Author Kimberley Chambers chats to Barnaby Walter about her new novel The Trap, going from a mini-cab driver to successful author, and how she still hasn’t moved out her small Essex council estate flat.
One of the female characters in your latest book The Trap is described as ‘a typical, no nonsense, hard-faced East Ender’. Would you say that describes you?
To some extent. Back in the day, that’s how I would have described my Nan. I had a Nan a bit like that, my Dad’s mum. She was from Bow [East London] , and she was that like that back in the 60s.
Did she provide inspiration for the character of Queenie [the strong mother and grandmother]in The Trap?
She definitely did in another of my books, The Betrayer. She’s like Ethel, the old Gran. But yeah, she was of the Queenie sort-of type.
I believe you were a mini-cab driver when you started writing. What was it that made you decide to pick up a pen and start writing?
I was just sick of my life, to be honest. Working nights, driving around Romford, working at six o’clock in the morning. I knew I had a brain on me but I left school with no qualifications, and I’ve got no computer skills at all. So I was just so sick of my life I just said to myself one day ‘right, I’m going to try writing a book’. And that was when my first book Billie Joe came along. It took me a year to write the first one because I was still cabbing part-time, with long hours on the weekends.
To be honest I’m not the type to really change as a person. I drive a much nicer motor now! But I haven’t even moved yet – I’ll probably move later this year or beginning of next year. I’m still living in Romford in a one bedroom flat. But I’ll buy a house or bungalow or something at the beginning of next year in a slightly nicer sort of area.
Romford’s nice! I live quite near, in Billericay, and I like to go shopping in Romford.
Well I don’t live in the nicest part! I’m still on the council estate, but there you go! (Laughs)
Publishers, critics and bookstores seem to group female authors who write crime novels with tough families at their core into one genre known as ‘Martina Cole’, and Martine’s name is often mentioned in some form on the cover of your books. Are you happy with the comparison?
I used to read Martina’s books and she’s a fantastic writer, so being compared to her at an early stage was a proper compliment to me. I’d rather not have the name on the cover – I think the publishers might take it off now. I suppose they put it on in the first place to let people know you’re in that genre. I think everybody has their own writing style. I put a lot of humour in my books. Everyone has their only unique way in which they write. But there’s a lot in that genre that gets Martine’s name mentioned on the cover. She’s the biggest seller out of the lot of us. Other authors have had her name on the cover. I think it’s just something these publishers do.
Which authors do you read for pleasure?
Do you know what, since I started writing I rarely ever read at all – I can’t stand it now. I’m a big TV fan, and I like to watch a drama or a film. I do read some – I’m palls with [crime writer]Mandasue Heller. She writes in the same genre; hers are set in Manchester. She’s a really good pal of mine and we send each other copies of her books. I’ve got her latest one here and I’m really looking forward to it; she got some great reviews on the last one.
Martina Cole’s books have been adapted into TV miniseries, such as Sky 1 dramas The Take and The Runaway. If your work were to be adapted, would you prefer a multi-episode drama, or do you think your novels would more suit a feature-film format?
I think they would suit a multi-episode drama more. Either would be lovely! I liked the way Martina’s were adapted for Sky. I think they did a really good job on the last two. I think that would suit mine, especially my trilogy, The Feud, The Traitor and The Victim. I think they would make a good six or eight-parter.
No! (laughs) To put it bluntly, no!
When you sit down to write a new book, do you do much research and inspiration-hunting before-hand?
I don’t. All the books I’ve written, I haven’t researched any of the subjects. The only research I do need to do, such as in The Trap, what was in the charts at the time [the trap begins the 1960s], and the fashion of the time, that type of thing. With the book I’m writing at the moment, I good friends with an ex-Chief Inspector with the Police, he actually arrested me when I was younger, and we’re now friends. He reads my books and it’s brilliant, because he was in the murder squad. So he can come back with all the inside info for me.
Have you had much experience of the gang-filled world of your novels? Is much of it autobiographical?
No…well, I have lead quite a colourful life, and I have mixed with people like there are in my novels. They are not actually based on anybody. The characters are all fictional. But I know a lot of similar people and mixed with similar people.
You regularly use time shifts in your books, moving through decades to show characters as they grow older. What attracts you to this way of plotting?
If you want to keep the book exciting all the way through, it’s possibly a lot harder to do that if it just runs across one year. You need the children growing up, and you need to bring the children into it. Actually, I’m writing the sequel to the trap, and I started this one in ’76 and it’s only on 1980 now, and I’m onto the last third of it, so I haven’t jumped on too far with this one. It depends how the book pans out.
In my opinion your works are fantastically gripping reads. However, some would call them ‘popular fiction’ as opposed to ‘literary fiction’. What are your thoughts about such a distinction?
Yeah, I do find the genre I’m in – East End, council estate crime – and not by anyone I work with or anyone like that , but you do get looked down on by the literary authors. Not all of them, because I’ve got some good friends in this world. I don’t think it’s the genre in the literary world takes seriously. There’s a lot of swearing in them, there’s a lot of gangsters and Christ knows what else. They tend to look at the crime-fiction detective books as the more literary novels.
Some authors keep their fans waiting for years for a next book, whereas you are marvellously prolific. What is it that keeps you writing and turning out the stories?
Obviously it’s my job now to do so. You’re put on a deadline and all that. But I have slowed down now, I think you naturally slow down. In my case, if you want to improve the plot and the endings and make it a bit of a rollercoaster at the end you need to take your time more to do that properly and not do too much of what you’ve done in the past. I used to write chapter a day, but I’ve slowed down now. When you want to try to up your game, you’ve got to write a bit slower. I try to, anyway.
For me information on Kimberley Chambers, and the chance for your family to star in The Trap series of books, go to www.facebook.com/kimberleychambersofficial