13 Feb Jessie Keane
Photo by Alexander James Photography
A Sunday Times top ten bestselling author, Jessie Keane’s fascination for London’s gangland and the underworld led her to write her highly acclaimed first novel Dirty Game which became an instant bestseller, followed by the hard-hitting gritty dramas Black Widow, Scarlet Women, Jail Bird, The Make, Playing Dead, Nameless and many more. Described as “Utterly Compelling” Jessie Keane’s books will keep you awake until the early hours of the morning. Fearless, Jessie Keane’s twelfth novel, will be published on March 22nd by Macmillan.
By Victoria Adelaide | Feb 19. 2018
Victoria Adelaide: Mrs Keane, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Jessie Keane: I was born in the back of an old Gypsy barrel top caravan which was parked in my parents’ back garden. My mum’s mother was Romany. She was living behind my parents’ house, just as a regular gorgi or house dweller but she refused to give up her van and only came indoors to use the facilities.. I was born in the van. I was brought up in the country but I was about sixteen when the family firm went bust. There was all sorts of trauma going on at home, lots of big arguments, my father died and for a year I spent some time up in London. That really inspired me to write later on the things that I started to write, the crime novels. For quite a while I was a secretary. I did all sorts of odd jobs, I was always writing but just doing odd jobs in between. I was slicing bacon in a deli and doing general rough menial jobs until I could actually break through in the writing. I’d been writing chick lit for years, and I thought I was going nowhere with it. I couldn’t get published. It was really hopeless. About 10 years ago I just sat down and I thought, “That’s it, I’ve got to give it up.” And then I saw this DVD about the Cray Twins in London, and I remembered those I picked up in London years ago and I thought I could write a story similar to this. I just had to put a woman in as the heroine and I’d see where I could go with this. So I started to write the story. I was flat broke at the time. I had no money, I had no prospects, I was divorced, I was going nowhere, I was so poor I couldn’t even get central heating fitted. I was just watching TV under the quilt when I saw that film. I thought I’d write this story, see how it goes, and I rattled it off in about 3 months. That’s the time it took me to write Dirty Game. That was the first of my books. I was writing all day and most of the night as well, just pouring it out. That was my first Annie Carter book, Dirty Game.
VA: What inspires you when you write your books?
JK: My inspiration is the criminal underworld. I’m actually hooked on it. It’s very fascinating. My writing routine now is: I write in the mornings and I just edit in the afternoon. It’s slowed down quite a lot to a more relaxed pace now than it was then. But right at the beginning, I just poured this novel out very quickly, and thought I’m just going to send this off to six agents and see if it does any good. Just to see if I get anything back at all. Honestly, I didn’t expect to. I thought that it would just go nowhere because I’ve been sending books out for years and got nowhere. I sent the first book out to six agents. Within about a fortnight two of them came back and they were interested and said, “Could you just rehash this bit and rewrite that little bit?” I said Ok. I got connected to one of the agents in particular and she said, “I might have somebody who would be interested in this book.” Then she said, “Don’t hold your breath. It could go nowhere so we’ll see.” She gave it to a publisher, and he liked it, much to my surprise. It was one of the major big four publishers and she came back to me about a week later and said, “You’ve got a three-book deal for a six-figure sum”. And that was it. That was the beginning of my writing career.
VA: How do you keep going, one bestseller after another?
JK: Well, it’s very character-driven usually and you start off with just a germ of an idea involving this character and it just expands from there. Some people plot very carefully all the way through. I know my mate, Peter Lovesey, always plots everything right the way through very neatly and just writes it as it’s already written. But I can’t do that. I just tend to take an idea for one character and expand on that until it fills the book. So far it hasn’t let me down. (laughs)
VA: There are many very talented writers out there in the same genre of books that you write. What do you think makes you stand out? Is there a recipe?
JK: I think it’s that page-turning element, isn’t it? It’s a talent you are born with. You just have the ability to get people to keep turning the page and absolutely hook them until the end of the book. My grandmother had the sight when she read the tarot. She was a great one for reading palms. One day on my third birthday, she had a look at my hands, and she said, “She’s going to be a writer. She’s got a strong writer’s fork, and she’s got two in fact, one on each hand and she’s not only going to write, she’s going to be famous for it.” So there you are. It all came true in the end. Good old Gran! (laughs)
VA: Do you think everything is written, that everything happen for a reason in life?
