My Googling history? Best not check it... says Mellis author Mary-Jane Riley
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press � 2015
Mary-Jane Riley was the first mid-morning presenter on BBC Radio Suffolk. Now she’s writing dark crime thrillers set in East Anglia.
Mary-Jane Riley has such a warm and genuine laugh-cum-giggle that it’s something of a surprise to hear she’s a big fan of crime thrillers with bite. Like Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls, whose publicity blurb drawls (and best imagine a deep, gravelly voice here, like the one in the film trailers) “One summer morning, three little girls meet for the first time. By the end of the day, two will be charged with murder.”
Now Mary-Jane has written her own page-turner. The main character in debut novel The Bad Things is journalist Alex Devlin. Her life was changed 15 years earlier when sister Sasha’s two small children were snatched in broad daylight. Harry’s body was discovered a few days later, but Millie’s remains were never found.
Woah. Pretty strong. Did Mary-Jane’s husband – BBC Look East chief reporter Kim Riley – wonder what kind of person he’s been married to for 30-odd years, with all this dark, psychological stuff?
“He did rather!” she laughs. “What you don’t want to see is my Google history, really – all the things one looks up with murders and crimes!”
Actually, of course, she’d seen the horrible underbelly of life while working for the BBC and dealing with court cases such as the Steve Wright multiple murders in Ipswich.
On occasions like that, while obviously being primarily a professional journalist or presenter, is part of the would-be novelist’s brain also thinking “This is cracking material for a piece of crime fiction…”? “I’m afraid so. With a few. I saw a story the other day and thought ‘That is perfect for the new book.’”
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I’ve always wondered about the ability of an author to imagine quite shocking scenarios, like child abduction. Although Mary-Jane’s children are now in their late 20s and early 30s, she’s still a mother. Is it hard to dabble with such taboo subjects?
“Yes... What I hope I do in the book is to mostly suggest. Having said that, I’ve just written a rather gruesome scene” – for her next book – “but I don’t particularly want to write gruesome scenes.
“It’s a difficult one for a writer, because you’ve got to respect people’s feelings – not just say ‘Hey-ho! This is a great story; I’m going to use it, whatever’. You’ve got to be respectful, I think.”
Is there anywhere you can’t “go”, in fiction, because it would be too emotionally painful to even consider?
“I think as a writer you shouldn’t be afraid to go anywhere. And that’s the sort of writer I would like to be.
“It’s that question: would you like your mother to read your book? But if you sit there thinking ‘I don’t want her to read this’, then you’re not going to write truthfully. If you want to write truthfully, you’ve got to be…” Uninhibited? “Yes. Otherwise it’s a bit mealy-mouthed and the reader will see the true emotion isn’t there on the page. If you don’t believe in what you’re writing, readers will see that.”
Just as The Wicked Girls is set in a seaside town “like Great Yarmouth – I think, with a pleasure beach in the winter; it’s very atmospheric” – so The Bad Things is centred on the North Sea coast. The fictional Sole Bay is basically Southwold, isn’t it?
“Well, it is,” she mock-whispers. “The reason I changed the name was because I played with the geography. If I’d said ‘I’m setting it in Southwold’, I’d have to get every single detail right. Which is fine, but it wouldn’t necessarily fit with what I was doing.
“We love Southwold. We’ve been going to it for years, so we’ve got lots of very happy memories. The thing I love about seaside towns is the winter, when all the tourists are gone. Very different feel.”
It’s not the first time the place has inspired a novelist, of course. As Mary-Jane says, Julie Myerson’s 2003 book Something Might Happen was “a really, really good murder story set in Southwold”.
For The Bad Things, the town lent itself “because it has got the very lovely designy, and ‘ordinary’, shops in the centre. Then you’ve got the harbour end with the fishing and nets and the huts. And then the lighthouse. I like all the different areas you can use”.
Mary-Jane Cullen moved around a lot as a child, thanks to her father’s job with Truman’s brewery. Pressed to name a place that was home, she settles for the Midlands. She wrote her first story on her blue Petite typewriter at eight – a Blytonesque romp about a gang of children who had adventures on mysterious islands. Mary-Jane studied politics and philosophy at university in York and wondered what to do afterwards. Job applications were sent off. “The coal board didn’t want me. And the Health and Safety Executive didn’t want me – because I couldn’t wire a plug – so then I saw an advert for BBC local radio. I applied and got a job in Leicester.”
In 1979, on a Beeb training course, she met Kim. They married and she moved to Brighton, where he was working. Mary-Jane got a job on BBC Radio Brighton. Kim later landed a job up here. They came to East Anglia in the early 1980s and lived in Norfolk. Mary-Jane went to Radio Broadland and on to BBC Radio Norfolk. And the couple had three children – two sons now aged 32 and 31, and a daughter now 27.
