Seeing Your Book On The Big Screen – Laura Lippman and Killer Woman Alex Marwood in Conversation

Edgar-winning crime writers Laura Lippman and Alex Marwood have been friends for five years or so, keeping up regular contact across the Atlantic. When Marwood did a Hollywood deal for her thriller The Killer Next Door, Lippmann, whose novel Every Secret Thing was adapted was adapted for the acclaimed film of the same name in 2014, was the obvious person to turn to for advice on how to handle the business involved. They didn’t stick to advice for long, of course, but turned, instead, to opinion…

Laura Lippman: How important is it to see your work adapted? I mean, from an artistic standpoint? Once upon a time — less and less these days — even a bad film could free up a good writer and help her career. (I confess I’m thinking of the mess that Hollywood made of Sara Paretsky’s early books.) I’ve known a lot of male writers who seem to need film or television as an artistic validation. And maybe some women feel the same way, but I’m not one of them, despite having seen an excellent adaptation of one of my works. Where do you line up on this?

Alex Marwood: it’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? It’s one of those things that does seem to validate one in other people’s eyes, so I suppose from that point of view that it’s great to get a film deal, even better to have that film deal actually turn into a Thing. But from the artistic point of view? Not really. I guess if I didn’t want them to be books, I’d have had a go at writing them for celluloid in the first place. I adore film, but it’s a different thing, isn’t it? I’d love to have go at writing them, but it’s such a very different skill that the thought of having to learn how I find rather daunting. How about you? Do you ever toy with your ideas as films rather than novels, as you’re feeling your way through?

LL: There is exactly one film/television project that I want to try my hand at, and that’s developing a television series for the Tess Monaghan books. But that’s only because I have a singular approach that I don’t think anyone else will try and I understand how the business works. I need to create a blueprint — a pilot and a so-called Bible — then find a showrunner to execute it.

But I never think, as I write, oh this would be simpler/more fun to write as a film. I’m a huge fan of James M. Cain, but Raymond Chandler once pointed out to him that his dialogue, which seems so film-ready, wouldn’t work at all on the screen. (And some very faithful Cain adaptations have proven Chandler right.)

Plus, I like writing novels because I’m the most misanthropic social animal you’ll ever meet. I love people; I often hate working with them. I wonder if you feel the same? We both have that newspaper background and while it was immensely fun and I adored it, I often chafed at how little power I had. Nothing made me angrier than seeing what should have been a Page One story get poor play because it had bad “art.”

What about you? Don’t you love the “aloneness” of writing? And as someone who used to write on very tight deadlines, aren’t you pleased to be able to follow your own writing metabolism now?

AM: Oh, God, it’s heaven. I actually went freelance as a journalist years before I started writing books for that very reason. I mean, I love people. I really enjoy meeting them and winkling detail about themselves out of them, but a little bit of me is always planning my day around when I can get to be alone again. I once remarked to my editor, when I was freshly back and white with exhaustion after the World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, that it was odd, making several hundred introverts go out and party for five days. “Yes,” she replied. “Contrarian introverts, at that.” Which does sort of sum up the average novelist’s personality, I think. You’ve got to enjoy spending time alone with your imaginary friends more than anything, and be bloody-minded enough to ignore the odds stacked against success, to thrive in this game.

That said, I’ve hugely enjoyed the brainstorming sessions I’ve had with the team developing The Wicked Girls for TV. I’m just always happy to get home and think about them in peace and quiet afterwards. And I do occasionally have these ideas for films that I’d love to have a go at, as long as someone took them off my hands and never bothered me again after the first draft. There are still so few really good roles for women compared with those for men. Despite the huge popularity of Sigourney Weaver’s tough vulnerability in Alien and, say, the cold ruthlessness of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction – one of my all-time favourite movies – most modern films seem to be written to a belief that the only alternative to “pretty cipher” for a female part is “kick-ass”.

LL: Such a good observation re: film roles for women. I was just — 5 minutes ago — in an airport bookstore, looking at all the female centric books and wondering why there aren’t MORE female-centric films despite quite a few big successes. When a film with a female lead flops, the repercussions are felt for years. Yet despite WILD and ROOM and BROOKLYN, it’s still a battle. Should we aim our sights on TV?