JK: I think maybe it does. I just wandered through life and I always had this built-in talent. There are spell checkers on the computer. I never have to check them – something I’ve had from an early age. I’ve never had to refer to that. I think it’s something you’re born with. I really, really do.
VA: On March 22nd you will release your twelfth book Fearless. Can you tell us a bit about that?
JK: Yes, it’s about a bare-knuckle Gypsy fighter, Josh Flynn. His fists are a deadly weapon. It’s about the two women who love him. There’s one very good, nice and sweet and one who is pretty horrible, ruthless. The two clash horribly and it’s just a question of who’s going to win in the end.
VA: So the new element compared to your other books is the Gypsy flavor?
JK: Yes absolutely. I’ve got into the Gypsy background here, which I’ve never done before. And this book is something that’s really personal to me, whereas the others, I’m really not an underworld gangster (laughs) or a gangster’s mob or anything like that (laughs). But this one is far more personal to me. It’s shocking. It’s gritty because with travellers, like Romanies and Gypsies, there’s an element of racism involved in the way some people look at them, but this sort of takes you inside all of that and lets you see what those people are really like.
VA: What kind of mindset do you need to have to write this kind of novel? Have you got a routine to get in the vibe?
JK: Sportsmen talk about ‘the zone,’ don’t they? They’ve got to be in ‘the zone’ where they’re relaxed but they’re efficient and I think that’s what you’ve got to be like if you’re a writer. You sit down at your desk and you just vanish into this other world. It’s quite good fun really (laughs). Then you emerge a few hours later and you’ve written all this and hopefully it’s good. Yes, you have to be… I would say relaxed but alert. You should not be wound up, not worried about the mortgage or the inbox on your Outlook. You’ve got to be focused on what you’re doing and just in a relaxed state, I would say.
Photos by Alexander James Photography.
VA: I know that some writers can get attached to their characters. Does it happen to you?
JK: Oh yes, absolutely. These 2 characters in Fearless, Claire and Shauna, they really are something very, very interesting. I think that Claire is more like me, Shauna, she’s just a nightmare (laughs). But you do get attached to them, you really do. When you finish a book, it’s quite sad actually. For about 2 weeks you go into a bit of a decline. It’s always lovely to start and never very nice to finish.
VA: And you always choose strong women in the characters you create? Strong women a bit like you?
JK: Oh yeah, absolutely. Well I don’t know how to write any other sort. I think it just comes naturally to me.
VA: When you cut ties with your entire family how did you manage to rebuild yourself and to get stronger?
JK: Well, I think I’m quite a tough person. I’ve had trouble in my life but I tend to push through it and keep going. I’m just that sort of person. I will plod on with things. I mean, even when a lot of people would just give up and say “That’s it, I’ve had enough,” I would keep going. I think it’s just in me, really. I was just born that way.
VA: How long does it takes you to research prior to write a book?
JK: Well, I use the internet of course, the library and I have a lot of books about ganglands activities. I have the chronicles of the 21st Century which is very useful for going back to a particular year and finding out what’s happened then. I would always try to put in some news items and some music of that time I’m writing about. Yes, you just do a little bit of research. You don’t need to do a lot of research, just pepper the book, season it with a little bit of research. You’re not lecturing anybody but you’re educating them in a subtle way about what was going on.
VA: Who are the writers who inspired you when you started?
JK: I admired lots of writers actually. I loved River God by Wilbur Smith. I love Dick & Felix Francis, because I love horses. Stephen King, I absolutely adore Stephen King. I love his book, Duma Key. That was fantastic. Marian Keyes, because I love a laugh and she’s so funny, etc.
VA: What would you like to say to a young aspiring writer who is struggling and finding herself in the same position you were before you got published?
JK: I would say, obviously you’ve got to have the talent to do it in the first place, but also you need persistence. You really need to persist because you will get knocked back, you will get rejection slips and there will be times when you think, “This is no good I’ve got to give this up.” Just persist. I think J.K. Rowling gave the full advice and she is quite right. You just have to push past that, keep going, persist, keep your head down because what you’re doing is you’re learning the craft, you’re perfecting it all the time and you will get better and better. You’re bound to. So that’s what I would say to any aspiring writer, just persist, keep going.
...Just persist, keep going, that’s what I would say to any aspiring writer.``