Then, in 1990, she won her dream job as mid-morning presenter when BBC Radio Suffolk launched in the spring. The family moved to Wortham – close to the Suffolk/Norfolk border and thus a practical compromise for a media couple who usually found themselves heading in opposite directions.
What does she remember of that first day, April 12?
“It’s a total blur! I think everybody just about says the same. We were all so nervous it just went by. And then, of course, you come off air and have to think about the next day’s programme!”
Mary-Jane presented for three or four years. “My children were quite small and I wasn’t seeing them enough, so something had to give.
“I went freelance and did a rock music programme, a Down Suffolk Way – going to villages and talking to people – and a round-table discussion about the week’s news. I did those programmes for some years, which gave me more time at home.
“When I was doing the mid-morning programme I had to leave the house at half-seven and often wouldn’t get back until seven. You have to make life choices, I think.”
Later she worked on the BBC’s online news service. “Do you remember Ceefax? I did that.” Oh yes; cutting edge in the 1980s and early 1990s. “Actually, very good for writing, because you had to get everything in four paragraphs. You’d look at this long, involved court story and have to boil it down.”
Mary-Jane said goodbye to the BBC after last year accepting the chance of voluntary redundancy. “I also got an advance from a publisher. My book had gone to auction in Germany and had three publishers bidding for it. So I got an advance and redundancy, and thought ‘I’m going to give it a go.’”
She’d always “fiddled about” with fiction, writing short stories when the children were small.
An evening class at the University of East Anglia – a diploma in creative writing – was led by an inspirational teacher, “and that kick-started a real interest in actually doing something with my writing. That’s when I wrote some short stories for women’s magazines, wrote a bit of poetry, and short stories for small presses”.
Mary-Jane also tried her hand at a Mills & Boon, “but of course they are actually really difficult to write”. What kind of story? And how did you manage with the passionate bits?
“I remember I wrote one about an Italian millionaire. Good sex is very difficult to write. You only have to look at the Bad Sex Awards! Interestingly, it’s a question people ask: is there much sex in your novel? There isn’t a lot, actually. It wasn’t really necessary.”
We digress. Would-be writer Mary-Jane demanded of herself “What am I doing? What do I really like to read?’ I love reading crime stories and thrillers, so I thought ‘Right! Let’s give that a go.’”
Who are her favourites? “Patricia Highsmith was marvellous – the leader in unreliable narrators. Ruth Rendell – I interviewed her. PD James. Agatha Christie when I was a child. Belinda Bauer at the moment. I really love her writing.” Why this genre? “The sort of crime fiction I like is about ordinary people trying to lead a good orderly life and something happens that knocks them off course, and it’s interesting to see how they react to that, and how life can go terribly wrong with just one bad decision. I like that psychological element; and I also like detective stories. You’re always trying to solve the crime while you’re reading it, aren’t you?”
The Bad Things, started about 18 months ago, is her first major piece of writing. “I’d done one book, which got me an agent. She said ‘This isn’t quite right, but I really love your writing.’ Then I did this one.
“It just came out of an idea: what would it be like to go and talk to somebody who’d ruined your family? How would I react? That’s where it came from, originally.”
In a Riley household of two creative people, is there ever an underlying edge of competition? Envy?
“No. We’ve always done different things. I’ve never wanted to do television. He loves doing television, but he’s never wanted to do a creative-writing book. At risk of sounding a bit ‘yeuch’, we’re good at supporting each other.
“I’m very lucky, because he’s been hugely supportive. If I say I’ve got to go off and do my writing, he doesn’t roll his eyes or anything.”
Kim saw odd bits of the manuscript but pledged not to read it properly until it was published. “When I did read it, I was so pleased I didn’t know all the twists and turns that kept me reading,” he said.
About eight or nine years ago the Rileys moved slightly further south to Mellis, where they overlook the common and enjoy “the most glorious sunsets”. Mary-Jane’s office doubles as a spare bedroom. “I have to move out if everybody comes to stay at Christmas. And there’s a tree outside, where rather nasty crows stand and look at me sometimes.”
Suffolk’s legendary big skies and pace of life have proved addictive.
“Whenever we’ve been back to Brighton, it’s so busy. So many cars! So many people! Can’t be doing with it. I can’t ever see us leaving East Anglia. There are so many contrasts: forests, heathland, the coast…”
She’s bringing a second thriller to the boil. During a broken night, as aspects of the story whizzed around her brain, she’s just come up with a better way of ending the tale.
Want to give any hints about the novel? “No! It features some of the characters in the first book, but I’m not saying which. This one is mostly set in north Norfolk, at a boarding school.” The word on the street is that journalist Alex Devlin is back.
Completing the final edits will mark a milestone.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” says Mary-Jane, “and a lot of champagne has been drunk. My agent said you should celebrate every step, because it is an achievement. And we have been doing that with gusto!”
The Bad Things is published as a HarperCollins Killer Read paperback (it should cost about £12.99) and as an e-book from Amazon, WHSmith and Waterstones.