Letter to the World about Everything Unsaid

March 2020.

Dear World,

It’s difficult isn’t it when you think you might die, that we all might die, what to put on the page. It suddenly seems way more important than it might otherwise. Are these my last words? Are these what I leave behind? I’ve left others obviously (four books worth and countless articles) but are they enough? If this is the ‘end of days’ then you don’t want to leave anything unsaid.

Like ‘sorry’ for not forgiving someone who I thought should have come to my dad’s funeral and  didn’t. But you know. Bygones. Seems less important right now as you watch the limos lining up in the Italian cemeteries and think about the mourners who stand at a distance or who can’t be there at all. I was there as my dad slipped away, I was there at his funeral, I had that privilege and it was a privilege it turns out. That has to be what matters.

What else haven’t I said? ‘I love you’. Which is what I really wanted to write at the end of a message to a friend this morning. But didn’t. Why not? Because I do love them. They are members of my family of choice, my ‘logical’ family as Armistead Maupin would have it, as opposed to ‘biological’, you understand. Maybe because I’m British and emotion brings us out in wierd, jerky, limb-flailing fit. I’ll say it next time, I think. And I will try, and doubtless I will  fail.

And also left unsaid: “Dear God, how did we end up here?”

But here we are.  All of us wondering what next.

Technically, I should be all right. I’m not elderly. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t be considered to have an ‘underlying medical condition’ except as it happens my lungs are wrecked by some bug I picked up more than three months ago and they haven’t recovered, and the three of us know it. If my lungs could pack up their bags and catch a ferry to the Outer Hebrides they’d be on it. But they can’t. They are stuck here with me. We’re in this together, I tell them. We’ll be fine. I’m not sure they believe me.

Then there’s my husband who has asthma and even in the general way of things is Howard Hughes-esque about germs, so he’s taken to singing round the house in case he dies any second.  An eccentricity so irritating I may have to kill him before Covid-19 does.

So that’s me, if we haven’t met before. With a singing husband and three teenage kids and a 91 year old deaf and blind mother. And a poodle I just castrated, which now I feel bad about because did it matter? Couldn’t I have left him and his testicles in peace? I’d like to apologise to the poodle’s testicles. Because he seems to sleep way more. And asleep is  not the way you want to be as the world slides into the unknown. We need to stay awake and in full possession of our testicles.

keep well, 



Talking Out Loud.

Interview with Judith O’Reilly

October 2017.

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?

When it flows. When you sit at your desk and the words come and you read it back and think ‘That’s not too bad’.

What are you working on next?

Book 2 in the Michael North Thriller series. It’s called Curse the Day and I plan to bring it out in 2018. (I’ve a longterm ambition to write something funny but I’m damned if I can think of a plot or enough knock knock jokes.)

Who are your favorite authors?

So many. Lee Child. David Baldacci. James Patterson. Martina Cole. Val McDermid. Mark Billingham. Frederick Forsyth. Mick Herron. L J Ross. M W Craven. Andy McNab. Patrick O’Brian. Bernard Cornwell. I’ve just found John Connolly and love his Charlie Parker. Adore Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike. Love Raymond Chandler. Adore Philip Kerr and his Bernie Gunther series. John Le Carré and Robert Harris, of course. Anne Tyler. Elly Griffiths. Clare Macintosh. Steve Cavanagh. Margaret Attwood. Robertson Davies. Lindsey Davies. John D MacDonald. Anthony Trollope. Dennis Lehane. Gillian Flynn. Armistead Maupin. We could be here all day.

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?

I can’t wait to get out of bed. I’m a bit of an insomniac. It’s a relief when the night’s over.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Walking the dog. drinking coffee. juggling responsibilities. paying the bills. same way as most of us though sometimes I look through jobs which would actually pay me a regular salary and think I’m qualified for nothing.

Do you ever read reviews?

Sometimes with my eyes shut. I hate the ones which are by people who normally only ever review Sellotape. They make a point of saying they never read books, but for some reason they picked yours up and hated every word. These are the reviews you can’t get out of your head afterwards until you rinse round thoroughly with gin.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I do funnily enough. Well i remember the first one I got published. I was about ten or eleven and it was about a black cat and it appeared in the Evening Post with my name and address, and then some oddball made dirty phone calls for ages afterwards, and my mother had to report them to the police.

What is your writing process?

Sit down at the desk. (Having brought in a cup of tea) Install dog under the desk (having walked him earlier so he goes to sleep). Pound the keys till something comes out. Occasionally, if I am struggling with say a plot point or a character, I will write myself a question and answer letter to work out where I’m going. Surprisingly effective.


Bridge over Troubled Water

Who knows what goes on in the mind of a terrorist? Who would want
to? Lately, it seems their twisted logic dictates that even an eight-year-old
child is their enemy, even a teenage girl wearing bunny ears in a worthy
opponent. They loathe children then and blonde social workers who want to make the world a better place. Crazed with hate and bloodlust, they seek to destroy our young and beautiful, who dare to celebrate life in good company, with a drink in their hand and love in their hearts. 

Twice, in London, they have chosen a bridge to start their killing on. Why a bridge? It could as easily be a road they drive along, buildings imprisoning their victims. But they chose a bridge. You could make the argument that a bridge acts as a funnel. That in defence terms a bridge is a pinch point, a trap. There are no doors and windows to escape a speeding vehicle driven with deadly intent. Only a parapet and a long, and potentially fatal, drop into a cold river or onto a hard road beneath.

But there’s another power to a death on a bridge, because a bridge holds a promise of change that a terrorist fears as much as he despises. A terrorist is trapped in his ideology, in his thinking. He can’t allow change, or challenge, or doubt, or movement,  or his entire medieval belief system collapses.

And a bridge is a crossing. From here to there. From far away to closer. From me to you, and from you to me. A crossing we must make together into the future. And a bridge in wood, stone, concrete, or steel is a small victory against nature. Abutments and soaring arches and loadbearing footings prove man’s intelligence. His difference. His refusal to accept the limits imposed by rivers and valleys, his decision to shape his world, to draw that world closer. To move forward.

Bridges have a power of their own. In Norse mythology, Bifrost, the rainbow bridge links Asgard, the world of the gods to Misgard, the world of humanity. In the Zoroastrian religion there is a Chinvat bridge which separates the living from the dead, which all souls must cross at death. And in Islam, there is an al-Sirat bridge, thinner than a hair, sharper than a sword, believed to be a bridge which will be laid across Hell, which everyone must pass over to reach heaven.

And back on earth, a bridge is a place of order. This way – pedestrians. This way – cycles. This way – cars. Each to their own route. In contrast to the disorder the terrorists hope to spread as they swerve from side to side, onto the pavement, back onto the road, onto another pavement seeding chaos and tragedy.

So too, Hitler destroyed bridges as he retreated. The bridges of Florence aside from the Ponte Vecchio. The bridges over the Rhine, apart from the Ludendorff Bridge that Allied soldiers captured. It eventually collapsed, but its capture is credited with shortening the war. ISIS too is in retreat. It can’t blow up our bridges, so its fanatics cut down those who dare to use them. Dare to cross and connect.

We know from our earliest years that monsters lurk underneath bridges. Trolls and things that threaten to devour us and ours, things lurk in the darkness, but we chose to walk across our bridges anyway. Our footsteps – one infront of the other, one person after the next. Let the trolls lurk and hear the sound of the undefeated passing overhead. 

The bridges are changing. Concrete bollards, metal barriers. They are evolving to meet the challenges posed by crazy psychopaths locked into killing, who believe murder finally makes them somebody when in reality all that murder does is to make them nobody at all. 

It’s right they change. Bridges are a conversation between humanity and nature, humanity with itself. They offer a promise of arrival. A transition. Spanning, connecting – we build them to reach the other side and to reach each other. What terrorist doesn’t hate that idea. For terrorism to succeed, we must isolate ourselves from each other–from the ‘other’. From other communities. From Muslims. From girls who want to wear headscarves rather than bunny ears. We need bridges now more than ever. We’ve built them. We’ll continue to build them. We’ll cross them and we’ll continue to cross them. 

Britain isn’t reeling whatever a ridiculous man with a twitchy Twitter account wants to believe. London Bridge isn’t falling down any day soon.  


