Martina Cole is a publishing phenomenon, having made a habit of smashing sales records with each of her 21 novels.
Her hard-hitting, uncompromising writing is in a genre all of its own, and as her publisher puts it, ‘no one writes like Martina’.
She’s sold in excess of 13 million copies, three years ago surpassing the £50m sales mark – the first British female novelist for adult audiences to achieve this.
Yet she left school at 15 without qualifications and – married at 16 and divorced at 17 – was a single mum living in a run-down council flat by the time she was 18.
Back then, Martina took on numerous jobs, but with little or no money coming in for socialising, she would write to keep herself entertained after her son was put to bed.
At the age of 21, having lost both parents within six months, she started out on what would become her debut novel, Dangerous Lady.
For almost a decade, nothing happened. But when she was 30 she gave up a job running a nursing agency and bought an electric typewriter, deciding to ‘give it a year’.
The rest was history, Martina posting her manuscript one Friday and agent Darley Anderson telling her that following Monday evening she was going to be a big star.
Her 1992 debut was bought by Headline for a record-breaking advance, becoming an instant bestseller.
And two decades on, Martina is the acknowledged queen of crime drama, with The Good Life her 13th consecutive book to top the original fiction charts.
“Yeah, it does, 13 hardbacks straight off! I’ve been lucky really. With certain authors, every now and again a book comes along and interrupts that flow, like a book from a film. But that’s not happened with me.”
No other author has spent more time on The Bookseller’s original fiction chart. That’s some accolade in itself.
“It is. It’s a great feeling.”
The Good Life follows the tale of wrong ‘un Cain Moran, wife Caroline and mistress Jenny, and is typically gritty, although Martina’s fans won’t need me to tell them that.
As the publishing blurb tells us, “Cain Moran wanted Jenny Riley more than he had ever wanted anyone or anything before in his life. But loving Jenny Riley was the easy part; it was telling his wife he wanted a divorce that was going to be the killer.”
Let’s just say it’s hardly a twist on the Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal ‘escape from the rat race’ sitcom of the same name.
“Err, no, although Cain’s got quite a nice house. Then again, I do grow my own veg!”
Does Martina sympathise with any of the characters more than others?
“I always do. Caroline’s comes over as not a nice person, but towards the end of the book you realise she’s not very well.
“Then there’s the son, Michael, and the other son Cain Jr. I love Jenny too, she’s a great character, and Cain’s a brilliant character to write.
“I love writing big powerful men and women, and Eileen, the mother, was a joy to write, and so funny.”
Has there been a fair element of your own life experience in your characters over the years?
Are you just a good listener and judge of character then?
“I think like most people, it’s probably 50/50.”
So it’s more an outside interest in the world of violence, not first-hand experience.
“Well, I grew up on a huge council estate, and anyone who does has a kind of working knowledge of that kind of world.
“People find all that fascinating. I know I do. And because I had the street patois and jargon, people think it’s all true.
“When I do book signings, people ask ‘Is that about the so-and-so family?’ Even in Manchester and Liverpool I get that!”
“And mine are the most stolen books in shops apparently, and the most requested in prisons.”
There’s no arguing with that. In fact, I must admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was given the chance of a one-to-one with Martina.
Of course I don’t let on, using a little easily seen-through questioning instead.
Do you find those who interview you a little scared of what they might find?
“No! I’m not even five feet tall. I’m only a tiny little thing.”
Are you more a doting mum and grandma then?
“When I haven’t got huge heels on and people see me, I think they’ve surprised, expecting some six foot woman drinking pints of lager, getting in fights or something.”
That reminds me of a delicious quote she told Deborah Ross in The Independent three years ago, revealing her Irish grandmother saying, ‘You must always have a good mattress and good shoes, as when you’re not on one you’re on the other’.
“Yeah. That’s one of my Nan’s best ones!”
Martina has swapped her native Aveley, Essex, for Kent now, living with her 17-year-old daughter and close to her 37-year-old son and his family.
That gets me thinking of Wilko Johnson in Julien Temple’s fantastic Dr. Feelgood biopic Oil City Confidential, talking about this ‘promised land’ – Kent, the supposed Garden of England – across the water from Canvey. I share that vision with Martina.
“Yeah! And talking of Wilko, I’m so glad he’s better now.”
