Nicola Upson’s critically acclaimed crime novels featuring the author and playwright Josephine Tey have been praised as ‘historical crime fiction at its very best’ (Sunday Times) and ‘a masterstroke of literary theft’ (Independent on Sunday). The series debut, An Expert in Murder, was dramatised by BBC Scotland for Radio 4, and Nine Lessons was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Mystery of 2017 and shortlisted for the 2018 CWA Historical Dagger. Her non-fiction works include Mythologies: the Sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (Overlook Press). Sorry for the Dead, Nicola’s eighth ‘Josephine Tey’ mystery, will be published by Faber in November 2020.
NCW first worked with Nicola when she was awarded a mentorship on the Escalator Talent Development Scheme. She now tutors a 12-week crime fiction online writing course for NCW and the University of East Anglia. Here, she explores how Escalator helped her to find her first agent and to take risks with her writing.
How do you feel your selection for the Escalator programme has shaped your approach to writing and your writing process now you’ve had a little distance from it?
When I was selected for Escalator, I had just started work on my first novel, having previously written only non-fiction. Escalator offered a safe place to explore the possibilities of a new genre, with access through mentoring (by Michelle Spring) to guidance along the way, as well as the invaluable encouragement of having been selected for the scheme. That endorsement increased my commitment to my writing and made me view it as a profession, with all the sense of responsibility which that involves. And because that early change of direction was so nurtured and supported, I haven’t been afraid to try new things at other stages of my career – to write a novel that isn’t in the crime genre, to do different things within a crime series and never settle into a formula. Looking back now, I don’t think I can overestimate how influential Escalator was in that willingness to take risks.
You have published 10 novels since 2008 including your upcoming release of The Dead of Winter, to be published in November. Did your time with Escalator help towards publication?
Yes, very much so. While I was involved in Escalator, the work that the scheme did in promoting all those involved led to my being approached by a number of different agents, including the one I eventually signed with. As well as being hugely encouraging, that gave me the time and space to complete my first novel without worrying about the next stage and how to go about it; without the industry contacts and advice that Escalator offered, that process might have taken years.
Once the novel was finished, it was submitted to publishers, and there was a nerve-racking period of waiting; there were rejections along the way, but I will never forget the excitement of the first offer that came in, or the thrill of signing with Faber and meeting my editor for the first time. Although it seemed like a long process at the time, it was only a matter of months, but it was Escalator that got the ball rolling.
The work that the scheme did in promoting all those involved led to my being approached by a number of different agents, including the one I eventually signed with
More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to pass on some of the things I’ve learned to new writers through Creative Writing Online (a partnership between NCW and the University of East Anglia), to share that spirit of support and encouragement which was so important to me, and that’s incredibly satisfying.
Why do you feel programmes like Escalator are important for early-career writers?
I think that the single most important thing that Escalator does is give you confidence in your own work. For me, and I suspect for many others who have passed through the scheme, Escalator was the first real validation of my writing outside of friends and family, the first objective nod of encouragement. That means so much.
At the time, I worked in theatre marketing and I prided myself on being able to sell pretty much anything – but I had no idea how to go about selling myself, so to be taken through that minefield step by step was invaluable. And because of the excellent reputation that Escalator has gained over the years, those involved are taken seriously from the outset by industry professionals; there’s a presumed level of quality which stimulates interest in your work, and that’s very exciting.
Escalator supports early-career writers from the East of England and often focuses on those who’ve experienced barriers to publication. What are your thoughts around supporting writers in this region and supporting voices less often represented?
The East of England has such a rich and varied literary tradition, deeply embedded in its landscape and a spirit of non-conformism, and I’m proud to be a part of that. I’m drawn to crime writing in part because it’s ideally placed to lead the way when it comes to representation – issues of injustice, prejudice, and social change are at the heart of what we do. In my books, set in the 1930s, I’ve always wanted to show how the voices of gay women were so often silenced throughout a good part of the twentieth century, and that is a direct response to the many touching letters and emails I’ve had since I started the series from people who recognise my character’s struggle with her own sexuality. BAME writers are still under-represented, but there’s a great desire to change this and agents, editors and publishers all have to play their part; so do readers. That Escalator has been a force for change from the very start is something to cherish and be proud of, something that offers real hope for the future.
Funding in the arts has been hit hard over the years and this year has been devastating. What would you like to say to those who are considering donating to the Escalator campaign?
Stories are important. They enrich our lives. They give us a sense of who we are, and the possibility of becoming who we’d like to be. They’re how we make sense of our place in society, and how we articulate our hopes for a future – but like every other living thing, they need to be nurtured to thrive. The world of the imagination is being diminished by the day, with theatres dark, cinemas closed, and actors and musicians encouraged to retrain in more ‘viable’ professions, so books are more vital than ever, bringing us together safely at a time when we have never felt more isolated.
I’ve had some lovely reviews for my work over the years, and that’s very gratifying, but I’ve been told far more important things: that my books helped someone through cancer; that they gave a young girl a positive role model for her own sexuality; that they were a companion through dark and lonely times. When you support a campaign like Escalator, you’re not just funding one project or one writer, you’re opening up endless possibilities and making a tangible, positive change. You’re creating communities and bringing people together in a way that’s rare and precious. You might even be saving someone’s life.