Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Jan Newton talks of her love of the country and how it influences her writing.
A Brief Introduction
I spent my first eleven years in Manchester, where I developed a distinctive accent and sense of humour. Along with my sister, I also developed a huge love of horses, which came from our Dad. We were lucky enough to move to a smallholding in Mellor, a small village between Marple in Cheshire, and New Mills in Derbyshire, and to increase our horse and pony collection to four. I spent every spare moment on the back of a pony, exploring the hills and moorlands, and used to get into terrible trouble for climbing out of the bedroom window armed only with a piece of baler twine, to go and ride before school. The baler twine made a makeshift bridle. Not quite as good as the real thing for directional purposes, but much easier to hide.
I still have a horse – this one has been with me for 25 years and we don’t go exploring these days, but there isn’t a better listener. These days I explore the breath taking scenery of mid Wales on foot, with a Labrador and a barmy collie.
Do you like town or country?
I think you might guess from the intro that I’m probably a total country bumpkin. I’m always happiest away from noise and traffic, usually to be found in those glorious liminal environments where cultivated land turns into vast swathes of moorland. Powys is my dream location. It has the largest land mass of any county in Wales, and the lowest population densities, if you don’t count the sheep.
There are towns and cities which I love though. I spent a lot of time in Buxton as a teenager, and developed a great love of spa towns. We lived in Buckinghamshire for twenty years, in a village in the Chilterns – in fact it was the original ‘Badger’s Drift’ in Midsomer Murders. I used to love going to Oxford to shop. I think it’s the only city I could live in. It’s small enough to walk everywhere, and there are cows right in the middle of the city on Christ Church Meadow.
Were you good at English at school? Did you like it?
The headmaster at my primary school had a little ritual. He would ask every new pupil to read from laminated cards he’d had made. He thought reading was the best gift a child could have, and determined to start early with his assessments. Apparently (I don’t remember this) he abandoned his cards and asked me to read an article in his Daily Telegraph to him. ‘She won’t understand it’, he said to my Mum, ‘but she can recognise the words’. English was always my favourite subject. When I was lucky enough to go to a girls’ grammar school when I was eleven I thought I’d gone to heaven. Our English teacher was a huge Thomas Hardy fan. He can’t have been very many years older than we were, but his enthusiasm rubbed off, and he used to read whole chapters aloud. I can still remember being completely spellbound by the writing.
What was your favourite childhood book and why? Do you still read it?
I’m going to cheat here. My very favourite book, which I still read, was Black Beauty. I loved horses from about the age of four, and mithered until I was presented with a beautiful, black Welsh Mountain Pony by the name of Pixie, when I was seven years old. She had the shape and uncooperative characteristics of a Thelwell pony, and I loved her to bits. Black Beauty was the first book that made me really cry, great honking sobs for the poor horse. I had no idea that people could mistreat animals. I do still read it, but less naively these days.
The cheating bit is that I have to add in anything by Enid Blyton, but particularly the Malory Towers series. Things weren’t exactly a smooth ride in the mother department, and I longed to run away to boarding school, on the proviso that Pixie could come too. I was totally smitten with all things Blyton, but I daren’t read Malory Towers again. I know I’d see things that were politically correct then, but not so much now, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the magic of that memory.
What is your earliest writing memory?
My Dad was a television cameraman, working for Granada (as it was then). He spent a lot of time away filming such diverse programmes as the horse racing or party political broadcasts. He was away for weeks on end when they did Zoo Time from Regent’s Park Zoo and Whipsnade in Bedfordshire. In the days before mobile phones (and before we had a land line) he used to send postcards to me and my sister, telling us about his encounters with snakes, huge tortoises and Desmond Morris. I remember writing back to him, telling him about school. I think I must have been a bit of a girly swot even in those far off days!
If you were not an author, what would your chosen career be?
I’ve done all sorts of jobs. My first job after college, was as a bilingual secretary with an engineering firm in Derbyshire. They had joined forces with a company from ‘down south’ and had a stack of documents they needed translating from German. On my first day they proudly showed me my desk and the four foot pile of paperwork. Unfortunately, it was all in Dutch. ‘Never mind,’ the managing director said ‘borrow my car and go and buy a Dutch dictionary.’ After that I worked for BASF in Cheadle Hulme. Their main language after English was German, which was a relief. Then, after moving to Buckinghamshire I worked for a BMW dealership as accounts manager (long story, very swift learning curve). My last job was as a Teaching Assistant in the Welsh Unit at Builth Wells Primary School. So, my career’s been a bit varied.
