Author Jonathan Macho spoke to crime novelist Beverley Jones as part of the podcast he co-hosts with Sophie Buchaillard, Writers on Reading. Their chat came during the filming of an adaptation of Beverley’s novel Wilderness, starring Jenna Coleman for Amazon Prime. Beverley was zoom-ing in from her boxroom in Pontypridd, where she does the majority of her writing.
Jonathan Macho: I understand you’ve always had a professional interest in crime, even before you became a novelist. How did your earlier careers inform your writing?
Beverley Jones: I started out as a journalist. I worked on local newspapers, with the Western Mail in Cardiff, and then with the BBC for a short while, before I went over to what might be considered the dark side to work in the police press office in Bridgend. I got to see a lot of the genuine human side of crime and the psychological motivations of people. We worked closely with investigations and then with families. You get to see that the majority of people are not out there with the will to commit terrible acts. They tend to get pushed, through motivations we all recognise: money problems, jealousy, desire. There’s always that line where somebody who’s never committed a crime before will commit one, and that’s what’s fascinating to me. I don’t write about very complex serial killers plotting dastardly deeds. I tend to write about ordinary people that are just on the edge. I know a lot of writers do a lot of intense research. I lived my research for better part of 10 years day-to-day and translated it into my books.
Jonathan Macho: How would you describe Welsh crime writing? Is there a particular flavour to it?
Beverley Jones: That’s an interesting question. For a long time there didn’t seem to be a community of crime writers in Wales. I think people are familiar with different areas of the world that have crime traditions: Scandi Noir, the Granite Noir Scottish crime writing scene. But there didn’t seem to be the same in Wales. So, a few years ago a couple of like-minded authors, headed by Alys Hawkins, decided to set up Crime Cymru so we could appeal to each other and find each other, because we thought we’ve got to be out there somewhere, but where are we and why are we not hearing about each other? In 2020, we had our first Crime Cymru festival online, and we repeated it last year, but next year we have our first festival in-person. I can’t tell you who’s on the roster just yet, but some big names are going to be rocking up in Aberystwyth for murder, mayhem and general moral questionability. In the panels, obviously.
We’ve all been together for about 5 years. We said there was a big gap in there not being a Welsh crime festival itself, but we couldn’t come up with a definition for what Welsh crime is, because I think it’s quite diverse. We have a whole range of people who write crime – I write psychological contemporary thrillers, we have historical crime writers, people who set their work in other parts of Europe, abroad, in Canada, and don’t necessarily include Wales. I think in some ways the diversity is what’s interesting about Welsh crime because it seems to cover such a wide range. The Welshness is the link.
Jonathan Macho: Your last two novels, Wilderness and The Beachhouse are both set in the states. Was that a conscious choice?
Beverley Jones: My first few novels were set in Wales because it was an environment I was familiar with and the stories I wanted to tell seemed to lend themselves to a local setting. I do feel strongly that setting is crucial to the story, rather than being a backdrop. I like to write stories that could only happen in that place because of the circumstances they allow. With Wilderness, I had been on holiday to the US a year or two previously and, being a bit of a weirdo, when I go on holiday, whereas most people take lovely selfies and enjoy themselves, I start thinking about dastardly deeds and ‘oh, that would be a good place for something suspicious to happen!’
I was standing on the rim of the Yosemite, looking across at El Capitan, and I started to think of an idea of a woman who might be on a dream holiday but having a terrible time because she suspected her husband of having an affair. And the idea spooled out from there because, as my husband and I travelled around and we moved further away from civilisation – I should say he did make it back, people get very concerned at this point – and pass out into this wide, huge, vast expanse, opportunities sometimes arise to ask yourself questions you wouldn’t elsewhere, such as what might you do, or could you do, if you were able to get away with it? In that way the setting is vital to Liv’s story. The story couldn’t be set anywhere else. With The Beachhouse it was something similar. I went on another holiday to Oregon and was taken by the wild landscape. It seemed very much like the kind of place someone might go to restart their life if they were hiding something.
Jonathan Macho: Do you ever wish you could turn off your crime writing brain and just appreciate a lovely view? Are your holidays always tinged with blood when you’d really quite like a break?
