Of the many topics explored at Karen Campbell’s excellent talk, was the tendency for publishers to seek to categorise a writer’s output for marketing reasons. It is keen observation of human character which makes great writing, regardless of genre labelling, and Karen’s early experience in the police force simply meant that her fiction was likely to reflect such.
Karen’s list of favourite writers (Kelman, Ali Smith, AS Byatt, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy), with not a crime writer among them, duly bore out this argument. Looking back on her first four books (The Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadow Play, and Proof of Life), Karen is now able to see an over-arching development charting how the police force has changed over recent times (as well as sub-themes influenced by the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes). The conflicts which arise out of female-to-female, boss-employee relationships (in an environment where a certain male-inflected harshness still lingers as a stereotype) could also be discerned.
The starting point for all Karen’s storytelling is a “grit”, around which an oyster can form – often something that makes her curious or even angry. In the case of her fifth and latest book, that grit is the true-life scenario of refugees finding themselves in Glasgow with little English (and their only help a mentoring scheme, whereby a volunteer local can lead them through the many pitfalls of a strange and frightening city after the terrors they have escaped in their own country). Her novel, This Is Where I Am (to be released in a matter of weeks), is rigorously structured around twelve monthly meetings between Somali refugee Abdi and local girl Deborah (and the telling cultural cross-ferilisation that their interactions evoke).
For a limited time only, Karen has posted a link on her website to an extract of her next novel-in-progress (under ‘SWC’) here.
See how radically Karen’s first and final drafts differ. Her first write of a book, she describes as a canvas (which she can then hold up to the light, and see all the holes). Take heart – it took Karen twenty knock-backs to find a literary agent (and that agent twenty knock-backs to find a publisher!). The key is hard graft, and finding the right ‘voice’ for each book and character. The rest is history (but not crime – honest guv!).