That leads us on to a discussion about the legendary guitarist’s amazing battle against cancer, one that until very recently appeared to have a terminal outlook.
“But I don’t feel like I’ve come to the Promised Land. I moved over to Kent because my son moved out of Brixton, married and started a family. I just wanted to be near my grandchildren.”
So, it’s more a practical move, and you still love Essex too?
“Oh God, yeah!”
Will that be the case for The Good Life?
“We’ve some things in the pipeline, but until you get the scheduling date it’s pointless.
“But we’re making the feature film of The Ladykiller, set in and around Essex, with Genesius Pictures, who’ve just done Northern Soul.”
I recall Ian Rankin saying he has all the DVD box-sets of Rebus but can’t watch them as he’s scared of losing sight of who his characters are in his own head. Is that a concern for you?
“I’m an executive producer and I scripted it. So I don’t feel like that. And for me, Tom Hardy was just fantastic. He became the character, Freddie Jackson.
“I always had Freddie in my mind as a much bigger man, but Tom’s such a great actor and had the power of Freddie, and that’s what we needed.”
I’m guessing you were there to see Two Women at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. A proud moment?
“Yeah, that was the best! I was absolutely thrilled with it.”
Were you quite confident in front of the cameras too, when you narrated and fronted ITV’s Lady Killers documentary?
“I was a bit nervous, but I did it with a friend. It was the same when I did Girl Gangs. That was with Debbie Gray at Genesius Pictures, who I’m now working with to bring The Ladykiller to the screen. And we’ve been friends for a long time.”
A readers’ poll for the madaboutbooks website in 2011 cited The Take as your most popular novel then. Dare I ask if you have a favourite above all others?
“I thing of all my books I’ve ever written, it would be Two Women or Faceless for me, because I really like the characters, Marie Carter and Susan Dalston.”
Revenge came out this time last year, and now The Good Life’s out. Is that a do-able turnaround for you – a book a year?
“Yeah. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it.”
Are you already working on the next novel?
“I’m well on with that. It’s the third in the trilogy for The Ladykiller, so I’m going back to my Essex roots for this one.”
Overall, it’s 21 books in 22 years. I’m guessing the inspiration well’s not running dry.
“I’m so lucky I’m always getting ideas. I’ve reams and reams of ideas written down. Sometimes they might make a book, sometimes just a chapter.
“I’m always pitching things. I have two or three scenarios going at one time and the one that pulls me nearest to it is the one I write.”
What hours do you tend to keep at the keyboard? Are you a night owl?
“Yeah, I always have been – typical Essex girl! I do like my nights out. When it’s 10 o’clock and everyone else is getting settled down for the night, I’m off, turning my laptop on and getting ready to go.”
“My kids are pretty easy-going with me. They all think I’m mad, some nutcase. But they make allowances.”
Martina was the youngest of five children from a large Irish family, with her mum a psychiatric nurse and her dad a merchant seaman.
She attended a convent school, but was expelled at the age of 15, telling Deborah Ross in that same interview, “A nun threw an O-level physics textbook at me so I threw it back, which didn’t go down too well.”
Martina did enjoy her English lessons though, and her teacher told her that if she put her mind to it, she had a future in writing.
Did that Irish upbringing in Essex make Martina something of an outsider?
“No! We all started with Irish accents. We hadn’t really known anything else.
“My Nan came for the weekend once and lived with us the next 11 years. Mum was from Dublin, Dad from Cork, all the Nuns were Irish, and all the kids were Irish, Italians …”
Did your parents’ work ethic come through in you?
“Yeah. My mum used to work every Christmas, doing night-shifts because it was double-money. When you’re grown up and have children of your own you realise how hard they did work.
“I remember Mum coming home in the early hours, cooking the turkey then trying to get a couple of hours of sleep.
“In them days she was on double money and got a day in lieu. That’s why she did it.”
Did you read a lot as a child?
“I was always reading, and still am. I’ve a house in Northern Cyprus, and this summer read over a hundred books there – a book a day!”
You’ve not been won over by e-readers then?
“No, I hate them, but if it gets people reading, it’s a force for good. I prefer the physical book though.”
For all her success, Martina clearly hasn’t forgotten her roots, and still makes time for issues she feels strongly about, such as initiatives to improve prison conditions, and giving occasional creative writing workshops for inmates.
