BIG INTERVIEW: Anne Cassidy  

Crime fiction author Anne Cassidy, who writes for young adults, hit the headlines in 2004 with her controversial novel Looking for JJ – one of over fifty titles she has to her credit. Susan Elkin meets her.

Looking for JJ is about a child murderer who has been given a new identity. Inspired by the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger by two older children in 1993, it was a very original and brave idea for a novel. “It was actually my seventeenth published book” Anne chuckles “although many people who, of course, had never heard of me, assumed it was my first. It changed everything for me and my career”.

Anne and I are sitting in the magnificent – recently extended – kitchen in the north London home she shares with her husband who is minding the noisy but affable dog in another part of the house. They have moved here fairly recently because she wanted to be back in the thick of things rather than in a distant outer borough. She chats openly in her rich, attractive London voice. Ah … that voice. She mentions it several times in the course of our conversation and admits she has a lifelong hang-up about it.

“I grew up in Tottenham so I’m a real London girl but when I got a place at an academic secondary school run by nuns, they said I had to have elocution lessons. That was the trigger for my becoming a naughty girl for the rest of my time there until I left at 16 without a single exam pass and went to work in a bank”. She asks me – obviously a question she poses to almost anyone she meets – why the BBC celebrates every sort of regional accent in its presenters but not London. Good point.

But fortunately, Anne’s education did not begin and end with those blinkered nuns. Five years later she took herself to the local adult education centre to enrol on a pottery class. It was full but someone persuaded her to sign up for O level history instead. “It was the turning point. I fell in love with both history and education. Soon I was doing A levels in history and English, as a mature student because I was over 21. Then I went to Middlesex Polytechnic to train as a secondary English teacher.”

Anne taught English for twenty years, finally leaving in 2000, having reduced the commitment to three days a week because by then she was writing and wanted more time in which to do it. So how did the writing start?

“Well I’d always had a needling voice in my head asking me whether I could write. I also kept thinking about my cockney voice and wondering where the cockney writers were”. So she started going to fortnightly creative writing classes led by Ken Walpole in Tottenham. “That built up my confidence and convinced me that, yes, I can tell a story. I wrote an adult novel because I thought that was what I had to do. It was absolutely terrible but I learned a lot from doing it!”

“That built up my confidence and convinced me that, yes, I can tell a story.”

Turning to the teenagers, who would turn out to be her real audience, she then wrote Big Girls’ Shoes which was published by Collins. She also acquired an agent and had a “lot of fun” writing a dozen novels for Scholastic’s Point Crime series during the 1990s – all the time juggling the writing with teaching.

“I’d been haunted for years by the Jamie Bulger murder and had thought a great deal about how society deals with the perpetrators in a case like that. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both then 10, were tried like adults and became the youngest convicted murderers in the twentieth century because society just doesn’t know what to do with such children” says Anne. She also studied the case of Mary Bell who, when 10 and 11, murdered two young boys in 1968. And she read Gitta Sereny’s books about Mary Bell, The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Murderer (1972) and Cries Unheard (1998)

Clearly fascinated and, to an extent appalled, by the whole notion of a new identity which means that everything – home, family, name, history, freedom of speech and more – is taken from you – Anne’s Looking for JJ examines how it must feel to be in a situation like that. She writes from the point of view of the child murderer, which obviously, challenges the readers sympathies, assumptions and prejudices so it’s challenging, very thoughtful, fiction. It was widely praised and commended by “Names” in the world of fiction for young people such as Wendy Cooling and Julia Eccleshare. Author, Jan Mark reviewed it favourably in The Guardian. The novel was shortlisted for both the 2004 Whitbread Prize and the 2005 Carnegie Medal.

Looking for JJ was made into a successful play, adapted by Marcus Romer and produced by Pilot Theatre. It opened at York Theatre Royal in 2007 and then transferred to Unicorn Theatre in London and, in 2008 to Haymarket, Basingstoke.

“Then ten years later I wrote a sequel called Finding Jennifer Jones” says Anne and I tell her I’m half way though reading it. It’s a powerful examination of how someone with a new identity might be living and feeling – aggressively questioned by the police every time a child is missing for example. In the end might it be better to give up the pretence and live with your original identity whatever the consequences?

Anne is drawn to complex characters who certainly don’t have straightforward, easily quantifiable personalities. Her pair of novels No Virgin (2016) and No Shame (2017 – reviewed in the last issue of Ink Pellet), for example, are about a rape and rape trial, inspired by the Ched Evans case. “Oh lots of people don’t like Stacey Woods, my victim” says Anne. “She makes some bad decisions and puts herself in a potentially compromising situation because she has sexual desires and really wants to sleep with the boy she’s just met. But what actually happens to her is something quite different and we have to be clear about that. And somehow we have to help them to find the courage to report crimes against them.”

Anne wants to inform people as young as 12 and 13 about the dangers. “Of course we hope they’re not having sex at that age, although some of them are, but look – we drum road safety rules into young children years before we let them cross roads on their own. I think we should do the same with relationships and sex education. Adults, who say my books are too old for, say Year 7 readers, also have to accept that teenagers ARE having sex whether we like it or not. But they lack life experience so they need support”. Anne does a lot of school visits where she discusses such issues and the process of writing.

“I always write straight to computer” she says firmly. “Otherwise I’d never get anything done at all”. She is currently working on a ghost murder story The Haunting of Angel because she wants “to get away from issues for a bit and this book is more about entertainment.”

She writes crime. Does she also read it? “Oh yes” she beams and she and I immediately start to swap the names of authors we like. “My personal reading is probably about 70% page turning crime and 30% literature” she says mentioning with warm approval Anne Tyler, Ian McEwen, Kate Atkinson, CJ Sansom and Hilary Mantel. “I’m not ashamed of reading a wide variety. We all need to read at different levels at different times and for different purposes” says Anne, who also runs the local book group and teaches creative writing at City Lit.

I leave this interesting, very congenial (she makes me a lovely cup of tea) woman to walk back to the tube, having made friends with the dog and having admired the garden which is the next work-in-progress now that the kitchen is finished. Rather touchingly she also shows me her collection of Denby cups, plates and bowls. “I couldn’t afford Denby when I was young and I did so want it” she says. “Now I buy bits in charity shops and display it on this dresser!” And with that she disappears to get into the right mindset for two telephone interviews. “I feel like a real celebrity this afternoon” she grins.

“Adults…have to accept that teenagers ARE having sex whether we like it or not. But they lack life experience so they need support”