Monday, 15 August 2011

I owe it all the crime… Celia Rees

My writing career, that is.
I began by writing crime fiction and the genre that is still close to me heart. Thrillers are still my favourite kinds of books. Exciting, page turning and the best are as well written as anything else you’ll find on the shelves.

I first started writing when I was an English teacher, interested in my students’ reading, and this decided my audience. At the time (in the 1980s) among the few authors who wrote specifically for teenagers, certain names stood out. 

American writers: Robert Cormier, Lois Duncan (who wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer) and Patricia Windsor; Alan Garner and Aiden Chambers in Britain were writing books that read like adult novels but with teenagers at the centre of the action. 

Many (although not all) of these books were thriller and most of them American. My students loved them, but they wanted to know why there were so few written about British teenagers. People like them. They had a point and that was when I thought that I might have a go (as you do).
I enjoyed reading these books, too, but I was also interested in what was happening in the adult thriller market. There were an increasing number of crime books being published that had been written written by women with strong female protagonists: Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Sarah Dunant and Gillian Slovo were all writing books where the P.I. or the main character was a woman.

I thought maybe I could put the two things together and write a thriller for teens that would read like an adult thriller and would have strong female characters, in the manner of the writers I had come to admire. 

This might have stayed just an idea but then a friend of mine told me a true story about how she’d taken a group of students on an Outdoor Pursuits trip to Wales and how they had got caught up in a murder hunt. 

The story had all the elements I needed: a violent crime had been committed, a murderer was on the loose, heading to an isolated spot in the middle of no-where with a group of ordinary British teenagers heading for the very same place. 

It was a gift and even then, before I’d started writing, I knew that such offerings happen rarely. It was just too good a chance to pass up and I used it as the central story in my first novel Every Step You Take (now long out of print).
I soon learnt that there was more to writing a thriller than a plot, true or not. I wove another true story into the narrative, involving a girl and a boy on the trip and a romance turned sour by male possessiveness, violence and jealousy. 

For me, the best crime fiction is not just a sequence of violent actions or a series of puzzles, it tells us something about the human condition. Similarly, the best teen fiction is not issue driven, they are there as part of the action, the whole picture.

I went on to write more two thrillers, Colour Her Dead and Midnight Hour, before moving on to other genre. My thrillers are all out of date but I regard them with great affection. They were my proving ground. The place I learnt how to write. I have never forgotten or, I hope, lost the storytelling skills I learnt when writing them.

With my next book, I’m going back to my roots.

This Is Not Forgiveness - publishes February, 2012

Celia's website
Celia's Facebook Fan page:

Celia will be in conversation with Nicola Morgan at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday, August 21 • 12:00pm - 1:00pm
For more information go to


  1. I don't really read many thrillers but there is a thriller element to my next book, Illegal and I do agree that for this genre to work there has to be much more than the race to solve the mystery. As in all good novels, characterization is paramount. Lovely post Celia and I look forward to the new book.

  2. I didn't realise your first book was a crime novel. We'll definitely look out for your next one. I also like your defence of the thriller genre: "as well written as anything else". I don't know why we have to have the snobbery about literary vs genre fiction. At least in kids & teen books you're free to explore different genres. That's something I love about kids'/YA books.

  3. I'm reading your fantastic book 'Witch Child' at the moment and can see how the crime genre has inspired your work. It's so rich with mystery and intrigue (and crime and punishment too, poor witches). Personally, I think crime novels have a lot to teach writers of all genres - they are masterly at 'hooking' their readers, entrancing them and making them want to read on ...

  4. I shall definitely look out for the new one next year. Crime and thrillers demand such precise plotting they are a brilliant proving ground - and you've lost none of your plotting skills, Celia!

  5. Cannot wait for new novel, Celia! What a wonderful title too. And someone (maybe even you!) should put the out of print ones out somehow on t'Internet or similar. Self-Kindling perhaps? Agree completely about thrillers. I love them too.