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Crime. Crime Writers. Crime Writing

Finding the Solution: Lynda LaPlante

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 29 August 2011.

 “The first blow to his head made his body lurch sideways, striking his face against the bedside cabinet…”

 Crime writers are always told that they need to begin with a hook, and this is the gripping opening line to Lynda La Plante’s twenty sixth novel Blood Line, made even more intriguing by the cover tagline… ‘There is a menacing pool of blood but no body…’

Ask any crime fan to name their favourite British crime drama and Widows, Prime Suspect, Trial and Retribution (which ran to 22 episodes for ITV), The Governor, The Commander or any of the four series of Above Suspicion, will top the list.

Starring Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect alone garnered six BAFTAs, the British Broadcasting Award, the Royal Television Society Writer’s Award, the Edgar Allen Poe Writer’s Award and an EMMY for Best Mini Series. Lynda La Plante, awarded a CBE for services to Literature, Drama and to Charity in 2008, and an honorary fellow of the British Film Institute, is a crime writing legend

. Bathed in sunlight in a luxurious suite in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, La Plante shared some of her secrets. Elegant in black trousers, crisp white shirt and soft black jacket, everything about La Plante is business-like, no nonsense and stylish. Wearing a striking pewter cat broach, she curled gracefully in a damask armchair as relaxed, in control, and at the very top of her game, she explained exactly why, despite an award winning career in TV production and script writing, writing novels is still her passion.

La Plante got her first break as a writer while working as an actress on ITV crime drama The Gentle Touch – she had a scene with Jill Gascoine that they found impossible to deliver without breaking into laughter – La Plante’s character was called Juanita, and every time she tried to say “Hello, I’m Juanita” they both, in stage speak, corpsed.

Despite their pleas, the script writer wouldn’t change the name of La Plante’s character. Frustrated, La Plante told Gascoine that she’d love to have a go at writing. Gascoine’s response: “So why don’t you?”

This was all the encouragement La Plante needed to approach The Gentle Touch script editor with four fresh ideas. A few months later three were returned, rejected. But across the fourth, someone had written ‘this is wonderful’. That fourth treatment became the hit show Widows, and La Plante was on the scene.

Drawn to the dark violent world of crime that, when she started writing, was traditionally a male bastion,  La Plante explains that she can’t stand soaps, that she doesn’t want to share the pain of hopeless lives, but she is completely hooked by true crime shows. La Plante, as it later became clear when we spoke about the stresses and strains of running a production company, is a woman who looks for solutions. And what better place to come up with solutions, than the world of crime writing?

An accomplished RADA trained actress who has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on the boards of the National Theatre, La Plante slips easily into character as she speaks. Every sentence is animated with facial expressions and delivered in a variety of dramatic voices, so much so that it’s hard not to be sidetracked by her mix of terrifying and laugh out loud anecdotes. She tells a story just like she writes it, keeping you hooked until the end.

Despite her huge workload: script writing, casting (she adores discovering new talent) and  running an internationally successful production company, La Plante makes time for her books. She explained that she is lucky, “I can write anywhere, anytime of day or night. I have an office at home that is never touched, I can go in anytime and pick up the story.” This ability to write anywhere is essential in her busy life. La Plante has huge personal energy, although she confesses pitching scripts in conference calls to LA in the middle of the night is exhausting; but she says her office is a place where she can lock herself away and get close to her characters, “If there was a camera on the wall and someone was watching, they’d lock me up! Sometimes I get very upset, sometimes I’m roaring with laughter.”

With her dramatic skills, it’s easy to see how her characters live inside her head, but for La Plante, plot and character are intrinsically intertwined. And many of her characters are based on the people she meets as she conducts her exhaustive research. She remembers visiting a crime scene with the Metropolitan Police – a young female graduate officer stumbled out of a white forensic tent covering the recently discovered body of a woman, and vomited behind a tree. La Plante explained how the officer accompanying her scowled, and sounding exactly like a seasoned police officer, she delivered his prognosis: “She won’t last”. But it was this girl with all her strengths and vulnerabilities who became Anna Travis, who in La Plante’s latest book Blood Line is now a DCI.

Blood Line is a pacy thriller with all the twists and turns of La Plante’s earlier books – from the very beginning the reader is guessing. As with many of her books, La Plante drips through information to the reader that DCI Anna Travis is not privy too, a technique she chooses to great effect, showing exactly how a real police investigation gradually unfolds.  La Plante ensures that on occasions the reader thinks they are one step ahead of the investigating team, but she smiles, they have no idea if the information they have is valuable or not. In Blood Line, is missing man Alan Rawlins – devoted son, loving boyfriend – a victim or a killer….?

La Plante goes back to the true crime shows that fascinate her when she talks about the  inspiration for Blood Line. One day she caught a few minutes of an episode recreating the discovery of a large pool of blood under a bed. She told me with a shrug, “It was a well-to-do apartment, clean, smart, but the density of the blood suggested that it had to be murder.” As the show revealed, the woman who owned the apartment was charged with murder, but as La Plante said, “there was no body, no suspects,” and vitally for us, La Plante said “I never saw the end of it…” The story played on her mind, and the result is her latest novel.

