Interview - Carol Ann Lee: WI writer who's haunted by tales of innocence and evil

CAROL Ann Lee isn't really what you expect the president of Wilberfoss Women's Institute to be like. She is in her early 40s, a single mum whose cooking skills are limited to reheating freezer dinners. And she has just published a biography of serial killer Myra Hindley, not the normal topic of conversation over the jams and cakes.

Yet since October Carol has been President of Wilberfoss WI and is loving it.

"The WI is changing, it's not just about baking and flower arranging, although we do still do that," says the 41-year-old.

"We do salsa and are on Facebook and have members from their twenties to their eighties.

"If you have asked me a few years ago if I saw myself as a member of the WI, I would have laughed, but then when two friends suggested we start a branch in Wilberfoss I said 'why not'. Then some how I have ended up as president."

But is author Carol's fascination with the macabre which seems to sit most at odds with the wholesome WI image.

When she finished her latest book, her 10-year-old son, River, asked if she was ever going to write about anything happy. And Carol admits he does have a bit of a point.

Five of her books – two for adults, three for children – have dealt with the Holocaust. They focused on Anne Frank and her family, as a way of examining the treatment of innocents in a time of evil.

She says it was while researching these books that she became fascinated by the human being's ability for evil.

"I got to thinking about the people that drove the trains full of Jews to the gas chambers and people who operated the gas chambers themselves, they must have known what they were doing was evil, and yet they could go on and be perfectly good parents. That fascinated me."

She says it was a natural progression which then took her on to possibly her darkest and most controversial book, about someone most people would choose to forget about, child abuser and killer Myra Hindley.

One Of Your Own: The Life And Death Of Myra Hindley, published this month, delves into the background of Hindley, her relationships with Ian Brady, but also into the lives of the families of her victims.

"There have been so many books written about her but they all had so many inaccuracies," says Carol.

"Dates were often wrong and no-one seemed to have spent any time talking to the victims' families. I felt they had a right to have their story told."

The book has received some criticism, mainly just for its very existence.

But Carol says those who really matter, the families, have given the book their support.

"If people who have not read the book criticise it, then I am not that concerned.

"It is never nice to get criticism but what is important is what the families think; they are the ones who matter and they are as happy as they could be in the circumstances."

Inaccuracies infuriate, Carol and she spends years painstakingly researching all her books, even her novels.

"Details are very important," she says.

"Some books say that she was controlled by Brady. I don't think she was at all. She knew what she was doing."

Carol had an interest in writing from a very early age and never really wanted to do anything else. "I was a really dedicated reader from the age of five. I loved my books."

Looking around the small but immaculate house she shares with River, it is clear to see that love hasn't waned. Bookshelves from floor to ceiling are packed with books in every spare part of the house.

"My father had always wanted to be a writer, and I think I picked up on that."

When she was six she read a children's book on Anne Frank and became fascinated by her story, but as she grew older she became frustrated by the lack of information about her life before the Holocaust and also about what happened to her father.

"When I was 12, I decided that I would write about Anne Frank one day."

True to her word, at just 16 Carol wrote a book on her heroine, and sent it off to a publisher. They wrote back and were very positive.

"They said they had considered it but felt I was a bit young and to have another go when I was a bit older."

She studied History of Art and Design at university but her heart was still in writing. As part of her degree, she got a placement at the Jewish Museum where she was asked to interview survivors of the Holocaust. Although she had reservations at first, Carol says it was fascinating.

"I loved talking to them. They were so interesting."

It just fuelled her desire to write a book about Anne Frank, but not for children, for adults.

After university, she joined many other frustrated authors and worked in a bookshop.

"It wasn't what I wanted. I loved being surrounded by books, but I wanted to be selling my own, not other people's.

"I remember saying to a colleague 'I will come back and do a book signing here one day'. They all just laughed at me. But I did."

Carol decided to take the plunge and sent off three sample chapters of her book to an agent. A week later and the agent asked her to go to London to sign a contract.

"I couldn't believe it. It was my dream come true. I feel very lucky as things like that just don't happen in publishing. I think it was timely – there was a lot about the Holocaust at the end of the '90s."

While her agent was finding a publisher, Carol decided to make contact with Anne Frank's cousin, Buddy Elias, who is chair of the Anne Frank-Fonds organisation, to get his approval for her book.

"It just happened that he was coming to England to open an Anne Frank exhibition and so we met up, and hit it off immediately. He realised that my interest in Anne Frank was genuine."

Buddy gave his approval to Carol's book and contacted Penguin to say he was giving it his backing, and they agreed to publish it.

Carol was 28 when she started to sit down seriously and write the book she had been longing to write for more than half her life. She used her original manuscript as a basis, but then spent two years travelling to Holland researching her book.

It was while she was talking to Dutch publishers after its release in the UK that Carol met her future husband, and she moved to Amsterdam.

But the marriage didn't work out and in 2005 she and her young son, River, moved back to England, to Wilberfoss.

The publication of her book on Anne Frank was only the beginning of the story, she then went on to write books about Anne's father Otto and a book for children as well as a number of novels.

Today, however, it is Myra Hindley who is filling her dreams.

One Of Your Own: The Life And Death Of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee is published by Mainstream (11.99). To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at Postage and packing is 2.75.