Sunday Times Bestseller, Jessie Keane on her latest crime novel, The Knock

Jessie Keane (c) Alexander James

Jessie Keane (c) Alexander James - Credit: Archant

Author Jessie Keane about her latest novel and her life growing up as a Romany Gypsy in Winchester.

Jessie Keane (c) Alexander James

Jessie Keane (c) Alexander James - Credit: Alexander James

I’ve been desperate to meet Jessie Keane ever since the beginning of the year when I was gripped by her latest crime novel, The Knock. Anyone who can sustain action and tension over 500 pages earns my respect.

But my curiosity was also piqued. The author’s background is unconventional, despite an inevitability to carving out a successful career as a novelist.Her love of writing can, pretty much, be traced back to when she learned to hold a pen. Then there’s her Romany roots, as colourful and creative as you might imagine, which included an uncannily accurate prediction by Grand, who had The Sight and foretold her then young granddaughter’s future writing career. Not only was Grand’s hand reading talent spot on, this female role model, one of several in Jessie’s life, inspired a series of strong women who feature throughout her novels.

In the Soberton home she shares with her partner, Cliff, Jessie recalls those early years.

“I was born in a traditional old barrel top wagon belonging to my grandmother, which was in the grounds of my parents’ house near Winchester. From an early age I loved writing, and won prizes at primary school. On my third birthday Grand examined the palms of my hands and said I had two writer’s forks which meant I was not only going to write but be famous too. I didn’t believe it!”

The Knock, published by Pan Macmillan, is out in paperback, on July 23, £7.99

The Knock, published by Pan Macmillan, is out in paperback, on July 23, £7.99 - Credit: Archant

Happily settled in the Meon Valley where walks along the “beautiful” Meon River are a favourite pastime, this quietly spoken author has lived in Hampshire all her life. Well, almost. A three month spell in London at the age of 15 offered temporary excitement until the lure of family and her home county enticed her back. A number of jobs – bacon slicer, trainee dental nurse, sweeper upper in a hairdressing salon – were as unfulfilling as they were brief. At 17 she married but divorced within a year. Then, with that underlying interest to write a constant presence, she used the proceeds from the sale of her wedding dress to purchase a typewriter and write chick lit. Were her stories favourably received? “I had absolutely no success at all,” she states matter of factly. “After piles of rejections, in 2008, for my own amusement, I thought I’d write a thriller and knocked out Dirty Game in about three months.”

This spontaneous decision, and rapid delivery, turned out to be a turning point. One of the six agents to whom Jessie had submitted her manuscript phoned with the news that a potential publisher might be interested. One week later Jessie received another call. “The agent said, ‘Are you sitting down? Harper Collins are offering you a three book deal for a six figure sum.’ I was staggered; this changed everything.”

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With book sales topping 1m, Jessie is currently putting the finishing touches to her 15th novel, The Manor, featuring two families fighting a turf war over what is at first a small East End gang stronghold which grows into a worldwide crime empire. Meanwhile The Knock is due out in paperback on July 23. There’s no doubting her phenomenal success, particularly given the intuitive nature of her approach.

“My books are always very much a seat of the pants thing. I never plot. I just start and hope it’s going to come through.”

A modestly sized downstairs “cubby hole” is Jessie’s working environment, one devoid of any distractions, even windows. Character driven; her gritty novels elicit a range of emotions. The Knock, which centres on Dora O’Brien and her daughter, Angel, both caught up in an underworld in which controlling gangsters and bent coppers challenge their grip on reality, is as exciting as it is heartbreaking. You don’t have to have been exposed to crime or coercive behaviour to feel the reality in the characters and plot. How do ideas manifest themselves, I ask?

“I guess it’s life. You look at things around you and see snippets of characters and things on the news. My characters develop as I write, reacting to other characters they encounter.”

She makes the creative process sound ridiculously easy. “People often ask me how I do it and I say I don’t know. It’s just a gift; I’m very lucky. I can scarcely believe my books are on The Sunday Times list of bestsellers.”

But luck, as they say, is 90% hard work. And this is no exception in Jessie’s case. A morning writing routine includes a wordcount of at least 1,000 followed by an afternoon editing and refining those words which are initially “just splurged down.” Any fun writing the first draft, she declares, is tempered by laborious redrafting although, with experience, the process has become easier.

“In my first manuscript I didn’t even number the pages! You write one book then realise you’ve got to produce another good one, then another but your belief in yourself starts to grow.”

After numerous drafts as deadlines approach, Jessie confesses to relief once final edits are completed. Then, within two or three weeks, she’s itching to begin her next novel.

A sinister thread may run through Jessie Keane’s books but mention her home county and a soft voice responds, “Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always loved coming back to the gentle hills and rivers of Hampshire.” Perhaps she owes this affinity to the surrounding splendour of the county capital where her heritage began.

But back to 2020. It’s been a challenging year in many ways yet for someone who is comfortable in her own company, and has chosen an isolating profession, the lockdown has made little difference. “I’m basically unemployable. I love being on my own. I always wanted to write and this is the fulfilment of a lifetime dream. I’ve achieved what I wanted and I can’t imagine stopping.”

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