Today is publication day for Not In My Name by Michael Coolwood, a cosy mystery about the murder of an activist in an alternate 2003 where the UK held a referendum to go to war with Iraq that was split 52% to 48%.
In order to celebrate the release of this interesting-sounding book, I am delighted to be able to share with you a Q&A with the author, and an extract from Chapter 1 of the book. If you are interested in buying a copy of the book, having had your appetite whetted by these goodies, it is available here.
Question and Answers on Not In My Name by Michael Coolwood
Here’s the most obvious question Michael. You’ve chosen to set your book in an alternate reality where the Labour government asked the people in a referendum if we should go to war against Iraq because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Like, wow! That’s a lot of explaining. What prompted that? Why not just write the story as is.
Because the story isn’t about Iraq, it’s using Iraq to talk about Brexit.
Brexit is a monolith. It is eternal. It is both means and ends. Brexit means Brexit. This means that trying to convince someone who passionately believes in Brexit, you’re not going to make much headway if you approach the topic head on.
My solution to this problem was to take something near everyone agrees was a disaster – the Iraq War – and apply the logic that has been applied to Brexit to that. If you take all the key statements by those leading the ‘leave’ side of the referendum, and transpose them onto another subject, it’s suddenly dreadfully clear just how empty and meaningless they are.
It also helps that Iraq happened under Labour’s watch, so right-wing voters are less likely to be immediately put off by the analogy. They might enjoy the chance to put the boot into the Labour Party a little more, which might lead to them opening up to the ideas explored in the book a little more.
You call yourself a male feminist writer and certainly your lead character of Phoebe is pretty amazing. Is that all that a male writer has to do to be considered a feminist writer, make his main character a young woman?
I think feminism is a journey. I started off on this journey a long time ago when I noticed that a good half of the books I was reading featured precisely one named female character, and they were usually… not treated well.
Since then I’ve read a lot and learned a lot. I’m still learning. That’s what I mean by feminism being a journey. I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning. This is why I’m dancing around the question a little. I don’t think there’s a true way to be a male feminist writer, all I can do is educate myself, try my best and then listen when I inevitably mess up.
So, to try to actually answer the question: No, if your aim is to write feminist fiction, you can’t just write a female protag and call it a day. The more subtle things to consider include, but are not limited to: Are the male characters active whilst the female characters are passive? Are the men strong and stoic whilst the women are soft and emotional? Is the attractiveness of the women commented on repeatedly whilst the men’s attractiveness is ignored? Are there a decent number of interesting female characters or is there just one, whilst the rest are all male?
Ultimately, my goal was to create a collection of interesting, rounded characters that reflect life as I see it, which is full of awesome women, and awesome men.
You deal with some serious issues in this book and I don’t want to give anything away but since it’s in the first chapter I can say that Phoebe is highly anxious. She has, what she calls, a terror python that paralyzes her. Is mental health an important issue to you?
I’ve struggled with mental health for all my adult life. I’ve had panic attacks since my early teens and have only recently been cured of my anxiety disorder thanks to a medical trial at King’s College Hospital. Depression, Anxiety and Chronic Fatigue have seeped into every area of my life. Some things they only affect subtly, but they do affect literally everything I do. That being said, I also deal with some mental health issues in this book which I don’t have direct experience of, and for those I was privileged to work with an excellent sensitivity reader, who pointed out areas where I’d gone wrong.
This is book is overtly political without endorsing any political party. It almost seems to want to be outside Westminster politics while deepening democracy to include everyone. Aren’t you out of step with your contemporaries because young people don’t usually get involved in politics.
My generation, millennials, are the first generation since records began to not be better off than their parents [citation: https://www.ft.com/content/81343d9e-187b-11e8-9e9c-25c814761640]. It’s likely to be even worse for the Zoomers coming up behind us. Wealth is pooling into fewer and fewer hands. Countless people feel left behind by politics, but I don’t think it follows that young people don’t get involved in politics. My MP is a truly wonderful human being, and she’s a millennial too. Over the last decade my friends have gone from trying to ignore politics entirely to making jokes about eating the rich.
There’s a growing sense in the UK that our current political system doesn’t work. If you look at the results of the 2019 general election, the Conservative party won 14 million votes, whilst the UK had an adult population of 50 million. So roughly 28% of the UK population actually voted for the current government, and it was considered a huge landslide.
There are many things we could do to fix this, one of which is moving to a proper voting system like Single Transferable Vote or Mixed Member Representation (explanations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8XOZJkozfI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT0I-sdoSXU&) but it’s best to stop there because I could go on about this all day.
Not In My Name doesn’t endorse a political party because democracy in the UK is completely broken and has been for a long time. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems have no plans to fix it, they just want to keep a lid on things and enact small changes. We’ve had decades of small, incremental changes, and they haven’t helped enough. We need wholesale change of our political system.
You set this book in a commune outside Birmingham. It seems like you know the place well?
