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