An Evening in Harrogate with… Robert Galbraith

People always say that crime ‘does not pay’ but clearly that is not the case when you look at the ever-increasing crime market that authors find themselves in. As a genre it is one of the fastest growing of current times. Branching off you no longer just have your basic ‘whodunit?’ to solve. You can now browse the bookshop for any number of topics: detective, psychological thriller, spy or more recently domestic noir to name just a few.

So, to attempt to write a novel that will not only become a best-seller but also gain acceptance from some of the most successful authors in the genre is an exceptional achievement for a new writer – or are they?

When Robert Galbraith launched ‘his’ first book The Cuckoo’s Calling, it quickly became apparent that all was not as it seemed; such accomplished writing for a newbie is often unheard of. It takes time to develop style and this individual quickly caught the attention of those that have a habit of delving deeper to find out the truth; so it’s not surprising that the real identity of this individual soon became a talking point.

So who is Robert Galbraith?

As anticipation builds, we find ourselves sitting in the dress circle of the Royal Hall in Harrogate at this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Overheated and irritated by the announcement that no photos can be taken we endure the wait, with around 1000 others, for the lights to go down and the stage to become the focus of our attention.

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The Royal Hall, Harrogate

This has be billed as the highlight of this year’s festival – An evening with Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling. For me tonight is not just about J.K. Rowling though. I have had, for several years now, an immense respect for the individual interviewing her; in my opinion no-one writes about a clinical psychologist better – Val McDermid is officially one of my favourite crime writers.

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Image of J.K. Rowling – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jk-rowling-crop.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Jk-rowling-crop.JPG

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Image of Val McDermid – By TimDuncan (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Time passes and the lights dim, people hush as Val McDermid appears on stage and positions herself on one of the rather large, oversized leather armchairs. Setting the scene for the evening and showing her own respect for the author she is about to interview she proceeds to introduce the person most people have come to listen to – J.K. Rowling.

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The stage set ready for the event

So what did Val ask J.K?

Val first mentioned that when she read the proof for The Cuckoo’s Calling she questioned whether she would be able to use Robert as part of her New Blood panel at this year’s festival naively unaware at the time that Robert was in-fact J.K. Rowling. Once, however, it was uncovered that Robert Galbraith was actually J.K. Rowling meeting the criteria of new author with 400 million book sales already behind you tends to make you illegible; much to Val’s own disappointment.

So where did the name Robert Galbraith come from?

At this point, before giving J.K the opportunity to answer, Val did offer her own thoughts. She suggested that perhaps Black Adder had given J.K. her inspiration.

Explaining how she came to this conclusion, Val states that as J.K.’s middle name is Katherine to her it seemed to make logical sense. However, J.K. Rowling clearly hadn’t thought that deeply stating that one of her favourite male names was Robert which fortunately she had refrained from using during her Harry Potter days and she had always wanted to be called Galbraith so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

J.K. also explained that she wanted to prove to herself that she could still be published on the merit of her writing and not on her name; she wanted validation – hence the other reason for the name change.

Why crime?

Having always loved it and have read a lot of it J.K. decided to have a go at writing it, although she also stated that she saw Harry Potter as a ‘Whodunit in disguise!’.

Ideas for The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm she confirms have been floating around for about 6 years. Having been an avid reader of what she cites as the “Big Four” crime writers of the golden era – Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers – she wanted to write a contemporary whodunit.

Listing a couple of her favourites she highlighted Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke for its ‘amazing atmospheric’ settings and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Classic, The Moving Finger, stating that if you need to learn the tricks of the trade Christie is still one of the best; she ‘was good at shuffling cards to fool you’.

When asking Val McDermid the same question she responded with:

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham for the fantastic descriptions and Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicaragehighlighting that it was the humour of this book and Christie’s writing in general that attracted her to the genre.

Why a P.I. Novel?

Wanting a classical approach J.K. highlighted that it was important for her to write from the perspective of a single character rather than a whole forensic team.

Why did you choose for your P.I. to have a disability?

Living with a disability, whether from birth or inflicted at a later stage of life, is difficult and J.K. wanted others to begin to understand what reality is like for these individuals. There are an increasing number of people in the UK living with a disability today and it is important for others to begin to understand what life is like for them. It is also a topic that is very dear to her own heart; her mother suffered for several years from the debilitating condition, Multiple Sclerosis.

When you have an idea how does that turn into a novel?

Ideas turn into plots and plans on a spreadsheet that are all colour-coded. J.K. also confesses that having had the idea for The Silkworm before The Cuckoo’s Calling she had to take a step back and plan how she was going to develop her character that evolves in her first book.

At this point J.K. lets slip that her kernel of an idea for The Silkworm can be found in chapter 48 with the rest of the novel developing from there – so it appears that the beginning is not always the beginning.

What are your plans for the future?

Books 3 and 4 have already been started; book 3 being very different from what we have come to expect from J.K. as a crime writer.

When asked whether the plan would be to stop after 7 books her response came very fast:

“No, it’s not 7 – it’s more!” She then went on to explain that unlike Harry Potter which had a natural start and end point her crime novels will continue whilst there is a story to tell.

Great news for any J.K. Rowling fans out there that have missed the penmanship of a very talented author.

Spending an evening in the company of not one, but two fantastic authors was well worth sitting in the heat-infused environment. Hearing about their own favourite authors, how they plan before writing a novel and what is in the pipeline made for a very interesting night out. Add to this the friendship that has clearly developed between these two which led to an entertaining evening for all.

After the event J.K. Rowling was also completing a signing so we are now able to say that we are the proud owners of a First Edition, signed copy of The Silkworm, albeit we were one of the last in line which meant a rather long, hour and a half wait in a non-air conditioned auditorium.

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The Silkworm

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J.K. Rowling Signature

Was it worth it? I believe so – but I suppose this is always down to personal preference. Would you ever wait in line for this length of time to get a book signed?

3 Comments

  • N J Magas says:

    What a cool experience! It’s not surprising that Rowling turned to a pen name for a genre switch, especially considering her initial success was for a YA fantasy. I know a lot of authors who consider themselves to be single genre writers, but for a lot of others, myself included, we can jump all over the place, and when you have ideas that form in two vastly different genres, hard sci-fi and regency romance, for example, if you’ve already made your name in one or the other, switching can confuse or irritate readers.

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