The existential agony of the trade

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that everyone else is as knackered as I am after Christmas. I didn’t get much of a break, because I had some urgent writing jobs to finish (damn you, Buster Crabb!), some very large plates of Christmas pudden to consume (damn you, Father Christmouse), and the most appalling chest, throat and nose and ears infection which I assumed was terminal and everybody else cruelly categorised as man flu. (Damn the lot of you; it’s a pity I didn’t die. That [might] have wiped the smiles off…)

Any road up, here I am, just out of me sick bed, struggling manfully to carry on, and worrying about me tax return. Does nobody care about me?

Funny you should say that, because maybe someone does. Or then again, maybe not. You be the judge.

It was Wilf, possibly the most eccentric of my many eccentric sons, who is studying in Glasgow, but claimed to have got me the most original Christmas present of all time. What’s more, he even managed not to forget it (thank you, Lucy) when he came down to civilisation for a while.

Go on then, sez I. Was ist? (I may be ill, but I can still show off).

‘It’s a gallery of famous writers,’ he said. Or maybe smirked, it’s hard to tell when you’re suffering. ‘The ones you introduced me to as among your favourites. Except the first one, bien sur. He’s no one’s favourite. Because it’s you.’

He’s a charming chap. I sometimes wonder where he gets it from. Answers on a postcard, please.

Go on then, sez I. My breath is bated.


No, bated, ignoramus. Look it up upon your googley fone thingie. My breath is bated. Make with the goodies.

It was four pictures. In the style one might call naive. Or maybe prehistoric. Apparently a man called Sean Ryan does them, apparently on demand if you cross his palm with enough silver. I asked Wilf how much silver that actually was, but he said they were beyond price. And anyway, not to be so effin rude. In some ways, he was right. Ryan, incidentally, bills himself as ‘artist, slacker, pizza fan.’ Can anyone say fairer?

So here they are. The men he claims I told him were my top scribblers. And me. There will be a small cash prize to the one who names them all correctly. A very small cash prize, which will not, sadly, cover the postage of the claimant’s letter.

I like them. They grew on me. And one day, Wilf assures me, they will be worth a lorra, lorra money.

But then again, that’s what he told me when I had to buy him endless packs of Pokemon cards as I dragged him home from school each evening. They’re still piled in his old bedroom, waiting for the market to peak.

The other kids got me presents, too; some weird, all wunnerful. Ain’t chillern just the job? They almost make life live worthing..

So maybe I’ll summon up the energy to fight off this dire infection after all.

If some bugger will only bring me up a cup of tea!

Here’s the link for Sean Ryan. Well worth a click. Who knows, someone might want to make you famous, too…

Sean Ryan Illustration

Incidentally, the magazine of the International Thriller Writers Association – The Big Thrill – have done a splendid interview with me about The Bonus Boys in this month’s mag. Sadly, because of my inefficiency (blame the man flu!) the book won’t be out for a couple of weeks. Ah me.

But here’s the link:

The Big

Questions, questions!

This is an interview I’ve done for The Big Thrill, an international thriller magazine. Because of my natural incompetence the book’s not out yet – it’ll be another couple of weeks before it goes live. Sorry! Here’s the words, though – and if you want them in context, click this link:

The Bonus Boys by Jan Needle

By Lynne Constantine
The Bonus Boys

Jan Needle brings back the beloved characters from KICKING OFF in the second of a series. This one is called THE BONUS BOYS. Cynical investigator Andrew Forbes – drinker, smoker, gambler – was always an unlikely partner for Rosanna Nixon, so apparently demure that she’s known as the Mouse. Their love affair has not survived their first brutal clash with sordid reality, although both have found the break-up devastating. Now they are thrown together in the world of “the bonus boys”– men so rich that normal rules do not apply.

But the world of wealth and country mansions loses its veneer when a gang of psychopathic killers comes to call on Thea Hayter while her husband is – conveniently – in America. As it turns to blood-soaked horror, a blundering police force and a politician on the make turn up the screws to fever pitch. It seems impossible Rosanna, hostage in a hidden chalet in a wood, can survive.

