Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Sally Spedding talks of her fascinating childhood and her journey as a writer.
What’s your connection to Wales?
My twin brother and I were born in Porthcawl. (He still reminds me, I was ‘just a shadow’ before weighing in at barely 3 lbs!) My Mum was from Neath where her father was the Mayor, and his mother had kept horses in Pembrokeshire. Our house, named ‘Meppel’ after the town in Holland from where Dad’s parents fled before the Occupation, was on the edge of Trecco Bay’s sand dunes. It was idyllic, but shadows still lurked… His psychic mother (our Oma) had sensed tragedy looming, and they’d fled to Penarth where their German surname soon proved dangerous. They moved to ‘Coed y Twyn’ a house high up on the Blorenge mountain near Abergavenny, but no safety there either, while the nearby vicar kept a rifle under his altar, with orders to shoot anyone with a German surname and/or sympathies. They endured two years hiding in a cottage in the Forest of Dean.
Our late aunt’s diaries spell out the stress at that time, and Oma suffered years of guilt, after her beloved brother and his wife (amid rumours of a family betrayal) were gassed, leaving three young daughters mercifully saved, although one had to pretend she was a corpse in a hospital. They finally returned to ‘Coed y Twyn,’ which was where I, still young, began to write and illustrate stories up in the attic, while tension lingered below.
Years later, having married Jeff, a fellow artist and teacher, I persuaded him to consider a fresh start in Wales. With Abergavenny too expensive, we went further west and settled there until his promotion to Head of Art at University College Northampton. Not only did this town have the old ‘Welsh House’ in its main square, but also, according to the Records Office, before the railways, nearby villages’ lanes had resembled the ‘Wild West’ with herds of Welsh Black cattle passing through. This inspired my second crime novel, ‘Cloven,’ where a dangerous past haunts the present.
Missing the sea, I’d used a ruler to find the nearest coast, and discovered the equally haunted Fens near Sutton Bridge where the author Hilaire Belloc had watched its bridge being cleaned by hand, then opened to let people through into ‘the Wringland.’ (Without knowing this, I’d originally named my first book ‘Snare’ then learnt that Wringland had evolved from ‘wrungo’ the old High German for ‘snare.’) That creeped me out…
After Jeff took early retirement, we returned to Wales. However, there is also France…
How would you describe your personality?
Far too nosey! Even aged 4 on a bus, I’d been staring at another passenger before asking my Mum loudly, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ She really told me off! But other people fascinate me. What lies beneath. Their histories…
I still love singing and have been in various musicals and plays, but when young and enjoying this and dancing on stage, she made me stop because I was ‘showing off.’ This still lingers, as does my twin’s other comment about my art/sculpture. ‘When are you next exhibiting yourself?’ Why even now, I find self-promotion tricky, despite my publishers’ urging me to do more. I prefer to encourage and help others.
Were you good at English at school?
Yes. First taught by nuns in Croydon (although wondering if they wore knickers under their robes!) Then Manchester, where Matthew Arnold became my hero. His sudden death in Liverpool so tragic. All this a contrast to Maths when I’d frequently jump out of the window.
Do you write in longhand in notebooks, use a laptop, or both?
Longhand first, always, in Tesco refill pads, so I can draw the characters and maps etc. Then typing and endless editing on my laptop.
If you have an agent, how long had you been writing and submitting before you got your agent?
While at Art College, I was always hard up, even though my parents were well-off. I took any available holiday job, including hospital sluice rooms – don’t ask! Poking around in office waste paper baskets while cleaning, then came Magna Mushrooms. Underground, and formerly a munitions dump, it was another world. Btw – always wash your mushrooms! The reek of dried pigs’ blood and maniacal speed of picking required, drove me to climb to the highest ‘beds’ to draw the weirdest mutations growing there.
My short story ‘Magnum Opus’ with a fictional main character who comes to a sticky end, won an international short story competition, and a leading London agent made an approach. But, having encouraged me to finish ‘The Fold’ a disastrous Essex school trip to Carcassonne (still in the drawer) he then turned to biographies… C’est la vie…
Some years later, with ‘Wringland’ completed, it was the last day of the then Winchester Writers’ Conference, and the co-editor of ‘The New Writer’, who’d read ‘Wringland’ and had already published my poetry and short stories, insisted that she wasn’t leaving until she’d introduced me to a particular female, London-based agent whom she’d spotted going into the w.c.
