Today we’re traveling to rural Kent, England to chat with Susan Handley. She and I talk about how Agatha Christie, an old Olivetti typewriter, being outdoors, Fredrick Forsythe, a fractured skull, and Scooby Doo come together as part of Susan’s past and present life. Grab the scuba gear, we’re going down deep with this one …
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in England, in the Midlands, and although I loved to read, especially crime fiction, I never dreamt of being able to carve out a career as a published writer. I now live in a small village in rural Kent, England, with my husband and three rescue cats, Millie, Charlie and Porridge (aka Podge).
In which genre do you write?
I typically write crime fiction. My novels to date have been based around the experiences of a British detective. The first, A Confusion of Crows, is a police-procedural set in a modern detective squad. The second, Feather and Claw, is set in Cyprus, where the protagonist, rookie detective Cat McKenzie, is holidaying with a friend when one of the other guests meets an untimely end.
I have also published a collection of short stories called Crime Bites. It contains a number of what I call “super-shorts” that can be read over lunch or a long coffee, as well as a couple of longer stories for when you’ve got a bit more time. Although they’ve all got crime at their heart, they vary in terms of setting, period and style. Some are gritty, others a little cosier. Playing with different sub-genres can be a lot of fun: I recently had a great time writing a short story based in 1849 California when the gold rush was at its height.
How many published books do you have?
I have two in the DC Cat McKenzie series: A Confusion of Crows, and Feather and Claw. The Third in the series is due to be published in early 2020.
I have also published Crime Bites Volume 1 and hope to be publishing Volume 2 later this summer.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
I was an avid reader as a child and always had my nose pressed into a book. I hadn’t considered writing anything until I was in my late teens. My mum had been collecting Agatha Christie books for years. Every birthday and Christmas I would buy her another for her collection. Then the inevitable happened and there were no more books to buy – she’d amassed the complete works. I thought there was nothing else for it but to write her one myself. In the style of Agatha Christie. I bought an old Olivetti typewriter out of the local paper and for several months spent every spare minute tapping away, hoping to create a story Agatha would have been proud of. Needless to say, I didn’t. The end result was pretty dreadful. Even though it was years before I sat down and penned my next novel, I often thought back to that first attempt and how much I enjoyed writing it, despite how badly it turned out.
What would you choose as your mascot and why?
I think a bird would make a great mascot for a crime writer — they are resilient; many are great at solving puzzles and can work as a team to fend off even the most determined attacks by predators.
What does your ideal writing space look like?
My current writing space is pretty much it:
It gets lots of sun (I’m a bit like a hothouse flower and need lots of light and warmth); has got a little reading corner with a comfy chair next to my ‘to be read’ pile; and is full of bits and pieces collected over the years that are a great source of inspiration — my latest finds are 2 large venetian masks that I picked up from a boot fair. Plus, there are enough places for the cats to sit and keep me company; otherwise I’d have no one to talk to all day (I’m not one of those crazy cat ladies, honestly!)
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished A Man with One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell: an absolutely brilliant book which brings together crime and comedy for a match made in heaven.
I tend to read more crime fiction than anything else, but do try to experiment and have discovered some fantastic writers as a result. As an author, I know how important reviews are to us (damn those Amazon algorithms!) so I make a point of always leaving a review on Amazon and Goodreads; partly to help the author and partly for prospective readers.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
I love being outdoors, walking, cycling and gardening (good job too, I have quite a large garden that needs a lot of looking after). In the summer I escape and work on my veggie patch and greenhouse, where I’m trying to grow a wide selection of fruit and vegetables. Apart from the fact I love being outdoors pottering, the veggies you grow yourself always taste so much better than shop bought ones. I’ve been trying to ‘grow my own’ for three years now and have learned a lot about what you should do. And an awful lot about what you shouldn’t! A bit like writing really.
If you could have a fantasy tea or coffee date with an author or famous person from the past or present, who would it be and what would you ask them?
There are quite a lot of people I think it would be interesting to share a coffee with. I’d love to talk to Agatha Christie and find out what happened in those 11 days in 1926 when she went missing; or Fredrick Forsythe – both a formidable writer and someone who has led such a full life, I think he would be fascinating to talk to. There are also many contemporary authors whose company I would enjoy but the one I would probably like to spend time with is Mark Billingham. I saw him at a literary festival last year and he was interesting, funny, down to earth and just had so much to say. And if we ran out of things to talk about (highly unlikely), he could always entertain me with a song or two from the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers playlist.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through writing?
I am not immune to spending time on social media or just randomly looking at things for the house or garden when I should be writing. This seems to happen a lot when I hit a sticking point in my latest work in progress. One minute I’m trying to figure out how to resolve a plot issue, the next I’ve gone and bought a bookcase from EBay. But hey, you can never have too many books … or bookcases, right?