Let’s talk about your main male character in the series Andrew Forbes. He’s the complete opposite of Rosanna Nixon. What does she see in him?

Although she’s got an inner core of steel, the Mouse gets involved in the brutal worlds of politics and crime only when she meets, then falls in love with, Andrew. He is hard-bitten and cynical, but he’s very much on the side of the angels underneath it all. He’s a widower, and essentially a one-woman man. But life has knocked him about a lot. They say feeling sorry for a man is the most dangerous thing a woman can do. Rosanna does – and falls!

Do you envision this to be a long running series?

Yes. Andrew and the Mouse came together in the first book, Kicking Off, almost by accident, and it took me some time to realize they were going to be inseparable. Then, of course, they separated. The strains they both live and work under are very great, and will get worse as the series goes on. To be quite honest, I don’t know how, or if, they’ll survive! That’s why I love writing about them.

What’s next in the series?

As The Bonus Boys could be seen as being rooted in the traditional country house mystery – only much, much bleaker – the next one takes them into modern noir, with a police force getting rapidly overwhelmed by a series of brutal killings which seem motiveless and bizarre. Behind it all is mysterious ex-soldier who lives within, and minutely observes, a small community but manages to remain invisible between killings, and impossible to track down. Key to it all appears to be an immensely tall crane that broods over the blighted and terrified community.

You are a very prolific writer with a wide variety of books, plays and essays to your credit. Do you have favorite genre in which to write?

At the risk of sounding like a flibbertigibbet, I tend to be tempted to carry on in the same vein as the book before, whatever “genre” it is. Having finished The Bonus Boys my mind leaps to the next crime thriller. But I’ve got other strands that need a new one, so I have to force myself into that “mode.” At the moment I’m doing a series of novellas based on Nelson’s life, a series of full-length historical sea adventures, and some short spy/Cold War thrillers. And a film company has just asked if they can make a feature of my award-winning teenage novel about racism, My Mate Shofiq.

You’ve stated in interviews that one of the things you love about e-books is the flexibility to go back and improve an earlier work. Do you think that a book is ever “done”?

When I finish a book I tend to consider it done until I reread it (sometimes much later) and think I could do bits of it better. The last book in one of my earlier series, for instance, suddenly struck me as being much weaker than the others. In the old days that would have been that, but I threw myself back into it, metaphorically speaking, and ended up with what I think is a much better book. Playwrights do this sort of thing all the time, of course. And I love the collaborative process.

Over the years the publishing landscape has changed dramatically. In what ways do you think it’s easier for a writer? In what ways worse?

That’s a sort of eternal question, and more or less unanswerable, as it really depends on what each writer wants out of the process. It’s easier in that anyone can write something, and get it into print (whether concrete or virtual) and possibly just as hard to be “recognized.” That’s a lottery, always was and always will be, I fear. There are some great books out there that no one will ever hear of. That’s what mums are for; they always love your stuff! Mine did…

How has your background in journalism influenced your novels?

I suppose the greatest single thing was speed. I was a reporter for many years, then a sub-editor. I had to write fast, I had to be accurate, and I often had to compose it as I went along, often into a telephone surrounded by utter mayhem. Now, I write wherever I am, and with whatever tool comes to hand, pen, pencil, laptop, tape recorder. And I enjoy it! That’s worth its weight in gold.

Tell us about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Either or both, strangely. Ideas usually come out of the blue, and sometimes they’re virtually fully-formed. Sometimes, though, they need a great deal of kicking into shape. I always hope it will be easy; sometimes it’s hellish hard.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I don’t think I do.

What’s the worst advice you ever received on writing?

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I’ve always found that if you rewrite something more than three times, the last will be worse than the first.

If you could dispense just one piece of advice to beginning writers, what would it be?

