Julie Wassmer worked as a scriptwriter for EastEnders for many years before turning her pen to crime writing.
She is the author of the Whitstable Pearl Mysteries series. Seven years ago she wrote her autobiography More Than Just Coincidence in which she describes finding her long-lost daughter after an astonishing twist of fate. She lived and worked aboard a yacht for five years. Julie lives in Whitstable where her crime series is based. May Day Murder is out in large print this month.
When did you start writing? Can you tell us about your journey to having your first published story?
I grew up in a very rundown part of the East End of London but reading the many books I borrowed from our local public library soon opened up another world to me filled with exotic locations and fascinating characters. Reading was a form of escape for me, as well as an educational tool, but as an only child, I soon learned to occupy myself by writing my own stories. In my twenties I sold some short stories and articles to women’s magazines and I remember how I delayed paying in to the bank the very first cheque I ever received, just so that I could look at it and remind myself that it was possible to get paid for doing something I really enjoyed.
You worked as a scriptwriter on EastEnders for nearly 20 years – was it easy to switch from scriptwriting to fiction writing?
Essentially, I am a storyteller and like Pearl Nolan, the heroine of my Whitstable Pearl Mystery crime novels, I am also a “people person”, so for me a story always begins with its characters – the people who will bring the narrative to life. In my books, Pearl comes to readers as a woman on the brink of 40, wondering whether she can revive old dreams and become the detective she always felt she could be. In some ways, this parallels my own path with the switch from my TV work to writing the novels I always wanted to write. During my time at EastEnders, I learned to hold a viewer’s attention by writing a hook at the end of every scene and a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode - and old habits die hard. In my Whitstable Pearl Mysteries I try to put a hook at the end of every chapter and, although each book comes with its own crime denouement and can be read as a stand-alone piece of fiction, there is always a serial element and cliff-hanger for readers about the progress of Pearl’s new career - and her relationship with city detective, DCI Mike McGuire.
You once made a pop record – do you wish you had carried on with your music career?
It’s true I made a pop record in my twenties but I came to do so while trying to inspire my boyfriend at the time to continue with his own musical career - so you could say I was a pop star by default! The word ‘star’ might not be too apt either, as the record failed to chart in the UK. I really don’t have the best voice in the world but I do still enjoy all kinds of music from opera to pop and I still love writing song lyrics and continue to record songs with friends – but only for fun, as I’m very happy writing my crime novels.
How did you end up living on a 50-foot ocean going yacht for five years? What was that like?
At the age of 31, I needed a complete change so I sold my flat in London and went away on a working holiday aboard a 50-foot ocean going yacht. I only intended to do be gone for a few weeks but I was bitten by the sailing bug and ended up spending the best part of five years on board the boat - mainly in the Mediterranean. This may seem like a dream come true but after that length of time, the novelty wore thin for me and I yearned to return to London and begin writing with a vengeance. My sailing experience wasn’t wasted, however, because the memory of a captain’s warning to make sure I should always keep my feet outside the coiled bight of heavy anchor chain on the boat’s deck, before throwing the anchor overboard, gave me the inspiration for a fisherman’s watery death in my very first Whitstable Pearl Mystery novel.
In 1990 you were reunited with your daughter you had given up for adoption – can you tell us about that?
When I was 16 years old I became pregnant but, living with my parents in an impoverished part of the East End of London, and fearful of their reactions, I concealed the pregnancy and kept the truth from them until the day I went to hospital to give birth to a beautiful baby daughter. It was 1970 and there was no way that my boyfriend and I could possibly have kept our daughter as we were too young and too poor – so she was adopted. It was a very sad experience not least because, in those days, mothers remained in hospital for ten days to take care of their babies after their birth – and I did so with my own baby - before having to leave her behind. But on that day, I took with me two things: the plastic hospital wrist tag she had worn - bearing the words Baby Wassmer – and the expectation that, one day, my daughter and I would meet again. Fast forward twenty years and during a meeting with a literary agent in London, a young secretary handed me a cup of coffee not knowing who I was until the next day when she happened to see my name on a film script I had left behind. It was the same name she had seen on the birth certificate she had recently gained access to – Julie Wassmer - her birth mother. Somehow, by the most extraordinary quirk of fate, two worlds collided that day and my daughter and I were finally reunited – proving that real life can be stranger than fiction.
You then went on to write your true story – do you find it easier to write fact or fiction?
In 2010, I wrote the story of my reunion with my daughter in an autobiography called More Than Just Coincidence. It was a challenge to write this story as it was so personal and important to me and because I had waited forty years to tell it – until the time felt right - when my daughter was finally a mother herself. I had to retrace and re-live some heart-breaking experiences but, ultimately, it is a positive story with a very reassuring ending for us all about how things can sometimes work out all by themselves. Since then, I’ve concentrated on writing my crime fiction – but I think it’s ultimately true that every book contains autobiographical elements of its author.
You live in the same seaside location of Whitstable where you set your crime novels - why did you choose Whitstable?
Many writers invent locations for their fictional characters but I chose a real place - Whitstable on the North Kent coast. Somerset Maugham also wrote about Whitstable in his novels, Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale, but he referred to it as Blackstable and it’s been suggested that he did this because he had an unhappy time in the town after being sent here to live with his uncle, a Whitstable vicar, following his mother’s death. For my own part, I certainly know that in writing the Whitstable Pearl Mysteries I wanted to pay tribute to the town that has been my adopted home for almost twenty years and so it seemed only natural to me not to fictionalise it but to celebrate it – using its own name. Whitstable is a quirky place with an independent, anti-establishment spirit - which I sometimes feel might be down to its old smuggling history – but it’s also quintessentially English and full of interesting characters - the perfect location for the kind of dark “cosy crime” genre of these books.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Many people think that being writer entails long periods spent staring at a blank sheet of paper or laptop screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. But writers actually enjoy lots of freedom; the freedom to express ourselves using characters, locations and narratives of our choice while not having to work to a 9-5 schedule. As my crime books are set in the seaside town in which I live, I often disappear to my beach hut to write or I take to the beach itself on a nice hot summer’s day. There may well be some wrestling with plot points in the course of writing but ultimately, once a book has been completed, and published, there also follows a wonderful period of social activity when I get to meet readers at launch parties, book festivals, signing events or via radio phone-ins. I still consider myself extremely lucky to be doing something I have always enjoyed – and which I hope brings enjoyment to others.
Murder on the Pilgrims Way will be out in audio later this year on Magna Story Sound. Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna.