Monday, 18 January 2016

Interview with Nicola Valentine

I first met Nicola Valentine at the memorial service for the wonderful Graham Joyce in Leicester.  We were introduced by Adele Wearing and had a brief chat, connected as Facebook friends and all was well.  A little while later, quite by accident, I put two-and-two together and realised that Nicola was also Nicola Monaghan, the novelist.  I picked up a copy of her second novel, “Starfishing”, published by Chatto and Windus in March 2008.  I loved it - a dark drama set in the City Of London in the late 80s - and when I met her, a few weeks later, at FantasyCon in Nottingham, I got to chat with her briefly about it.  When I mentioned the (very dark) ending, she smiled and said she’d had that planned right from the start of the book, which really intrigued me.  So I decided to ask her some more questions and, thankfully, she agreed to an interview.
photo by Chad Valentine
MW:  Hello, thanks for speaking to me.  Can you tell us a little about yourself?

NV: So, I’m from Nottingham and have been a published writer for about ten years now. Before that, I lived in London and worked in finance, but I moved back to my home town to do a MA in Creative Writing in 2002, which was where I met Graham, who ended up having a huge influence on my work. I write books as Nicola Monaghan but also as Niki Valentine, which is my married name. I write gritty, literary fiction as Monaghan but the Valentine books are thrillers with a supernatural edge to them. I chose the different names so people could distinguish. I think it’s important to be clear for readers about genre so that they know what to expect from a book and the different identities felt like the best way to do this.

MW:  What led you into writing?

NV:  It was a passion for books and reading that led me down this route. I absolutely loved reading as a child and that’s never really changed. When I was younger, I used to spend my money on the local high street on books and stationery. I bought a whole bunch of Silvine exercise books and decided I was writing a novel. I don’t remember much about that book except that I tried to avoid writing any dialogue. I’d love to unearth it somewhere and read it again but I think it is long gone in a landmass somewhere, and that’s probably for the best. I’ve written stories on and off all my life since then but got much more serious about it in the late 90’s, after a bad breakup. Some of the scenes in "Starfishing" came from around that time and were some of the first stuff I’d written since I’d begun to take it more seriously. Well, I’ve edited it and developed it a lot since then but that was the origin of some of it. In 2001, I was working in Chicago and planning my exit strategy, already knowing that I wanted to leave and do an MA and researching the possibilities. Then there were the terrorist attacks in New York, where my employers had an office and I’d spent some time working. It was very frightening but also woke me up. Life is short, and you just don’t know what might happen. I got my act together, came back to the UK and finished the year off in a teaching job, and applied for those MA courses probably a year or two before I might have otherwise.

Me: How would you define your work, in terms of genre?  “The Killing Jar” and “Starfishing” are both very dark

NV: When I first started writing "The Killing Jar", I saw it as a kind of crime/literary fiction hybrid. I know this for sure, because it was my MA dissertation; I had to do a presentation about it, and I still have the powerpoint. I pitched it to my agent, though, as a crime novel because I thought that made it a more commercially viable proposition. He got in touch to say he’d loved the writing and wanted to represent me but didn’t agree that it was crime, and felt that it was literary fiction with possible cult appeal. I think we were both right, ultimately. It was published as a literary novel by Chatto and Windus, and won prizes, like he’d hoped, but I was also invited to speak at the Harrogate Crime Festival. For a while, the book was stocked in both the crime and general fiction sections at Waterstone’s. I am a difficult one to pin down, genre wise, even putting aside the Valentine ghost stories. A couple of reviewers even suggested that "Starfishing" was some kind of dark chick lit, although I think they’re well off the mark with that. There might be many large glasses of chardonnay in the story but no one could ever confuse Frankie with Bridget Jones. There is always at least one crime in my stories, which I believe is the only stipulation for crime fiction.  They usually have a thriller-like pace and structure, but I’m a huge fantasy fan, so tropes and ideas from that genre infuse my work. Frankie’s nickname is Frankie Stein, and all sorts of themes from Shelley’s novel come into the narrative. My protagonist in "The Killing Jar" talks about floating above her housing estate when she’s high, a drug induced fantasy, maybe, or something more? And "The Troll" books are infused with fairy tales and myths that are metaphors for modern life, social media and the internet. So, in all honesty, my books are a bit of a mash up of all the genres that I love. I’m writing the kinds of books I’d want to read, which is all you can do in the end.

MW:  I don't think "Starfishing" is dark chick-lit either but to focus on that novel for a while, because I loved it so much (you can read my review here).  Can you elaborate on working in that environment (though later than the novels timeline) and at the World Trader Center, as you mention above?

NV:  Yes, I worked for a big investment bank in London in the late 90’s, and then I moved on to work for tech companies that made software for trading derivatives. I saw what I write about in the book in action. I knew a lot of LIFFE traders and people from that scene and I was there when the exchange moved from live, open outcry trading to the computerised version, which we see beginning to happen towards the end of "Starfishing". The City was a pretty wild, crazy place back then. It was a fabulous place to see out my twenties and an unforgettable experience. I wouldn’t want to do it again but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I always knew I wanted to write about that time and place but I think I needed a good few years to find the objectivity to write about it properly.

