Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Later this month, I am hosting Noir at the Bar Newcastle at the Town Wall. One of the authors appearing there is Fiona Veitch Smith, author of the ‘Poppy Denby Investigates‘ series. Fiona is here today to talk about how her day job has inspired her writing.
Since working on the school newspaper when I was nine years old, I always wanted to be a journalist. I eventually went on to study journalism, media and history at Rhodes University in South Africa and then worked as a journalist in Cape Town in the 1990s. When I returned to the UK in 2002 I worked full time as a magazine journalist, then, while juggling pregnancies, a baby, an MA and the start of a creative writing career, I went freelance. For the last eight years I have lectured, part-time, on journalism modules at Newcastle University. And although now I would say I am a novelist before I am a journalist, journalism is still very much in my blood.
So it’s not surprising that my most successful books to date have been about a young, female journalist set in the 1920s. Despite the bad press the media has had over the last years with the Leveson Inquiry, the phone hacking scandal and the feud with Donald Trump over ‘fake news’, I still believe journalism at its best is one of the foundations of a healthy society. When journalists are doing their job properly, injustice is exposed, truth is upheld and people in power are held to account. And that’s the side of journalism that is hailed in the Poppy Denby books. However, I do not shy away from the seedier side of the profession and show instances of journalists bending the rules, breaking the law and taking bribes. My heroine, Poppy, tries to walk the narrow road, but doesn’t always succeed, and is surrounded by jaded hacks who are shamed by her idealism.
My life working on newspapers and magazines, as a reporter, feature writer and sub-editor, has helped me create an authentic world for my characters. In the three books so far (and the fourth I’m busy writing) I have used my knowledge of life in a newsroom and my broader understanding of the media’s interplay with the police, politicians and advertisers to my advantage.
I have even drawn on some ‘real life’ stories from my days on the newspaper in Cape Town. In the first book, The Jazz Files, Poppy’s relationship with the DCI Richard Easling is based on a misogynistic police chief in Cape Town who tried to influence and bully me into changing a number of stories to put the police in a better light. I refused to do it. On a lighter note, her first job going to interview a theatre director at the Old Vic was based on my own experience covering the art scene in Cape Town – as well as my own foray onto the boards. The drunken Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream actually happened when I played Cobweb in a university production. In the latest book, set on the New York Times, I am vicariously living out my own ambition of working for a paper of that stature.
So, although I did, in the end, give up the day job to become a novelist, I’ve never given up on it in my heart.
Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Book 1, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2016. Book 2, The Kill Fee, was a finalist in the Foreword Book Review Mystery of the Year, and book 3, The Death Beat is out now. www.poppydenby.com