• Alison O'Leary

The Road to Publication

Street Cat Blues is my debut novel and it was a long time coming. I guess it could be categorised as cosy crime but with a definite noir bite.

I am the child of what I sometimes think of as a mixed marriage. By this I don’t mean mixed in terms of ethnic or religious origin but mixed in terms of class. My father was originally from a fairly middle-class background, a grammar school boy whose parents owned their own house. My mother had ten siblings and came from the kind of family that always seemed to drop between the cracks and probably didn’t even register on the social scale. She loved reading but was the sort of child that librarians made wash their hands before she was allowed to touch a book.

After a few false starts I studied Law part-time and then went on to teach in colleges of further education. This was probably a natural habitat for me as many of my students were adults who, for one reason or another, didn’t succeed at school and were hungry for a second chance.

I loved teaching but I had known from a very early age that I wanted to write and my genre was always going to be crime. I had stumbled across Agatha Christie at the age of twelve and fallen in love. So on all those days that I was bunking off school, I devoured her books. Fortunately nobody told me that such novels, what with all their country houses and servants called Gladys who sniffed all the time, were not accessible to kids like me. Really, what I should have been doing was reading books laced with gritty social realism that I could identify with. What a barrel of laughs that would have been.

I told very few people that I was writing, on the basis that if they didn’t know what I was doing then they wouldn’t know that I had failed. And I did fail. Quite hard and for quite a long time. I had a few near misses when agents or publishers would show an interest but then, instead of pushing hard until the door opened, I crumpled back down again. In spite of by now wearing an (admittedly thin) veneer of middle-class confidence, the council estate kid was never very far away. I guess that I was more or less at the point of giving up when I decided to have a final shot last Christmas and submitted Street Cat Blues to a small independent publisher. An email came back the next day and, frankly, I dreaded opening it. I’d hoped that I could have at least a few days dreaming. Well, I did say it was Christmas. They offered me a contract.

Although I wrote other things, Street Cat Blues was the book I kept returning to. The main protagonists are a cat, Aubrey, and a mixed-race teenage boy, Carlos, who is living illegally in Britain with his mother. The worlds of the two cross when Aubrey is adopted by Jeremy who also teaches at the school Carlos attends, Sir Frank Wainwright’s. Although there is a cast of cats, it’s not some dopey talking cat book. The novel is set firmly in the human world where the virtue signallers are not necessarily virtuous and even the most monstrous characters are not without some redeeming feature. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I guess I was creating a many-layered world which is both strange and familiar and one which I had probably unwittingly inhabited most of my life.

I think that if I was asked to give aspiring writers any advice it would be this - the secret is that there is no secret. Just keep going.

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