AM: mmm… hard. Despite the amazing stuff featuring really convincing women – The Bridge and The Killing spring to mind – I still hanker after my no1 recast movie – The Usual Suspects with Gaboure Sidibe (the chick from Precious) in the Keyser Sose. If they didn’t notice the limping little rat-man, imagine how long it would take them to notice the fat black chick! And she’d so rock the downtrodden part, and the amazing transformation at the end.

One of the things I love, though, is those underground TV hits that pretend to be something else that men will like while actually being totally aimed at letting women objectify men deliciously, like Supernatural and The Walking Dead

LL: And how interesting that those are both horror! What other male franchises should be rebooted– I mean, besides the White House? I vote for an all-female Oceans 11, but without the love story.

AM: That’s funny, the Hillary thing, isn’t it? It’s the one place where Hollywood isn’t behind, equalitywise. They’ve had black presidents, and Madam Presidents, all my grumpy old adult life.

Yeah, it’s a pity the reboot they chose to feminise was Ghostbusters, isn’t it? And that they of all the films they picked it would be one I never found funny in the first place (but maybe that’s just me)? Actually, I’m not sure how much modern comedy could be rebooted for a female cast. I mean, I love me some Farrelly brothers, but they’re almost all predicated on male inadequacy, and how funny it is to find an inadequate male, and, you know… female inadequacy is taken so much for granted in modern Hollywood that it wouldn’t be funny. Oh, when you think back to the comedies of the thirties right through to the late sixties, when suddenly “charming ditzes” like Goldie Hawn became the thing. The women were smart, fast-witted, ingenious..

LL: I haven’t seen Ghostbusters yet — with a small child, my cinematic life tends toward talking animals — but I am in the tank for Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy. That said, what an interesting idea, inadequate males versus adequate females. I still get angry over School of Rock‘s females — not only the waste of Sarah Silverman, but the little suck-up, Summer. Women were seen as innately joyless, in need of a man child to find their authentic selves. And people wonder why the “GIRL” books took hold. Good lord, if we — well, our female protagonists — have to be unlikeable to anchor books, so be it. Give me a multitude of Amys (that’s a Gone Girl crossed with Sondheim allusion) if that’s what it takes.

Here’s the thing: I think women are asked, still, to tell so many lies (Being a mother is so fulfilling, Oh, it’s not small at all, etc) that crime serves us very well. Scratch a woman, find a rage. And a story. Speaking of which — what are you writing now? And reading?

AM: Ooh! I’m doing something on cults! So exciting. The research is the best, and has taught me so much about human nature generally, authoritariansiam, our tendency to never question attitudes once we’ve decided we like them. It’s going to revolve around a family who find themselves suddenly responsible for two teenaged survivors of something like the Jonestown massacre. So I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction revolving around that. I’m also a third of the way into Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said and it’s absolutely brilliant: so so atmospheric. And I’ve just finished Megan Abbot’s You Will Know Me, which blew me out of the water, too, and Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me. My God, there’s a lot of powerful writing going on in psych crime at the moment. And you?


Sorry, got a little excited.

I read a lot of books at once, four to five, then one breaks from the pack and races toward the finish line. In the past two weeks, I’ve read S.J. Bolton’s Daisy in Chains, Linda Fairstein’s Killer Look and Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and I have several other books in progress. Am dying to discuss Siracusa with people because I think it’s excellent, but I also wonder if its shocks are somewhat subdued for those who read a lot of crime novels. Maybe it’s not meant to be surprising? I don’t know. That’s what I yearn to discuss. Yet, like you, I”m a huge fan of Megan’s book, which didn’t surprise me, but did shock me, if that makes sense? I think women crime writers are very good at this, making the expected shocking.

Meanwhile, I’m writing a novel set in 1995, which is a mash-up of several works by James M. Cain, cross-pollinated with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, a 1995 novel about a woman who abandons her querulous family during a vacation. A very funny novel, warm and big-hearted, but isn’t that the most noir idea? And in my novel, the woman is the stranger who arrives in a new town. Yet — she’s a domestic creature who yearns to put down roots. That’s one of the basic tensions in The Postman Always Rings Twice, wanderlust versus domesticity. As someone with a strong nesting instinct, who expends a lot of energy on making things “nice” around the house, I’m fascinated that men find this sinister. And yet they do.