What is the most amusing, crazy or inspiring thing that has ever happened to you?
Years ago, I was on scuba diving holiday in Cuba and had a horse-riding accident (don’t ask!). It happened on what supposed to be a relaxing trek through the countryside. Needless to say, it didn’t quite go to plan — I fractured my skull and ended up in a coma for a week. When I was cleared for travel, I was flown to a hospital back here in the UK. In the airport in Cuba, waiting for the flight, I was given a sedative. I have no idea what it was but it must have been some pretty potent stuff because at one point I thought someone had stolen my feet. Not my shoes, but my actual feet. It took some persuading before I realised that they were in fact still attached to the bottom of my legs.
The road to recovery was long and sometimes difficult but it made me realise you only have one shot at life, so make the most of it. Shortly after that I blew the cobwebs of my literary ambitions and started to write again.
What do you miss about being a kid?
Having lots of time. I remember whole days spent reading. I’d pick up a book in the morning and wouldn’t stop until I finished it before bed. Those were the days. Now I try to make time to read each day over lunch, but sometimes even that’s a struggle with other things demanding my attention.
If you were trapped in a cartoon world from your childhood, which one would you choose and why?
It would have to be Scooby Doo – how much fun would it be to ride around in an old camper van solving crimes. Though most of the time all they had to do was look for the grumpy old man who would always end the show by saying ‘if it weren’t for those pesky kids…’
If you could turn into one of your characters for a day, which one would it be and why?
It’s got to be DC Cat McKenzie – an optimist, with her heart in the right place, yet she can be like a dog with a bone when it comes to sniffing out a murderer. Oh, and she’s gorgeous. What’s not to like?
A penguin knocks on your door and is wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he there?
He says ‘Which way to the beach?’ having turned up for a little holiday, hoping to enjoy the best of the British Summer – cool days, the odd bout of sunshine and lots and lots of rain.
Do you believe things happen for a reason? Do you have an example from your own life to share why you believe this?
I used to believe everything happens for a reason, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve changed my view a little. There are some things that are so awful it’s hard to believe there is a ‘reason’ (the death of a relative, friend or pet, for example). What I do think is that every event that happens is a good opportunity to be thankful for the good things in your life and to make plans to stop or change the not-so-good things. I’m now a firm believer that out of every crisis comes opportunity – you just have to have your eyes open to what is possible and seize that opportunity.
If you could ask your pets a question, what would it be?
I’ve three cats and would ask them each the same question: You will eat flies, mice, grass, your own vomit (gross, I know), yet you turn your nose up at pretty much everything I put down the second I get a jumbo box of it… what’s that all about?
Which of your personality traits has been most useful and why?
It’s got to be perseverance. When I started to write it was something I did to unwind. Then I got hooked, wrote my first novel and thought it would be a short jump to get published. I know, seriously, what planet was I on? Then I realised two things: 1). There are a lot, no, make that a hell of a lot, of fantastic authors out there who have spent years learning the craft. 2). I had a lot to learn. There were plenty of times when I thought I should give up my dream and just write for enjoyment. But one of the things that make writing so pleasurable is having other people read and enjoy your work. So I persevered and have to say, I think I’m a much better writer for it now.
What’s your favourite place to visit in your country and why?
I live in a rural part of Kent in England, surrounded by quiet country lanes. I’m blessed to be able to walk straight out of the drive and into fields and woodland. I love being outdoors and find the countryside good for the soul as well as being a great source of inspiration. It’s particularly good walking country – ideal for when I’m trying to figure out a particularly knotty problem with a plot.
Tell us about your most recent book.
Feather and Claw is my latest novel and is the second book in the DC Cat McKenzie series.
The story is set on the sunny shores of Cyprus, where Cat McKenzie is holidaying with a friend.
Back in the UK, Cat is a rookie detective in a serious crime squad in the South-East of England and despite her plans for a relaxing vacation, it’s not long before she swaps sunbathing for sleuthing after a fellow guest winds up dead.
It builds on the idea that choice not chance determines human destiny. But on foreign shores not everyone is what they seem and choices can be ill informed, which can have disastrous consequences.
Feather and Claw has sun, sea, sand and suspects a plenty and with romance subtly entwined in a dark web of crime it makes ideal holiday reading.
I also love being outdoors, going for walks. It’s a must for me! I grew up with Scooby Doo and love the original version, reminds me of being a kid again. And, oh my goodness! A fractured skull and stolen feet! WoW! I’m so happy you made it home safely, recovered, and resumed your literary ambitions. It was a great pleasure Susan, having you be a part of MTA. Thank you! – Camilla
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