The Five By Five Interview with Helen Fields
“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!
I first encountered Helen Fields at Bloody Scotland a few years ago when she was promoting her latest “Perfect” Luc Callanach title via the highly successful method of giving away copies – there’s no way I could resist! I have since read several of that series (which is not for the faint-hearted, but is hugely rewarding), and met Helen properly, and discovered that once again those who write brutal crime fiction are generally very well-adjusted, thoughtful and funny in real life. If you get the chance to see her speak at an event, grab it – and don’t be scared to say hi afterwards.
Helen Fields is the author of the DI Luc Callanach crime series, which begins with Perfect Remains, plus historical novel These Lost And Broken Things and legal thriller Degrees of Guilt (writing as HS Chandler). She also introduced American profiler Dr Connie Woolwine in The Shadow Man last year. Twice longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year, and a multi-bestselling author whose books have been translated into more than 20 languages, she is a former barrister and film producer who divides her time between the US and the UK. You can follow Helen on Twitter here: @Helen_Fields And check out her website here: www.helenfields.com
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
Crime fiction was just a good fit for me given my background as a barrister. It was easy to write about the police, legal issues, prisons; to pull together my experience of working both with the victims and perpetrators of crime. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction too, so I had a reasonable understanding of what that would entail. I think also I’m naturally given to writing darker stories. If you’d asked me a decade ago what I might end up writing, I’d probably have said horror, and I think I write the scarier/gorier edge of crime, probably as close to real world horror as you can get. I read a lot of historical fiction to deliberately give myself a break from the types of stories I write. I like to be taken on a journey when I read, and I’m constantly aware of that as a writer too. Police procedurals have to strike a careful balance between getting the details realistic and correct whilst still being exciting and extraordinary. It’s not an easy thing to achieve.
I was very lucky in terms of getting an agent. I was off to the Winchester Writers Festival for a weekend and they allow you access to a number of agents who read a sample of your work. (I highly recommend it to anyone looking to get published – several authors got their first break here.) It took me longer to get a publishing deal, but when I did I was over the moon to get a three-book deal and to find out that they wanted to extend Perfect Remains into a whole series. Since then I’ve been able to make writing a full-time job and now I’m writing two books a year. The advice I would give people is to stick at it, put yourself out there, not to be afraid of rejection, and to try writing different stories in different genres. Sometimes you have stories to tell you never even contemplated.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now?
The first novel I wrote was in the fantasy genre. It was 90,000 words long and I wrote it in six weeks. I could never write a book in six weeks now, and honestly I don’t know how I did it, but I think I’d waited so long to write that I had this desperation and energy inside me and it all just poured out. I self-published two novels before approaching agents, mainly because I was just doing it for fun with no concept of a career or a future. At the time I was still working in media and just playing with the idea of books. When I wrote Perfect Remains, the first in the DI Callanach series, I had no idea it would be the first of several crime novels, so again, there was less pressure on me. I was just creating a snapshot of a world; these days I have to focus harder on where the characters have been and where they’re going long term. It’s definitely harder. I’m also more aware of readers, of expectations, of writing something fresh and entertaining. I think at the start I was writing 100 per cent just for me; now I’m writing with more of a purpose there’s more at stake, but in a good way. I’m constantly trying to be better than ever before.
Q3 The Luc and Ava series is set in Edinburgh – but you don’t live there, and you’re not from Scotland. What made you choose the city, and how do you research the settings?
For me it was important to set my books somewhere that I was familiar with, but that still held an element of the mystical, the surprising, the magical. That’s how I feel about Scotland. I fell in love the first time I visited, not just with the place but with the people, the history and the folklore. It was a no-brainer for me setting my books there. I’m pretty obsessive about location research so every place I’ve written about in the series is somewhere I’ve physically been, including individual streets, looking at houses etc. I’m so particular about it that when I killed a police character in an early Luc Callanach book and described the house where he lived (I’d changed the house number!) the people who live there now contacted me thrilled to say they live in that house.
