Lynda La Plante is a bestselling crime novelist and an Edgar Allen Poe Award winner. She’s known for her series Prime Suspect and its TV adaptation of the same name. The Jane Tennison series is a prequel to the Prime Suspect series, following Tennison at the beginning of her career. Plante’s latest novel, the seventh book in the Jane Tennison series, Unholy Murder will be released August 24 by Zaffre.
PW spoke with Plante about how her writing life has changed in the past year, how she creates a work-life balance, and what she finds interesting about nuns.
(This Q&A has been edited).
You’ve put out a prolific amount of work. What drives you to keep writing? What inspires you?
The feedback from my readers is what drives me to keep writing. This has been especially true during the pandemic, with the help of software and social media such as Zoom, Facebook, Instagram etc. Although my readers are the biggest incentive for me, I am also greatly inspired by the commissions I receive from my publishers. Writing novels is a very solitary occupation but the team at Bonnier Books (Zaffre) give me incredible support and encouragement. The inspiration for each novel can come from many different sources—for example, Widows came about as a result of reading a small newspaper article about the wives of prisoners who had carried out a bank raid.
In Mind Games, the main character is a former nun turned criminal profiler. And now Unholy Murder focuses on the murder of a nun. So what interests you about nuns?
I recently read Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong, which depicts her life as a Roman Catholic nun for seven years in the 1960s, from the age of 17. She writes about her physical and psychological abuse in the convent and, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper, "Armstrong was required to mortify her flesh with whips and wear a spiked chain around her arm. When she spoke out of turn, she claims she was forced to sew at a treadle machine with no needle for a fortnight."
This was incredible material for Unholy Murder. I was also helped by my wonderful ex, [detective chief inspector] Cass Sutherland, who gave me a lot of material on the structure of Roman Catholic Orders. Further research came from me being privy to a post-mortem, when I noticed a large metallic coffin with ornate brass handles that had been placed to one side. The pathologist declined to give me any details as he said it was not his case—all he knew was that it had been brought in from unconsecrated ground. The seeds were in some ways sewn with the discovery of a similar coffin in Unholy Murder and the inquiry that follows into a murdered nun who, from the scratches and torn satin lining inside the lid, appears to have been buried alive. It depicts terrible cruelty. I have personally always felt very uneasy in the company of nuns, quite possibly inherited from my mother’s hatred of them as a result of the tragic death of my six-year-old sister, who was attending a Roman Catholic school at the time.
Research is a big part of your career and you’ve mentioned that you prefer to do your research in person. How has the pandemic changed your research habits while writing Unholy Murder?
Zoom has been an amazing platform for me. I’ve managed to keep in touch with police experts and forensic scientists, and if we needed to share material then we did so by email. Technology is now such that you don’t need to physically be with each other in person. Thankfully, now that restrictions have been relaxed (for the moment!), I have been able to research as I did before, by making face-to-face contact with people. I gain so much more personal detail in this way, which I can then incorporate into the storyline. I have also been producing a podcast called Listening to the Dead, where I talk to all the scientists who have been involved in every investigation I have written about. We are just about to record season three, and I’ve found it fascinating.
You’ve described yourself as a workaholic; do you feel like there is a way to achieve a healthy work-life balance as a writer?
I’ve always worked hard. When I was an actor, if I didn’t have a job, I worked on an antique market stall. I have always been very disciplined about meeting deadlines, both in writing for books and for television, but it is important to have a balance and my favorite forms of relaxation are walking the dog and swimming. I particularly enjoy researching and attending reader events and feel incredibly lucky to have a job that I love. Although I rarely stop, it often doesn’t feel like work.
If you could warn younger female writers about one thing, what would it be?
I would warn any young writer to never sign a contract without taking legal advice. It is imperative to be aware of exactly what you are signing away. Sadly, I did not have this support in my early career and I therefore learned the hard way. In my later career it transpired that I had ‘"et go" of many of my early creations. It is truly heartbreaking to be told by some high-powered executive that you don’t actually own one of your characters, let alone the storyline you have written.