There aren't many political thrillers in Indie and so when I met Emma Gray on my Twitterbus, I was keen to find out what was going on.
I subsequently found out that Emma actually works at the Palace of Westminster and her novels are drawn from real life.
This was too exciting an opportunity to pass up and when Emma released her follow up, "Power Games" I got on the Wizphone and asked her to answer a few questions for me.
Emma's Question Time, as it were.
Though incredibly busy, she was happy to oblige and I caught up with her in one of the many cloisters that line the corridors of power in the Origin of Democracy.
Here's what she had to say.
Tell us a bit about yourself, Emma?
Firstly, thanks so much for letting me get comfy around your cauldron today. It’s a particularly windy day so its green glow is keeping me happy.
Well…I’ve been writing political fiction since I was 11, although my first story, The Plan To Assassinate The Prime Minister was a bit of a cop-out as it was ‘all a dream’. But hey I was only 11, so knowing who the Prime Minister was at all was surely impressive in itself? I’ve written various stories since then, but Party Games was my first real attempt at something publishable.
It was quite a learning curve for an indie newbie but I’ve learned a lot in the intervening two years. Power Play is of course the sequel, but it can be read stand-alone.
I’ve been overwhelmed with the support from the Twitter community since I published it on 10th October and so incredibly grateful to everyone.
The high point had to be when the Daily Telegraph asked me when my book launch is….ha! Erm…!
My family is very understanding and supportive of my writing. We all know it’s not easy to find the time to sit and do it, and often inspiration alludes you, but with two kids and working full time you have to grab those precious writing moments when you can.
Often for me it’s on the commute, but I think book 3, End Game, is going to take a while!
How did you get your job at Westminster? Was it difficult?
Westminster is, as you can imagine, often a case of who you know, so I got my job after interning as part of my university course.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding internships in Parliament, and I agree some can be exploited and there should be a level of payment, even if it just covers expenses, but it’s the best way in. It’s such an unusual, exciting, gossipy place to work, and describing it as the ‘village’ is partly accurate – it’s more like a town, it’s so huge, but you do feel strangely cut off from the outside world.
Do you enjoy your job or is it very stressful?
I’ve actually just taken on a new job but still with the same boss. I’m enjoying it actually, but I’m now commuting four days a week (I did three days previously) so it’s quite tiring. It has its stressful moments but I’ve got a great boss (plenty in Westminster don’t! The stories I could tell, and wish I could, but probably shouldn’t..! I’m thinking book 3 could be a place for that) so that makes all the difference.
I’ve also started a Mindfulness course at work, which is brilliant and teaches you to exist ‘in the moment’ rather than worrying about the past or future. I would recommend it to everyone!
How accurate is The Thick of It?
Michael Dobbs has always said that to create political fiction, take reality and water it down. I think this is basically true – if anyone had made up ‘Plebgate’, the Brooks Newmark scandal or a politician and his wife bringing each other down over speeding points, you would be told what you had written was ridiculous.
The Thick of It certainly had moments which rang true, worryingly, but I think it was probably pretty tame compared to reality. Politics is rich pickings for letting your mind run wild; you’ll probably be closer to real life than you think!
Tell us about your latest work
I wrote Power Play in about 15 months, which is impressive considering it took ten years for me to write Party Games! It is based around the Conservative Party in Opposition but with a dark undertone.
It could have been based around any party, but you write about what you know, and working for a Tory MP I learned a lot over the years (especially our Opposition years) at Westminster! I always use Mad Men as a comparison, in that you don’t have to be overtly political to read my book, in the same way you don’t have to have a big interest in advertising to watch Mad Men.
It’s more about the pressure cooker world in which these highly ambitious people operate, their relationships and animosities, and where more along the corridors of power could people’s true natures reveal themselves? I’ve got a huge interest in the personalities at the top of the Third Reich (nurtured by the recent wonderful Clara Vine novels by the author Jane Thynne among other non-fiction tomes I have read recently), so I thought why not merge modern politics with what could happen if the Tory Party was led by a narcissistic maniac?
The party splits into two factions as the book progresses: the moderates and those supporting Colin Scott, who plots a pact with UKIP in order to destroy it. There are hints at parallels between key Nazi personalities and my own characters, but it will be in the third book that it all goes a bit Downfall and my main antagonist finds himself on a course to self-destruction.
Can you share an extract from Power Games?
The first is about Matthew Gaines, my favourite character. He's a complex man who battles his demons throughout Power Play, and gets himself mixed up with things he knows in his heart he shouldn't. This extract is when he goes to one of Westminster's various bars and meets Hannah for the first time...
