Ann Widdecombe is, of course, best known as a politician — she was a Conservative Minister of State at the Home Office in 1995, where she was responsible for prisons and immigration. She’s also been a television presenter and a columnist and, since 2000, she’s had a successful career as a novelist.
Now, as A N Widdecombe, she’s written her first crime novel, a traditional detective story set partly in the studios of a TV dance show called Lively Toes. The Dancing Detective features a strangely familiar detective called Anton Caesar. Hmm, it all seems to ring a bell, somehow. Ann gives us the intel on her twinkle-toed pro tag, on critics and, of course, her writing process…
The Dancing Detective is set against the backdrop of a prime time TV celebrity dance show – where on earth did you get the inspiration for that idea?
I had always intended to try my hand at a detective novel when I retired and to set it on Dartmoor. Then, when I was taking part in Strictly Come Dancing, I suddenly thought what a wonderful setting that would make! So I combined both Dartmoor and a London studio. I began the book while on the show but my publishers were keen for me to write my autobiography so I postponed The Dancing Detective until that was over.
Tell us about your dancing amateur sleuth Anton Caesar…
The amateur detective, Anton Caesar, is based on my dance partner, Anton du Beke. He thinks it hilarious! Nobody else in the book is based on anyone, the other characters coming from my imagination . Similarly the professional detectives, Frobisher and Molloy are not based on anybody I have met, although during my time in the Home Office I spoke to rather a lot of policemen.
You’ve written bestsellers before, but this is your first detective novel – what was your biggest challenge when writing it…
Writing a detective novel was a serious challenge for me because usually when I sit down to write I have no idea what is going to have happened by the time I get up again but one cannot write a crime novel like that. If you don’t know who did it and why and how then you cannot lay the clues and mix them all up. I aimed at a very traditional crime story in which all the clues are fairly laid and one should be able to work out whodunnit but I am pleased to say that most have not succeeded.
Take us through a typical writing day for you
I have no typical writing day. Some days I may be making long train journeys and use that time to write. On other days I will write in my study overlooking Dartmoor and on still other days I won’t produce a word!
The hardest lesson to learn about writing is just getting on and doing it. The muse is not always at one’s beck and call.
How do you deal with feedback?
My greatest reward is to receive letters from people saying that they were sad when they came to the end of the book or it kept them up all night or they cannot wait for the next one. Better still are those who write to say that I captured their own experience with handicap/split families/children/teachers or whatever because then I know I have written convincingly.
The critics are another kettle of fish! They fall into two categories: those who review the book itself and those who are more interested in my having written it. I always pay close attention to those who address the book and learn from constructive criticism but those who simply want to find my own views in those of the characters and who have clearly set out to dislike the work from the outset are best ignored. One critic said there was no humour in my autobiography, causing me to wonder if she had actually read it.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Susan Hill and PG Wodehouse. On the detective side, Nicholas Blake, Josephine Tey and PD James. All create real characters – yes, even PG Wodehouse! – and all have coherent plots. The detective writers lay the clues fairly and do not suddenly rely upon an unknown factor at the end.
Give me some advice about writing…
The best advice I can give anyone about writing is just to start. Do not wait for the muse, don’t worry about how it will shape up, don’t worry if you are not sure about a character or plot: just start and see what happens.
What’s next for you?
My next project is another detective novel with the same detectives and of course the third book in my trilogy of which the two books published so far are An Act of Treachery and An Act of Peace. People keep asking me when it is going to be published.