AM: Yes, it’s so odd, that. And yet so many men like my father, who was suspicious in that way too, also thought that women who weren’t constantly questing for more “nice” were terribly suspect. I think the dichotomies – public/ private faces, ambition/ domesticity, children/ not children, “nice” / self-assertion – with which women deal on a daily basis are at the core of a lot of the good psychological crime. Can’t wait to read this. I LOVED Wilde Lake. Love the way you’re playing with literary tropes and yet staying within the boundaries of the crime novel at the moment. But of course, that’s one of the wonderful things about our genre – the amount of wiggle room within it, the fact that all sorts of writers can pick up the ball and run in unexpected directions. I’ve always wanted to do an anthology in which a dozen writers were all given the same basic plot starter, and see where they go with it. I can guarantee that each story would be wildly different. But maybe that’s a subject for another day…

On The Level: interview with Gaby Chiappe and Alex Perrin

Gaby Chiappe and Alex Perrin co-wrote the new ITV crime drama, The Level. Sarah Hilary caught up with the pair ahead of Gaby’s appearance at the Killer Women Festival.


We tend to think of writing as a solitary craft, but I suspect collaborative writing is very rewarding. Do you come up with ideas together, as well as sharing the writing itself? How does it work in practical terms?


We have worked together over the years on two or three projects including ‘Cuffed’ (that’ll have to be re-named if it ever gets made on account of the BBC’s Brighton-based cop-show of a couple of years ago, ‘Cuffs’!). The Level is the first one that resulted in a series commission, and for both of us, is the first time we’ve had an original idea commissioned. We both also have solo careers, and as you say, writing is a very solitary occupation… you probably wouldn’t go into it if you didn’t like your own company and weren’t happy spending hours, days, weeks – months even, very much on your own, but even if that degree of isolation suits you, the prospect of collaborating closely with someone is a really lovely thing to run alongside working alone.  You can sometimes get that kind of collaborative relationship with a script editor or a producer – but only in short bursts. When it comes to actual writing it’s still you, your computer and the blank page. Bouncing ideas off yourself is slow and often frustrating work – you can only ask yourself the questions that are already in your head, and although you can and do make breakthroughs that way, it can feel like a real slog.  We both found it incredibly fruitful to have a creative conversation with someone else. You still hit brick walls, but at least you do it in company.

In terms of how we actually go about writing collaboratively … We have known each other for years, have similar tastes and didn’t really struggle to find a way of working together creatively speaking.  We come up with the ideas together, structure the story together, first in broad sweeps and then in episode-sized chunks, and only when it comes to the beat by beat outlines and the actual writing of scenes do we part company – and then never for very long. Usually we break the episode down into smaller and smaller chunks and then each write a chunk, usually a matter of a few scenes – we will then edit each other’s work and sometimes re-work it together. Some key scenes we actually wrote together to start with and then continue to refine together.  Unfortunately, we’re both inveterate tinkerers – the hours we’ve spent worrying about the choice of words and the punctuation (even for stage directions) doesn’t bear thinking about.  We each wrote one episode alone, but even those were story-lined together.

The problems of working together tended to be more practical than creative as one of us lives in Leeds (Gaby) and the other in London (Alex). Skype is absolutely integral to this working relationship, it’s how we thrash out story, write and edit. When the signal’s good, we tend not to mess with it and just leave it on. Claire Armspach, who is officially our script editor but is actually much, much more than that, is often part of these conversations too, so we have three-way skype-athons that last all day. Sometimes we are able to meet and be in the same room – those days tended to be the most productive. Amazingly, in all that time, we’ve never had a serious disagreement – tempers more likely to fray over dodgy Skype signals!


The Level has some fascinating (and complex) female characters, from Nancy Devlin (our heroic detective) and her mother to Cherie and her daughter, Hayley. Do you feel there is more room in TV crime drama now for strong females, on both sides of the law? Perhaps even a demand for these kinds of women?


The number of female protagonists in TV crime drama at the moment would suggest there’s a huge appetite for strong women characters. But in a way, why wouldn’t there be? Half of us are women, we live in a world in which women take their place absolutely alongside men – (even if they’re still not being paid equally for doing so) – and with rare exceptions (e.g. Juliet Bravo in the 1980s, Jane Tennison in the 1990s) it’s taken TV a long time to catch up with that, so maybe there’s a thirst there that’s going to take a while to slake. In terms of writing strong women – that’s the world as we see it, it’s not a matter of ticking boxes. Crime dramas have (too) often created a landscape in which to be a woman is to be a potential victim, and even more perniciously in which violence against women is sexualised. Gaby is a woman, Alex has a female parter and a female child – why would either of us want to create a TV world in which women are the victims and the bait? It doesn’t mean that our characters are all superwomen, they’re not – Nancy has a world of trouble on her shoulders, her mother is struggling with mental health issues, Hayley is moving back to her parents’ house with her kids after her marriage falls apart, Cherie is a mother trying to cope with many things including a challenging (adult) son. Mixed in with the heightened jeopardies of a thriller, they all have real-world, every day problems.

