The Five By Five Interview with Deborah Masson
“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!
Deborah Masson first popped onto my radar when she won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize in 2020 – and when I eventually got round to reading it, I found Hold Your Tongue is a great read and deserved the plaudits. Two books on and she has been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize – now there’s an upward curve to admire! Eventually I will meet Deborah in person, but in the meantime I am using Twitter to praise her writing – and the blog to find out a bit more about her writing journey and her thoughts on all things crime fiction. You can read my review of her latest novel, From The Ashes, elsewhere on the blog.
Deborah Masson was born and bred in Aberdeen. Always restless and fighting against being a responsible adult, she worked in several jobs including secretarial, marketing, reporting for the city’s freebie newspaper and a stint as a postie, to name but a few. Through it all, she always read crime fiction and, when motherhood finally settled her into being an adult (maybe even a responsible one) she turned her hand to writing what she loved. Deborah started with short stories and flash fiction then decided to challenge her writing further through online courses with Professional Writing Academy and Faber Academy, where she wrote her debut novel Hold Your Tongue, the first in the DI Eve Hunter series, which won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize in 2020. It was followed by Out For Blood and From the Ashes, which was longlisted for the 2022 McIlvanney Prize. Find her on Twitter at @deborah_masson
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?
I had always loved reading crime fiction as a teen and throughout my adult life to date. My mum and I would swap books back and forth at alarming speed! I started scribbling when my eldest was two and napping in the afternoons. Becoming a full-time mum after having always worked full-time, I needed something just for me, and to keep the old grey matter ticking over. I started dabbling with flash fiction and then short stories. Eventually I mustered the courage to send my first short story into a magazine competition – I was stunned when it won second place. That recognition spurred me on to write more.
At the time I was writing supernatural stuff but, when I saw an advertisement for the Professional Writing Academy’s six-week Introduction to Crime Writing online course, I decided to try and write what I loved to read. I thoroughly enjoyed that course and it gave me the seed of an idea for what was to become my debut. After completing that course, I signed up for a Faber Academy online course and, by the end of that, I had the first draft of a novel.
It took me a while to gain enough confidence to send it off to agents, and that didn’t happen without a lot of encouragement from my mum. And so, I sent it off to four agents in London, and was flabbergasted when the lovely Oli Munson of AM Heath called to ask for the full MS and then went on to offer me representation. From there it was a whirlwind. I was picked up by Random House in Germany and then Transworld in the UK. A dream come true.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
It was a well-needed escape and release writing my first novel! I had always worked, and it was a shock becoming a full-time mum and being at home alone with a little bundle. A little bundle I loved, and eventually a second little bundle I loved just as much, but I also needed to feel like me too.
It became an escape even more so when my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and my relationship with my kids’ dad started falling apart. Writing during that time was what kept me sane and, when my debut found a home, it was a real silver lining in a very difficult time. The cover of my debut came through the day mum passed away, but I know she was so proud that I’d made it that far.
By then my relationship had ended and me and the kids had moved house and town, so it meant a lot to me to be able to show them that anything was possible if you worked hard enough, even in hard times, and that dreams can come true.
The other two books in the series, written since, were a shock as I was working to a deadline all of a sudden. That was a challenge throughout grief, looking out for the kids, and then Covid with all the lockdowns – but it was the same challenge for so many others and I did get there in the end!
Q3 You won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize for your first novel, and From The Ashes, is longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize. Can you tell us what impact that has had, and a little of what the festival means to you?
I went to Bloody Scotland many times as a reader and I remember feeling so comfortable there on my own. I was in my element as I dotted from author to author and sat in the audience listening to what motivated them and their stories. I dreamed of being mentioned in some way at the festival one day if I ever got published, but to win the debut – well, that was surreal and totally unexpected. I think that showed in my acceptance speech, haha, albeit it was online as we were still in lockdown.
To be longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize with the third book in the series has been just as much of a surprise. To be nominated alongside writers who are akin to my rock stars is unbelievable. The impact of those two things is that they’ve given me a little more faith in my writing. I think most of us writers question whether what we’ve written is good enough, where we could’ve done better, what we can do in future to improve. But to have the validation of a debut win and the recognition again for my third book is truly humbling. Even if it doesn’t make the shortlist, what it’s achieved is enough!
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
Ooh, that’s a difficult one. I feel so lucky to be doing this job that I enjoy all of it. The blank page before a new idea, the first draft ready to be improved, talking to professionals in their own field in the name of research, meeting readers and seeing the enjoyment they find in reading something you’ve written. All of it! Even reviews, including the bad ones – you are always learning.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’ve just submitted the first, very rough, draft of a standalone, also set in Aberdeen. So I’m currently jumping every time my email pings – I’m nervous as to what my new editor will think but excited to be working on a new project, even if it does mean binning what I’ve written and starting all over again. Oh me…
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Too many to mention! There are so many people in this genre at the top of their game and writing fantastic characters. If I was to be forced to choose one then it would be DI Tom Thorne, purely because Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead with Thorne at the helm was the first book that turned me to police procedurals and following a series.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. It just really got under my skin. A great story and fantastic characterisation – plus it’s the long-awaited follow-up to The Shining. I pick it up when I just want to read for pure enjoyment and sink into the familiar.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Ha. That would have to be my chosen method in my debut, Hold Your Tongue. I won’t say too much but let’s just say the title says it all.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
I thought I’d ask my kids, since they spend the most time with me. Their answer? “Stop fighting!”
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
Neither – I turn the book over, splayed open at the page I’m on. Fold down the page corner? Sacrilege!
Thanks so much to Deborah for answering my questions – and thanks in particular for being so open about the tough times she has gone through while writing, I hope she’s an inspiration to anyone struggling out there. Though I’m not sure how she can claim it’s sacrilege to fold a page corner while she admits to leaving books splayed open – those poor spines! I’m definitely looking forward to this mysterious standalone novel though, I hope that it arrives on the shelves very soon.
Deborah Masson’s latest book, From The Ashes, is out now: As the house burns, the hunt for a killer begins… In the dead of night someone starts a fire in a home for underprivileged children in Aberdeen. The flames spread quickly, and one person doesn’t make it out alive. But the victim wasn’t found in their bedroom; they were discovered locked inside a secret basement underground. As DI Eve Hunter and her team search the blackened ruins, the case takes them into even darker territory. Soon Eve unearths a horrific discovery at the heart of the property – one that turns the whole investigation on its head. Everyone in this home has something to hide, but who has a secret worth killing for?