Ignore what I just said about rewriting! Everybody’s process is different. Trust yourself, listen to others. But write. Always write.

Has your success banished the self-doubt common to most writers, or do you still struggle with that with each new book?

To be honest, it doesn’t worry me much. The bonus of journalism again, I think. If something’s not working I chuck it and start something else. The same with cutting. Even if you think something is much too precious to cut, remember that only you will ever know it was there in the first place. If you cut it, no one will miss it. It doesn’t matter!

What is something we would be surprised to know about you?

How many of you think/thought I was a woman? My mother again. She’s got a lot to answer for, that lady.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

A solid tome on the life of Napoleon. My last novella (a Kindle Single) was called Napoleon: The Escape. I can’t get enough about him. Did you know that at one time he had a wife and two mistresses all called Josephine – and that it wasn’t the real name of any of them! Crazy or what?

If you could have dinner with any writer, dead or alive, who would it be?

Christopher Marlowe. To see if he answered to the name of Shakespeare! If he didn’t I’d want Shakespeare as well. Both good drinking men, I’d guess.

Where can readers connect with you?

Email: and my website.

Life in the old tale yet?

Another of the beauties of being a writer, is the way things lurk. For years, sometimes. Everything rolls along as normal, stories, novels, plays come and go, and some become pretty dormant, just lie there in the great outside, ignored and (maybe) festering.

Then comes a communication, let’s say on Facebook. Facebook, for those of you who haven’t heard of it (!), is a way of keeping in touch with the wider reality. Pictures of Prime ministers and pigs, that sort of thing. Jokes about blondes and mirrors that you somehow feel you have no right to laugh at. Accounts of the latest NRA polemic proving that 3,000 gun deaths a year is an argument for arming babies in their prams.

About four months ago a man called Aneel Ahmad sent me a private FB message saying he’d always been a big fan of my early kids’ book My Mate Shofiq. He was a film-maker, and could we talk? At the very least he wanted me to sign his copy.

I wasn’t playing hard to get, but I’m usually too busy to efficiently wipe the crumbs from out of me beard. It was ages before I ‘messaged’ back, asking where he lived. Manchester. Nobbut (as they say in Oldham) a cockstride away. So to cut a long tale short, we met.

All of us, I imagine, have been in similar situations, and we all know how the bullshit radar works. So how about this for disarming? The bell rings, I open the door, and this man says: ‘Can I come in? I smell of curry, I’m afraid.’

It was Aneel Ahmad, and the greeting was an adaptation of something in my book. In My Mate Shofiq the co-hero, the white one, says ‘don’t like Pakis, me – they allus smell of curry.’ So in he came, both of us laughing like drains.

Aneel is a Pakistani, for want of a better language term. He was actually born in England, and has a classic Manchester accent (although he doesn’t pronounce it Manchestaw). What’s more, when he read Shofiq in school, he hated it.

‘Well, not exactly it, but the way it talked about us lot. Calling us Pakis, and so on. I thought that it was racist.’


‘The more I read it, the more I thought I might be wrong. In the end I’d changed my mind completely. When I grew up and got into making films, I knew I was going to try and make it one day. Now I think I can.’

His early reaction to the book, I must add, was not unusual. I was hung out to dry by some of the usual suspects (I won’t name them, and they all later saw what I was getting at) and ‘the trade’ was split down the middle. The sainted Kay Webb told my agent that she ‘had no intention of ever seeing’ a book like that on her list, while the sainted Rosemary Sandberg snapped it up. The difference between a Puffin and a Lion?

It was runner-up to that year’s Guardian Award, while other ‘peer panels’ were pretty snotty that it had even been submitted. Best of all, from a writer’s POV, I still get letters out of the blue from British Asians saying how much they love it.

Aneel, who is forty, has made many documentaries, many shorts, and is multi-talented. He showed me a selection of his small films (God bless the internet!) some of which he wrote, directed, produced, cast, located, and did the sound for. Two have been short-listed for awards.

Many of them are filmed in Pakistan, with locals he has ‘spotted in the street’ instead of professional actors, and to my western eyes, the depiction of genuine poverty and hardship is startling and heart-rending. One of them, Rickshaw Passenger, is about a rickshaw driver who falls in love with a ‘hotel girl’ (a sex worker). Her face alone (and she’s not an actress) is enough to make you weep with joy and sorrow.

‘I’ve been asked many times when I’m going to do a feature,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t think I was old enough at thirty five plus. And now I think I am. And it’s going to be My Mate Shofiq.’

‘Gosh,’ sez I (or words slightly to that effect). ‘Who’s going to write it?’

‘You, I hope,’ he said. ‘Is that a possibility?’

I pretended to look in my diary. Or rather, I pretended that I had one.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Not this week. But after that…’

There is, as we all know, many a slip. Indeed. But we’re thinking very much on the same lines, and we can both do ‘Manchestaw.’ We’re also both agreed it should be a ‘period’ piece. Times have changed, and English racism is going through a very sticky period, extremely difficult to pin down.

But both of us are hopeful, both for racial problems and this film. So watch this space.

Aneel Ahmad

My Mate Shofiq

A good idea…

Sitting down here in the wilds of Leicestershire, back on family duty, I suddenly realised that I had an Authors Electric blog to do. Shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it usually coincides with our turn to keep the home fires burning now that one of the Aged Ps is sadly no longer with us. But it did raise the immediate question – what shall I write about?

That, being a writer, is not a new question, obviously. In fact many AE blogsters ask from time to time where ideas come from, and how different people process them. As it happens my need for a subject matter coincided with some historical work I’m doing, and a couple of barely-related strands popped unbidden into my sights. One was the extraordinary suggestion/possibility that Abraham Lincoln had been shot because he was gay and refused to come out of the closet, and the other was the destruction of ancient monumental works of art or worship by the ‘new Puritans’ of ISIS.

These subjects are hardly related, except that they are both remarkably extreme. Lincoln’s sexuality, apparently, was glaringly obvious to anyone with well developed ‘gaydar’. According to Larry Kramer’s new book, John Wilkes Booth shot him because he turned down his advances, not because he didn’t like the play. And the destruction of ancient works of art is a product of the alleged fact (also glaringly obvious, apparently) that they are an affront to Allah and his Prophet.

To a Westerner who tends to accept anyone and everyone’s sexuality as entirely their own matter, and all religions as manifestations of an incomprehensible, but apparently basic, human need, both these strands call for little specific comment. But they made me think in general about how magnificently bonkers us humans seem to be. The decades-long orgy of destruction of the Nelson/Napoleon era blurred the ideal of revolution into the invasion and colonization of a whole continent, while the murder of a politician is shoe-horned into an argument that, to put it mildly, hardly needs it.

Let us stay with ideas though. I’m about to embark on number three of my Nelson saga, and my mind is steeped in blood. The carnage wrought by iron balls smashing through oak or teak, and producing the by-product of flying shards and splinters big enough and sharp enough to behead and disembowel, is matched by the fate of one of Nelson’s colleagues who fought with him in Nicaragua. Colonel Despard, formerly a hero, now a traitor, is condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He has not been caught actually doing anything, you understand, merely thinking about it. He’s Irish, of course.

Shift forward a couple of decades, still on the naval theme. Deportees from Van Dieman’s Land – yes, deportees from that repository of the deported – are shipped out to Norfolk Island a thousand miles further from Australia where their treatment is so vile that they draw lots to die by suicide. If you lose you are murdered by a fellow convict, and if you win you murder one, happy in the knowledge that you will now be hanged. I’m not making this up. Thank you Sîan Rees for your fascinating The Ship Thieves.

If you think these European nastinesses pale into insignificance compared with smashing up idols because you consider your non-European country and your culture has been destroyed by generations of invaders, consider this: there is a growing argument in the West that such iconoclastic behaviour means we no longer need to ‘repatriate’ stolen artefacts such as the Elgin marbles. Even good old Boris seems to think so. Protection by theft. It’s a good’un.

Here’s a quote culled from this week’s New York Times: “If the people of these lands are indifferent and even hostile to their ‘cultural heritage,’ what’s the point in reserving it for them to ignore or destroy?”

Or to expand it perhaps, “isn’t it extraordinary that these people, so intellectually and culturally inferior, could have made these wondrous works of art in the first place. It can only have been an accident, and they need us to appreciate them.”

So where do my ideas for fiction at the moment come from? Well, history. Which seems to suggest that the path towards what might one day end as genuine civilisation is hardly a straightforward one. Drones is a good one to think about. We can now kill those nasty ragheads without even seeing them, or the ever-larger clusters of innocent bystanders who also die. Innocent? Good God, they pull down their own statues! Infamous!

Ghandi, I believe, was asked by Churchill once what he thought of Western civilisation. It sounds like a good idea, he said.

PS. Late night newsflash. Just heard from Endeavour that my Napoleon book’s been selected as a Kindle Single. They tell me this is good!


According to the Amazon title page of my new novella about Nelson, published today, “Jan Needle has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, etc.”
That’s right people – I’m officially a HER

This is the second in a series of short books about Nelson, and covers the time of his return from the campaign in Nicaragua. He returns to Jamaica extremely sick, extremely weak, and possibly dying. He is nursed back to strength by a woman called Cuba Cornwallis (Surname taken from the Navy man who released her from slavery), probably with the use of non-western remedies including voodoo.

Nelson is now twenty two, coming to terms with tragedy (including in his family) and still blazing with ambition for wealth and glory.

Amazon promised to restore me to full maleness ASAP, but anyone who buys a copy with the unemended title page could virtually sell it in the virtual future for virtually any sum of money they desired.

Me, I don’t care. Call me a lady if you like, but I do have a beard…

Going on a pig hunt

I’ve never really been involved in book launches before, but for the new version of Wild Wood we had three. The first was organised by the publisher, Golden Duck, in the Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, London. It is a terrific, lovely old-fashioned bookshop, and even more weirdly is opposite a restaurant called Wildwood. Either a good omen, or (less likely) the opportunity for a breach of copyright action.

It was graced with many literary names, among them Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and Richard Ingrams, the former and original editor of that mighty organ.

An extraordinary number of people crammed into the basement room, and drank fizzy wine, red and white still wine, and a small barrel of bitter brewed and donated by Greenfield Brewery, of Saddleworth, to commemorate the occasion. It was called Daisy’s Special, and went down a treat.

The next one was in West Didsbury, Manchester, at the Albert Bowls and Social Club, where I’ve been a member for years. I gave a short, nervous reading from the book, Daisy’s Special was supped in heroic quantities, and Eliza P Songstress sang a song about the book that she’d composed especially. She’s a bit of a genius, and wrote it, complete with tune, about twelve hours after I asked her to. Later she was persuaded to sing another of her songs, this one about telephone sex. A versatile lass!

Finally, we held one in the Uppermill Con Club (where I’ve never actually met a Conservative, fortunately, given the them of the book), which turned into a bit of a musical riot. Eliza P started off with her song, then Mick Collins of the Hometowners became the unofficial MC and organised a sing and play around. The food table was massive and overflowing, and Tony and Mary Harrall of Greenfield Brewery came and had a pint as well.

Back up the hill at eleven o’clock the fun took on a different turn. Sean and Sadie’s two pigs – mother and ‘baby’ called Sausage and Bacon – had broken out of their sty and were laying waste to the Yorkshire Moors. There an ancient breed called Iron Age apparently, noted only for escaping and biting. It took Sean, me and Dave (plus a handful of shrieking females) to get them ocked up in the barn for the night. And they didn’t even buy a book!

So – in the future, more launches. Even more pigs, perhaps. Everybody welcome…