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  • Writer's pictureHinton Magazine

Interview: Neil Coley Author of The Cold Distance

"The Cold Distance" masterfully shifts between the past and the present. What inspired you to structure the story in this dual timeline?

I am fascinated by the way people can change over time and in The Cold Distance I wanted to explore the changing attitudes of various individuals in the story. The best way of doing that in my opinion was to have two alternating timelines, fifty years apart, that pointed out the ways the characters in the book, particularly Rob, the main character, differed in their views and actions over time. In some ways their attitudes changed markedly, in other ways (Rob’s general attitude to women, for example) had barely changed at all.

Robert Cross is a crime fiction writer who becomes embroiled in a real-life mystery. Why did you choose to make your protagonist a fellow author? Was there any autobiographical element in this choice?

I thought it would be fun to have a character that gets caught up in the type of events he would normally just write about. The name of his fictional detective was a punning homage to my own school days – a device that I enjoyed employing. There are a few other things that happen to Rob that I took from my own life experiences but I’m (hopefully) unlike him in most of the important ways. Rob is very self-centred, self-important, hubristic and often very cavalier and dismissive in his dealings with others, particularly in his younger days, fifty years ago.

The book touches on deep themes like the passage of time, personal regrets, and nostalgia. Can you talk about your personal experiences or observations that might have influenced these themes?

I’ve found that as I’ve got older I have tended to become a lot more nostalgic for times past. We all have regrets, big and small, about things that have happened to us I suppose and it is a universal feeling that when we look back on our life there are many things we would like to change. Exploring those sorts of ideas were some of the main reasons for writing the novel.

The chapters' titles form a 'playlist' from the late 1960s and early 1970s. How did you select these tracks, and what significance do they hold in the broader context of the story?

The music from a person’s past is always going to be so important. Growing up when I did it was 60s and 70s music that resonated most with me and formed a backdrop to various events that happened to me and the people I knew. In my view music from that period has seldom been bettered. As far as the actual selection was concerned I tried to make each chapter title at least partly relevant to the events or scenes happening in that particular chapter.

Stella's apparent suicide serves as a poignant mystery throughout the novel. Without giving away any spoilers, why did you choose this particular event as the story's focal point?

I’ve always wanted to write a cold-case murder mystery story and try to make it different in some way. Just before I started writing it I was in the process of thinking about organising a reunion of my university friends in 2020. When Covid struck and the planned meeting could not go ahead I combined the two ideas and came up with The Cold Distance.

Your descriptions of university life in the North of England during the 1970s are vivid. Did you draw from your own experiences at Lancaster University for these portions of the book?

Yes I did. Some of the events in the book really did take place in fact. In 1972, for example, Paul McCartney bought his new band ‘Wings’ to Lancaster for an unplanned concert. To see the ex-Beatle in that context was amazing to all who were there on that Monday evening. However, most of the events that took place in the novel were completely fictional even though the setting of the story is very much based on my Lancaster experience. However, in my time no one was ever pushed off Bowland Tower, Lancaster University’s high-rise block - thankfully!

How did your background in history and politics influence the societal and cultural references sprinkled throughout "The Cold Distance"?

I’ve always been fascinated by history and it is odd when the time you have lived through can now be regarded as historical! Everything I’ve ever written has included a historical point of view and I don’t think I’ll ever get away from that way of writing. How people view historical events (or ignore them) at the time is always going to be an interesting way of presenting fiction, or non-fiction for that matter.

As a former teacher, did any experiences from your time in education influence character dynamics or settings in the book?

Not directly, but when inventing characters for a novel a writer is bound to draw on his or her experience in meeting other individuals and as a teacher you will always have plenty of such encounters to draw upon.

With such a rich local history background in your writings, especially about Lichfield, did any real historical events or places inspire parts of this novel?

I haven’t as yet used Lichfield, my hometown, as a location for a novel although I did write a collection of short stories (called Lichfield Stories) set at different times in the history of the city and which I was very pleased with.

Your first novel, "An Alien Autumn," was published in 2021. How was the experience of writing your second novel different from your debut?

Writing, for me is one of my great joys and I will carry on doing it until I stop enjoying the whole process. I also like writing in different genres – An Alien Autumn was a science fiction novel set in the London of 1888 and of course The Cold Distance is a murder mystery that partly takes place 50 years ago. For me both novels were thoroughly enjoyable to write. Also the hope is that as a writer the more I write the better I become.

Neil Coley
Neil Coley

Many authors have rituals or specific environments in which they write. Do you have a particular writing routine or a favourite place where you pen your stories?

I have a very set routine for writing each day. I go to my study in the morning and try to write a thousand words before then doing something different in the afternoon (reading, research work, gardening, DIY etc.). I try to do that each weekday and keep the weekend separate for other things. Working in this way I don’t get bored with the process and I usually find that I’ve got plenty of ideas to work with.

You've written extensively about Lichfield. How does the city influence your fiction writing, and can readers spot any Lichfield-inspired elements in "The Cold Distance"?

No, not as yet (apart from the previously mentioned Lichfield Stories) although I might very well use Lichfield as a part setting for a future novel. Watch this space!

How do your hobbies, such as bird watching and walking, play a role, if any, in your creative process or in the content of your books?

The idea of communing with nature on whatever level is so important to a person’s well being and it is always going to be vital to the process of writing or any other creative activity. Writing is a very solitary practice where you lock yourself away for hours on end and it’s very easy to ignore the natural world, so even just watching the birds in your garden becomes important. It has been found time and again that taking an interest in nature and getting out in the countryside can be vital for a person’s mental health.

"The Cold Distance" delves deep into memories and how they can be skewed or forgotten over time. Have you personally ever rediscovered a long-forgotten memory that took you by surprise?

Yes, some. Certainly when planning the book there were times when the exercise of thinking about the past occasionally threw up previously half-forgotten snippets of memory, which did surprise me a little. Generally speaking though I’m blessed (or cursed!) with a very good memory and so mostly memories of the past, even those from the past of fifty years ago, came relatively easily to me.

Lastly, with such a diverse range of publications, from local history books to novels, what's next on the horizon for Neil Coley?

I’m currently working on a sequel to my science fiction/historical story An Alien Autumn. After that I’ve got ideas for two more historical novels – one set in the 1960s and another set again in Victorian times. I would also like to write one more non-fiction book about Lichfield, for which I’ve already been doing some research.

You can purchase Neil Coley's The Cold Distance at Waterstones, Foyles, WHSmith, Amazon, Cranthorpe Millner