Note to Self: Next Time Write Gone Girl

This is something out of the normal for me. The other two books I’ve written and had published by Viking, Penguin were non-fiction, but I got it into my head to write a political thriller so a political thriller I have written. To Hell with small details like the fact I should have written a psychological thriller  which the market is apparently crying out for. Hah – what does the market know. A political animal is what I was and a political animal is what I remain.

I’d have loved to have written a book like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins. I read psychological thrillers and enjoy the dark, twisty noir of the domestic, and maybe next time that’s what will come out when I sit down at my laptop. But it wasn’t there this time. Michael North was.

Perhaps that’s because I have a soft spot for a hero in a tight spot – like Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. And most of all for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. I’ve read every book Lee Child has written because he’s a genius and I’m obsessive that way. (I’ve also read every book Patrick O’Brian wrote because I couldn’t get enough of Captain Jack Aubrey and doctor/spy Stephen Maturin. Plus, they teach you the layout of a schooner, how to tie knots, and naval history during the Napoleonic era.) Like Jack Reacher before him, North is big, has an army background, and can fight like stink. He is however younger, more reckless, British, and way more damaged physically and emotionally. Then there is the world in which North operates and for this complicated, messy, morally dubious setting, I have to acknowledge the influence of John Le Carré, Robert Harris and Michael Dobbs’ fantastic creation – House of Cards.

Killing State then, is the story of a man whose life was simple, who met a woman whose life was complicated, and what happened next. It’s also a story of friendship and how far one woman will go for her best friend. To the ends of the earth and beyond it turns out. And it’s a story about the world we live in. How it shifted to the right. How democracy is threatened and how each of us in our own way has to make our lives count. Stories, after all, are how we understand our world and who we are. And right this moment, with Brexit and Trump, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, we are living in an interesting world so to me it makes sense to write about that – or at least a variant of it.

My first and best-known book Wife in the North centred on my life but it was more than an account of my day to day dealings, it was also about what it is to be a wife and mother, the nature of loss and grieving, and  the compromises required by marriage. My second book A Year of Doing Good explored goodness and why people do good deeds, and tried to reach an understanding of why the idea of good deeds translate across cultures and religions. Both were diaries. Both tried to look at big pictures a different kind of way.

Killing State is a work of fiction and there is a certain relief in that. In not having to write an account of yourself, of how you feel and think and what you do. It is however a very personal book. North wrestles with his own mortality and morality as we all do. Honor with loss and grief and loyalty. Both of them with the need to love and be loved. We all of us write the books we have to write. Whether they get read or not.


How to Write a Bestselling Children’s Book – probably

When my two boys read a book these days, I quite often read the first one if it is part of a series. It got me thinking about how to write a children’s book, so I broke apart a few. As anyone with any sense who has tried to write anything longer than a shopping list knows – there is no formula for writing a great book. No way to replicate on the page sheer bleeding genius, inspiration, creativity and craft. Having said that …. I offer this back-of-an-envelope deconstruction as an aide to anyone out there thinking of writing children’s books. It comes with a skull and crossbones warning. Yes I have written a book – infact I have written three now (one is in print, one is in a drawer and the third I’ll tell you about some other time). But I have never, repeat never written a children’s book therefore I do not know what I am talking about. Still, that doesn’t usually stop me so for anyone with an interest in writing for children, here is a deconstruction of six great books/series. These are merely observations. This is not a recipe. Do not knock on my door and shout loudly at me if you follow it and your cake fails to rise.

I looked at the following books/series.(Apologies in advance to the brilliant authors involved – no disrespect is intended.)

  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling (because I don’t think you are allowed to write about children’s books without writing about Harry Potter)
  • Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan
  • Alex Ryder by Anthony Horowitz
  • Laura Marlin by Lauren St John 
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • The Bible, more specifically the New Testament(bear with me on this.)

