01 January 2001

The Intel: Barbara Nadel Reloaded

Crime Thriller Fella is taking a much-needed summer break. But don’t get down - we’re going to meet up again right here very soon. However, do keep coming back. Over the last year there’s been all sorts of stuff we’ve enjoyed plonking on the internet, and which you may have missed. This Intel interview with the excellent Barbara Nadel, for example…

We love writers here—I may have mentioned that before. With Barbara Nadel’s second Hakim and Arnold mystery, An Act Of Kindness, due to be published in paperback, Barbara kindly tells us about her new series of East End thrillers, her writing and why variety really is the spice of life.

As well as the Hakim And Arnold books—the first is A Private Business - Barbara has also written fifteen Inspector Ikmen novels, set in Turkey, and four books about undertaker Francis Hancock, set during the Blitz.

There’s a real sense of place in An Act Of Kindness. How would you describe the contemporary East End?

The contemporary East End I write about is a place that is changing fast. In a way this is in the tradition of the area which has always embraced new industries, innovation and immigration. However since the middle of the last decade and the coming of the Olympics, change has Barbara Nadelbeen very rapid and in some cases divisive. New cracks have appeared in the human make up of places like Newham which now run less along ethnic rather then income and social class lines.

You live in Lancashire now. How do you keep up with the extraordinary changes in the Upton Park area over the last few years?

I spend a lot of time in the East End and of course I have many contacts there. But it’s hard work and I’m moving much closer, to Essex, in June this year.

There’s a very real sense that the characters in the Hakim and Arnold books are struggling to keep their heads above water. How important is it to you that you address the grinding poverty in that part of London?

Addressing issues of poverty in my old home is very important to me. Newham has always been poor. When I was a child in the 1960s and 70s it was appallingly shabby and some people, including my own grandparents, lived in the kind of poverty that is more usually associated with Charles Dickens London.My own family had no proper heating, most people had outside toilets and we were all, often sick. But that was a long time and many advances in medicine and social care ago. Or is it?

One of the reasons I write the Hakim and Arnold books is to flag up the fact that for a lot of people in Newham very little has changed. In some cases things have got worse. And that offends me to the soul. If my stories can raise awareness of these issues as well as being good crime novels then I can feel I’ve done my job.

You’ve now three different series under your belt – the Inspector Ikmen, Francis Hancock, and Hakim and Arnold books. Do you thrive on the variety?

Yes I do thrive on variety. I’m a restless somewhat hyperactive person and I like to spread myself around. Crime is my first love but I have a fair few horror, magical and saga novels in my head (and some in an old drawer!) too. I’d also, at some time, like to take the Blue Badge London guide course as well. I’m told my unofficial tours of the East End are really great.

An Act Of KindnessTake us through a typical writing day for you?

I generally get up early (about 6.30am) and then, if I can I go to the gym for an hour. I arrive home pretty wrecked if I’m honest but I have a shower and start writing at about 8. Then it’s straight through until 1 with about half an hour for lunch. I’ll usually work until 5 or 6 in the evening. Long hours and strict discipline for one so disorganised as myself but I do write two books a year and so it has to be this way.

Who are the authors or you love, and why?

I’m quite left field and so I don’t tend to read a lot of hugely famous and successful crime novelists with the exception of Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke and Jeffrey Deaver. I love Rebus, adore James Lee Burke’s southern American vibe and just admire the hell out out Deaver’s plotting. But my read favourites include Lee Jackson’s London Victorian novels which remind me so much of the weird world of my death obsessed ancestors, Anya Lipska’s East End Polish novels which just reflect that world so accurately and I love the Hull novels of David Mark.

Outside crime I am a huge fan of Stephen King and I am an absolute Charles Dickens obsessive. Crime or not I like tales that include vignettes of everyday life and the struggles that afflict so many people in our apparently tidy world of Ikea and the school run. Not all lives include those things including my own!

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That I’m not Marcel Proust. When I first wrote my first book ‘Belshazzar’s Daughter’ I thought it was literary fiction. It wasn’t and isn’t and that’s OK but it was a shock at first!

How do you deal with feedback?

I like to be edited as it is my belief that an author can become too close to his or her work to be objective. I’m lucky inasmuch as I have always been edited sensitively and well. Predictably I take praise well and criticism less so. Although in my defence I have to say that I take constructive criticism well.

What I don’t like is when someone gives one of my books one star on Amazon reviews and then fails to review the book. To my mind that is cowardly and shows lack of courage of conviction. I would never do that to anyone however much I didn’t like their book. Every book has been written in good faith and deserves a truthful review even if it is negative.

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

With regard to the Hakim and Arnold books the experiences that have most affected my writing are growing up in Newham and being poor. I’ve lived in damp, cramped slum landlord owned accommodation I’ve been a poor, far too young parent, I’ve been threatened by violent neighbours and exploited by criminal landlords. I know what it is like to be hungry and, like Mumtaz Hakim, I have been through the experience of being at risk of losing everything.

On another level as a graduate in psychology who has worked for social services and in mental health services I have met and worked with a vast range of people down on their luck and in poor health. I’ve worked with sexually abused teenagers, mentally ill in patients and offenders, drug dealers, prostitutes, immigrants (including those traumatised by the war in the former Yugoslavia) and of course social workers, doctors and the police.

Give me some advice about writing…

Don’t wait for the ‘muse’ to strike before you put pen to paper. Writing, except in very rare cases, really is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. Get going!

What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Find your own niche and make it yours. Don’t try to be the next anyone, be yourself and write what you care about. If you care enough then that will transfer to the reader.

What’s next for you?

Next for me is building my Hakim and Arnold series and putting those parts of Newham that are not the Olympic stadia or Westfield Shopping Centre on the map. I’d like to see my headscafed detective on TV or film - it’s about time that happened. As an aside I did some tour guiding for one of the script writers on the new Newham based fire service drama The Smoke last year, and so we’re getting there.

Apart from that I’m working on a new Ikmen novel set in Turkey last year during the Gezi Park protests. That’s a challenge! And then of course in a couple of months I have to move. As I said before, I’m hyperactive…


We’ll be reviewing An Act Of Kindness at Crime Thriller Fella next week—look out for that.

Photo credit: Teri Varhol