While La Plante is a fast, organic writer who knows the beginning, middle and end of her story, she doesn’t plot meticulously – she shakes her head as she says, “I don’t write by numbers”. For her Blood Line almost wrote itself – until she got to chapter four. At that point she had her cast in place, a large pool of blood on the floor, but she didn’t want to reveal the identity of the victim and suddenly realised that DNA analysis on the blood would blow her plot wide open. Many writers hitting a major obstacle like this would have given up, at the very least would substantially rethink their plot, but La Plante isn’t that sort of writer, she has a determination to succeed that is inspiring. She just doesn’t deal in setbacks – she looks for solutions.

La Plante is renowned for her meticulous attention to detail and she is very clear when she discusses research – she says “a writer must always go to source.  If you want to find out something you go to source. If you want to know what a man serving life for murder is like, call your nearest prison and register as a visitor.” She says smiling, “That’s what’s so exciting as a writer, if you put yourself out there, you come home with the goodies.”

So, following her own advice, La Plante contacted a DNA specialist to find out how she could fudge the DNA result from her pool of blood, she remembers “I said, can I wash it away with bleach, with a chemical?” The specialist just shook her head, saying “With that quantity of blood, it would have soaked through the carpet and seeped into the floorboards – I can get DNA  from one pinhead of blood.” But pursuing the conversation, a chance remark gave La Plante the answer she was looking for, and a whole new twist to the Blood Line plot.

Blood Line takes DCI Anna Travis from her home station of Hounslow to Newquay in Cornwall and into a web of intrigue and half truths. Like Travis, La Plante doesn’t suffer fools, and she is fascinated by liars. Privy to a police video tape of a series of parents making impassioned appeals for missing children, she was in full character mode as she described one mother who cried incessantly, the tears flooding down her face. La Plante, as an experienced actress quickly realised that even when you are playing a scene of deep distress, it is instinctive to wipe your face, to clear away the tears. As La Plante said, it is the body language, the eye contact that gives a liar away, and in this instance, the mother was overplaying her part.

Although she enjoys script writing and production, it is writing novels that La Plante really enjoys. Unconstrained by budget limitations, she physically lights up when she talks about the act of writing itself. In her novels, she says triumphantly, “I can have a man escaping pursued by 26 patrol cars and a helicopter if I like, but on my TV productions there’s always someone shaking their head talking about the budget. Once I needed a man to escape by plane, and they kept saying no – it couldn’t be done, there was no budget.” But La Plante is the Queen of Solutions: she raised her eyebrow mischievously as she revealed… “Then I remembered the script editor was a pilot…”

It takes La Plante six to seven months to write the first draft of a new book, after lots and lots of research. She says, “I just write straight through. So many writers go back over the first chapters and never get going.” This pace does have its downside, as she says with a twinkle in her eye, “sometimes I’m going so fast I kill someone off and then bring them back in at the end!”

When asked about the number of characters in a story, she explains “I’m the wrong person to comment on that. The Legacy is my favourite book of all of them but I didn’t know how to end it. Every time I got near to the end I brought in another character.” La Plante admits that she didn’t realise how long it was until she had an editorial meeting. She arrived to find her editor surrounded by piles and piles of paper – her script. His comment:  “Most people Lynda, have 30 characters; I’m up to page 590 and I’ve got 250. If someone looks out of a window another character comes in…” Even with some heavy editing, La Plante laughs, “The Legacy came out in two paperbacks because they couldn’t fit it all into one!”

La Plante is known for her feisty female characters, from iconic detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect who proved to be the inspiration for a new generation of female leads, to Anna Travis, just as determined, but much more vulnerable. Prime Suspect was groundbreaking not only for its exploration of sexual politics, but its realism.  And realism is essential to La Plante, underlying both her research and her creation of her characters who are truly multi layered, fighting their own demons as well as the constraints of a traditionally male dominated environment. When La Plante began researching Prime Suspect, she contacted police stations to find a female detective on whom to base her fictional character. And when she discovered “there were only three in the whole of England,” she knew she was onto something.

Demonstrating definite similarities to their creator, all La Plante’s female leads are driven, women working in a man’s world striving to balance their lives and their jobs. I asked if her characters ever surprise La Plante. She nods, “It’s very exciting when they do, but it’s also exciting to turn your characters, and for you to surprise them…” That twinkle is back in her eye.

What does La Plante think of the current crop of literary writers turning to crime? La Plante shrugs, “I don’t mind, let them have a go. The readers will pick them up or put them down. The thing that makes me furious is soap stars that are offered huge book deals – they’re twenty four and they’re writing a memoir? It means new writers don’t get a look in.”

And her advice to those new writers? “Read Raymond Chandler, he’s an absolute genius,” and this, said with a fiery passion that matches her red hair: “Rejection does not mean no. I still get rejected; you just have to keep going.”

La Plante says she has been rejected many many times – Granada weren’t interested in Prime Suspect when she first pitched it. They were looking for another Widows, but she was ready to move on. The script was sent out with a batch of others to TV companies around the UK, and it was as each one came back saying they loved it that Granada got more interested. La Plante completely understands the challenges facing new writers and with this in mind, has founded a creative writing scholarship to John Moores University in Liverpool, her home town.

Her last tip? If you are going to interview a multiple murder in jail, don’t take a notepad, pen or a tape recorder. They can never wait to tell you how brilliant they are, but interruptions break their concentration….

© Vanessa O’Loughlin June 2011

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