We’re very lucky, you know. Producing the Regtransfers magazine gives us the opportunity to meet a lot of very interesting people. We’ve spoken with actors, sports stars, business people, musicians and more, but, until recently, we had not interviewed a novelist.
Actors and musicians tend to be extroverts, used to facing the public. Similarly, business people seem, mostly, to be confident and to possess good face-to-face communication skills. Even athletes are accustomed to performing under the scrutiny of a crowd. All of these people seem to be natural interview subjects.
On the other hand, to our interviewing team, writers are a relatively unfamiliar species. Their narrow experience of the breed (consisting mostly of their interaction with the writer of this article) had led them to formulate an image of writers as reclusive, petulant, antisocial and irrational, so the prospect of interviewing a novelist was greeted with as much caution as enthusiasm. As if the preconception described above were not enough to give them pause, our team read some of Martina’s books as part of their research: books full of vicious assaults and gruesome murders. And then there were the other interviews... Accounts by other journalists who had interviewed Martina Cole read more like descriptions of kidnapping than of conventional interviews. At the end of their ordeals, it seemed, they hadn’t so much left as escaped.
In the absence of volunteers, straws were drawn and Angela our interviewer, Stanley our photographer and John our driver departed leaving instructions that the police should be called if they did not turn up for work the following morning.
Martina Cole lives in an idyllic Kent village. Her home is a beautiful 14th Century Tudor house - all beams and chimneys. The Grade II listed house and the Bentley on the drive are unmistakable badges of the occupant’s success, and in an industry where many writers struggle just to make a living, Martina’s success is extraordinary. Her books invariably top best-seller lists, and her readers wait with bated breath for each new volume. At the time of writing this article, the paperback edition of her latest novel, The Life, is due to be published in early May. The Life is Martina’s 19th book. Since publishing her first novel, Dangerous Lady, in 1992, Martina has sold more than 10 million books and the value of those sales has exceeded £50 million, a milestone passed by very few British authors. It is not surprising that her agent and her publisher adore her.
Martina writes about robbers, murderers, convicts, hard men and women. She writes about loyalty and she writes about deceit, betrayal and revenge. Her style is direct and uncompromising. The language is strong and the acts of violence described are gruesome and extreme. Murder is treated as a fact of life.
Dangerous Lady, a tale of love and violence in the gangland of 1960s West End London, was the first of Martina’s books to be adapted for television; the four-part mini-series aired on ITV in May and June 1995. It was well received, with the actors’ performances and Martina’s story receiving praise. The television adaptations introduced a new audience to Cole’s work. As Martina is the first to admit, her style is not literary. The language is direct and without frills. More attention is paid to pace, impact and effect than to the finer academic points of grammar. The television versions of Dangerous Lady, The Jump, The Take and The Runaway converted people who might otherwise have dismissed her books as too trashy.
Many writers in various genres - mystery, crime, thriller, horror, fantasy - seem to suffer from a kind of caste prejudice. Once associated with niche fiction it can be difficult for an author to be taken ‘seriously’. There are a few writers who manage to avoid or transcend their pigeonhole. Some, like Stephen King and Iain Banks, do so through a combination of literary ability and by creating a substantial body of mainstream work outside their specialist genre. Others, like Martina Cole, are simply immersed in what they know and feel compelled to write about.
Martina’s knowledge of the rough world of her fiction is not based upon internet research or interviews with reformed criminals; her books depict the environment in which she was embedded for much of her early life. Growing up on an Essex council estate, the daughter of a sailor and a nurse, Martina encountered sinister people on a daily basis - she has said that an early boyfriend was a bank robber, and she had school friends whose fathers were periodically “banged up” for various transgressions. Even now, when success has enabled her to live the life she chooses, and to do so in luxurious and secure surroundings, she still knows some... colourful characters. Legend has it that criminals may have helped her with the plots of certain works, and that at least one character was based directly on an underworld figure of Martina’s acquaintance.
So, it comes as both a relief and a surprise to meet the real Martina Cole. Despite a husky, gritty-edged voice that would lend itself to the delivery of threats over the telephone, the lady who welcomes our team is bubbly, warm, attractive, surprisingly petite and decidedly unscary (is that a word?). A misunderstanding over the time of the appointment means that Martina answers the door wearing a dressing gown and hair rollers. Instead of sending us away she insists that we come in.
A short while later, as Martina’s son, Chris, takes us outside to arrange the cars for our photoshoot, Martina shouts from her bedroom window. “How do you want me dressed? Do you want smart or casual?” She opts to cover all bases and go smart-casual in a black blouse and jeans.
During the shoot, Martina introduces us to her chickens. “They have an electric fence”, she explains, “to keep the foxes out.” The chickens are just one aspect of Martina’s strong desire to know exactly where the family’s food has come from, and to avoid unnecessary interference and processing. In addition to having her own source of fresh eggs, Martina has a vegetable garden and an orchard behind the house and buys a lot of fresh food from local producers. She loves cooking and at the back of her kitchen is an entire library of cookery books, from traditional recipe volumes to the contemporary offerings of celebrity chefs.
Once we have enough photos, Martina settles us down for the interview. Just as we are about to begin, a thought strikes her.
“Have you eaten? Have you had lunch?”
Um, no, we haven’t.
“Right. Shall we go to the pub then? Let’s go and have some lunch. We can talk in the pub.”
