SNB: By way of introduction would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
Barbara: I was born and brought up in the east end of London. Back then, in the 1960s and 70s the east end was still scarred by the bombing that had taken place during World War 2 and so one of my greatest delights was to go and play on what we called ‘bomb sites’, massive craters in the ground where bombs had fallen. Hugely dangerous by modern standards, but thrilling for a load of working class kids – and none of us ever got anything more than a grazed knee.
As an adult my life has been varied. I have a degree in psychology and have worked in psychiatric hospitals, forensic units and out in the community with sexually abused teenagers and people with mental health problems. I’ve also organised social events in the City of London, taught, worked in pubs, cleaned floors and told fortunes. I’ve been a full time author for some years now. I’ve also been married since the dawn of time and have a wonderful husband and fabulous son. I enjoy exploring urban ruins, talking about mental health (I’ll go on about stigma anytime, anyplace, anywhere), discovering new places and having too many cats. At the moment I’m moving house, from Lancashire, back to just outside London.
SNB: You write the very popular, long standing Inspector Ikmen series set in Turkey. What challenges does writing mysteries set in a foreign country pose? Does it require special research to get the details just right?
Barbara: Setting any sort of novel in a foreign country presents challenges, especially if it is contemporary. As well as the appearance of a place, which can change very quickly, you also have to keep up with current events. Since I began writing my Ikmen books back in 1999, Turkey has changed immensely. Not only has the government gone from being largely dominated by a secular military to one controlled by a party with Muslim roots, but society itself has changed. In the cities, life is much more like Western Europe now with people shopping in malls, becoming anxious about getting on the housing ladder and chasing ever more sophisticated gadgetry. Istanbul in particular has exerted an almost unstoppable pull on the rural population who have come to the city in droves seeking their fortunes. So you have to be alive to change the whole time. I visit often, I talk to friends in Turkey all the time and I read Turkish newspapers on-line. It’s time consuming, although always fascinating and sometimes I get to be in places most people don’t go. Last year for instance I found myself, James Bond-style, on the roof of the Grand Bazaar.
SNB: Your books are translated into other languages including Turkish. What responses have you got to Inspector Ikmen from Turkish readers?
Barbara: It’s gone down well. I’ve been interviewed by many Turkish newspapers and magazines and people seem to like the books. To begin with I think that a lot of Turkish people couldn’t understand why a foreigner was so interested in their country. But as Turkey has become more and more popular as a tourist destination over the years, this has changed.
SNB: Although your Hakim and Arnold mysteries are set in London, Mumtaz Hakim is Muslim of Bangladeshi origin and Lee Arnold is a former cop, which is an unusual twist on the usual PI storyline. How has this enabled you to approach crime stories differently?
Barbara: The main thing it has allowed me to do is to gain access to a considerable east end demographic that is largely overlooked in crime fiction, Asian women. Although not uniformly the case, it is sometimes difficult, particularly for Muslim women from strict religious backgrounds, to interact with men outside their families. But, just like anyone, sometimes they need help, sometimes in the form of a private detective. Now, in Mumtaz, they can have one. As a woman she can visit their homes, those who cover can uncover in front of her, she can relate to their life styles and often speak their languages too. Although not exclusively, this series has allowed me to explore a group of people who are frequently ignored and sometimes even feared. Mumtaz and Lee because of who they are, cover a range of client groups in what is a fast changing east end. Lee is white and working class and knows a lot of the old criminals and their families in the area but he also has to adapt to the reality of the wealthy who are now moving into the ‘trendy’ east end in large numbers.
SNB: What challenges do you face writing about a Muslim woman living in contemporary British society, particularly when she has such an unusual job?
Barbara: The main challenge is building empathy. I think that Mumtaz is basically a good person but some people will look at a headscarfed Muslim woman and, in light of events like the destruction of the Twin Towers, feel fear or outrage. Pity is another response. Because she is covered it is assumed she has been forced to do so. This isn’t necessarily the case and in fact a lot of women choose to cover.