In relation to The Level, it also made particular sense for our compromised detective to be a woman. In the real world only around 30% of police officers are women at lower rank (decreasing to around 20% at senior level). Nancy’s decision to go into the police says a lot about her passion and determination, and raises the stakes on her internal conflict.


Do you have favourite ‘killer women’ on television, past and/or present?


Gaby: Jane Tennison, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Agent Scully of the X files.

Alex: Jane Tennison, Catherine Cawood (Happy Valley), Birgitte Nyborg (Borgen)


How does it feel taking custody of other people’s characters? Gaby, you won a great deal of (deserved) praise for your writing on Shetland. Do you approach this sort of writing any differently to where you’ve created the characters from scratch yourselves? How do you factor in the strong sense of ‘ownership’ that many readers and fans have for long-running series characters?


Well, ideally you’ll be a reader and a fan yourself, so you’ll have a love for the characters and a respect for the work that’s already gone into them. That was certainly the case with Shetland. But even if you’re coming to characters new, you can fall in love with them. And you need to. If you don’t love and respect the characters you’re working with you probably won’t be able to write them. When you work with your own characters, you invest in all of them, love them all – something’s wrong if you don’t. Whereas it may be that you ‘receive’ characters and one or two don’t interest you: in which case, where possible, you’d be well advised to steer clear of them, and work with those that do. If none of them grab you – don’t take on the work! You have to spend a long, long time in their company,  without a passionate attachment to them your working life is going to be very bleak – that’s true whether the characters are your own flesh and blood or whether you’re fostering someone else’s characters for a time.

The main difference in working with your own characters is that they are often still being defined. So there may be a greater freedom to explore – you can set your own parameters. In particular, someone else’s character is likely to have acquired their past before you work with them. And, even more crucially in drama, they are likely to have been cast: you are working not only with what you imagine, but what you see. Whether you’ve created the characters yourself or are borrowing them, casting probably make the biggest difference.  Writing for characters whose voices you can hear in your head because actors already inhabit them, is a very different experience to writing for characters whose voices only exist in your own mind. In the latter case you are essentially going round with a head full of entirely imaginary people who are very, very real to you. It can make you a bit odd. Or maybe you do it because you’re already a bit odd….


Whats next for you both in terms of writing?


Well, another series of The Level would be nice! And Gaby is working on a screenplay adaptation of Dark Matter, a fantastic and very scary ghost story by Michelle Paver. (Another example of loving the characters someone else created so much that you are desperate to spend a few years in their company.)


Gaby Chiappe is part of the Serial Thrillers panel at the Killer Women Festival on 15 October.

Book Club – Newsletter October 2016

Killer Women Crime Club Newsletter No.9

Newsletter October 2016

Killer Women Q&A with MJ McGrath and Kimberley Chambers

With only two weeks to go to the Killer Women Crime Writing Festival and a week after the publication of Killer Women’s first short story anthology, Killer Women cofounder and Essex girl Mel McGrath talks to No 1 Sunday Times Bestseller and fellow Essex girl Kimberley Chambers about her writing and her East London/Essex roots.

Mel: In your Gangland novels featuring the Mitchells and the Butlers, do you draw a lot on your own experiences?

Kimberley: I’ve had a colourful life so I know how it was and what was what. I can write authentically about that world because it was what was around me.

Mel: One of the big themes in all your books is dysfunctional families.

Kimberley: You write what you know. I’ve always gone for that strong bonded East End family. My grandparents are out of the East End, though I was brought up in Dagenham. The Mitchells and the Butlers are both gangland families I created – they’re dysfunctional because it’s more interesting!

Mel: Are the Butlers and the Mitchells based on people you know?

Kimberley: No, they’re fictional families though there probably are little elements from people I know.

Mel: They’re bonded and very loyal to one another but at the same time they seem to make each other very unhappy. Have you come across a lot of families like that in the East End?