They have these features in common:

  1. a central character who is an orphan, apparent orphan, or missing at least one parent
  2. a natural mother, or if orphaned, they have a maternal-type figure in their lives (eg Mrs Weasley in the Potter books).
  3. a mentor (eg Chiron in Percy Jackson)
  4. an alternative parenting figure who sometimes doubles up as a mentor (Laura’s uncle, Joseph, Lee Scoresby)
  5. best friends (eg the Apostles in the Bible)
  6. special powers eg magic, spying, detective, miracles, cleverness
  7. a training period (courtesy of the secret service, in school/half-blood camp, the Wilderness,)
  8. a Saviour role (saving the world, saving other children, saving mankind)
  9. a battle between good and evil (vs. Kronos and monsters, Scorpia, bad guys, Satan)
  10. hero is percieved not to play by the rules – for which trait they are punished – (expelled from school, ostracised, crucified)
  11. the hero is percieved to be in the wrong
  12. the hero acquires equipment/weapons (wand, sword, techhy equipment, a golden compass)
  13. half-and half mix somewhere (half-spy/half-boy, son of God and Man, good father – evil mother, child/daemon)
  14. at least one parent has unusual powers (eg magic, father(figures)are gods/wizards/spies/detectives)
  15. mystery surrounds at least one parent(there is also revelation) (eg how did parents die, exactly who is the father/mother figure)
  16. very powerful villain (Mrs Coulter, the Devil, Voldemort, head of Scorpia)
  17. adventures feature a world within a world (which ordinary people have no firsthand knowledge of)(eg a world of shadows, an alternative universe, Heaven/Hell, wizarding, gods/demi-gods)
  18. in truth/in discovery there is goodness
  19. the hero is on a quest (for a philospopher’s stone, salvation for humankind, to find the children taken by gobblers)
  20. the hero is prepared to sacrifice their own life

    Interesting how the New Testament fits the template, or perhaps the New Testament is the template and it has seeped into our culture to shape the minds of our children? Now there’s a thought. Anyway there you go. Be sure and let me know if it helps you write a book.

How Do You Write a Memoir?

How to give good memoir (otherwise known as Top tips for memoir writing.)

*get a life. You cannot write a memoir unless you live an interesting life. Live it. Live it the best way you can. Try to fit the writing around it. If you spend all your time writing about your life, life will be dull and your writing will be duller.
*find yourself fascinating. This one is hard because – best will in the world – the kind of people who find themselves fascinating tend to be the kind of people you don’t want to be around. Nonetheless you have to overcome your scruples and find yourself interesting enough to write about, and talk about when someone asks you what you are writing about. And not mind when they sidle away really fast.
*find everyone else fascinating too. This is not as hard as finding yourself interesting because everybody has a story. The trick is to be interested enough to find out what it is. Don’t judge someone. Get to know what they have to say – it is very probably worth hearing.
*having said “get a life” sometimes it is all in the writing. Don’t presume because you are writing about something that has happened a gazillion times before that you can just knock it off without thinking about the words and how they fit together. Words count – who knew?
*it isn’t necessarily about the outside that is to say, what you do, it is also about what and how you think, and ofcourse – everytime – about how you feel. A memoir is not a book of events.
*remember a memoir is about Life, not just your life, real life.
*unless you are willing to be honest and reveal who you are, you might as well write a novel.(Obviously you can also be honest and reveal who you are in a novel, there is just an outside chance you won’t have to.)
*if you care too much about what people think, you might as well not write at all.

(I’ve lifted this from my Wife in the North blog, because I’ve written two memoirs now as well as teaching a course at Newcastle University and so many people talk to me about wanting to write their own stories but feel daunted. At some point, I’ll put up a list of good memoirs which I’d suggest you read if you want to go ahead and write your own.)


Second Time Around

April 2017.

I’ve blogged before. That is to say I ain’t no blogging virgin. My first blog Wife in the North did that viral thing of zero to 60 in a matter of days. That I have to say was a weird time. Your palms get a little bit sweaty when you realise you are filing reports from your life and they are being read all over the world just seconds after you heedlessly press Send. I’m older now and frankly the internet has changed since those heady days when blogs were the next big thing. There’s so much more content out there yet it’s so hard to find anything you actually want to read. Or is that just me? I log on and I do a quick tour of the news and websites I like, do a few clickthroughs then I’m done. But there is no ‘must read’, no excitement about the kind of writing you just happen upon, the lives you get to know. Now and then someone says blogging is dead, and everyone nods. But I don’t think it matters what you call it and what form it takes – 140 characters, here and then gone again, arty photographs of breakfast – everyone wants to tell their story. Everyone wants to think someone is listening.