Interview: Mary Paulson-Ellis

The Five By Five Interview with Mary Paulson-Ellis

Author Mary Paulson-Ellis (Photo: Chris Scott)

“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 picked up a copy of The Other Mrs Walker somewhere the year it came out, and it promptly buried itself in the deepest reaches of my TBR stack – but earlier this year it resurfaced, and proved to be a thoroughly engaging mystery about family secrets and lies and I could see easily why it had garnered such praise. I have never met Mary in real life, but perhaps one day I will, so I can tell her in person how delicious her writing is, and how much I love how she squeezes so much into every page. In the meantime, I shall enjoy the odd exchange we have on Twitter!

Mary Paulson-Ellis has an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and was awarded the inaugural Curtis Brown Prize for Fiction in 2009 and the Literature Works First Page Prize in 2013. Her debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker was a Times bestseller and Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year. The Inheritance Of Solomon Farthing, her second novel, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize and a Historical Writers Association Gold Crown. Her short stories and non-fiction have featured on BBC Radio 4 and in the Guardian, as well as various anthologies. In 2019 she was selected by Val McDermid as one of the UK’s ten most compelling LGBTQI+ writers working today.  She lives in Edinburgh. Twitter: @mspaulsonellis Website: www.marypaulsonellis.co.uk

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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?
It was long. There were almost 20 years between the very first evening class I took – Write That Story! – to my debut novel coming out. For the first ten of those years I was just playing, then I got serious and started giving up jobs regularly so I could spend more time on my writing. I completed an MLitt in creative writing at Glasgow University, wrote a novel that never got published, had a dark night of the soul. Then I set out to write what became The Other Mrs Walker based on an idea I’d harboured for all of those 20 years. My expectation was that no-one would be interested – it sold straight away. When I was writing that book I knew I was dallying in the world of crime – mortuaries and dead people, bad things from the past. But I also knew it was not what you might describe as a conventional crime novel, more of an unorthodox detective story mixed with a dark family drama. Kate Atkinson was a huge inspiration in showing me how that could be done. I did pitch it as a crime novel to my agent, but she declined to sell it on that basis – only for the publisher who acquired it to promote it as crime under the strapline “A detective story with no detective”. I was pretty happy with that. I’ve just published my third in this loose series and all of them could be described as unorthodox detective stories that dive deep into sinister histories. I like that my work sits within the crime genre. It is so elastic, the perfect vessel within which to tell all sorts of stories, to hold so many things to the light.

Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
Well, in common with many authors, my first published novel was not the first that I wrote. That one took me almost seven years of hard work and lots of failed submissions before I decided to let it go. Writing it was full of excitement, confusion, determination, despair, with long pauses here and there where I didn’t do any writing at all. Looking back, I realise that is much like my writing process now! The only difference really is I can say to myself when faced with the despair element, ‘Well, you’ve done it before…’ Writing a novel with no expectation of publication but huge ambition is a very heightened experience. Writing a novel with a contract to fulfil and a career to worry about is very heightened too, but in a different way. At the end of the day what matters most to me is understanding that whatever happens with the external side of being a writer – getting published, building a profile, sustaining a career, etc – it is the act of writing itself that goes to the heart of who I am.

Q3 There are so many books set in Edinburgh – was it daunting deciding to set your books in the city too? How do you carve out your own Edinburgh?
When I first started writing in earnest I was always a bit wary of pinning down my characters to any particular location. But when I began The Other Mrs Walker (and with my subsequent novels) I knew they had to have a very specific location to make the world of the characters work. I’ve lived in Edinburgh for more than 30 years, so it made sense to set them in the city I knew well. And I wasn’t daunted, I really liked the idea that I was following in a very literary tradition. (In fact, all my books have wee homages to other authors who inhabit and/or have written about the city.) I also knew I was writing about a side of Edinburgh – the world of those who die with no next of kin – that I hadn’t seen in fiction before, so I enjoyed delving into this new aspect of such a famous place and making it my own. It is this “hidden” world and the characters who inhabit it, the work they do and the (dead) people they care for, that provides the engine for all my novels. They are what make my Edinburgh come alive.

Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I love meeting readers and doing live events. There’s a huge energy there that is important to me as a writer. And I’ve always wanted to find a readership for my work, so getting to meet them in person is a fantastic pleasure. I also love talking to other writers. What we do is often a solitary occupation, so sharing the experience with others who understand it helps to keep me sane. In terms of the writing itself, I enjoy editing the most and the initial forays onto the blank page the least. Editing for me is re-writing, the moment when you really start to see if you’ve got gold or just lead. I have great difficulty getting to the end of a first draft, but huge fun wielding the axe once I do. Being a writer, whatever that means, can be a tricky business – lonely at times, difficult to sustain, full of highs and lows. There have been times when I have wondered whether to give up. But recently I’ve come to realise that whatever happens, even if I stop for a while, I will always be a writer. It’s how I understand the world.

Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
The paperback of my latest novel, Emily Noble’s Disgrace, has just been released so it’s lovely to see her out in the world. Meantime, I am supposed to be writing the fourth in my Edinburgh series, due for publication in 2024. I think this one will see all my previous characters (and some new ones) congregate on the page. It might even be my swansong for this series, but as I haven’t actually written it yet, who knows.

Now for the quick-fire round…

Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Jackson Brodie (by Kate Atkinson), Lindsay Gordon (by Val McDermid), Inspector Bucket (from Bleak House by Charles Dickens – one of the greatest detective novels ever).

Q2 What book have you reread the most?
When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson. (Bleak House might be a close second soon, it just takes a wee bit longer.)

Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Well, so far I’ve managed death by laburnum seeds, unofficial shooting squad, family annihilation and infanticide via bucket of water. So I guess I like the dark, eclectic approach.

Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
Of course… Amongst other things… That’s really interesting…

Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
Neither. I simply remember which page I was on before I put the book down. (Though I must admit to now folding the page corner on things I want to return to. My younger self would have absolutely hated this.)

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Thanks to Mary for those thoughtful answers – I love that description of the crime genre, that sums it up beautifully. And as a newspaper copy-editor and sometime proof-reader, it’s great to see a writer enthusiastic about the rewriting/editing process. As many an author will tell you, getting to “The End” is only the start of the process of creating a novel, and a lot of work is done in the edits, whether heavy lifting to get things in the right place or careful polishing of sentences to let them shine and zing to their fullest. I also hugely admire the no-bookmark policy, that’s something to aspire to!

Mary’s latest book is Emily Noble’s Disgrace, newly out in paperback: The case is unexceptional, that is what I know. A house full of stuff left behind by a dead woman, abandoned at the last . . . When trauma cleaner Essie Pound makes a gruesome discovery in the derelict Edinburgh boarding house she is sent to clean, it brings her into contact with a young policewoman, Emily Noble, who has her own reasons to solve the case. As the two women embark on a journey into the heart of a forgotten family, the investigation prompts fragmented memories of their own traumatic histories – something Emily has spent a lifetime attempting to bury, and Essie a lifetime trying to lay bare.

Emily Noble’s Disgrace is a featured book for the July edition of the Bloody Scotland Book Club. Tune in live via Facebook on Wednesday 27 July at 7pm and chat with others watching, or check the festival’s YouTube channel a few days afterwards to catch up with the panel discussion.

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