personally find it difficult to borrow from things that (I feel) belong to other people. This is one of the (many) issues I poke at throughout Sincerely, Yours, in terms of who has “ownership” of a crime when it’s happened. There are some real-life cases that I’ve looked to for advice on likely procedures – how would they find this evidence; when might they charge this person – but I think for me, at least in this present writing time, that’s my limit. Although I’m always interested in reading thrillers that borrow from real-life, to see how it’s handled and also how it might have been changed from the reality.

I think there are so many interesting questions around this “borrowing from life” thing, for crime and thriller writers particularly. Like I said, though, that may be an entire thesis in itself.

4) Is there any crime or murder in particular that you wouldn’t touch as a novelist or is everything grist for your mill?

CW: sexual assault and child abuse.

For me, sexual assault is both a writing and reading step too far, and anything that involves child abuse – in any sense – would also be too much. I’ve had incidents where I’ve been reading books that have handled one or both of these areas, and even reading it can reduce me to tears – I don’t mind admitting that. That’s not to say I don’t think these things should be written about; I absolutely think they should be, for lots of reasons. In terms of my own comfort, though, I honestly don’t think I could do justice to them as a writer, and I think that’s a good reason to stay away from something, especially something so important, so life-changing. If you can’t do something like that well, leave it to someone who can.

Anything else – the grit, the grimy murders, and everything that comes with it – those things don’t make me uncomfortable. Although they’ve tested my mother’s love for me on one or two occasions…

3) I have to ask since you teach in, among other places, Wolverhampton, which is where Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim, Katherine Eddowes, was from. Have you ever been tempted to write a period novel taking place, say, in the 19th century UK?

I love this question! A hundred years ago, when I wrote the original pitch for my Doctorial thesis, the idea that I submitted – the idea that got me accepted onto the course, in fact – was a contemporary re-telling of the Jack the Ripper murders. I was entirely enamored! At the time, I heartily believed the incidents were worthy of yet more attention – as though s/he as a killer hasn’t received enough critical acclaim over the years – and I thought I was the young writer to do it. Interestingly, though, this was long before I had any connections to Wolverhampton. This just blossomed from a young interest in one of the most explored killers the UK can boast of.

However – and that’s a big, whopping however – when I started work on the project, after yet more research, I soon realized that my idea just wouldn’t carry. I won’t go into the intricate details of it (in case a future writing self decides I can do justice to the story after all). But it was abandoned in favour of a different novel entirely – Intention, as it turned out, which was the creative element of my PhD thesis.

In terms of whether I’d delve into a historical novel, or historical crime, I feel as though now I’ve written a romantic comedy – something I said I would never do – I’m no longer in a position to say “no, never” to anything. Further down the line, especially with the Wolverhampton connection now, there might be something that I decide to pick up. For the minute, though, I certainly don’t have any plans to go poking around in history.

2) You also write standalones such as the aforementioned Sincerely, Yours and Intention. Have you ever been tempted to turn those books into a series?

Intention is the one people always seem to want a sequel to, which makes me incredibly happy. However, (sorry if you’re reading with this with high hopes) I’ve got no plans for it. For me, writing in first person is a strangely intimate experience in terms of the connection you make with your own character(s). You spend months being, effectively, inside another person’s head; even if it is a person you created. You process their thought patterns, consider their reactions to things, respond accordingly in the context of writing their narratives. It can be quite draining and sometimes quite disarming to have that closeness for such a prolonged period of time, too, especially if you’re writing disturbed characters – like I often am.

For that reason, a sequel to any of the books doesn’t feel right to me. That voice, that story, is a living breathing thing on its own when it’s in the hands of a reader, and that’s amazing. But even I, as the writer, enjoy the ambiguity of not knowing what Gillian (the narrator from Intention), might be doing with herself these days. Or whether M (All I See Is You) finally gets her act together and stops making trouble for herself. In my mind their stories do 100% carry on, long after I’ve sent the book to my publisher for a first read. I’m just not the one to write them anymore. I’ll leave it to my readers and their beautiful, brilliant theories instead!

1) So, what’s next for Charley Barnes?

Believe it or not, what’s next is a romantic comedy…

Well, there are two books very close together next year. One of which is a thriller that treads some literary lines. I’m dealing with two first person narratives in that book to tell the story of a widow who was found not guilty of her husband’s murder. Then, the month after that, there’s the romantic comedy (forthcoming with HQ). I’m forever telling my students not to box themselves into one genre, and to push their comfort zones while they can. Earlier this year I decided to practice what I preach, write outside of my genre, and I had a blast in the process. It’s such a bonus that that book is even seeing the light of day (in March 2022, for anyone who fancies seeing how it turns out).

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Barnes’ work, then follow the handy links below. 

I’m @charleyblogs on both Twitter and Instagram 

My most recent novel, Sincerely, Yours (UK), (US).

All I See Is You (released earlier this year) US link.

My police procedural trilogy is available here.

Facebook author page.

Amazon author page.


At November 22, 2021 at 6:36 AM, Anonymous Jane Risdon said...

Fab interview, thanks for sharing. I love the idea of the killer writing to the victim's child years later. Creepy! Congrats on all your achievements and I wish you much continued success.


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