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July 7, 2016 / peoplesbookprize

TPBP interview with B.K. Duncan

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In the lead up to The People’s Book Prize 2016 we caught up with author B.K. Duncan to talk about her novel

Foul Trade


Born on a steam railway and brought up on the South Coast of England, such beginnings were destined to leave BK Duncan with a love of vintage transport, crashing seas, and Art Deco architecture. Following a career encompassing developmental learning and change-management consultancy she made the switch to full time writer, combining producing her own work with lecturing in creative writing in colleges and academies in Hertfordshire and Cambridge. Her two great passions are longbow archery and the Argentine Tango. Sadly, she is not nearly as accomplished at either as she’d like. (Pictures by kind permission of Comet Newspapers)

When did you start writing?

I’ve been a fulltime writer for 20 years. The vast majority of that time learning the skills and craft, making mistakes, writing best-forgotten novels, and generally serving my apprenticeship. Before that (other than ‘composition’ at school) I don’t have a conscious memory of writing anything other than a teenage diary (also best-forgotten). I didn’t come from the sort of family where you became an author or did anything remotely arty – you got a proper job – so, although I studied English Literature and Language at university, I carved out a career in facilitation and organisation development. Now I am most definitely a writer, I am immensely grateful for that experience of management, report writing, motivational theory, transactional analysis and all the rest, because I acquired a breadth of tools and techniques I can call on for the business and promotional side of being an author. You could say that I feel I have come of age and that everything I have achieved in life has been the building towards this point. I certainly feel that writing, and being a writer, is what I was put on this earth to do.

As a Author, what influences you the most?

As mentioned, I can’t honestly say that I have wanted to be a writer all my life. But I have been a reader. I was the sort of child who cycled to the library every Saturday to change her books. So the works of other authors have been my greatest influence. Escaping in my imagination to a world of someone else’s creation; tasting unfamiliar words and the inspired use of language on my tongue; smelling the musty and oft-turned pages of books plucked from charity shop shelves; marvelling at photographs of moments I can never witness in real life. Reading is to acquire and assimilate knowledge; to learn and grow as a consequence. If a single person has been transported to a world beyond their experience or sees life in a different way as a result of one of my novels, then I will have achieved what I set out to do by becoming an author. It is the hope that keeps me going.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

I knew I wanted to set Foul Trade in 1920 and also that it would be peopled by the underclass rather than upper-class flappers. So no amateur sleuths for me; my main character had to be a working girl with lots of nous but little formal education who investigated murder for a living. But in what capacity? The obvious occupations of police inspector, pathologist or lawyer were all impossible if I wanted to be historically accurate (and I did).

It was when I was tearing my hair out over the problem with a writing buddy that I hit on the job of coroner’s officer – they needed no qualifications; it wasn’t a legally-constituted role so the coroner could designate anyone and, given the shortage of men after the Great War, it was conceivable a woman could have been appointed. So May Louise Keaps was born. The next stage was to research contemporary accounts of Poplar and Limehouse, life in the busy streets around the docks, notable trials and drug-related scandals of the day, and everything else that could conceivably bring the era and setting to life – a process that took months and months and months. Then I set about crafting a plot to test May’s mettle. And she didn’t let me down.

The People’s Book Prize nominees are voted for by the readers, how important are your readers to you?

In one word? Crucial. Without readers, a writer’s work is never brought to fruition because it is in the readers’ imagination that the book comes to life. I test my work-in-progress with potential readers, answer questions on Foul Trade in radio and TV interviews, and welcome every word of feedback that comes my way. It is readers (both of my books and those of other authors) who make me strive to become the best writer I can possibly be. After all, you only know that you’ve got it right when a reader tells you so – I was at a literary festival reading a scene about Chrisp Street market and, afterwards, a woman told me I had described her grandmother’s memories of the place exactly. High praise indeed. I am immensely proud and honoured to have been voted into the final of The People’s Book Prize. Not least because I am looking forward to acting as ambassador in the organisation’s constitutional aim of working to eradicate illiteracy – a goal etched on every writer’s heart.

We like to think there’s a voice for everyone in Publishing – what is your opinion?

I couldn’t agree more. In every form of entertainment, a variety of offerings is essential to ensure as many people can be engaged as possible. Homogeneity is at the opposite end of the scale to creativity and if the only books ever brought to people’s attention were those sponsored by the major publishing houses then the world of our collective and individual imaginations would be  infinitively poorer. There is something so special in being able to recommend a book to friends they have yet to discover for themselves; small presses are genetically disposed to ‘bucking the marketing trend’ and taking a risk on the new and the different; and with The People’s Book Prize, writers are able to feel confident that their work will be brought to a wider audience. So win-win all round, really.

Andrews UK publishes a variety of brilliant authors, what is it like to be in the company of talented writers?

Writing can be an isolating business because you spend a great deal of time in your head with imaginary characters to people a world of your own creation. So being in a writing tribe is a godsend – fellow authors understand the all-consuming dilemma over energy spent writing versus that needed to promote existing books; they can inspire with what it is possible to achieve; and offer consolation when a novel in progress refuses to play nicely. I consider myself lucky to have a number of tribes to call on: those published and supported by Andrews UK, the crime writing fraternity, and the writers as addicted as I am to historical fiction. It is wonderful to be in the company of others.

What book influenced you most as a writer and what are you reading at the moment?

This is a difficult question to answer as I’d probably have to say I’ve been influenced to some degree by every book I have ever read. Books have made me grow – as a person and as a writer – and I’ve been reading all my life. If I had to pick one then it would be The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, given to me by my teacher, Miss Gibbs, when I was 11 (perhaps the seeds of writing historical crime fiction were planted way back then).  In terms of the skills and craft of writing, I have gained much from everything the wonderfully opinionated J. B. Priestly wrote; the short pieces contained in his book Delight are a master class in confident word-play and the richness of the English language.   At the moment I am reading A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana & Michael Preston. A biography, travelogue, exploration of pushing the boundaries of the known world, and discovery of the intricacies of maritime navigation; all wrapped up in the fascinating life of the buccaneer and natural scientist William Dampier.

What can we expect from you in the future? What are you writing at the moment?

I am currently putting the finishing touches to the second novel in the May Keaps series: Found Drowned. Here’s a little something to whet your appetite: On streets where poverty and exploitation walk hand-in-hand everyone has a price. And some are more valuable dead than alive. But to whom? The discovery of a body in the River Thames leads May Keaps to believe that when children go missing, the answer is to follow the money. Except she underestimated the corrupting influence of power . .  In addition, I also write standalone psychological novels under the name Ruth Wade.


Find BK Duncan at:

Facebook: Andrews UK

Twitter: BeaKDuncan


home pageThe People’s Book Prize is the unique literary competition that is judged by the nation and open to all UK publishing companies.

You Be the Judge: The People’s Book Prize – “The home for new and undiscovered works.”

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