That she works can also be an issue. But many, many women like Mumtaz work and are very successful. As she says herself she is ‘not a nun’. And yet I have observed that another response to covered women that is also common is treating them like almost holy figures who must be given peculiar deference.
Finally looking at these women as all the same is another frequent error. Like any group they vary. In the modern east end you often see groups of girlfriends where one is uncovered, wearing western clothes, one is wearing a very elaborate headscarf and a mini dress, one is more modestly dressed and another wears a niqab (full face veil). They’re all going shopping and they’re all talking about college, friends and making jokes.
SNB: With both well-established characters and two newer characters in the Hakim and Arnold mysteries, do you feel like they have taken on lives of their own? Do you feel as though you direct them or do they make their own choices? And have they ever annoyed you?
Barbara: Oh, they have lives of their own, most definitely. I am just the author. They do their own things and sometimes they catch me unawares. I think ‘what are you doing that for?’ or ‘what the hell is this now?’. Often they are right and I’m wrong although occasionally I just have to tell them to back off and let me take control. If I didn’t I’d be off at tangents that could make my books a thousand pages long! That can annoy me. Although a specific annoyance over the years has been my Turkish character Mehmet Suleyman’s inability to be faithful to any of his wives or girlfriends. ‘OK,’ I think, ‘you’re good looking and charming, but get a grip! If you don’t stop playing around soon, you’ll end up a very lonely old man.’ But will he listen to me? Will he heck!
SNB: It sounds as though you have a rich and varied background to draw upon. How has this shaped your writing and the characterisations in your novels?
Barbara: Coming from the melting pot that was and is the east end, I grew up appreciating cultural differences. When I was a child, even the language of the east end was an amalgam. We routinely used words from other languages like ‘dhobi’ which means washing in Hindi and ‘nosh’ which means to eat in Yiddish. We used Romani words too, rhyming slang and my father was one of the few who could use back slang which is where the spelling of words is reversed. Older east enders still use these forms and so I employ them in my books as well as keeping in touch with modern east end slang and patterns of speech for my younger characters. Speech, in part, defines who we are and can act as a signal to others which ‘group’ we either belong to or identify with. So young Asian working class boys will speak differently from young white sons of the wealthy who in turn will have little in common with the speech patterns of poor white kids.
SNB: Who are your favourite mystery authors? Is there a particular author who inspired you to write mysteries?
Barbara: My earliest inspiration was Agatha Christie. My mum liked her books, as well as those of other golden age authors like Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh. But these were women from the upper classes and so I suppose that more latterly I have been inspired by women like the late Gilda O’Neill who came from a background more like my own. Asking who my favourite authors are is difficult and is a bit like asking which kind of chocolate I prefer – all of them. But I do like John Baker’s work, James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, Lesley Joseph and Elly Griffiths particularly. I look for books that put me in that place and that situation and provide me with characters I can care about.
SNB: How do you approach your writing? Do you have set writing times when you’re working on a book? And do you have a general idea how the mysteries will work out or do you decide as you go? Where does your inspiration for your stories come from?
Barbara: I worked in mental health services for many years and so I try to keep to a conventional 9 to 5 working day if I can. Writing is a job like any other and discipline is vital if you want to hit deadlines. That said, if I have to do something special, like move, I will work every hour sent to get ahead in order to be able to take a few weeks off. As for inspiration? Well that can come from anywhere. Sometimes it arises from a conversation I hear in the street or on the bus, sometimes it’s something I read or see on TV and sometimes it comes from my own past or a myth or an historical artefact I want to explore. Anywhere and everywhere is the answer!
SNB: And, always curious about what others are reading, what’s on your night stand at the moment?
Barbara: Not as much as usual because I’m moving. And none of it is crime. But then I don’t just read crime. So right now I have ‘Geek Love’ by Katherine Dunn which is about a travelling show that is dominated by a limbless cult leader called Arturo and ‘John McPake and the Sea Beggars’ by Stuart Campbell. This is a fascinating book about a psychotic man who lives with characters from a Breughel painting in his head. It captures a state of mind I understand very well, brilliantly.
Questions by Danielle Simpson, and you can read Danielle’s review of Poisoned Ground by clicking here.