NewnhamWrites … I absolutely hated writing my first novel
‘I absolutely hated writing my first novel.’ Acclaimed screenwriter and crime novelist, Isabelle Grey (NC 1973) on her journey from journalism to screenwriting, to writing the gripping Detective Grace Fisher series. Finally, she can get to write about the things she’s most passionate about.
Isabelle Grey was born in London, educated at Manchester High School and Newnham College, Cambridge, and then worked for a year for a specialist antique dealer in Kensington. While there, she began writing about decorative arts and design for The Times and other newspapers and magazines, and went on to write five non-fiction books. After a long career as a freelance journalist, she moved into television screenwriting and then fiction. She lives in north London and is currently writing the fourth in a series of crime novels featuring DI Grace Fisher.
You were a journalist to start off with. What made you decide to switch into screenwriting?
I had been writing about decorative arts and design, but after my daughter was born, I wanted to change direction. Having a small baby gave me the excuse to turn down work while I tried to make the move into feature writing and fiction.
At that time (the late 1980s), HIV/AIDs was getting more publicity. I remember my mother saying that the whole fear associated with HIV – the fear of catching it if you touched someone with the virus, or if they sneezed – reminded her of how she was treated when she contracted TB at the end of the Second World War. No one would even borrow a book from her. It triggered an idea for a television drama series focused on the lives of junior doctors like my parents before the introduction of antibiotics and streptomycin. I pitched the idea – called Straight on Till Morning – to the Head of Drama at the BBC and was commissioned to write two pilot episodes. Unfortunately, the Head of Drama went onto become Controller of BBC1 and his successor wanted to do other things, so the series never got made. But I’d caught the bug for screenwriting – discovered it was something I could do. Fortunately, a few years later the script editor I’d worked with at the BBC went to work on the The Bill and asked whether I’d like to write for that show. I jumped at the chance.
I ended up writing 23 episodes of The Bill. In addition, over the next twenty-odd years, I wrote for many other series, often crime-related, including Wycliffe, Midsomer Murders, and Accused. I was also commissioned to write several pilot scripts and original dramas and also a docu-drama, Genghis Khan, for the BBC.
I loved the work. Screenwriting seemed to come naturally to me. It’s basically describing behaviour. Your task is to take the actor/actress from one mind-set at the beginning of a scene to a different mind-set at the end. Obviously it comes from dialogue, but also from what’s not said – the gaps in between the dialogue, when the camera can capture the reaction of the person who is not speaking.
I more or less gave up journalism after I got a call from Cosmopolitan asking me to write a 1,000 word article on women and their breasts. I remember joking to the new young features editor that I’d wanted to be a journalist because I’d been inspired by Watergate. She asked what Watergate was …
Tell us about your first novel
In 1990, I wrote Angel, an historical women’s fiction/romance story. After it came out, I vowed never to write a novel again. I hated writing it – too many words, having to come up with descriptions of what people were doing, what they were wearing, where they were, what the weather was like …
… But … never say never … you ended up writing novels full-time. How did that happen?
The financial crisis of 2008 – that’s what happened. I remember going to a talk at BAFTA by Nicola Shindler, head of Red Productions. She actually said there was no point any scriptwriter pitching ideas to her as none of the broadcasters were commissioning. At around the same time, I was writing a memoir about growing up in a ‘medical’ family in the first decades of the NHS and my friend and former editor, the author Elizabeth Buchan, introduced me to Jane Wood, publishing director at Quercus. Jane wasn’t so interested in the memoir, but she liked another idea I had, for a novel of psychological suspense. So I wrote Out of Sight for her.
There’s a but coming …
… Even though I was writing a genre that I really liked, I didn’t enjoy the process of writing that novel either!
So how did you come to love your nemesis?
