‘In the chill of the morning kitchen I was still in denial, trying to convince myself that I had heard the name wrong, but my heart rate rose steadily. It was as if my blood admitted it really was him before my mind could.’
By Denise Mina
Published by Harvill Secker
Some people are human batteries: they fizz you up, energising, and inspiring you to approach the world with an inquiring, open mind. You want to be around them all the time. Denise Mina is one of those people.
One recent Saturday we spent a few hours setting the world to rights and talking crime fiction. A fortnight earlier, Elif Shafak had included Mina in a list of the UK’s ten most exciting female writers, saying, ‘Their words heal wounds, old and new. Their stories help us to understand not only other people’s pain and anger and resilience, but also our own. . . . They re-humanise those who have been dehumanised.’
That’s not a bad description of Mina’s new novel, Conviction.
Her protagonist, Anna McDonald, has slammed—and bolted—the door on her traumatic past, reinventing herself as the wife of a wealthy, older man, and mother to two young girls. Anna’s world feels safe and secure—until her husband announces he’s leaving Anna for her best friend and taking their daughters with him.
Anna, a podcast fan (‘A good podcast can add a glorious multi-world texture to anything.’), displaces her emotions by disappearing into a true crime story. Realising she knew one of the victims in another life, she’s convinced she can figure out what happened, and sets out to prove it.
Denise Mina also loves podcasts. She’s been enthusing about them for years, and it feels right and inevitable that she’d invent one for her novel. For those slower to embrace the form, can she describe their attraction?
‘Because it’s auditory, it feels like a very intimate connection,’ she says, ‘like someone is whispering in your ear and you’re the only audience member. It’s a really intense experience, and a unique form of storytelling. It’s like watching fiction being invented.’
Interesting, that. I recall her saying that narrative is more compelling than facts, and a better way to disseminate ideas.
‘That’s the whole reason I started writing fiction. It’s called the narrative paradigm, the idea that, for example, Jesus isn’t mentioned until 400 years after the birth of Christianity. It was just a failing sect, then someone invented a central character and it took off. It’s that powerful.’
Speaking of Conviction she expands, ‘It’s a way of using emotive narrative to have a central character who is a survivor of sexual abuse and isn’t pathetic. Of having someone who has been in a mental hospital and doesn’t need helped all the time because they’re broken—they’re just another person. I’m very conscious that we don’t have representation of a lot of the people that I think are heroic.’
A plot element of the novel, written at the height of #MeToo, is a sexual attack. Mina uses it to explore victim blaming, the disturbing belief that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sorts of victims, and the idea that an attack needn’t become the central fact of a survivor’s life.
‘It goes back to the Judeo-Christian idea that sex is for procreation, and if a woman is sexed in a certain way then she is ruined, so that must be the thing that you know about her. It may well be the central fact of her life, and it may form her identity, but we shouldn’t only ever speak about people in that way.’
Silence and secrecy are important themes of the novel, and Mina tells me this reflects her concern for women’s safety. ‘At the start of #MeToo, a very powerful woman came out. In the second wave, it was less powerful women saying, “I’ve been sexually abused by extremely powerful people.” A thirteen-year-old said Trump had sexually abused her. The whole Jeffrey Epstein thing. The [accused] are really powerful people, and we need to form a feminist army if we’re going to keep these women safe.
‘We’re all quite damaged from our experiences. These women feel very unprotected to me. It reminds me of the civil rights movement, when black children were sent into schools with no black teachers, to change the world. I heard a podcast of a woman saying her mom absolutely hated white people. She had been one of the girls sent into Little Rock. She was spat at every day through high school. You think, why didn’t we integrate schools at board level? Why didn’t we integrate teachers first? It feels like we’re not protecting people who are speaking out.
‘The question is, are you safer out, or hiding? It’s such an interesting thing in our culture—which is such an open culture—to choose not to talk about stuff. What do we make of people who don’t tell?’
Mina says a lot of this book is about Donald Trump. ‘I’m really interested in Melania. What the fuck is going on in her head? I don’t think she is a nice person. But you never hear from the trophy wife. It’s a good place to hide. [I like] the idea that he might be burbling on and she has a thought process: “You fucking dreary twat.”’
This novel, purportedly written by Anna, is her finally telling the truth, ‘writing a whole book about it for you to read.’ I mention that an early review described Anna as a ‘strong female protagonist,’ a phrase guaranteed to make me snarl. Does it annoy Mina?
‘You wouldn’t believe the atmosphere when Garnethill came out! Everyone commented on the fact that the protagonist was female. The only advice I got from my publisher was “don’t mention feminism.” It was so out of fashion. I used to say, “You know the feminists that everyone hates, the scary ones—that’s the kind I am.”
‘I’d give the same interview all the time, which mentioned central characters, narrative paradigm, Stanley Fish, point-of-viewlessness. I’d talk about all this stuff, and the interview would come out and say, “sprightly mother of two, how does she do it all, how does she get her laundry done?”’
That’s ironic, since discussions about Tartan Noir always highlight its social commentary.
‘That’s now. They talk about the social commentary but not the politics. For some of us, that’s the only reason we’re writing—and the reason we’re writing crime, because you want to talk to that audience. You want to put it in a story and say, “Isn’t it wrong that people die of cold?” That’s exactly what Dickens was doing. He never came up with solutions, he observed, so there’s a humanity and humility to what he’s talking about.
‘I think there is a churlishness about crime fiction being important. It’s important because lots of people read it, because we’re saturated with those stories, because it does talk about politics. Inevitably, it talks about politics. And the audience know long before the commentators know.’
She’s curious to see how Conviction, which plays with narrative conventions, will be received. ‘People [in the UK] feel tricked by the notion of a meta-novel talking about the nature of narrative. When I wrote Sanctum, which is a discovered diary, people felt tricked, and that it’s not the place of crime novels to do that.’
Then where is the place, and where do we draw a line—if a line exists—between crime fiction and literary fiction?
‘I don’t think there is a line,’ she says, ‘but there is a marketing distinction. It’s quite random. If your first book is a crime book you’re always a crime writer. Dostoyevsky would be a crime writer now.’
Well, surely so would Dickens, Shakespeare, and a host of others. Crime features in many an acknowledged literary masterpiece.
Mina agrees. ‘We went to see Romeo and Juliet the other night—that’s a crime story about gangs. I think the promise of crime fiction is that you can enjoy this, and the promise of literature is you may be improved by this. I suppose it’s what the coded signalling is: what does it mean? With crime fiction, if you don’t entertain people, if you bore them, they’re very angry about it.
‘But I think the trick of saying crime fiction isn’t as important, and isn’t talking about important things, is part of what makes crime fiction keep being crime fiction. Because people do read it with a sense of entitlement, and stop if they’re not enjoying it. Again, the resistance to admitting that is what makes the British—particularly reviewers—resent tricksy crime novels. Novels that talk about the fact that it’s a narrative. I think the audiences are much more amenable to that than reviewers are. Or maybe the audiences aren’t? Well, we’ll find out when this book comes out.’
Having succumbed to the story’s momentum, inhaling Conviction in one breathless sitting, I have no qualms about predicting that readers will love it.
Conviction by Denise Mina is published by Harvill Secker, priced £14.99