Get in the mood for this week’s DIVA Book Club interview with our piece from the vaults

BY CARRIE LYELL

Crime writer Mari Hannah will be talking all things Kate Daniels in the DIVA Book Club at 8pm on Wednesday 4 August 2021. Join our Facebook Community right here and set your alarm. In the meantime, to get you in the mood, we dug this interview out of the archives. Enjoy! 

It’s 2017 and I’m deep into crime writer Mari Hannah’s latest book, Gallows Drop, the sixth in her hugely successful Kate Daniels series. I’m gripped by the case, by Kate’s struggles with her sexuality, and by her on-off relationship with colleague Jo Soulsby. Turning feverishly to the last page, to the last line, I’m aghast. “His voice broke as he delivered the news. ‘Jo’s flight is missing.’” 

Three years on, I’ve got a bone to pick with Mari, who I’m nicknaming “cliffhannah”. How could she leave me hanging like that, for such a long time? She chuckles warmly down the line from her home in the north east. “The reason there was a big break was because of a change of publisher,” she explains apologetically. “They wanted me to write something new, which I got stuck into. Three into the series, I went, ‘Listen – there are a lot of people out there desperate to get the next title. I really want to write another Kate now.” Like me, Mari’s readers were on the edge of their seats. “People were [asking], ‘Can you not tell us what’s going on?’ Of course I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t. But when I opened up my computer to write number seven, I picked it up from that moment, so it was going to be a thrilling read from the beginning.” 

BACK ON THE BEAT 

Indeed it is. Without A Trace sees DCI Daniels back on the beat and better than ever, and Mari says she’s “delighted” to be reunited with her favourite protagonist again. “I know people say it’s like choosing between your children, but if I had to drop one character or series, it wouldn’t be Kate!” she laughs, explaining that “it’s like being back with an old mate”. 

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Kate, the feisty fictional detective is based on Mari’s partner, former cop Mo Dowdy, and Mari’s own experience working in the probation service. “Crime was a world I knew about. I wrote a detective very much like Mo. She didn’t talk about her sexuality when she was in the police. So I made Kate someone who didn’t come out at work and who struggled for all sorts of reasons because of that.” 

Having read all of the books in the Kate Daniels series, it’s been wonderful to watch the DCI crack case after case. But, more than that, it’s a joy to see her grow into her sexuality over the past eight years, finding the courage to come out and confront demons – both internal and external. And life imitates art, it seems. Despite being with Mo for the past 40 years, Mari’s parents didn’t know the pair were in a civil partnership when she won the Polari First Book Prize in 2013. “Suddenly, I was out to the whole wide world. Through writing, I’ve come out openly and enjoyed being who I am, not feeling that I have to hide that at all.” 

WRITING TO REACH YOU 

Mari and Kate have come a long way since The Murder Wall. But it hasn’t been an easy road. The writer has spoken previously about the struggles to find a publisher, the rejection letters, and feeling like she might have committed “career suicide” by penning a gay character. Eight years, seven Kate Daniels books and five major awards later, she’s certainly silenced those in the publishing industry who didn’t want to take a chance on a lesbian detective. “I had to wait a very long time and be patient,” she tells me. “I didn’t always know I was going to get there, but I kept writing Kate.” 

How much have things changed in the industry in those eight years? “It has moved on, for all minority groups, to some extent,” Mari says. “But I think a lot more needs to be done. There is still a perceived risk if your book has a gay character. Even if you have a Black character. There are lots of people trying to make it clear that what we need in publishing are books that reflect the whole of society, not just the white middle class, so it is changing, but I don’t think it is changing quick enough.” 

Knowing how much easier – and perhaps more lucrative – things might have been had she made her main character a straight, white man, why didn’t she? “I had a choice when I first started. Do I make Kate the sergeant and make Hank the DCI? That wasn’t going to be good enough for Kate,” she says passionately. “I felt very, very strongly that there were so many gay people in this world sidelined and sidetracked. I didn’t want her to be the add-on in someone else’s drama. I wanted her to be the main character.” 

Her advice for would-be lez/bi writers? “Keep writing, keep knocking on the door,” says Mari. “It’s ajar. It’s not quite open yet, but it’s ajar.” 

THE NEXT CHAPTER 

Reading has been a saving grace for so many this year, offering a little escapism from the world outside our windows. But like others across the country, Covid-19 has turned Mari’s life upside down, and for a long time this year she found it difficult to read or write. 

“My mother died in April [2020]. I hadn’t seen her for five weeks, which was absolutely awful. That was an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It was difficult for me for quite a few months. Not only did I lose my writing mojo, I couldn’t concentrate for any length of time.”

As the weeks went on, she started listening to audio books, but it was her readers that gave her the strength to open the laptop and start writing again. “I’ve had some lovely emails and tweets from people saying, ‘Thank goodness for your books, you’ve really got me through,” Mari tells me. “That drives you to write more.” 

In fact, because of a message like that from a nurse, Mari went to her publisher, who then hatched a plan to give free books to NHS staff. “That was credited to me, which was lovely, but it was a real collaboration. A lot of people benefitted from that. Some wonderful things have come out of this awful year that we’ve had.” 

Thankfully, 2021 promises to be a better year for Mari. After several delays, Without A Trace is finally out in paperback in January, and the fourth in her Stone and Oliver series, which also features a gay character, is due for publication in July. And the good news for those who have already devoured the latest Kate Daniels is that we definitely won’t be waiting as long to find out what happens next. “I’m nearly halfway through the next one,” Mari reveals. “I could tell you the title, but I won’t…” 

This interview first appeared in the January 2021 issue of DIVA, which you can buy here. Don’t miss our DIVA Book Club interview with Mari Hannah on Wednesday 4 August at 8pm in our Facebook Community.

DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

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