I actually only lived in Birmingham for about fifteen months, but one thing I knew when I set out to write this book is I didn’t want to set it in London. I’ve lived in London for most of my life and it’s obvious to anyone with a pulse that the way the UK is run is London first whilst everyone else follows behind.
I didn’t think it would be right to write a book about trying to change politics from the outside whilst living in London. A lot of big political demonstrations happen in London – 200,000 people marched against the Iraq War and there have been multiple marches against Brexit boasting over a hundred thousand people.
The thing is, we still went to war with Iraq, despite that massive march. In my opinion, the five people who broke into RAF Fairford to damage the bombers who were due to fly to Iraq that day did more tangible good than the massive London march.
Regional politics might not have the cache of Westminster, but its far easier to creative measurable change when not trying to engage with the House of Commons.
There’s a lot of humour in this book. Like, it’s laugh aloud funny. Are you worried that you will mixing too many things together: a murder mystery and a political satire? That’s kind of a weird mix.
Life is funny and life is deeply sad. If there is a contradiction there, it’s one we all live with every day.
What’s that? You want a less philosophical answer? Oh, go on then:
Murder Mysteries as a genre are a bit weird. There are many, many different types but I, personally, can’t stand the ones where everything is grim and ugly, where every character is a monster and if anything good happens to the protagonist, you know it’s only so that it can be used to twist the knife later.
I like cosy mysteries, where the characters are nuanced and evil is rare. It’s a fundamentally optimistic genre. It’s also frequently a funny genre. There is tension between optimism, humour and politics, because we live in a hellscape of a political system that serves to enrich the friends of those in power whilst it starves everyone on the periphery – but, you can’t avoid politics. To misquote Skunk Anansie: ‘Yes it’s forking political, everything’s political’.
You can’t escape politics. Politics affects everything we do – the lack of a Universal Basic Income means you can’t quit the job you hate and pursue your passion. Cuts to the NHS meant people you know have had vital treatment delayed, or rendered inaccessible completely. This is compounded beyond measure if you’re disabled, not Caucasian, not heterosexual or not obviously male.
There is a strong movement that demands we keep politics out of media. People were furious when Rufus Hound, on Dancing on Ice, dared to remind people that our government are choosing to let poor children starve. These people don’t want to be reminded that people are suffering, but their ignorance doesn’t lessen the suffering. Increasingly, people are saying: Enough. We will not repeat the crises of previous decades. You may want to pretend everything is fine, but things haven’t been fine for a long time.
So, to answer your question, every book is political. Every book makes choices about the world it presents. Those choices are political. My book is just a little more obviously political than most.
What’s your favourite murder mystery writer? Who inspired this and why?
My favourite murder mystery writer is Agatha Christie, because she’s still the queen of the Cosy Mystery. That being said, my favourite murder mystery book is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – it’s a wonderful mystery that twists the mind and asks all sorts of interesting questions about prisoner rehabilitation.
The inspirations for Not in My Name are a weird mish-mash of cosy mysteries from Christie, the political stand up of Mark Thomas, Rob Newman and Jeremy Hardy, the music of Rage Against the Machine, Brass Against, Phat Bollard and Ed Jollyboat, and the political videos of Iain Danskin, Philosiphy Tube, SeanSkull and Three Arrows.
Now for our extract from Chapter One of Not In My Name:
Terror coiled around me as I lay next to my friends on the steps of Birmingham’s Victoria Square. It was crushing my chest, making my breathing swift and shallow. The angry white men on the other side of the line of police had been yelling at us for well over an hour, and had just started spitting.
The youngest member of our little group, Cassie, lay next to me. She was eighteen, and habitually wore swirls of black makeup under her eyes. I could only see half of her – she was splayed out, her limbs appearing broken and twisted. An A4 sheet of paper was taped to her chest. On the paper was a printed picture of a casualty of war. A similar picture was attached to my chest.
On my other side was Sefu, a tall man with a kind face and short, clipped hair. If my memory served, his Marilyn Manson t-shirt was currently being masked by a picture of an Iraqi hospital that one of our bombs had flattened.
Just beyond Sefu were Liam and Gus, who were the closest to the police line separating us from the angry white men. My friends’ proximity to a mob of people who hated us was only amplifying my terror.
In a die-in, protestors lie down in a public place and pretend to be dead. The idea is the general public don’t really understand how devastating wars are so we show them. Extra points are awarded if a die-in takes place in a major intersection so we cause traffic to grind to a halt. But we weren’t doing that today. We’d chosen Victoria Square because Birmingham’s town hall and council house looked out over it.
“Traitors!” cried the angry white men. “Saboteurs!”
The cops were playing games with us, hoping we’d give up and go home. Every once in a while, they would come up to one of us and carry us away from the square. They’d say they were arresting us, move us past the line of police separating us from the general public and then release us back into the wild. They called this ‘de-arresting’, which I hadn’t known was a thing the police could do. They kept dragging us away from our protest and we kept finding ways to break back through the cop line, back to the steps of Victoria Square.
“Saboteurs!” the angry men yelled again, before someone in their midst with a megaphone managed to organise them into a more complex chant.
“You lost! Get over it!” they screamed. “You lost! Get over it!”
This seemed to energise the zealots at the front of the line who increased their efforts to get at us. The cops were pushed back a few metres, nearly treading on Gus in the process. This seemed to give a couple of men an idea, and they concentrated on spitting on my friends. The spittle rained down on Gus, and some splashed onto Liam. Gus opened his eyes and locked his gaze on to Liam.
I didn’t see exactly what happened. All I saw was a furious man in a St George’s flag shirt spit at Liam. With a roar, Gus leaped to his feet and swung a punch at the flag-wearer. The flag-wearer went down, but two identical men took his place. Gus dropped another, but his mate struck back. Gus took the blow and didn’t seem to notice. The angry men surged forward, furious at Gus’s audacity. The cops suddenly didn’t know what to do. They were supposed to arrest Gus, but if they broke their line, the mob would attack the rest of us.
Liam scrambled to his feet and tried to pull Gus back, but his scrawny tattooed arms couldn’t do the job. Gus swung and swung at the line of identical furious men. He swung until Vince appeared from nowhere. Vince was smaller than Gus, but he placed himself in between Gus and the mob. I couldn’t hear anything over the shouts but I saw Vince’s mouth move in quick, precise movements.
I knew I should be up on my feet supporting Vince, talking Gus down, but the terror had wrapped itself around my legs and arms. I couldn’t move. I heard charging feet from the direction I wasn’t looking, and suddenly cops had launched themselves on Gus, Vince and Liam. Gus was seething, Liam was shouting “No blood for oil!” and Vince was holding his head high. He had just stopped a terrible situation from getting even worse.
“Do we make a last stand?” Sefu asked. “Or do we stay put?” “What kind of question is that?” demanded Xia from just past where Cassie was lying. Xia was a tall woman with greying hair who had been arranging actions like this since the ‘70s. “The longer we stay here, the more people have to look at us and the more they have to think about what our country is doing. If we get ourselves arrested trying to free our friends, the authorities win and we lose.”
I’d been waiting for Xia to say that, all the while hoping she wouldn’t. My hands clenched and unclenched as I saw the cops dragging my three friends off with them. I wish actions like this were as effortless for me as they were for Xia.
“Phoebe!” My sister Mel called down to me. She was just up the steps from where I was lying, her voice calm and warm. The muscles in my jaw loosened. “Think about what they’d want. They’d want us to carry on.”
Mel was right, as always. Our parents had always insisted I defer to Melissa, but it was when she’d discovered her softer side and started calling herself ‘Mel’ that I found someone actually worth listening to.
I relaxed my hands. The stone beneath my back felt less cold. “Cassie,” I said, trying not to move my lips. “How are you doing?”
“I’m alright,” Cassie said, “but the last cop who arrested me told me that he was going to nick me properly if I tried this again.”
They’d told me the same thing. “You okay with that?”
Cassie rolled her eyes to look at me, although her face still stared serenely towards the sky. “Duh. Can anyone see Paula?”
“I made her promise she’d go home after the third time she got hauled out,” Sefu said, “so she climbed onto the statue of the Floozie in the Jacuzzi and started hanging a banner. You didn’t see that?”
A battle-hardened grin flashed onto Cassie’s face. “I think I was trying to break back through the cop line then.”
“You didn’t see it, Phoebe?” Sefu asked me.
I grunted a sort of ‘no’ noise. I was trying not to think about the cops or the mob of men who’d beat us to within an inch of our lives if they could get at us. As part of not thinking, I had been steadily working through an Evian bottle I’d filled with vodka and lemonade. I’d initially been using it to settle my nerves, and since it seemed to be working, I’d carried on.
“So there’s five of us left?” Sefu asked.
Xia grunted. “Five of us, along with three from Justice for Iraq, two from Stop the War, seventeen from Campaign Against the Arms Trade – well done them – and one unaligned.”
Cassie laughed. “That’s the nice lady from Games Workshop who I talked into coming yesterday when I went to pick up my orks.”
I saw Sefu blink. “You did what?”
“I know, I was surprised as well. But I put the action in her terms, right? I said, imagine the Space Marines wanted to go to war, but instead of going up against Chaos or someone, they decided to just bomb a load of Gretchin villages and destroy their squig farms.”
“And that persuaded her?” Sefu sounded confused.
“Hey, that’s the power of orks.”
About the Author
Michael Coolwood writes feminist cosy mysteries. His work is deeply political and his characters are driven by a desire to make the world a better place. This is partly due to a respect for passionate, caring people, and partly because cuts to the health service in the UK have ensured he can barely leave the house due to his swamp of health problems. His cosy mystery series is called Democracy and Dissent and grapples with issues of the day.
Connect with Michael:
Facebook: Michael Coolwood