The Five By Five Interview with Lisa Gray
“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’m pretty sure the first time I met Lisa Gray was at the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, around the time we both left our respective newspaper staff jobs – she to become a full-time novelist, me to go back to being a freelance journalist. As hacks do whenever we get together, we chewed over the state of the media, but books was a much more interesting topic of conversation! There’s plenty of journalists-turned-crime novelists out there, but not many female ex-football writers from Glasgow setting their novels in California. Here she tells us a bit about that journey.
Lisa Gray is an Amazon #1, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. She previously worked as the chief Scottish football writer at the Press Association and was books columnist at the Daily Record Saturday Magazine. Her debut novel, Thin Air, was a Washington Post and Wall Street Journal bestseller and was Amazon.com’s third-bestselling Kindle eBook of 2019. Her second novel, Bad Memory, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller and long-listed for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year in 2020. Dark Highway was published in November 2020, followed by Lonely Hearts in November 2021. The Dark Room, a standalone, is out now. Lisa now writes full-time. Follow her on Twitter here: @lisagraywriter and find her website at: lisagraywriter.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?
I’ve always been a big reader and quite liked the idea of being paid to write but “author” didn’t seem like a realistic career choice so I decided to become a journalist instead. I spent around 20 years working in journalism, but I wasn’t hugely driven to break stories or interview people – it was the writing aspect that I enjoyed the most. I started going to the Theakstons Harrogate and Bloody Scotland crime fiction festivals, where I got to meet both established and aspiring crime writers. I realised that was what I really wanted to do. After too many years talking about writing a book, I finally wrote what would become my debut novel, Thin Air. I sent it to a handful of agents and quickly got some rejections, so I set it aside for a few months. When I read it again, I could see all the things that were wrong with it so I completely redrafted it. This time, I asked three trusted readers to take a look and provide some feedback. One of those readers, an author friend, liked it and mentioned it to her agent. He liked it too and offered representation and we then got an offer of a two-book deal from Thomas & Mercer. I still feel very lucky at how quickly it all happened.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
Scary and intimidating! I must have rewritten and polished the first chapter a hundred times before realising the book was never going to get written if I didn’t get a move on. When I finished it, it felt like a fluke, like a one-off. I’ve now written six books and every single time it still feels like I’ve fluked it. It definitely doesn’t get easier. If anything, the imposter syndrome intensifies with each book.
Q3 You’ve chosen to set a series of books in the US – what drew you to that, and how does your research process work? And would you ever set a novel at home in Glasgow?
I was always drawn to American fiction, even as a youngster. Sweet Valley High, Point Horror, Judy Blume – these were my go-to books and that world just seemed impossibly glamorous and exciting. As I got older, I moved on to Dean Koontz and Karin Slaughter and Michael Connelly, so it made sense to me to want to write the kind of books that I was used to reading. I was also inspired by the likes of Steve Cavanagh and Mason Cross, who did a brilliant job of setting their books in the US. The other reason is that the location simply works better for some of my plots, such as the Death Row aspect in both Bad Memory and Lonely Hearts. The small matter of a global pandemic has largely hampered plans to go to the US for research trips so most of the research has been done online so far. I definitely want to set a book in Scotland – I just need the right story for the setting. And the research trips would be a whole lot easier…
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I enjoy researching and plotting and even editing. I don’t love the actual writing bit and will never not be slightly freaked out by the sight of a blank page when starting a new book. I think it was Dorothy Parker (and also Scots crime writer Douglas Skelton) who said “I love having written”. That’s definitely me.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’m working on the edits for my next book, which is out in August 2023. It’s called To Die For and it’s a standalone set partly in Hollywood and partly in Malibu. It’s a bit different to my other books and was a lot of fun to write.
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Bosch, Rebus and Reacher. I always look forward to spending time with them.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
I’ve seen my favourite films hundreds of times but I rarely reread books. My TBR pile is big enough as it is!
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
I’ve mostly used shooting, strangling and stabbing. I need to get more inventive.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
Not so much a phrase but my characters tend to do a lot of nodding, shrugging and sighing.
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I have some lovely bookmarks but I usually just fold down the corner of the page. Don’t hate me!
Lisa, I think you need to use those lovely bookmarks that you own! They keep nice and flat when they’re tucked inside a book 😀 I’ve seen so many big-name crime writers admit to imposter syndrome over the years it seems almost an inevitable part of the writing process – but those fears perhaps help push authors striving to do something more or different in every novel. As I often say, readers are here to keep the faith when writers feel lost in the woods, and the Jessica Shaw series has more than rewarded us; I’m sure The Dark Room, To Die For and all else that is to come will too! Thanks so much for chatting, I’m sure a lot of writers starting out will feel better for reading your answers.
Lisa Gray’s latest novel is The Dark Room, available now in paperback, ebook and audio book: Ex-crime reporter Leonard Blaylock spends his days on an unusual hobby: developing strangers’ forgotten and discarded rolls of film. He loves the small mysteries the photographs reveal to him. Then Leonard finds something no one would ever expect, or want, to see captured on film – the murder of a young woman. But that’s impossible, because the woman is already dead. Leonard was there when it happened five years earlier. He has never been able to shake his guilt from that terrible night. It cost Leonard everything: his career, his fiancée, his future. But if the woman didn’t really die, then what actually happened?
Lisa will be appearing on the panel entitled It’s All In The Mind alongside Sarah Hillary and Chris Merritt at Newcastle Noir, opening the festival at 6.30pm on Friday 9 December. The festival runs until Sunday 11 December. For full programme details and to book tickets, visit: newcastlenoir.co.uk
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