A portrait of novelist Diane Dickson
by publisher Erik Empson
I first met Diane Dickson in 2015 soon after the publication of Leaving George, her first book with us. It was also one of the first books of ours that really took off, selling really well and hitting the bestseller lists. At that time I was still a little unsure of my publishing venture, I had all the elements of the skillset, but it was a big leap for me going from my academic pursuits and lofty post-capitalist ambitions to working to make money with a commercial enterprise. Still, I took to it with gusto. One of the things I’d never liked about left-wing politics was how negative it was – so much critique and protest – and I’ve always liked being industrious and productive.
And when one thinks about Diane’s writing, industriousness and productivity also come straight to mind. In the intervening seven years she’s had twenty books published. Although not all have been as popular as Leaving George, Diane has developed quite a following. But I sense Diane would be equally industrious if she didn’t sell any books at all. There is something more to her need to tell stories, and I’d like to find out what it is.
Diane recalls our meeting, and describes being “thrilled to have someone validate what I was doing.” She’d gone down the self-publishing route previously which was “great fun” but different to having someone see what you are doing and support you. Book sales are “lovely” but as I surmised Diane never “really thought about that side of it in any detail”. She enjoys being able to “show off” in front of her children when she treats them and say, “It’s okay, the books are paying for it.” But she loves the written word. Stories have been important since she was very young. Her father was a book fiend as was his mother, taking out piles of library books when there was no money around.
In this sense Diane has turned the table on what the fates had in store for her. She describes a “dodgy education in a secondary school where we were all expected to leave and go to work in shops or bakeries and such like until we got married.” She couldn’t study English Literature for O level because the partner lesson that went with it on the timetable was needlework – yet to this day she can barely thread a needle and the very idea of sewing a skirt bores her to death! She feels her life would be empty without writing. I am quite struck by this and by how much talent and potential has been squandered due to lack of encouragement, and pleased that Diane had the wherewithal to pursue her true calling.
Diane has always been fascinated by the mechanics of the “inexplicable magic that translates small marks on paper (or screen of course) into something that can inform and entertain and educate”. She wrote stories at school in her notebooks for her friends to read, and enjoys seeing her characters develop. For a while she taught adults who had problems with literacy and she describes opening their eyes to this as being one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done.
This is quite revealing. If there is a theme running through Diane’s stories, it is often one putting into focus underdogs and people on the margins of society. In her earlier books, her protagonists are quite unusual – a man released from prison after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, an old woman whose lesbian partner passes on after years together… Does she consciously look for these subjects or do they present themselves to her?
Diane worries it would sound “too pretentious to say that I wanted the writing to really carry a message, but yes”. She tries to write about the “seemingly small things in life that are huge to someone experiencing them”. With no sense of irony she says she is “very lucky” to have started her life in a slum in Bradford, having no electricity, no hot running water and no inside toilet. And whether moving on or up, or a thirst for adventure drove her, she has travelled widely and lived abroad in Jordan, Jeddah and Riyadh. At times this was in the lap of luxury, at others she got to sample slums in other countries.
This moving around and meeting of people from different backgrounds informs the breadth of her interests and reinforces the underlying themes. Diane hates unfairness. She says “I hate seeing people disappointed, prejudice and snobbery so I make my characters have struggles – because that’s life. But I like them to win because I wish that was the way it was. I don’t sit down and think right I’m going to write about a woman suffering domestic abuse and then take her out of that – it just happens.”
I wonder if some of the sense of dislocation of being abroad stimulates Diane’s interest in recreating familiar worlds in fiction. Much in Diane’s life seems to happen by chance and on impulse. Even her move to the Middle East with her husband was “a sort of happenstance”. They were living in Ormskirk. Ian worked for the Health Service and Diane was a barmaid, which she enjoyed for the adult company it provided after days with children. Ian was offered a job in Jeddah, but with the medium of a Lancastrian accent understood it as being in Cheddar! Talk about chalk and cheese. But they decided to go anyway and a two-year intended stay ended up lasting twenty years.
Diane’s fun and, I venture, mischievous side comes across quite a bit when she recounts her experiences there. She used to smuggle yeast in to make their own wine, which was obviously illegal. They had to hope that the customs officials didn’t know what it was. And bacon, and other “bits and pieces.” For her it was more a case of “let’s try and see if we can than really needing it to be honest”. Overall, she really loved the area. The couple only left because things became a bit dangerous with bombs being set off and western workers being kidnapped.
Diane’s writing has crossed quite a few genres. She’s written thrillers, mysteries, at least one romance, and several police procedurals. The latest book of hers we’ve published is HOPELESS about “a man who loses his manbag and finds himself”. It somewhat defies categorisation but its light-hearted, tragicomic take on what is a quite serious issue – homelessness – does encapsulate many of the elements of Diane’s work as a whole.
All Diane’s writing, whatever the genre, has a kind of immediacy to it which is natural and accessible. In fact she doesn’t have an affinity for any one genre. If left to her own devices, she says, she would probably write more lyrically but that doesn’t work, for example, in a police procedural so she has to curb her ‘purple prose’ tendency. A little like her life, she doesn’t plan her stories. Rather they write themselves. She becomes “totally involved in the story” and allows it to organise itself. At times she has started a book with one sentence, and no idea what will happen. In this sense the apple does not fall far from the tree.
For links to all of Diane’s books, including her current series of DI Jordan Carr police procedurals, visit her page here.