Lee Child fits the character he created, that noble rough wanderer Jack Reacher. Child is a regular at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, tall and slim, cigarette in hand – taller still in his cowboy boots. Those of us at the shorter end of the stalls might wonder why such a tall man needs cowboy boots, but Lee Child carries it off.
He has a sort of mid-Atlantic drawl now, as an American Englishman or an English American, and always has something to say, something funny or cutting or surprising – “My hidden secret is that I love ironing.”
Child chaired this year’s crime writing festival in at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate.
It’s a cheerful occasion. If you want to see blood on the walls, go to a festival of romance writers – or the crime writers like to say.
If you’ve never attended and wonder what happens, here goes. There’s no writing for a start, as writing isn’t a spectator sport. The bloody nub of it is that hundreds of people sit in a large room while the writers natter on the stage.
In theatrical terms, this doesn’t sound like much, but it delivers. Writers love to talk about their books and writing in general, so the festival tickles their ego – and, once tickled, the writers find much of interest to say.
In Harrogate, there are panels throughout the day. They started this year with Denise Mina, always good value, being interviewed by Stav Sherez (pictured). It was like overhearing an informed chat between two mates in the pub.
And what an odd hair convention: Denise with her trademark spiky grey cut, Stav with his grey cloud and matching beard.
The night before, Stav had won the book of the year for The Intrusions, described as a thriller for the internet age. Stav says: “The Intrusions are the stuff we have all around us – all the static and scatter of TV and phones – everything is impinging on our consciousness and you don’t have time to think.”
Panels this year addressed whether past jobs shape what you write, writing about home and the itinerant wanderer, Reacher-style, who has no home. And that last session brought up a good point from chair Laura Wilson: why are there so few female lone wanderers?
Cath Staincliffe led a session called Write What You Know, and immediately disowned that title, sensibly preferring to ask: “How does life shape fiction?”
The panels are too numerous to list in full – and if I did, you might reasonably wish to murder me. But let’s make room for one of the best sessions, an interview with someone who doesn’t exist, or at least exists only as a writerly game of two halves.
The Saturday sessions began with Nicci French as the special guest, which is to say that Sam Baker interviewed Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, the couple who have written as Nicci French for 21 years now.
The fruitful discussion touched on many things, including the mechanics of how they write. And, no, they never reveal who writes what, but do discuss the process: Nicci up in the attic and Sean in a shed in the garden, with copy emailed between.
If you wonder who might attend such an event, and they do in their thousands, the answer follows: book lovers and writers, and would-be writers, and have-been writers, and might-have-been-more-successful writers.
And I know that last point. My two York-based crime novels about the Rounder Brothers were published locally and then taken up in the US by Minotaur books, where the reviews were good enough, and the sales OK, and then everything sort of petered out.
Listening to all that book chat is inspiring and a little masochistic. There can’t be many writers who don’t wonder what it would be like to be up on that stage, to join the successful gang, but there you go. And even successful writers remain anxious and insecure.
My writing continues, a new novel is almost ready to send out, with one lucky publisher prepared to have a squint at it. I have never stopped writing and can lay my hand on assorted abandoned projects: anyone want a time-slipping murder tale with a York Mystery Plays theme? Probably not, and that’s a year or so I won’t get back.
As a published author who isn’t much published right now, my advice is simple and can be wrapped up in five words: Stick at it, write often.
As for the festival, the real stars are all those readers who love crime novels. Without them, the writers up on the stage would be talking to themselves.