So we waited, and sure enough, after slightly embarrassing introductions, and the ‘Wringland’ manuscript safe in her bag, this agent rushed off for her taxi. Within days the show was ‘on the road’ with a two-book deal from PanMacmillan, and their wonderful editor, Peter Lavery. Stef Bierwerth, too. Later, came Allison&Busby, Severn House, then bluechrome (‘Strangers waiting’ short story collection.) Not until 2011 did I seek another publisher, and ‘Cold Remains’ and ‘Malediction’ were both published in 2012 by the brave Sparkling Books. After my backlist was re-published by the then Endeavour Media (now Lume Books) came a seven book deal with Richard Foreman of Sharpe Books, beginning with ‘The Nighthawk.’ Set in the Eastern Pyrenees, and first in a trilogy featuring ex-DI John Lyon from Nottingham. Then the first two of my Delphine Rougier quartet. ‘Downfall’ set near Le Mans, and ‘The Devil’s Garden’ largely in the Vosges.
Having been told early on by Darley Anderson that my writing was ‘too intelligent for the mass market,’ I’ve been very fortunate.
Tell us a little about your character’s background.
It’s December 2003 and convent-educated Delphine Rougier who is nineteen has to work as a hotel chambermaid near Le Mans, while her depressed parents linger on in their run-down farmhouse, where things are grim. Her father François still nurses a dark secret from his past in 1968, while her mother Irène has inherited an even more dangerous history. Loss and betrayal will take their toll, but still Delphine, their only child, clings to her dream of becoming a gendarme. Determination her middle name…
What or who does your character love most?
Her collie dog, Julie, and also her wheelchair-bound best and only friend.
Do they believe in ghosts?
No, but I do! With too many disturbing occurrences to mention here, especially in our brand-new house in Northampton which we discovered too late, had been built on a mediaeval graveyard. Men shouting, me almost strangled in bed etc. etc. Like Oma, I’ve also correctly sensed events about to happen, but, fearful of sideways glances, rarely mention them.
If your character reads crime, which author would he or she choose?
Delphine has already devoured most of the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon. She also regularly reads ‘Le Nouveau Detective.’
Do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how/where?
Yes, it’s crucial. And don’t forget those scary Rupert Bear landscapes where a distant figure on the horizon looms ever larger… As Annie Proulx says, ‘get the setting right, and your characters will be in the right place.’ Smells and all.
Wales and France continue to provide inspiration. Those eerily silent, disused lead mines near Llandovery, where treacherous adits (openings) still lie half-hidden for the unwary, inspired ‘Cold Remains,’ while a house in a small town in the Eastern Pyrenees, a part of our lives for thirty-two years, has inspired ‘The Nighthawk’ and other stories. Here, wild boar roam amongst the vineyards while the nearby Gorges de Galamus thunders down between massive rocks, and ancient Cathar fortresses loom up against the sky. Beauty and tragedy mingling…
As for the flat, eerily silent countryside of La Sarthe, this freaked me out when Jeff went off to take photos. However, I soon noticed a derelict farm, whose front yard was full of decrepit old tractors, while a tilting shrine lurked in a nearby hedge. Who for? Why? I wondered, and while we drove on further south, Delphine Rougier was ‘born.’
What’s next? A series or something entirely different? Continuing to build the portfolio?
With my ex-DI John Lyon trilogy published, also ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Devil’s Garden,’ the third Delphine Rougier book, ‘Blood at Beltane’ is ready, with ‘Fatal’ (working title) to come. There is another in progress, ‘Fin du Monde’ because she ‘tells’ me not to let her go!
‘Office for the Dead’ second in the DC Martin Webb crime trilogy, set in Malvern and the south of France, is out now. This follows ‘Come and be Killed’ (Severn House, now finally, Lume Books) ‘White Meat’ concerning organ theft, also set in Malvern and also Australia, is ready to go.
With nineteen books published, including ‘How to Write a Chiller Thriller’ (Compass Books) I feel that my ongoing poetry collection ‘Sacrifice’ which will be illustrated, needs attention, and for the third time, as judge for this year’s International Welsh Poetry Competition, I also need to focus on that. However, Delphine’s story isn’t quite over yet…
Read more about Sally Spedding
To discover Sally’s books, follow the link here to her Amazon page