Our research indicates that anyone who has interviewed Martina at her home will be familiar with this modus operandi.
Just as criminals are creatures of habit with preferred methods and behaviours that they revisit time and time again, writers tend to have their own routines and rituals. Martina’s MO seems to involve food, wine and the pub. We steel ourselves. This interviewing lark is hard work but someone has to do it, so we repair to the hostelry as our hostess suggests.
“The pub” is conveniently situated next door to Martina’s house; not just nearby but literally next door. Next door to the pub on the other side is Martina’s office where Chris works. She has the establishment surrounded. There is no chance of it escaping.
Although Martina does most of her writing at home, the business side of her writing career and management of her other interests is done through the office. Martina takes an active part in the TV adaptations of her stories, and has also made forays into the music world. She has a record label and she manages the confusingly named British band Alabama 3 (who are neither from Alabama nor a 3-piece group).
Lunch is great. The pub is splendid with a nice atmosphere and wonderful food. It is no wonder that Martina and Chris make good use of it. As we sit talking, Martina’s teenage daughter, Freddie, appears with a friend; they are going shopping. Martina dishes out spending money to both girls.
After lunch we return to the house and Martina shows us around. Martina moved to the village six years ago to be closer to her son Chris. She says that she fell in love with the place as soon as she walked in, describing the experience as feeling “a sense of being back home”. It wasn’t a simple move, though. The sale fell through the first time and Martina looked at another property in the area.
“But I always knew that I would live here. The house needed a lot of work; it had a strange smell, the ceilings were falling down, everything had to be done. It was six months before I could move in.”
Even now, six years later, Martina says that there are always things going wrong with the house. As it’s a Grade II listed building there are things that cannot be changed, which rather complicates the process of putting faults right. Martina repeatedly apologises for the mess but the house is beautiful and completely charming. The rooms are all decorated in styles consistent with the history of the house - Tudor and Jacobean. There is a library complete with first editions by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens and a bible from the 11th century.
Martina sources a lot of the furniture and furnishings herself. What she cannot find, she has made for her - such as the bespoke leather sofas that were made specifically to be in keeping with the house. The Gothic-looking chandeliers and the fireplaces and also bespoke. Other items have been selected from widespread sources; the curtains are made from Italian silk and there is a grandfather clock that she found in Ireland, although she doesn’t wind it up as it is too loud.
“I loved the clock. When I bought it they said they would deliver it. So, this father and son delivered it all the way from Ireland in a van. I didn’t think they would make it as it was snowing, but they came all the way.” Martina assumes an Irish accent while telling the story, and tells us that she made the two men a roast dinner for when they got there.”
Amongst all this wonderful period splendour, the only prominent concession to 20th/21st century technology is a startlingly anachronistic Elvis jukebox in the corner of one the rooms.
“There are several ghosts. I see them quite often,” she says as she shows us her impressive library. “It goes icy cold. There’s a woman - you might see her today - who likes to sit in that chair.” She points to a chair in the corner of the room. “Chris hasn’t seen her, but he’s felt it, haven’t you, Chris?” Her son confirms this.
Martina shows us the minstrels’ gallery and the fireplaces. In front of one of the fireplaces downstairs are two small chairs that Martina bought for her grandchildren. They usually face the hearth. “But every morning when I came down I’d find them facing the other way. I used to turn them back but the next morning they would be turned away again. In the end I gave up and just left them. It’s obviously the way they [the ghosts] want them.”
Another intriguing tale - Martina is full of them, as befits a professional storyteller - is that of the house’s association with the infamous Gunpowder Plot. It is rumoured, Martina says, that her home is where Guido Fawkes and his cronies conspired to blow up Parliament.
Martina clearly enjoys the rewards that her success has brought. She is unashamed and unapologetic about her nice house and cars. She has worked hard and feels that she has earned what she has. On her gravel driveway stand a black Bentley and a white Mercedes. Shortly after buying the Mercedes Martina had a small memory lapse regarding her cars.
“I went shopping at Lakeside and when I went back to the car park the car was gone, so I called the police. I was very upset. I called Chris and told him that someone had stolen it. He said ‘What? Someone has stolen the Bentley?’ And then I realised that I had driven the black one, not the Mercedes. The Bentley was there in the car park where I’d left it. I thought it was hilarious. The police didn’t.”
Martina’s son, Chris, has an interest in personal number plates. In fact it was he who spotted her new registration, 8 OOK (“book”) on the Regtransfers website. Martina has a tradition of buying herself a gift whenever her books get to number one. As this is a regular occurrence she has acquired a fair number of these gifts, her Bentley amongst them. When Chris came across 8 OOK he pointed it out to Martina and suggested that it would be very appropriate as her next gift to herself. Martina agreed, and the new registration is now displayed upon the Bentley. We think the combination looks fantastic.
Successful people are invariably busy and we quite understand that they only have limited time to spare for interruptions such as interviews and photo shoots. Surprisingly, Martina Cole does not seem to be aware of this. Even if one accepts that she is naturally gregarious and likes nothing more than a good chat, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by her hospitality. As well as standing us a fine lunch and plying us with decent wine, she gave us four and a half hours of her valuable time: four and a half hours that we enjoyed very much. We are very grateful to Martina and Chris for their kindness.
Story: Rick Cadger
Interview: Angela Banh
Photography: Stan Thompson