World of Words: ‘Writing is a compulsion’

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Stella Whitelaw is a British writer and journalist, with 52 novels and more than 300 short stories to her name. She was made an MBE in 2001, for services to journalism. Her novel, Jazz and Die, is the ninth book from the Jordan Lacey series and will be published this month.

Why do you write?

It is an obsession, a compulsion, the same as breathing.

How does Sussex inspire you?

I love the rolling Downs, the ever-changing faces of the sea. I love it when the sea is angry, thrashing the shingle. The lights at night from the pier reflecting in the water. The wonderful walks everywhere. The historic tracks round Chantonbury and Cissbury Ring. My nine Jordan Lacy PI books are set in and around Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham, Chichester, and Ferring. (A couple came from Australia and toured all the places in my books. I could start coach tours.) I have also published several short stories about the funfair on Worthing beach and the hard-working fishing community.

How did you first come to be published?

I was chief reporter on a newspaper and one of my staff was a young woman who had worked on Woman magazine. She read some of my short stories and said I should get an agent. I sent them to Curtis Brown and they sold them straight away. So far, fingers and toes crossed, I have sold 314 short stories and published eight books of other short stories.

Who inspired you to start writing?

No-one. I have been writing since the age of nine when my father gave me a second-hand Imperial portable typewriter. I sat up in bed, covered in measles spots and taught myself to type. I then began producing a magazine, every word of which I wrote myself and sold for one penny a copy. I would love to find one of those little magazines now.

What is the best thing about the life of a writer?

The joy, the satisfaction, the new worlds that you create. Finding exactly the right word. Fan letters and emails from people all over the world who enjoy your writing, asking you to write more!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I don’t think I have achieved it yet. The MBE, maybe. Winning the Art of Writing competition, judged by Sheridan Morley was exciting.

Winning the Woman magazine’s national competition was great fun. Winning the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge cup was an honour. Being ranked 111th by Amazon (which has more than three million titles) was amazing.

Name a book that changed your life?

Roget’s Thesaurus. It was given to me by a friend, Charles Beeden, who spotted my obsession long before I was published. The book is battered and worn now, the cover repaired a dozen times with tape.

What are you reading now?

Everything. Lee Child, Donna Leon, Janet Evanovich, Chekhov, Hardy, Marion Keyes. I always have several books on the go at the same time. I cannot find enough reading time. It’s important to read authors who are better writers although I have been compared to Janet Evanovich.

How do you hope that your books will affect or influence your readers?

I only want my readers to enjoy them, and then read more books, not necessarily mine. Reading is wonderful therapy for the mind in these hectic times.

What are your ambitions for life?

A dozen more years, please. I have ideas for six more books. Complete recovery from major surgery would be good so that I have the strength and mental agility to find the right words.

What piece of advice would you give to writers starting out?

Write every day. A day without writing is a day wasted. Finish everything. Never give up hope. Say to yourself each morning: I can and I will.

In honour of the approaching World of Words festival we are asking writers about words they love. What are your favourite words?

Meticulous and serendipity. I use them once, and once only, in every book.