Louise Lee did her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2010-2011. As with a lot of alumni it then took several years of writing in the woodshed to create her first novel, The Last Honeytrap, involving private investigator, Florence Love. Lee came from a background as private investigator and had memorable cases including a high-functioning bigamist with three wives and six children, who was set to marry a fourth, and losing a target because George Clooney started chatting her up in a bar. Such gold has naturally found itself into her wildly funny and entertaining novel.
Way before publication The Last Honeytrap has been a huge success; it has been optioned for a six part drama for the BBC, been sold to publishers abroad, may well be a BBC Radio Four Book at Bedtime and Lee has been made an Amazon Rising Star. Florence Love even has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts where she’ll be dispensing agony-aunt-like tips.
Lee already has outlines for the next two books: The Last Bigamist and The Last Serial Killer, and plans to deliver a book a year.
Lee’s tutor at Birkbeck, Toby Litt said “Of all the novels I've read by students during my five years on the MA at Birkbeck, The Last Honeytrap is the warmest, the most engaging, and the most likely destined for bestsellerdom”.
Headline are publishing The Last Honeytrap as an ebook in March 2015 and in paperback in June 2015 .
When we at Writers' Hub got to speak to her she was busy in bed writing the second novel!
You studied creative writing at Birkbeck, how did that help with your writing?
The commitment and encouragement of the tutors is a beautiful thing – that’s wet, but true. They get to the bones of your talent and advise how best you nurture it. I also found the other students were normal, just like me, which was a total relief. I stopped being precious about my own work, because I respected the opinion of those around me – that’s a biggie. In truth I sucked the opportunity the MACW provided dry, and when I finished it, I felt a bit bereft – but ready to give novel writing a very serious shot.
Now you’ve had a “varied” background, what part did teaching geography help in writing?
I was teaching in Qatar. There was bugger all to do. After 5pm, it wasn’t safe for women to go out alone. No mobile, email, Facebook, Western TV stations or alcohol. I started writing to fill the time – observational musings, very geographical in hindsight! My faxes home (olden-day blogging) got longer, more histrionic – I particularly wanted to make people giggle. I thought I was hysterical. It became my therapy. By the time I returned to England, I knew I loved writing more than teaching, so gave it up.
And how did you become a Private Investigator?
I did an online course for which I achieved 100%, because they gave you a folder that had all the answers in it. The course cost £400 and the information provided was fascinating. For example, it’s illegal to tap a house unless the person who’s asking you to do the tapping is named on the electricity bill – I’d never have known. I got a friend to design a website and used Adwords to get my “PI Company” to the top of the search list. My first case arrived within the day and I solved it within seconds – it was a missing person. Admittedly I just looked at 192.com and got their new address, but I was elated. Naturally the jobs got trickier, but PIs learn the job through the soles of their feet, which is exhilarating, but scary at times.
Your main character, Florence Love, is a private investigator, how did her character come about.
I’ve been writing her for years without realising it – she just had different names and backstories. But she was never a PI, which is odd given I was one. I think I was frightened of the genre. It wasn’t until I wrote a short story about a female PI that Julia Bell, said, “Write that book!” She’s a ridiculously wise woman, so I did. With regards to character, I’ve certainly pulled on my own quirks and PI experiences, but Flo’s personality is a mixture of lots of people, boys and girls.
Florence is bright, feisty, witty, sexy – is this another author projection? Is this the perfect Louise?
Yes, yes, yes. I’m rubbish at talking out loud. Give me three hours though and I’ll come up with a corker of a one-liner, assuming there’s a prevailing wind. But Florence can deliver the mother of all soliloquies. It’s not always right or remotely ethical, but I love her need to be true to herself. I am naturally quite sexy though.
Florence is quite an unreliable narrator, both self-deluded but also capable of huge emotional and intellectual intelligence. Was that a difficult balance?
No, because I’m quite deluded at times. I can also be very sane. But at first I did struggle with how much vulnerability to allow her. For a bit I made her too Zena Warrior Princess. This is where a good writer’s workshop comes in. Feedback is the best way to ensure balance, especially when you have a character as complex as Flo’s.
She is extremely witty and it is a tremendously funny book, with lots of great one-line zingers and comedy situations. Who influenced your humour?