She’s also a patron of Chelmsford Safer Places, an ambassador for the one-parent family group Gingerbread, and works with The Reading Agency, encouraging less confident adult readers.
Martina is also a great advocate of public libraries, and I ask what she makes of our current Government seeming to want to do away with many of our libraries in a bid to cut public spending.
“I’ll fight all that! I loved the library then and still love a library now. Not everyone’s lucky enough to be in a family where books are everywhere.
“There were always lots of books in our house, and the library was a haven to me.
I did an event once, either in Bradford or Barnsley, on a Tuesday night, and the mill owners there had left such a beautiful building.
“It was pouring down with rain that night, there was this big EastEnders storyline at the time, and I wondered just who was going to turn up.
“But I walked down this big circular stairway and at the bottom this huge auditorium, out of this world. No one would build anything like that now.
“You look at a building like that and think, is this going to end up as a restaurant? We’ve got to keep all these things. Because once you lose your high street and your libraries …
“Not everyone thinks the ‘be all and end all’ is going to the Bluewater, Lakeside or the Trafford Centre.”
Did you have aspirations of making it as a writer, or was that just for posh kids?
“I used to lay in bed dreaming about it. I saw a documentary on Jackie Collins, saw this walk-in wardrobe and thought ‘oh, my God, look at her house!’
“I was always writing – poetry and stories. I love the written word.”
Who does she aspire to be when she’s writing?
“I’ve got my own genre. I don’t aspire to be anyone. I write from the point of view of the criminal not the police, and couldn’t write about the same person all the time. That would get on my nerves.
“I like to have a big canvas so I can create all these weird and wonderful people.”
I then ask Martina which authors she most admires, and she’s away, coming out with a few perennial favourites then looking around for more inspiration on her shelves.
Along the way, she name-checks AJ Cronin for The Citadel and Hatter’s Castle, saying ‘I love them big melodramas’.
Then there’s Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, Philippa Gregory’s historical books, and she’s still going.
“I’m a book maniac, really. I’m looking round my bedroom now and I’ve got Orhan Pamuk, a lot of Turkish authors, and lots of books that have been translated.
“Recently I read The Son by Philipp Meyer, and that was absolutely brilliant. And I do like reading foreign books too.
“I remember years ago reading Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, buying it at an airport, possibly Amsterdam, and read it on the plane, telling everyone ‘you’ve got to read this!’
“I hated the film though, and similarly, I’m frightened to see Gone Girl, because the book (by Gillian Flynn) was so good.
“And if you like horror, read The Girl with All the Gifts (by MR Carey). I was in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore on tour last year, and got a proof copy, and thought it was even better than World War Z (Max Brooks).”
Martina clearly loves her long escapes to the sunshine and Northern Cyprus as much as her midnight vigils at the keyboard.
“We’ve been going out there so long, my daughter writes and reads in Turkish, and for me it’s the climate – it can’t get hot enough for me. I love the food and the culture too.
“I go away for the whole summer now, if I’m not filming or writing something, and go to Istanbul a lot.
“In fact, I’ve been going to this beautiful little bookshop there so long that the man saves me books!
Finally, if you were only now rediscovering that first novel you wrote when you were 20, would you change much about it to make it work?
“I don’t think so. I’d change all my books if I could – no author’s ever happy with them. But if I ended up writing it again, it would probably end up the same!”
And how old will her grandchildren be before they’re allowed to read her books?
“Not until they’re 15 or 16! My books aren’t for the faint-hearted. But my daughter’s at college and she’s reading The Good Life, and really enjoying it.”
Martina Cole is a special guest at a SilverDell book event at Preston’s County Hall on Tuesday, November 11 (7pm), talking with BBC Radio Lancashire presenter John Gillmore before a Q&A and book signing session.
Tickets are £5, redeemable against copies of The Good Life on the night. For details call 01772 6823444 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martina is also hosting a Waterstones book-signing session at Manchester’s Trafford Centre (12.30pm – 1.30pm, Wednesday, November 12) and a Reading Agency event at Southend Forum Library (7.30pm – 9pm, Wednesday, November 19).
For more details about those and future events, head to her official website here.
This is a revised and expanded version of an earlier Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on Saturday, November 8.