Alison Joseph ‘s new novel DYING TO KNOW hit bookstores on December 11th. She’s known for her work on the Sister Agnes series. Sister Agnes is a nun with a knack for solving crimes. However in Joseph’s newest novel readers are introduced to an entirely new protagonist to cheer for, Detective Inspector Berenice Killick. Below Alison tells THE BIG THRILL about her new novel and a few neat facts about herself too. Enjoy!
Please tell us about DYING TO KNOW.
DYING TO KNOW is a crime novel about particle physics. It starts with what seems to be a serial killer of physicists, based at a (fictional) particle collider in Kent. The police get involved, in particular D I Berenice Killick, who is put in charge of the investigation. But other characters get drawn in too; the first physicist to be killed has a wife, Virginia, who seems strangely unmoved by his death. And there is a clergyman to whom she turns, and who, for reasons of his own, also gets entangled in the investigation.
How does Berenice Killick differ from Sister Agnes? What inspired you to make such a jump?
Sister Agnes is a lovely character to write, and I shall return to her. But I have become interested in trying to write about the reality of a murder enquiry, and, of course, a detective nun is all very well, but in real, contemporary life, it’s the police who are the ones investigating murder. So, it was a matter of time before I jumped in and began to tackle the realities of a police murder enquiry. Berenice is very interesting. She’s mixed race, from Yorkshire, and the collapse of a very unsuitable relationship with a married man has caused her move to Kent. She is an outsider, but then I think the archetypal detective always has that about him or her.
Did you already know a fair amount of physics beforehand or was it something you had to research? If so, how did you go about that?
I knew very little about physics. But I have always been drawn to it, and I’ve followed the experiment at CERN in Geneva for some time. I’m obsessed with narrative and the stories we tell ourselves that appear to have meaning. I’ve always loved hearing physicists talk about their work, and this painstaking process to get nearer to the truths of how the universe came into being, and how it continues, and whether it’s infinite or not. I think these are important questions. So, when I started this novel and realised it would be about particle physicists, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, while it was in the process of the collisions that led to the conclusion that the Higgs Boson was indeed what they thought it was. It was one of the most compellingly interesting days of my life, to stand in the control room of the ATLAS experiment and see the beam on their screens in real time. I’ve tried to convey something of that in the novel, without, I hope, being too technical.
What process do you go through when you are writing a new major character?
It’s a strange process. It’s like getting to know a new friend. Things come to light about them that are surprising. It’s as if you listen to them telling you things. For example, Berenice had a disabled brother who died while still young, and the grief was very destructive for their mother. That just seemed to come into being while she was talking. And even with characters one knows very well, like Sister Agnes, there are always more things to find out. I think one of the madnesses of us authors is that our characters are as real as real people.
Have you always been fascinated with writing?
I have to say, it’s been a compulsion for me. From the moment when I learnt to read and realised there were these things called stories, I have been telling them to myself. Then, when I was a bit older, I began to write them down. It’s something for which I’m very grateful. When I was young, it didn’t even occur to me that it was a career option, it was just a refuge. Then, when I was at home with small children, about twenty years ago, and wondering what to do with my life, I realised it was time to take it seriously as a career.
What is your all-time favorite book?
I don’t think I could name just one. I love the work of Edith Wharton, and also Walter Mosley. I love THE HOURS by Michael Cunningham. And RIDDLEY WALKER by Russell Hoban, is just a most extraordinary work. It is very odd that all these favourite writers are American, but it might just be that it’s so lovely hearing a voice that’s different from one’s own. Of British writers I would name Dickens, of course, and Jane Austen, and dear Conan Doyle. And I love Simenon’s Maigret novels too.
So, you are an author, radio dramatist, and chair of the Crime Writers Association. How do you juggle all of these responsibilities?
When I was beginning my career as an author, I had to fit it in around the children. So I became rather steely and determined about it (as I fear my children will tell you, given the chance). In a way it was a good training. Being Chair of the CWA is very enjoyable, and gets me out of the house, which is good for any writer—sitting on one’s own for hours thinking up interesting ways of killing people isn’t terribly good for any of us. And the radio plays are also enormous fun. Writing works for radio gives me an opportunity to think about dialogue and how it works to tell a story; and you also get the chance to work with some very talented and lovely actors.
What can we expect from you in 2014?
There’s a lot going on in 2014. I’m hoping to spend some more time with DI Berenice Killick. I’m also going to do another Sister Agnes book, as it will be fun to find out what she’s been up to. And the LONDON MAGAZINE is publishing one of my (non-crime) short stories. The LONDON MAGAZINE was founded in 1732, so between that and Kindle, I’ll have work represented in the oldest and the newest forms of publishing. And I’m working on a detective story based in Britain in the 1930s, a kind of “golden age” story. I love the way that within a crime structure, you can really tell any kind of story you want – it’s a source of great inspiration to me, and one that I hope will continue into the future.
Alison Joseph is a London-based crime writer and radio dramatist. She has always been fascinated by belief systems and how they can become dangerous. She is the author of the series of novels featuring Sister Agnes, a contemporary detective nun based in South London. In this new novel she turns to particle physics and the discoveries of the Large Hadron Collider as the basis for a crime story.
To learn more about Alison, please visit her website.