I was never permanently based at the World Trade Center but I did spend time there during 2001, when I was mostly living and working in Chicago. Our New York office was in the first tower hit, on the 86th floor. No one inside would have stood a chance. I was working for quite a small tech company at the time, and by sheer good luck, none of my colleagues were in the building at the time. But it affected me deeply, and I think that comes across in certain scenes in "Starfishing". I won’t say which, because spoilers, but I think you can probably work that out.

MW:  You mentioned to me that you had the ending in mind when you started writing.  What led you to writing it so the trajectory got ever darker?  And how much was research (in terms of the exchange) and how much was your memory of that late 90s environment?

NV:  Yes, that’s true. I’m quite a visual person and one of the first things I do when writing is try to picture my ending as a scene in a film. I have to know where I’m going quite early on. I don’t need to know everything about how I’m going to get there but that end image is a little like the Fixed Point in Space Time that they use in "Doctor Who" stories. It needs to be there and it doesn’t change, so it’s important to get it right first time.

With this book, it did turn out darker than I’d imagined when I started writing. I think the ending led me down that path with poor old Frankie, basically. There had to be a chain of events that took her to that point, so that could never be trivial. I won’t say anymore in case I give too much away!

On the set of "Starcross"
MW:  When did you make the move into films?

NV:  This happened almost accidentally. As I mentioned, I am a very visual person, so this does make sense from that perspective. I wanted to adapt my first novel for the screen and met a director, Deborah Haywood, who wanted to make the film. That project has come to a bit of a disappointing standstill. However, Deborah and I did make some very short films together in the process. This led to another director, Ash Morris, getting in touch and asking if I’d like to do some work together. We’re now on our second short film and working with some household names, which is very exciting. So, yes, it was a very organic thing and not something I did particularly deliberately. I’m very happy that it happened, though.

MW:  A lot of your work seems very centred in Nottingham and your surroundings - is that deliberate, do you find the location feeds into the work?

NV:  Yes, Nottingham is very important to me as a writer. There’s an energy here which I think suits my work, and an attitude of rebellion which tends to be very typical of my characters. Setting generally is important to me, too. I think it tends to be where I start. Then I inhabit the place with characters. The plot comes last, really, and yet I think story is very important. It’s interesting how these things are all related. It’s like they are attached to each other with strings, so that pulling one stretches another.

MW:  Where did "The Troll"'s come from?

NV:  "The Troll" books were inspired by settings too but, this time, several places; the woods behind my old secondary school, an inaccessible area of woodland in Wollaton Park in Nottingham that looks enchanted, and the internet. I think that human beings in the 21st century spend their lives engaged in a number of places at once. We’re rarely totally there, in the moment and place where we’re physically present, but we’re usually involved with people and places outside ourselves through the devices we carry around. I wanted to write stories that reflected that. I’ve been a user of the internet since it was JANET, so basically most of my adult life. I’m very interested with the way it’s evolving and the power it gives people to express themselves. Internet trolling fitted so perfectly with the kind of thriller I wanted to write, and with the imagery I wanted to use. As I mentioned before, I’m a big fan of fantasy, and of fairy tales, so connecting the trolls from these stories with those from the internet was something I couldn’t help but do. There are so many surprising parallels. The more research and digging I did into the deep dark web and the deep dark woods, the more coincidences and parallels I found. It was one of those gifts you sometimes get as a writer.  I’ve even read fairy tale theory relating to the passing on of memes from one person to another over great distances. So, by this theory, our old oral traditions did exactly what the internet does for us now. How cool is that? I think our engagement with the net is absolutely revolutionary. It will change our species forever. Fiction has only just started engaging with this really, and I was determined to be one of the first.

MW:  That's incredible.  So what are you working on now?

NV:  I’m working on another thriller novella. I love the novella format and think it suits my writing brilliantly. It’s great that ebooks and notable successes, like the Wool books by Hugh Howey, have made the novella more commercially viable. This book is dark (quelle surprise), gothic and set in Paris. It’s called "Helene" and, in tribute to Daphne Du Maurier (one of my favourite ever writers), I’m trying to avoid ever giving away the name of the protagonist. So I’m focusing her world and character through the mirror of her obsession with her friend Helene. Helene is not the ghostly figure of Du Maurier’s "Rebecca", but she is just as wild and dangerous. I lived in Paris too, for a while back in the 90’s, and I’ve set other stories there. It’s quite a strange city. Not really the romantic dream that people think and quite hostile and disturbing in many ways, so that’s always at the heart of stories I set there.

MW:  What are your plans for the future?

NV: This coming September, I’m starting the part time MA in Crime Writing at UEA. I’m so excited! I’m planning a big crime series set in the Midlands. Probably a broader canvas than just Nottingham, encompassing Coventry and Birmingham too, where I have family connections. I want the stories to span decades, from just post war until the present day. It’s by far the most ambitious project I’ve ever planned. I guess that, if I really had to pin it down, I’d like to be a slightly more literary version of Martina Cole with this series. I want to tell stories the way she does, but use language more like George RR Martin. Never one to shy away from a challenge, me.

MW:  Both "Helene" and the crime series sound great, very much looking forward to both of them.  Thanks for your time, Niki.

NV:  Thank you.
Meeting at FantasyCon in Nottingham, 24th October 2015,
with (from left) Sue Moorcroft, Niki, me, Steve Bacon, Richard Farren Barber
Niki can be found online at nicolamonaghan.com, on Facebook and also on Twitter as @nikival71

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