The Strangers’ Bar, although a compact watering hole deep in the heart of the Palace of Westminster, had on tap the widest selection of alcohol of any bar on the estate. It seemed as good a place as any to finish the day at such a late hour, so the House now adjourned, Matthew decided one drink would help him cope with home and the constant looks of disapproval from Sasha.Not feeling like an audience, Matthew hoped the narrow, cosy bar might be quiet, but a group of Labour MPs were occupying the tall bar tables, relaxation and humour mingling with some of the cheapest pints in London. Strangers’ was so small Matthew suddenly felt a little claustrophobic, but before he could change his mind, his eyes drifting from the MPs to the door as he backed up against the short bar, he heard a voice.‘I don’t often see you here. In fact, I’m not sure I ever have.’ From behind the bar a woman with light mocha skin, dark, soft curls and impeccably dressed in a black skirt suit and red shirt caught his attention. Matthew turned awkwardly, aware he was being watched by a known Labour troublemaker.‘Oh, I think this is probably only my third time in here since my election.’ Matthew smiled. His gaze fell upon her face and he was suddenly struck by a peculiar sadness that he had never seen her before now and hoped she couldn’t smell the cigarette smoke. He had officially given up but the odd one here and there kept his nerves a little steadier.‘Well I won’t ask what’s brought you here tonight. So what’s your poison, then?’‘Erm, just a Scotch, please, a single. Still got to get myself home somehow in this weather,’ Matthew said, sliding onto a stool and waving towards the Commons Terrace.‘One of those days?’‘Something like that.’‘In that case, the drink’s on the house, or the taxpayer, whichever you prefer. I’m Hannah, by the way.’‘I can see that by your name badge,’ Matthew replied. ‘And can you just do that? Give me a free drink?’‘Probably not, but I am in charge today, and you look like you need it.’ Hannah produced a wry smile, placing the drink in front of him.‘So it’s charity?’Hannah shrugged. ‘OK, pay then if you like.’‘I’ll pay for a pack of peanuts.’ Matthew twirled the drink on the mat.‘Isn’t that what you lot pay your interns?’Matthew noticed Hannah seemed quite young to be a manager, probably in her mid-thirties at most, but then everyone these days seemed young, either Michaels or Olivias, and recently he felt his years more than ever. He indulged in a little furtive observation, watching Hannah’s slim fingers polish up a shot glass, her hair brushing her shoulders as she worked. She was certainly attractive. Her gaze caught his eye then she looked away, as though they shared a guilty secret.‘I’m Matthew, by the way.’‘That’s not what the Labour lot calls you, mean bunch,’ Hannah quipped. ‘Everyone knows that you’re the Tories’ “Big I Am”, if you don’t count Colin Scott, of course. Though something tells me he wouldn’t like not to be counted. And as for what they call him...’‘Are you always this rude?’ Matthew sipped the drink and munched through the packet of nuts.‘I’m just telling you what people say about you, thought I’d be doing you a favour. And anyway, I gave you a freebie, didn’t I?’ Hannah gestured to the glass.‘I’m well aware what people say about me, unfortunately,’ Matthew said. He felt his phone vibrate but he didn’t react. ‘I doubt that being compared to a mass-murdering fascist propagandist is meant to be that much of a compliment, though I could be wrong.’Hannah raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. ‘Oh, I bet you love it more than you let on.’ Matthew sniffed, amused by her strangely accurate observation. She seemed far too beautiful to stay working for the refreshment department for long, there was a special quality to her, as though she should be going places, and not just to the dishwasher and back.‘She’s a tease, this one,’ a fairly short, balding Labour MP called to him with a chuckle, winking at Hannah, who glared at him reproachfully. ‘Anyway, the Führer let you off your leash for the night, has he, Herr Doktor?’Hannah threw Matthew a sympathetic glance, but he saw something else in her eyes he couldn’t place.‘Don’t listen to this lot.’ She began to pull a pint for a colleague who had slid along the bar, invading the relative privacy of their eye contact. Matthew felt disappointed. ‘Bloody rowdy bunch, although they certainly do keep me in a job.’With a private smirk at the continuing taunts from behind him, Matthew tossed a five pound note, by way of a tip, across the counter, stole another glance at Hannah, knocked back the drink then quickly left for home. Sasha, he decided, was unlikely to have waited up.
MPs are notoriously clannish: What do your colleagues think about your work? Do they think you are spilling the beans?
Ha! I was asked by the Telegraph…I don’t know, is the short answer! My colleagues, i.e. other staff, think it’s great I’ve written about Westminster and are very supportive and impressed. As for the MPs…well my boss read my first book, which he told me he enjoyed, I now hope he’s reading the second one!
