Her gritty stories set in the criminal underworld have made Martina Cole one of Britain’s most successful novelists. Hannah Stephenson finds out what makes the woman, whose books are the most borrowed in prison libraries, keep writing, as her latest gangland tale, The Faithless, is published.
With her gravelly Essex twang and no-nonsense attitude, Martina Cole sounds just like a character in one of her books.
Mention that her gangland novels are the most borrowed books in prison libraries and the most stolen from shops, and she merely laughs huskily.
Perhaps her readers can relate to the criminal underworld she describes in her stories, or have some experience of the rough estates on which they are set –or maybe she’s just giving them food for thought.
Either way, nothing fazes the 52-year-old author whose book jackets are as brazen as the characters within them, dominated by her name in huge capitals. We know who’s boss and she admits that some men find her quite intimidating.
“I sense that they are a bit nervous or worry that I might have a violent thug lurking in the background who’s my boyfriend,” she laughs.
Each time she writes a new novel it goes straight to number one on the best-seller list and remains among the high rollers for months.
Her books are not for the faint-hearted. Graphic violence abounds in all 18 novels, the latest of which, The Faithless, sees gangland villains chopping a victim’s arm off with a machete and then sticking the rest of him in a car-crushing machine at a dump. Think claw hammers and severed arteries and you’re on the right track.
“That comes from my research in true crime books,” she says.
“Some of the true crime you read about is so outrageous that if you wrote it, people would think it was far-fetched. But truth is much stranger than fiction a lot of the time.
“I get lots of post from prisoners telling me certain parts of my books aren’t factually correct, but you’ve got to have some artistic licence.”
She gives occasional talks to prisoners on creative writing, and explains: “I’m a great believer in rehabilitation, especially for younger prisoners. I mean, why would you want to come out worse than you went in? We need to get them on to doing something else.
“I remember doing one talk in Belmarsh with 30 ‘lifers’ and they were all really nice guys, that was the strange part about it. I’ve never felt intimidated. But I’d never let paedophiles or rapists in the class.”
Her female characters tend to be either put-upon women who are slaves to their men, or strong, often violent and vengeful women who know what they want in life.
There’s little doubt she shares some of those traits, minus the violent tendencies, which have seen her through the hard times - and there have been plenty.
She may live in a luxurious Tudor pile in a picturesque Kent village now, but it’s a world away from the environment she grew up in.
The daughter of a seaman, she was born the youngest of five to poor Irish Catholic parents in Essex. Her mother was a psychiatric nurse. There were plenty of criminals in their neighbourhood, but it was something they didn’t discuss.
At 15, Cole was expelled from school for truanting, at 16 she got married, at 17 divorced and at 18 she became pregnant with her son Chris, gave birth and then Chris’s father died, followed soon after by both her parents.
“You have to just get on with it but it’s hard,” she shrugs.
She moved into a council house and worked all hours to make a life for her and her son.
She has no time for people feeling sorry for themselves. “Life’s a series of kicks in the teeth. You have to enjoy the nice bits when you can. You have to put things into perspective.”
Although she had written stories since her teens, it wasn’t until she was 30 that she decided to have a proper stab at it, wrote Dangerous Lady and plucked a literary agent out of the Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook. The first two books sold for £150,000 - a massive sum in those days - and the rest is history.
In recent years her books have been adapted for TV, including The Take, Dangerous Lady and The Jump, while a second series of Martina Cole’s Lady Killers, about women who kill, is in pre-production.
Married and divorced twice, Cole says she doesn’t need a man and is quite happy with her own company. “I quite like my solitary life these days. I enjoy having control of the remote in my own house. I’m a workaholic and working through the night isn’t conducive to relationships in any way.
“I’ve got a lovely house in northern Cyprus and I can come and go when I like.
“To be honest, I’m past answering to anyone else.
“I think people dwell too much on things that happen, whereas I think you’re better off just getting on with it.”