Anatomy of a Scandal. How my journalistic background informed the novel.

taxiatbailey.jpg

"Everything is copy," said Nora Ephron. It's a phrase I think about a lot. Because while I have reservations - I'm insufficiently ruthless to use my friends or family - I couldn't have written Anatomy of a Scandal without working as a journalist, both covering high-profile court cases, and as a political correspondent.

The columnist and author India Knight has tweeted that the novel is "so good, so forensic, and so authentic."  As well as working in Westminster, I'd shadowed a barrister in a sexual offences, and then a rape case while writing it, I explained. "You can tell. It adds this whole other layer that is (oddly) very rare," she replied.

Other reviews have picked up on this experience - which not only taught me about the worlds on the court room and the House of Commons, the language used, and the rhythms and cadences, but about the drama of a breaking news story or inherent in a trial.

And so I'm reposting a Waterstone's blog, in which I explain how being a journalist - for 2 years at the Press Association and then 11 on the Guardian - informed Anatomy of a Scandal:

taxicommons.jpg

 

The young man formally acquitted of murdering the black teenager Stephen Lawrence stood just over a metre from me in the witness box - and smirked.

It was February 1997. I was 24, had been a trainee reporter for just over a year, and as the only member of the press present at the very start of the inquest into the black teenager’s death was scribbling away at the old-style wooden press desk just in front of him. I looked up: pen poised, hoping for an intro-worthy line with which to nose my story. He remained silent. And then his lip curled.

Neil Acourt, his brother Jamie, and the other members of their gang, Gary Dobson, David Norris, and Luke Knight, had maintained what the QC Michael Mansfield would describe as a “wall of silence” during the inquest, repeatedly claiming the common law right of privilege so as not to risk incriminating themselves. But their continued repetition of the phrase gradually polluted the atmosphere of that dark Victorian coroner’s courtroom, so that it shifted from the ridiculous to the dramatic and taut. 

As the QC drove on, his questions acquired a hypnotic rhythm while the young men’s stonewalling and swagger conveyed their acute lack of compassion and exposed them, in the words of the Macpherson inquiry, as “the prime suspects” for the racially motivated crime. A year into a career that would see me covering murder trials and sexual abuse trials at crown courts and the Old Bailey, I saw at first hand the inherent drama, the high stakes and extremes of emotion that could be played out in court.

If my day in that coroner’s court illustrated the power of a courtroom drama – a power I’d try to harness nearly 20 years later when I came up with the idea of Anatomy of a Scandal - my experience covering criminal investigations such as the Soham murders confirmed how a narrative can turn on a comment, or a plot twist and then veer off course. 

Eleven days after the 10-year-old schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman disappeared from their tiny Cambridgeshire town, the caretaker of the local secondary school, Ian Huntley, told a journalist colleague he might have been “the last person to see them alive.” When the East Anglia correspondent for the Press Association asked to take a photo so that the story could be syndicated around the UK, and a TV reporter asked to film him, Huntley became shifty. And by the time I was begging him for an interview, he stood, arms crossed and immovable. 

His behaviour – sparked by a fear that police in Grimsby might remember his predilection for young girls and three alleged rapes, might recognise him - rang alarm bells with journalists and detectives, and late on the Friday afternoon, 12 days after the girls’ disappearance, the police called a press conference to say that a man had been arrested. 

“It’s the caretaker.” The whisper spread through the assembled hacks, as we noticed that the ubiquitous Huntley was absent from his usual spot at the back of the school hall. The man who’d kept an eye on police proceedings, during press conferences for nearly two weeks, who had tried to court and manipulate the media, had been undone by his cockiness.

But while courtrooms and murder investigations helped me to write a thriller, it was through becoming a political correspondent that I became even more conscious of power, privilege and entitlement - all issues at the heart of Anatomy of a Scandal. I watched charismatic, psychologically complex characters at work - and saw how the truth could be obscured. Nuance of language became increasingly important as Number 10 countered allegations that they had “sexed up” of the dossier into weapons of mass destruction. “Off-the-record” and “deep background” introduced layers of meaning beneath the official line. 