If I’d known I could do science, I would have been a vet, without a shadow of a doubt. I wasn’t particularly gifted at science subjects at school, and I took languages at A Level, but I did an Open University degree in Chemistry and Geology, graduating in 1999 with first class honours. Mind you, I would have ended up with a houseful of waifs and strays. As it is we have two rescue dogs, two cats (one of which found us after being abandoned) the aforementioned ancient horse and a small and very bossy pygmy goat.
Do you have other hobbies and interests?
I love long distance walking. We’ve done a few really long walks – The Dales Way (Ilkley to Bowness), The West Highland Way and Great Glen Way (both together, Glasgow to Inverness) and the Coast to Coast, from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, twice. That’s a fabulous walk through three national parks. Alfred Wainwright was an absolute genius.
I also play euphonium in two brass bands – Llandrindod Wells and Knighton Town. I’m really missing playing. We probably won’t have any fetes or carnivals this year, possibly not even playing for Remembrance Sunday. I do hope we’re back in time for Christmas carols though. Nothing sounds more like Christmas than brass band carols.
Are you a winter or a summer person?
I like all the seasons, but if I had to choose one it would be spring. Everything looks new and fresh, before the myriad greens merge into the more uniform verdure of summer, and the horse flies arrive. Spring flowers seem so hopeful, and the horse has a buck and a squeal, even at her great age, the first time her rug comes off (calculation of fine balance of decent, horse-friendly temperature and liquidity of mud required).
Having said all that, I adore Christmas. I’d have fairy lights all year if it wasn’t supposed to be unlucky.
Did any author’s work encourage you to write. Who, what and why?
There are so many I could choose here. Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ was a revelation when it appeared on television in the late 1980s. Thora Hird in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee was, and remains, one of the most beautifully written pieces I’ve ever seen. The only other person who manages to walk that fine line between humour and pathos so brilliantly for me is Victoria Wood. Much more humour-based, but so deep, if you read between the lines. That’s the sort of skill I wanted to develop. I would still love to be able to master the art.
Are there any authors whose books you have to buy as soon as they are published?
Alan Bennett again here. His diaries have kept me amused for the past few years, for all the reasons given above. On the non-fiction side, Kathleen Jamie’s books of essays are a real treat. There are three now, Sightlines, Findings and Surfacing. Jamie is a poet, who manages to find a unique viewpoint for her prose pieces. They provide a wonderful lesson in the craft of writing, the skill of the wordsmith.
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your novels, if so how and where?
I always start every piece of writing with the location. I think people and their actions are influenced so much by their sense of belonging – or not – that the place is just as important as the characters.
Remember No More is set on the Epynt, a vast moorland tract between Garth and Brecon in the middle of Powys. The area used to be farmed by a close-knit, Welsh-speaking community which was destroyed after the compulsory purchase of the area by the MOD in 1940. They wanted the area to practise war games. Latterly, in the Foot & Mouth epidemic in 2001, the Epynt was chosen as a burial site for sheep and cattle which were brought in by fleets of trucks from miles away. Nobody really knew, or knows now, what effect that might have had on the land and the groundwater. It has always felt as though there’s a huge sadness up there, and I needed to tell something of its history.
The Elan Valley was also mutilated, to provide water to the City of Birmingham. Rather to be Pitied is set there, on the hills above the dams and reservoirs. The nature of the land and the sparseness of the population has a huge bearing on the plot and the way the characters see themselves and their surroundings.
Even my short stories have definite locations. I was lucky enough to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University as a (very) mature student. We did six modules, and two of mine were nature writing and the curiously entitled psychogeography, which concentrates more on the built environment. I really enjoy writing in both of these genres, and I’m lucky to be able to combine them with my love of writing crime novels by using some of the remarkable locations around me in mid Wales.
Read more about Jan Newton.
To discover Jan’s books, follow the link here to her Amazon page