Partly because, unlike in television, I’m in control. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re part of a team that will include the script editor and producer and eventually a director. You don’t even start writing the script until you’ve nailed the story – a process that can take months. You’ll have discussions about what works, what doesn’t work; what characters need changing – what they would or wouldn’t do. If you’re working on a three-part series, everyone needs to be satisfied there’s enough of a hook at the end of each part and of course everyone needs to agree on a satisfying ending. Each time you sit down together you’re given copious notes covering what needs to be amended. There’s an obvious reason for doing all of this: drama is expensive, and you’ve got to know you have something solid – a solid storyline, something good – to attract a broadcaster and foreign co-producers. Writing a novel, nobody really interferes.
There are benefits of my screenwriting experience, however. I know how to tell a story, how to nail it, how it should end. I know how to pace the action – where to speed it up, where to slow it down. There are differences: in a novel, for example, when it comes to the build-up to the end, you need to slow it down. In TV or film, the action generally has to speed up.
It took me several novels to enjoy the process of writing and it wasn’t until the second Grace Fisher novel, Shot Through The Heart, that I learnt to stop thinking that I had to know where the story was going and how it was going to end. When I realised that actually it didn’t work if I had it all nailed down, I relaxed and started to enjoy the process.
Speaking of Grace Fisher, tell us how the series came about?
I was asked by my editor at Quercus to write a crime series featuring a female protagonist. At first, I struggled with Grace. I knew she was someone who was good at her job, but it took me a while to really get a feel for her. Yes, she has her skeletons (she was bullied by colleagues in her previous job) which in turn feed her vehement dislike of bullies. In the first book, Good Girls Don’t Die, one of the themes is how the media bullies its way to a story. A journalist also features in the series – Ivo Sweatman. I wanted to show everything that’s wrong with ‘Fleet Street’ and, in Good Girls Don’t Die, Ivo fulfilled that role – I had him as this scabrous, dried-out alcoholic, lacking ethics, who would do anything to get a good story. But in book two – Shot Through the Heart – I actually mellowed him out a bit, turning him into an unlikely collaborator for Grace. In that novel, he becomes more like the type of reporter I aspired to be – one with integrity and a moral compass. In fact, if there is one character in the series that I feel I’ve put myself into, it’s Ivo (excluding the alcoholic backstory, of course!)
What is it about the Grace Fisher Series that you like so much?
The stories allow me to write what I’m passionate about – the role of institutions and how they work, how people can over-identify with the institutions they represent; the corruption; the toxic male culture within the police force. And in my third book (The Special Girls – coming out in April 2017 – about how a child sex abuser managed to get away with his crimes for so many years) I examine how the more deserving an institution is, the greater propensity there is to turn a blind eye. These are all contemporary issues that I’m finally able to reflect in my work – the kind of issues I wanted to tackle as a journalist.
What are your influences?
I read biographies and documentary type books. As background for Special Girls, for instance, I read Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. He looks at the case of the rape of a vulnerable girl by members of a New Jersey high school football team and how the town rallied around the boys – not the victim. And also Dan Davies’ chilling biography of Jimmy Savile.
Creatively, a lot of my influences come from TV drama and film. I loved Happy Valley and Line of Duty. Happy Valley’s first series was a true tragedy – almost Shakespearean in its ambitions. Line of Duty is all about police corruption – something I’m very focused on. And the acting is brilliant. I also love the Scandi dramas – The Killing, The Bridge and Trapped – and some of the American long-form dramas like True Detective and Bloodlines.
Tell us about your time at Newnham
At the time (1973) Churchill, plus King’s and Clare (both formerly male) were the only mixed colleges. My brother – who was already at Caius – sweetly said I had no chance of getting into any of them, so I applied to Newnham.
I loved the college and I loved the exceptional freedom that Jean Gooder gave me in a two-year Part 2 for English after I gave up Philosophy. I read Part 1A Philosophy, but quickly knew that formal logic wasn’t for me. Also, I had the same maiden name as the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Professor Elizabeth Anscombe. People kept assuming I was her daughter and expecting me to be brilliant. I wasn’t.
Can you give one defining memory of your time there?
Coming back to Newnham at night, taking a short-cut through King’s and thinking how peaceful and beautiful the buildings were all bathed in moonlight with mist off the river.
What word springs to mind when you see the following:
Career woman: privileged