The theatre of the courtroom was replaced for the theatre of the Commons chamber. Bound by the same rules of privilege, the stakes were high – not prison, but reputation - and robust egos were now thrown into the mix. 

I witnessed moments of high tension. The resignations of cabinet ministers Peter Mandelson, over the Hinduja affair, and Robin Cook, over Iraq. Ken Clarke’s blistering speech during the debate into whether we should go to war. Most powerfully, I was with Tony Blair, on a trip to Istanbul, when the news broke that the former weapons inspector Dr David Kelly had committed suicide. I watched the blood drain from the prime minister’s face as a tabloid journalist asked him: “Do you have blood on your hands?”

I also saw how sex scandals involving politicians broke and played out. I was in the lobby when the Home Secretary David Blunkett was exposed by the News of the World for having an affair with the publisher of the Spectator; and I saw Boris Johnson colourfully deny and later admit to lying over, his affair with Petronella Wyatt. 

Working on news stories showed me how the media generates and drives the news agenda – something that has intensified since my days in the lobby with the arrival of social media and 24-hour news coverage. Alistair Campbell famously said that if a story was on the front page for over a week – 8 to 10 days, the figure’s been debated – the minister would have to resign. Though political expediency means some ministers currently seem untouchable, I suspect the period would now be shorter.

All of this fed into my writing Anatomy of a Scandal – a novel I couldn’t have conceived without that experience of working in the lobby, or those early years of court reporting, when I sat, straining to capture each choice quote in 110wpm shorthand.

Westminster inspired me but perhaps the idea of writing a novel that’s part courtroom drama and part psychological thriller, came from that moment in Southwark coroner’s court, when I witnessed the power of a QC’s examination – and a story conveyed by the absence of words.

 

Anatomy of a Scandal: Sunday Times bestseller!

7500511616_8f659a68aa_b.jpg

My clever, loving 12 year-old daughter is nothing if not ambitious for her mother. For Christmas this year she bought me a present I refused to wear. A tiny badge, from Southwold Books, with a single word on it: Bestseller. 

IMG_5806.jpg

I felt bad refusing to play along with the joke but even more uncomfortable at the thought of pinning it to my sparkly top, over a fortnight before publication. 

"But you will wear it if it happens, won't you?" 

"I don't think it will," I said - not because I lacked faith in my publishers but because, like an actor refusing to name The Scottish Play, I couldn't countenance thinking - let alone talking - about something that seemed so unimaginable. 

"But if it does..."

I needed to manage her colossal expectations.

"I really don't think it will but, if it does, I promise."

Reader, I'm wearing that tiny badge now because just three days after being launched Anatomy of a Scandal thrust its way into the list of Sunday Times bestsellers. Backlit tube posters are on show at Westminster tube station and my novel - about power, privilege, and consent - has been catapulted into the very apt number 10 slot - a number that inevitably makes me think of an address at the heart of government, Number 10 Downing Street.

I'm hugely grateful to the fellow authors who read it as a proof and provided me with wonderful quotes; to my editor and the team at S&S who have marketed, sold and publicised it so passionately; and to the book blogging community and journalists who reviewed it in force and championed it on social media.

This would never had happened without you.

thumbnail-3.jpeg

 

 

 

 

Anatomy of a Scandal: publication day!

2809_anatomyofascandal5.jpg

For the past 15 months, I have been focussed on one particular date: January 11th.

Imagine that peculiar mix of excitement and apprehension in the run-up to a wedding, then add a splash of the fear experienced before Finals.

I felt all of this during the long build-up to publication day for Anatomy of a Scandal. 

Insomnia plagued me for the first time in my life; my hair began to fall out; my fears grew out of all proportion. Imposter syndrome - which dogged me at Oxford, when I joined the Guardian, and when I became a political correspondent - raged in the still, quiet hours of the night. What if I was about to be found out? And what if, in tackling a novel about consent, I was baring too much?

And, in the end, there was no need. I had the most glorious day - in which I finally realised that bookshops were buying my book, that people were excited about it, that I should relish this opportunity because they're rare, these moments in the sun. I didn't know it but within its first three days, enough copies were sold to thrust Anatomy of a Scandal into the very apt number 10 slot of the Sunday Times bestseller list.

