Sunday 11 December 2016

Bad men, bad women, and the need for a knife-proof vest

Martina Cole tells Andrea Byrne about the perils and perks of being a best-selling crime writer

Andrea Byrne

Published 23/01/2012 | 06:00

Given her position as one of Britain's most successful writers and the incredible wealth that such a title affords, Martina Cole is not how you would imagine. Her voice is rasping, gravely, EastEnders-like. She likes to talk -- about everything and anything -- and does so simply and quickly. There are no airs or graces. No preciousness.

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Petite with chin-length blonde hair, today she's casually dressed in a purple shirt and plain trousers. The only visible display of her wealth is the Mulberry handbag that peeks out from under the table. Shoes and handbags are her vice, she would tell me later. "I still have the same friends that I had at school. They all say the same, 'you never change Martina, you just drive a better car' (a Bentley, in case you're wondering). With my friends and family, it would be very hard to get up yourself, you know what I mean."

To date, Martina has written 18 novels, which have translated to more than 10 million in book sales. "I do like writing about the bad men," she explains, "but occasionally I like to do a bad woman."

In her latest crime novel The Faithless, a female takes centre stage. Her insight into the mind of a killer and the disturbing world of criminality is second-to-none. "She's not a nice person, is she?" Martina asks when we're discussing the book's main character, Cynthia. "She is a bitch. She makes you appreciate your own mother. It's a book, so it's overly done, but I researched matricide and there are a lot more nutty women out there than I thought."

Martina comes from a devout Irish Catholic family who moved to Essex in England to get work. Her mother, from Glasnevin in Dublin, worked as a psychiatric nurse. "She used to say she used to go to work for a bit of normality so I don't know what that says about us," the author says with a laugh. Martina's father was from Cork and worked as a merchant seaman.

Her Cork cousins, to whom she is very close, are coming to Dublin to visit her on the evening of the day we meet. Much to the angst of her devout, mass-going mother, Martina had her first child -- Chris -- when she was only 18. "My dad said to my mum, 'Come on Eileen, what are you going to do? When it comes you'll love the feckin' bones of it.' Sure enough, she did. She delivered it. We were Catholics, so there was never going to be an abortion," the author says candidly, before following up with an even more frank admission: "Both my children were never planned."

Some 20 years later, aged nearly 40, Martina discovered she was pregnant. Her daughter Freddie Mary, now aged 13, is five months younger than Martina's eldest grandchild. She laughs at the unusualness of the situation. "We're all very close."

Martina's empire stretches beyond books to include a TV production company and bookshops. Currently, she is working with HBO on a series about women on Death Row. "America puts itself on the world stage for human rights, and it's still frying people -- 120 people have been exonerated with DNA, but they're dead now, so there's not much you can do about it," she says somewhat frustrated.

Her work has brought her face to face with some of the most dangerous criminals. Luckily, it takes a lot to scare her. "I've had to wear knifeproof vests. Some of the places are very similar to where I grew up. The one thing that really threw me was how clean their neighbourhoods are. They take great pride in having clean neighbourhoods. Even the graffiti is nice. There was one crew in LA, and all the women wore Our Lady T-shirts that said 'Mary is my Homey'," she chuckles.

When we discuss money, she's unapologetic about how she spends it (her favourite shopping street is Rodeo Drive and she lives in a big, gated, Tudor-style manor in Kent), but assures me that Freddie has to work for what she gets. "We didn't have a pot to p*ss in when my son was a baby, and now Freddie has a lot more but I still make her wait for things. She still has chores."

At the moment, Martina is single and happy to be so -- for the sake of her young daughter if nothing else. "After I split up with Freddie's dad, I made a conscious decision that I wasn't going to bring anyone into her life. You bring people into your children's life for you, not for them. To be honest, I'm happy, I like my solitary little life, I can do what I like, I don't have to share the remote control. I enjoy the fact that I don't have to explain myself to anyone."

She refers to herself as "lucky" on several occasions throughout the interview -- lucky because she is getting paid a lot of money to do something she really loves. "When you write books, it's a very lonely occupation. You spend months on your own. Funny thing is, someone said to me, 'Don't you get lonely' Martina?', I said, 'well not really, because I am with people that I want to be with, and if they get on my nerves I can kill them'. How many people can say that about their job?"

The Faithless by Martina Cole is available in all good bookshops RRP €13.99

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