I read, in awe, The Liar by Stephen Fry twenty years ago. His comic timing, the gorgeous words and acerbity. I wanted to be him. Then I wanted to be Nick Hornby. High Fidelity became my blueprint as to how to write a corking book. Charles Bukowski’s irreverent humour floors me – Florence definitely has a lot of “Buk” in her. Oddly, the women who have influenced my style are TV comediennes –– Dawn French, Joan Rivers, Julie Walters – but no female writers, apart from Helen Fielding, of course. That’s interesting...
In terms of language, diction, sentence structure and dialogue all have a great rhythm to them and spark. Was that something that took drafts or is it a natural gift?
Drafts and drafts and drafts, and then some. And I’m no quicker now I’m working on the second book. Plus, I don’t write a book how you should. It’s an excellent idea to do a rough draft, then go back and shape the words into something pretty. But I can’t move on to a new sentence until liking the one before it. It’s an illness.
We’ve heard that Slim TV and Film/BBC have optioned the book, we’re thinking Ruth Wilson as Florence Love, (Anne Hathaway in the film) but where the hell is Danny Dyer going to fit in?
I actually wrote a part especially for Danny. Florence’s brother-in-law to be. His name is Sebastien and he’s a gay osteopath with a stutter. It’s off-piste, but Danny’s an insanely talented man with an extensive range.
There is a lot of frank observation in the book but no knocking boots for Florence, is that to come?
Ha! I actually had to look that up. I’m quietly confident she’ll get her end away in Book Two, but it’ll be very embarrassing for me to write. I’m a Catholic. My mum will read it. She already thinks Florence is me, which she’s not, not completely, but she’ll think it.
I would not want Florence Love as my girlfriend because she is incapable of love. Discuss.
She’s too capable of love – which is the very reason you wouldn’t want her as your girlfriend. Her loyalty will be indomitable, but she’ll mother you, like she does her brother. She’ll also tell you what to do and think – though it comes from a good place. She’s damaged by the loss of her mother so keeps loved-ones a little too close. That said, when she does meet the right man, I think she’ll become a total softy, which will sit uncomfortably with her. I can’t wait to write Florence-in-love.
Now you’ve met George Clooney, now in most circs we wouldn’t want to know any intimates, but this time we want to know everything, everything, everything about this, because by the time you get onto Loose Women it’ll all be censored by his lawyers.
The Langham Hotel, London. My target, a Russian Oligarch. I watched him from a stool at the bar. Unexpectedly George sat beside me. Champagne and hors d’oeuvre were immediately placed in front of him. I forgot where I was and, after a while, asked if I could have his finger snacks, because he wasn’t eating them and they’re twenty quid a pop. In my own mind, George thought I was delightful. When Mr Cindy Crawford rocked up and commented on how beautiful the bar was, George turned and looked me straight in the eye: “It’s a mighty fine-looking bar,” he said. I giggled like a twat. Then legged it, because the oligarch had left God knows how long before.
I wouldn’t describe this as chick lit but some would, is that a problem?
Chick lit unfortunately has a reputation for being low-brow and frivolous, which isn’t always true, but that alienates readers nonetheless, especially men. That’s disappointing for me. Because Florence is far from low-brow or frivolous – she’s a very modern woman with balls and a brain. She has a brother and male friendships, and I’ve shaped the male characters as lovingly as hers. So for me, it’s more than literature for chicks. It’s also a mishmash of genres (black comedy, thriller) that should appeal across the board. But “chick lit” provides a profitable niche and the publishing industry love that. So maybe it’s time to redefine the niche.
Now the geek nerdy writers like to know a) when do you write? b) where? c) how often?
I have a toddler and a seventeen year old AKA The Bride of Chucky and Donny Darko. So I find myself fitting my writing around their hormones. Generally-speaking, I write five to six days a week, usually after lunch for a few hours and after EastEnders for a few hours more. I’ve tried and tried to do it in the morning, but I’m always too sleepy.
What comes next for Florence and yourself?
There are two more Florence Love books in the pipeline – The Last Bigamist is due out next year, The Last Serial Killer, the year after. I’ll be quite involved in the TV option too – seeing famous actors auditioning for a role you created is mind blowing. And I’ll be submitting the opening chapter of Book Two to the Mechanics’ Institute Review, the Birkbeck Creative Writing anthology which is out in September.