So, this post is all about celebrating my launch day. I am going to behave with a touch of the swagger of the members of the Libertines - the dissolute drinking club, based on The Bullingdon Club, that I satirise in my novel. And I'm going to shout about a book I wrote out of contract, with no guarantee that any publisher would buy it, and of which I am immensely proud.

Forgive me. Humour me. It won't be long before characteristic self-deprecation resumes.

2809_anatomyofascandal12.jpg

The day began with an early train to Westminster, where one of a fleet of 50 black cabs branded with the book's cover was parked. There is little I won't do for this book, I discovered, and that includes sitting in a black cab leaning out of the window while clutching the book, infront of the Palace of Westminster.

2809_anatomyofascandal7.jpg

Then after a photo-shoot that involved trying to get pigeons to eat out of the book, we jumped in the cab for the first of my bookshop visits and the signing of 100 first editions at Goldsboro Books:

IMG_5759.jpg
IMG_5799.JPG

Waterstone's Gower St was next, where I'll be doing an event with Elizabeth Day on January 25, details here, before a quick spot of prosecco at Waterstone's Picadilly - and more book signing.

Back in the cab, we were off to Hatchards, where there only a were few copies left. Then on to Waterstone's Clapham Junction - and finally Foyle's, Waterloo, where I saw that Anatomy of a Scandal had commandeered the entire window - a moment that made me positively teary with pride:

IMG_5754.JPG

By this stage, I was giddy with excitement as the Evening Standard's survey of London booksellers - at Waterstone's, Blackwell's and Foyles in the capital - had highlighted Anatomy of a Scandal as their fiction "Dark Horse". Things became even more surreal when I discovered I had trumped Trump in this display at the door:

IMG_5798-3.JPG

After dismantling the display, and signing and sticking around 100 copies, it was back to Foyle's, Charing Cross, for my launch. There was the most spectacular cake:

e0f02c98-e693-417a-a0d5-48ae7c6bf403.JPG
IMG_5767-2.JPG

Speeches:

And several photos with friends. Former journalist colleagues and prime writer friends - all authors commercially published over the age of 40 (I was 41) - turned up, as well as the QC who had helped me hugely with the novel.

IMG_5770.JPG

My children and niece and nephew charmed everyone, including the staff of Foyles who let them pore over Fire and Fury (their vocabulary already much enhanced by a cursory glance. "Did you know he said the f word 3 times by page 12?" ) My son and daughter got to pose in "my" taxi - my photo of the night - and, as I continued celebrations with the team from S&S, friends were already texting me photos of the backlit adverts now on the tube:

IMG_5780.JPG

Today, it's back to the rainy dog walks, the washing, the staring at the computer, the writing of blogs and marshalling of ideas. But, briefly, there is no self-doubt.

It's a novel, and rather lovely, feeling. And, as I remember this surreal, ridiculous, marvellous day, I'm going to cling onto it for all it's worth.

Anatomy of a Scandal - the blog tour.

The Anatomy of a Scandal blog tour kicks off today with a stellar review from Katherine Sunderland and a Q&A that explains the background to the novel and what I was trying to achieve in writing it. The full tour's listed here and I'll be posting a link to each review each day. Do hope you enjoy:

DQwEY6OUEAcGPC-.jpg

Here's Bibliomaniac UK's thoughtful, eloquent review and my Q&A.  

And Anne Cater's, on Random Things Through My Letterbox. Stunned by this.

@zarinatweets asked me several thoughtful questions about my inspiration and writing process - and whether I'm trying out various different genres. I answered them here.

Nicola, @ShortBookScribe, like Anne and Zarina, has read both my previous novels, and gave me another perceptive, 5* review which you can read here.

Joanne from Portobello Book Blog will be reviewing nearer the time, but there's a Q&A I did for her, here.

Kaisha RAVED about Anatomy at The Writing Garnet.

Bibliophile Book Club raced through Anatomy in a couple of sittings, and reviewed it here.

Phew! I'm so incredibly grateful to the book blogging community for their time and effort in taking part in this, and for ensuring I'm *even* more excited about Anatomy of a Scandal being published on January 11th.