Kimberley: Yes, that’s the Butlers through and through. But there are Gangland families like that everywhere I should imagine, not just in London but in Liverpool, Glasgow, everywhere.

Mel: Another theme in your books that will be familiar to anyone who watches East Enders or is from that part of the world is the Matriarch.

Kimberley: Queenie is definitely that. I have very strong women in my family, my nan lost her husband in the war and she was hard as nails, she was the one who washed all the dead bodies down.

Mel: But the men in your books are often really awful.

Kimberley: That’s true, though with Queenie and Albie it’s other way around. She only married him because she wanted the kids. She’s all about her boys. She knew what she wanted at the beginning and she’s moulded the whole family.

Mel: The East End you write about in the 80s and 90s has largely gone now.

Kimberley: Yes, it has, completely. My next book, Backstabber, is set in 2002 and brings the Butlers and the Mitchells together but I like writing about the 60s, 70s, 80s, they’re eras I’m passionate about. I will probably go back and do something in those decades next.

Mel: Growing up, did you feel different from the other kids?

Kimberley: I was quite bright in infants and juniors but I didn’t want to go to [the local grammar school] because the uniform was something like Little House on the Prairie and I thought no way! So I ballsed the interview up on purpose. When I was mini-cabbing for a while I’d moan about this, that and the other, my mother would say, serves you right, if you hadn’t ballsed up that interview, you wouldn’t be doing the crap job you are. She didn’t live to see my first book come out but I thought, see, if I’d gone to that bleedin’ school you wanted me to, I wouldn’t be writing the stuff I write about now. I’ve always had a lot of friends but I’ve was also someone who stood out in the crowd, not because I’m incredibly beautiful or anything like that, but I’m humorous. I get that from my dad.

Mel: You didn’t write your first book until you were 38. Did you have in the back of your mind that you would write?

Kimberley: Not really, I used to joke about it – I would always say, ‘there’s another story for the book.’ I was always a storyteller but I didn’t think I was capable of writing a book.

Mel: Who were your early influences?

Kimberley: I was obsessed with Enid Blyton when I was a kid, but then I discovered boys and I never read another book until I picked up a Jackie Collins novel on holiday and I ended up reading about 10 of her books. Then I really got into Martina Cole and my mum would wrap me up a copy of her latest for Christmas. It was from that I met Pat at the bookstall in Romford Market and asked her to recommend other writers and that’s how I started reading Mandasue Heller, Jilly Cooper and Lesley Pearse.

Mel: What motivated you to write?

Kimberley: I wanted money and I wanted a better life. I was 38 and minicabbing. I was stuck in a one bed council flat. I always thought I’d meet Mr Right and settle down and have kids and all that but when you get to 38 you start thinking that’s not going to happen.

So I started writing my first book, Billie Jo, and I knew by chapter 7 I was going to make it. I’d found my vocation in life and I truly believed I was going to get right to the top. I only had a couple of grand in the bank at the time, but I went part time with my job, because I knew if I didn’t I was never going to get the book finished. I was doing three 12 hour shifts over the weekends, taking Monday to recover, in order to give me Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to write.

Mel: What’s the secret of your success?

Kimberley: My career didn’t take off till I got to HarperCollins who got my books into the supermarkets. I’ve got all kinds of readers, but I think people feel that I really know the world I’m writing about.

Mel: What would you say to someone young and from the same kind of background as you with aspirations to write?

Kimberley: You’ve either got a gift for writing or you haven’t but until you have a go you’ll never know. Get the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook and read through it. There are such good tips. I remember going through that over and over again and they said don’t submit anything until you’ve polished it up and I went back to my three chapters and gave them a polish.


Mel McGrath is the author of the CWA Gold Dagger nominated Edie Kiglatuk Arctic Mysteries and a cofounder of Killer Women. Her psychological thriller #GiveMeTheChild will be published in 2017 and is available to preorder here. | @mcgrathmj


Kimberley Chambers is the bestselling author of 11 books. Her latest, #TaintedLove, is available in paperback in supermarkets and bookshops and here. | @kimbochambers


The Killer Women crime writing festival is taking place on Saturday 15 October at Shoreditch Town Hall. Headliners include: Mark Billingham, Ann Cleeves, Martina Cole, Paula Hawkins and Val McDermid. Programme info and tickets here.


The First Killer Women Crime Club Anthology is available here.





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