If you had told me ten years ago that I would become the first non-white Chair of the UK Crime Writers’ Association in its 70-year history, I would have laughed (maniacally, as befitting a crime fiction villain). That I have now taken the hot seat feels a bit like being tasered, without my fizzing limbs involuntarily doing the robot dance.
As I write these words I’m somewhere over the Atlantic, halfway to Canada, to speak at the Motive festival in Toronto. Next week I’m speaking in Somerset, and then I’m at the British Library chairing an eclectic panel discussing Agatha Christie’s influence around the world, featuring, among others, a famous Bollywood film director known for his Hindi-language Shakespearean adaptations. In between, I’ll probably play a game of cricket, get out for another low score, make the walk of shame back to the changing room, and hurl my bat at an unsuspecting bin. All while resolutely ignoring the writing deadline hanging over my head like a giant guillotine.
Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Shutterstock
This piece isn’t about how honoured I am to follow in the illustrious footsteps of former Chairs such as Ian Rankin and Peter James (of course, I am) or my vision for the CWA (I’ve set that out elsewhere). Rather, these are my thoughts on what the CWA is for and what you might do with it if you decide that you want to be a part of it.
The CWA has been around a long time. It is the UK’s largest association of crime writers and was originally set up with a specific purpose – to further the interests of crime writing and crime writers. Many writers have happily called the CWA home for decades. Others have felt that, in recent years, it hasn’t lived up to its original mandate.
I am a realist by nature. I prefer to present the unvarnished truth because that allows us to deal with things, rather than stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and sing la la la in a very loud voice. In a former life, I was a management consultant where I’d often have to smack people around the face with the proverbial wet fish to get them to wake up and see what was under their noses. Old habits die hard.
Here’s what I think the CWA is and – perhaps, more importantly – is not.
The CWA is not a yellow brick road to literary success – yet it is true to say that it is home to writers straddling the spectrum of success, both those who probably don’t need the CWA anymore and those for whom the CWA can provide inspiration as they begin their writing journey. The CWA is not a panacea for the many ills plaguing the publishing industry – yet it is true to say that the CWA aims constantly to further the interests of writers, even if it doesn’t always have the clout or financial muscle to force through change. The CWA is not an all singing all dancing members club – yet is true to say that, in our own small way, we seek to connect our members, if not always physically, then through a shared vision of what we’re all trying to achieve, namely, success – both individually and collectively – for our crime writing.
The CWA has never had more members than it does now. Many have been stalwarts for a very long time – please know that your commitment is valued. It’s also wonderful to see so many new faces joining and equally heartening to see many others returning to the fold. I’m not going to pretend that those returning writers – many of them household names in crime fiction – didn’t leave without good reason. The fact that they are back is a fillip to both the CWA as an organisation, but also, I hope, to the wider membership. Inspiration comes in many guises. Sometimes, it comes from simply knowing that you’re a part of an organisation that houses the great and the good in your industry, those who have made their mark and now want to offer encouragement to those who follow, even if only by their presence.
I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’ll say it again. When I came into this industry, almost a decade ago, I didn’t know anyone. I was told by my agent to join the CWA and I found some friends here, and suddenly I felt less alone in an industry that can be truly frightening and confusing, especially for newbies. If I’ve had any writing success today it’s because I’ve had the support of friends and well-wishers. That’s what I want I the CWA to be.
The CWA has its shortcomings, of course it does. Sometimes, it makes mistakes. Maybe you won’t always get a welcome pack on time or an email you were expecting. Remember that we are a board of volunteers, together with a handful of part-time paid staff, trying to juggle fifty plates in the air apiece. If we had greater resources I’d promise you the earth and the moon – and chuck in Mars for good measure. But we don’t. All I can do is ask humbly for your patience and understanding and to not hunt me down and beat me like a piñata when things go wrong.
Having said this, I believe there are many things the CWA gets right.
Through the Daggers, the CWA recognises excellence and can help to elevate writers to greater success. Through the events that we run, we connect writers and allow friendships to bloom. I know, from personal experience, that those friendships are sometimes the only thing that sustains you when you’re in the trenches and feel like the industry is shelling you with mortar bombs. Such are the vicissitudes of the writing life.
The CWA’s new look board is more diverse than it has ever been. With new co-vice-chairs William Shaw and Sarah Ward, and new board members, Nadine Matheson, Stella Oni and Morgen Witzel – adding to a great existing team – my hope is that we now represent a very wide range of communities and backgrounds, reflecting the broad church that crime writing itself represents. That has to be to the good of us all, doesn’t it?
The desire to belong to something greater than ourselves is hardwired into us. In spite of the occasional misanthropic tendency – who among us hasn’t wanted to axe murder one of our nearest and dearest from time to time? – most members of the human race are gregarious by nature. We are at our best when engaged in collective endeavour – building pyramids, designing washing machines that aren’t magic portals aimed at turning a pair of socks into a single sock, etc. Being a part of the CWA is to be involved in such an endeavour, something greater than the sum of its parts. If I might be permitted to go all JFK on you for a moment, sometimes it’s about asking what you can do for the CWA (to help further crime writing’s interests as a whole, I mean), rather than what the CWA can do for you. That’s not to abrogate the CWA’s responsibilities to our members, but merely to encourage us all to think about how much we could achieve simply by being a mass of writers unified by a common vision – to take crime writing to ever greater heights.
Here’s what I’d like to see. If you’ve previously felt the CWA wasn’t for you, now might be the time to think again. If you’re a publisher/editor/agent etc involved in crime fiction, think of joining as corporate/associate members. We can always use the support and the money. And if you don’t think it’s for you, that’s also cool. We wish you well anyway. Crime writing is more than the CWA; and that’s exactly how it should be.
What you do with your membership depends on what you expect from it. Muck in if you want to. Or enjoy lurking quietly in the wings, silently cheering on the cause. Whatever suits your temperament. I make no demands other than one: treat each other with respect. No amount of success – or lack of it – entitles any of us to look down on or upset anyone else.
On this flight I’m watching the recent Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once. The film is about parallel dimensions and how “every tiny decision creates another branching universe”. So, in another universe, I did not become the CWA Chair. In another universe, I remained unpublished, but kept on writing, purely for myself, until I popped my clogs and ended up in the great writers’ association in the sky. And if that’s your story, that’s OK too. Because none of us started writing in the belief that we would find fame and riches. We write because it speaks to a meaningful part of ourselves. We write because it is our secret joy, our tempestuous passion, the one thing no one can take from us, regardless of how great or humble our achievements.
To quote from Everything Everywhere All At Once: “Even in a stupid, stupid universe there is always something to love.” I love reading. I love crime fiction. I love literature. If you share those passions – no matter how stupid you think the writing universe can sometimes be – then perhaps the CWA is for you.
London, 31 May 2023