Beverley Jones: There’s that danger that you always experience things on two levels. It can be quite hard sometimes to stay in your own head. But because I don’t like terribly gruesome murders, or the ‘woman in peril’ kind of narrative, but instead look at the psychological aspect, I can take an idea and I’m able to play that out and explore, and then sit there at the end of the day and have a nice meal and look at the scenery. I don’t think they’re incompatible. If I did turn off my crime writing brain, I think it would be dull. So yes, I’m the strange person who might be sitting next to you in a restaurant thinking strange thoughts and making weird notes…
Jonathan Macho: The main characters in both novels are women with secrets, and you go to a lot of depth expressing their inner feelings in your writing, more so than in a lot of crime writing I’ve read. Why?
Beverley Jones: Therapy, maybe? Perhaps because I can work through those chinks and ideas and little off-beat things on the page and transform them into a story. Because I think sometimes crime can be very male focused, and women tend to be presented as victims who drive the male protagonist’s stories. Thankfully we’ve seen a great variety in the last few years of strong female protagonists, but sometimes I think the word ‘strong’ is a trap. It means you have to behave in a certain way when I think all of us, all women and all men, inside we have that emotional monologue that probably we are afraid to explore ourselves and we may be afraid to share with other people for fear of being seen in a certain way, as weak or un-feminist perhaps or whatever your group of people is. With my characters I get a chance to explore those dark sides and put that onto the page. Then each of us can ask ourselves: would we be able to do that? Could we do that?
Jonathan Macho: How does it feel to see your work reinterpreted in a new format with the streaming adaptation of Wilderness?
Beverley Jones: It’s very surreal at the moment. My agent spent a lot of time promoting my books over the years, and Wilderness was the one that caught the attention of a company called Firebird in London. In 2019 I got a call saying they wanted to buy the option and push on with the television show. Then COVID hit, and everything shut down. Nobody was filming anything, and I thought perhaps it would sort of slide away into the background. Then, of course, the world started to open back up, and within 6 months they had turned it around, it was happening, and I was sitting in my box room, bizarrely, looking at scripts. They’ve been fantastic about keeping me informed. You’re just watching from afar, I suppose, the development of my ideas. In a weird way I’ve found myself in a version of one of my stories, because you’ve got this strange, American, exciting world and me sitting in my room in Pontypridd, usually with the dog on my lap, going about my normal life, while something very strange and wonderful is happening out there. So, I’ve got to stay sane. There’ll be some changes. It’ll be a different show to the novel but from what I’ve seen it’ll be a heck of a ride.
Jonathan Macho: You used to be credited on your novels as BE Jones, and recently that changed to Beverly Jones. Could you tell us the reasoning behind that?
Beverley Jones: I don’t think it was necessarily a long-term plan of my publishers. Originally we went with B.E. Jones because, at the time, there was quite a lot of gender-neutral authors out there that were making good tracks in the market. I think there’s often been a debate, that I don’t necessarily agree with, that male readers don’t want to read female crime writers. Of course, a large majority of crime readers are women, so it’s interesting to see what the decision making was. We released several books under B.E. Jones, then with The Beach House we thought we’d try a bit of a rebrand and give me my full-name. I’m not sure it makes a great deal of difference what you’re called. People want to have a recognisability there, but the books move through that. When Wilderness comes out next year, it’s very likely I’ll be credited as B.E. Jones because that was the name the book was published under. I’ve got a slightly split personality when it comes to the publishing world. I just hope people will look at the subject, be interested enough to open the cover and continue reading.
Jonathan Macho is the author of Lucy Wilson and the Serpent’s Tongue and Lucy Wilson and the Ballad of the Borad, two children’s books which are part of Candy Jar Book’s Lethbridge Stewart series, a spin-off from Doctor Who. His short stories have appeared in AHOY comics, 404 INK’s literary magazines, To Hull and Back humour anthologies and Kaiju Ramen magazine, and his work was selected as part of three Terry Hetherington Young Writers Awards. He co-hosts the Writers on Reading Podcast where he regularly promotes a wealth of talented British comics writers and artists. Jonathan holds an MA in Creative Writing and is currently doing his PhD at Cardiff University. You can find him on Twitter @writers_reading and @Oncomingsmith13.