I lived in California until recently, and on visits back to the UK I was spending most of my time in Scotland, so it’s almost a second home to me now. Things changed, of necessity, during the pandemic when I wasn’t able to travel but had to keep writing, so my location research has been more limited. For me, Scotland isn’t just a setting. It’s a character all of its own. I’ve had so many readers contact me to say that either they’re visiting Scotland for the first time having read my books, or going back with a view to going to the actual places I’ve written about – including some of the pubs and restaurants where I’ve written scenes. It’s a joy to be able to share the places I love.
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I don’t have a good answer to this. I started writing because I’d spent a lifetime telling stories inside my head, and as a barrister I was used to shaping words as a tool to cross-examine and to persuade juries to either acquit or convict depending on my role in any given case. I don’t think I ever intended to actually become an author. I just wanted to get stories onto paper. Being here, getting to the stage where I see my books on the shelf in stores, is a privilege. The process to get there, for each book, is equally split between hard graft and the thrill of creating something you love.
If there’s one single part of it that makes me smile more than anything, it’s writing great dialogue. This doesn’t happen all the way through the book or for every character, but there comes a moment when you know you’ve written the perfect line, the perfect comeback, those few words that you hope will make the reader laugh out loud. And the thing about great dialogue is that it means you’ve created a three-dimensional character. A reviewer said recently that they sometimes expect to bump into one of my characters on the street, and that was a real moment for me. To be able to bring a character off the page into the real world as far as my readers are concerned means I’m doing my job right.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’m currently writing the book that will be my first hardback release, and it’s a bit of a different beast. It’s a bigger, more “hooky” idea because the marketing will be more intensive. I am revisiting Dr Connie Woolwine for that book. She’s a psychological profiler who appeared in The Shadow Man, and took a guest turn in One For Sorrow. It has locked room elements to it, and is set in a high security mental health facility. I think it’s the hardest book I’ve written to date. I’m also currently editing a book set in the US, between California and Arkansas, that was a lockdown project celebrating the part of the world I lived in for a few years, and incorporating some of the characters I met along the way. I’m also just starting the publicity for The Last Girl To Die, which comes out in September. It’s set on the Isle of Mull and is a standalone with a new lead character, but regular readers will be pleased to see a couple of old favourites popping up in the story. It’s shaping up to be a busy year!
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Odd Thomas (Dean Koontz), Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell) and Jack Parlabane (Christopher Brookmyre)
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
My sister-in-law asked to be written into a book, so I had my killer push a huge chest of drawers onto her and jump on it until she was crushed to death. That was interesting.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
In writing, using the word “way” for a multitude of purposes – I have to go through and take them all out. In life, “No, do it yourself” when I’m asked to do things my children can easily do but can’t be bothered with!
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
Fold the corner (don’t @ me!)
What a dinner party Helen’s favourite crime fiction characters would make! And what a work ethic – I’m sure her fans will be overjoyed to hear about all these books in the pipeline. There is definitely something about Scotland that gets into your bones; I’ve been here more than 20 years and crossing the border north feels as much coming home as spending time in my actual homeland of Northumberland. Long may it provide fertile ground for Helen’s imagination.
Helen’s latest novel is One For Sorrow, the seventh in the Luc Callanach series: One for sorrow, two for joy Edinburgh is gripped by the greatest terror it has ever known: a lone bomber is targeting victims across the city, and no one is safe. Three for a girl, four for a boy In their jobs, DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach deal with death every day. But when it becomes clear that every bomb is a trap designed to kill them too, the possibility of facing it themselves starts to feel all too real. Five for silver, six for gold With the body count rising daily and the bomber’s methods becoming ever more horrifying, Ava and Luc must race to find out who is behind the attacks – or pay the ultimate price… Seven for a secret never to be told…
To launch One For Sorrow, Helen will be appearing at Christ Church Centre on Morningside Road, Edinburgh, under the auspices of The Edinburgh Bookshop (@EdinBookshop), on Tuesday 8 March at 7pm. Details and tickets are available from the shop’s website: www.edinburghbookshop.com