My third cousin Dave in classic edu-com, Please Sir (1971)
MPs don’t seem to take declining literacy in the cradle of the English language very seriously. How can we change that? What would you do?
Firstly, at the risk of sounding all a bit Michael Gove, I think there is a big problem with literacy among teachers. My cousin is a teacher and she says it’s shocking how many have bad grammar, both written and verbal. Until that is tackled, what hope is there for pupils? Teachers have also been told not to correct how children speak so they can ‘express themselves’. What utter tosh. I would expect my children to be corrected (as I do at home) and find it very worrying that standards are dropping in the basics.
Secondly, 2013 PISA statistics placed the UK at 26th in the world for Maths and 23rd for reading. I could get all party political and blame Labour for not targeting spending effectively, but I think it is far more complex than that.
Throwing money at the education system won’t necessarily deal with the problems (we have spent more here per head than other, better performing countries), I think effective collaboration between good teachers and schools and those which are struggling is the way to go.
There should be no bad schools or bad teachers and it is by sharing best practice, and the Government encouraging such best practice, that things can improve.
Give us your favourite a) two books b) DVD and c) CD
Ah, back to less serious things!
I loved the Jane Thynne books Black Roses and The Winter Garden as they are so evocative and wonderfully descriptive about Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
I could read her books forever and I’m always disappointed when I’ve finished them! I’ve also recently enjoyed Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies; they are difficult to read at first, but once you’ve got used to Mantel’s writing style they are absorbing and thoroughly compelling.
DVD…oooh, that could cover films or box sets, couldn’t it? My favourite box set is Castle, as it’s one of my favourite programmes!
Not very high-brow, I realise, but it’s chewing gum for the mind, well written and about a crime-sleuthing author. Perfect!
CD… the first Keane album, Hopes and Fears, was a favourite car CD for a long time and one of the best mainstream albums (in my opinion!) of the mid 2000s.
It also reminds me of my life before kids! Ahh, the nostalgia!
House of Cards: British or US version?
Gosh, another toughie! I’ve only seen season 1 of the US version, and it was of course outstanding, but I can’t help feel huge affection for the original UK series and Ian Richardson’s compelling stare.
The British version is what inspired my political fiction over the years, so I will have to say that, although I’m hoping to watch Kevin Spacey in the US’s season 2 as soon as I can!
|Sir Charles "Uncle Chas" Barry|
My third generation ancestor, Sir Charles Barry (known as Uncle Chas, in our house), designed and rebuilt the Palace of Westminster (AKA Houses of Parliament) over 26 years, completing in 1854. Did he do a good job? Or is there something you would change?
Wow Wiz, that’s AMAZING! I am so impressed with your ancestry! Ever thought of being on Who Do You Think You Are?? Perhaps you should write a book about him, he seemed a very interesting character!
He also built Highclere (aka Downton Abbey!) which is just down the road from me.
He did a very good job on
Parliament, it’s just the internal maintenance hasn’t been as good as it should over the years! I’m now based over in Portcullis House (which is already falling apart) but before that I was stuck down in the Palace basement (or bunker, as I called it!) with the mice and the weird smells. I think Parliament is slowly sinking into the river, and there were rumours that everyone would be moved out for a number of years before it finally slid away, but I think it would be so expensive nobody wants to commit to it! Having said all that, I do feel so incredibly privileged to work there, and in such history. Do come and visit me at some point, I’ll give you a tour!
I shall take you up on that, Emma! As long as you introduce me to Dennis Skinner :D So, what is your favourite meal to a) cook and b) eat.
I’m not hugely into cooking, but I’m told by my family I make a mean lasagne and I’m not too bad at a fruit cake either!
To eat…I do love a good roast, especially at Christmas, and I’m a massive Christmas pudding fan. My granny was a domestic science teacher and makes the best Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, so I look forward to that every year!
Finally, what do fans of Emma Gray have to look forward to in 2015?
Well the sequel to Power Play won’t be for a couple of years at least, so really I’m looking to increase my blog presence and carry out more interviews (I do hope you will oblige!).
I do write articles for various online publications, including Conservative Home, Total Politics and Backbench, so I’m hoping to keep writing publicly one way or another! End Game will keep me busy too, that’s for sure, and boy will it be dark….
Emma, it's been a great pleasure to meet you, and thank you for coming round the Cauldron. I, and all the Wizardwatchers, wish you every success with Power Games..
Thanks so much for having me here, Wiz. It's been great!
Contact Emma here:
Buy Power Games below:
Interviews and additional: