MARTINA COLE writes crime novels. One a year for the past 24 years, apart from one year when her son had a motorbike accident. Each novel does better than the previous one, so that she regularly outsells John Grisham and Stephen King, and is up there with Dan Brown in number one best-seller land. She has never won a literary prize, and says that the Booker prize money wouldn’t keep her in fags.
In 2011, her sales exceeded £150m (€176.8m) , the first British female novelist writing for adults to do this; around the world, in over two dozen languages, she has achieved sales of 15 million; her hardbacks regularly sell between 200,000 and 300,000 copies alone.
Not bad for a London Irish kid from a council estate. Her real name is Eilidh — her dad was from Cork, her mum from Dublin — but nobody in Aveley, Essex, where she grew up, could say it or spell it, so she goes by her second name Martina. “Only my mum and the nuns at school ever called me Eilidh,” she says.
Martina Cole’s novels are properly violent, and it drives her mad when people react to this fictional violence differently from how they react to the fictional violence of male writers. “Nobody tells Stephen King his writing is too violent,” she says. “But they don’t expect it from a tiny blonde lady, do they?” She says that if she were a man, she would be known as the Irvine Welsh of the south east of England. She takes a size two shoe.
To interview Cole is to be swept along in her stream of consciousness — pithy, funny, irreverent, without pretension.
A natural feminist without ever having to label herself as such, her voice East London gravel, the opposite of literary posh. She says it’s her mission to enjoy every day, to appreciate the rewards of doing the work she loves, because before her first publishing deal, things were tough. She was a skint single parent.
Then everything changed overnight in 1992, when her first novel, Dangerous Lady, was snapped up for an advance of £150,000 — she submitted it on a Friday, and got the offer the following Monday. She was initially perceived as a one book wonder, but today calls herself a “23 book wonder” . She is not remotely bothered by literary snobbery – she’s too successful to care.
“It was a Jackie Collins documentary that inspired me,” she says. She wrote her first novel at 14 (“a load of old crap”), and left school at 15 without qualifications, after two incidents hastened her departure: a nun caught her reading Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, and another nun threw a text book at her, which she threw back.
Not that she disliked the nuns at her Catholic school — she used to envy them: “It must have been great being a nun, smoking fags all day and living with your mates. I loved the nuns, apart from the ones who were old bags.”
Born in the working class Essex suburbs east of London in 1959, Cole’s father was a merchant seaman from the Shandon area of Cork city, her mother a psychiatric nurse from Dublin.
“We all started primary school with Irish accents,” she says. “Everyone around us was Irish, we went to places like the Shandon Bells in Ilford. I know the words to all the Irish songs, I still can’t listen to Galway Shore without crying.”
Cole was the youngest of five, reared mostly by her mother, who also worked full time, as her father was away at sea. Her mother was a huge influence, as was her grandmother — Nanny Loughlin — who told her she would never be alone with a book; when I ask her who she likes to read, the list is lengthy and eclectic.
She has family all over Cork, from Kinsale — where her cousin Dino Cregan has one of his chippers — to Ballincollig, and visits often. You’d imagine a night out with Cole would be extremely good fun.
She loves having fun. A divorced single parent by the time she was 18, she worked multiple low-paid jobs to keep a roof over the heads of herself and her baby son Chris.
There was no money for going out, or even a telly, so at night when he was asleep, she would write to keep herself entertained. Neighbours would give her packets of cigarettes in return for reading her stories.
She still writes at night, her life long insomnia harnessing her productivity.
Both Cole’s parents died when she was 21, leaving her reeling with loss; the same year, she began working on her first novel, the one that changed her life. She didn’t submit it to an agent until she was 30, after deciding — despite doubts that ordinary people could become successful writers — to buy an electric typewriter and give it a proper go.
It worked. Dangerous Lady hit the jackpot, and since then, her novels routinely reach number one, have been turned into television dramas, and staged in London theatres. She has presented television programmes about killers, in her killer gravelly voice, and does writing workshops in high security prisons like Belmarsh (“full of lifers”) and Wandsworth.
“I deal with women in a man’s world,” she says of her books, which are filled with gangs, murders, and menace — all blood splattered, gut churning, and tooled up. Not that Cole grew up surrounded by criminals — her family were just poor, not dodgy; she drew immediate inspiration from the minor crime that went on around her in the housing estate of her childhood, and exaggerated it.
But mostly it comes from her imagination — she is a news junkie, deadpanning how the quality of murderers and serial killers in the US is far superior to anything we have over here. Yet despite being one of Britain and Ireland’s best selling novelists, she still gets worried before a launch: “I get so nervous I can’t sleep the night before,” she says. “I worry people won’t like it.”
People do like it — a lot. The literary establishment, however, remain aloof. Once, at a book party, a well known literary novelist — she won’t say who — told her that Cole’s books would never be read by the readers of the literary novelist.
“Don’t worry, love,” Cole replied. “My readers like a good story.”
These days Cole lives in a 15th century cottage in Kent with her daughter Freddie, who is 22 years younger than her son Chris, and the same age as Cole’s grandson. She adores her family. She has all the material rewards she ever wanted — a house in North Cyprus, a flash car, a fancy caravan, a seven grand Hermes handbag. Chickens she calls “my gels” who have names like Miss Snowflake (“Miss Fucksake”) and Tom Cruise, a diminutive cockeral.
She remains earthed: she is a patron of the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, the single parent’s charity Gingerbread, and an ambassador for a reading project for adults and young people. She can’t be bothered with relationships, despite being married twice (not to the fathers of her children), because they get on her nerves.
She is an autonomous being, a Catholic who goes to Mass but supports reproductive autonomy (“it’s your body, nobody else’s”), and still hangs out with her old school friends, and her Cork cousins. “I can’t imagine losing touch with the world I know,” she says. “What would there be to write about?”