Video: Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

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Leeds author Steve Mosby takes the helm at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival which gets underway in Harrogate today. He talks to Chris Bond.

WHEN Steve Mosby first turned up at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival back in 2006 he was at something of a low ebb.

Crime writer Steve Mosby. Picture by James Hardisty

Crime writer Steve Mosby. Picture by James Hardisty

“My first two novels had come out and tanked, as people’s first couple of books sometimes do, and I was having real problems writing the third one which I was struggling to finish,” he says. “So I went along to the festival, I didn’t know anyone there and as I walked up the driveway I was thinking ‘am I going to fit in?’”

As it turned out the experience galvanised him. “It was absolutely fantastic, everyone was so welcoming and enthusiastic about crime writing and I came away with a new self-belief. It just so happened that a couple of months later I was made redundant from my day job and with the enthusiasm hangover from Harrogate still there I thought I would take a month off to experience life as a full time writer for perhaps the only time in my life.”

Within a few weeks his third book, The 50/50 Killer, was picked up by publishers in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands for a considerable sum and he’s been writing full time ever since. “Even though they’re not directly connected, in my head I associate Harrogate and the festival with the start of my full time career.”

Eight years on and Mosby, whose latest novel The Nightmare Place came out last month, is the programme chairman for this year’s festival staged, as usual, at the Old Swan Hotel. “From relatively humble beginnings 11 years ago it’s now the biggest and best crime fiction festival in the world, so to be asked to be the chairman is just amazing,” he says.

JK Rowling will be in Harrogate to talk about her debut crime novel.

JK Rowling will be in Harrogate to talk about her debut crime novel.

The organisers of the festival, which kicks-off later today and runs until Sunday, bring in a different writer each year to help run the event. “They try and bring a fresh new perspective each year so that they’re always very distinct festivals, which is what helps to make Harrogate so special.”

He’s kept the spirit of the festival going while at the same time putting his own stamp on it. “I’ve tried to give it a slightly darker feel because it reflects my style of fiction which revolves around more dark, psychological crime. So it’s been my intention to hopefully honour the reputation and history of the festival and come up with an interesting programme that would appeal to the existing audience as well as new ones.”

The festival has attracted such doyens of crime writing as Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Jeffery Deaver and Jo Nesbo, and this year’s line-up is no less impressive featuring the likes of Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah and SJ Watson. But the hottest ticket in town is without question Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling.

The Harry Potter creator is arguably the most famous living author and tickets for her ‘in conversation’ event with Val McDermid sold out less than two hours after going on sale.

“JK Rowling is really committed to crime fiction, you can tell that by the way she published her first Cormoran Strike novel. She clearly wanted it to be judged purely as a crime novel and I think if she was going to come anywhere to promote theses novels then it’s fairly natural she would come to Harrogate. We’re very lucky that she agreed to do it and I think having her talking to Val is going to be an amazing event.”

More than 13,000 tickets were sold for last year’s festival and with an extra 1,000 tickets sold on top of this for a live streaming room at the Royal Hall, this year’s is likely to be the biggest yet. The festival is now regarded as the biggest of its kind in Europe, if not the world. But what’s the secret behind its success?

“The fact it’s been able to attract really big name authors is one reason. Also you have one event after another so if people want to they can watch everything,” says Mosby. “But the main thing for me is the atmosphere. It’s gained a well-deserved reputation for being really welcoming and friendly.

“It’s not like some events you might go to where the authors are sequestered away in green rooms, everyone’s at the bar or on the lawn outside. So you can walk around and you’ll see Lee Child just standing there having a pint and chatting away.”

The writers themselves enjoy the ambience of the festival. “Harrogate is absolutely lovely, you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful setting and authors want to come here, not just to do a panel, but to be part of the whole atmosphere.”

Mosby was born down the road in Leeds and has lived there his whole life. After studying philosophy at Leeds University he worked in a series of admin jobs, using his spare time to concentrate on writing. Although to begin with his efforts weren’t successful. He finished his first book, which he describes as an “abysmal fantasy horror novel”, when he was 17. This was duly rejected by publishers as was his next five efforts. Most people would have thrown in the towel at this point but his persistence and determination paid off.

Having secured a publishing deal with Orion, his first book The Third Person came out in 2004. While it had elements of science fiction, it was marketed as a crime novel and he’s been ploughing the same furrow ever since. “It’s funny really. I wanted to be a horror writer when I grew up, I never set out to be a crime writer, but that’s how the first book was marketed and it just sort of stuck.” And he’s happy it did. “Over the years I’ve found any theme I want to address I can do with the crime genre so I’m happy being a crime writer.”

Today, his books are translated into 10 different languages and are proving more popular abroad than in the UK. This isn’t as unusual as it might sound when you consider the success over here of Scandinavian crime writers like Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo and TV dramas like The Killing and The Bridge.

“Different authors sell in different countries and it’s hard to predict how it will go, but I’m happy to be successful anywhere. I’d love to be more successful in the UK but I really can’t complain, I’ve been a full time writer for the last eight years now.”

For the next few days, though, he’ll be concentrating on making the festival run as smoothly as possible. “Normally I relax here and I’m up chatting to writers and friends until five in the morning, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that this time. After the final event I’ll probably just pour myself a little drink and head home.”

But on Monday, rather than heading for a well-earned break, he’ll be back at his desk working on his next book - a sequel to The 50/50 Killer - due out in October. “I’ve made a start on it but there isn’t time for a holiday ... Harrogate was my holiday,” he says.

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival takes place at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, until Sunday. For tickets call 01423 562 303, or visit