Joan Brady: 'No one pushes me around'

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The crime writer Ian Rankin has a theory about writers: at a convention of romantic novelists, the violent tensions simmering beneath the surface are palpable, but when crime writers meet, the atmosphere is one of bonhomie and brotherhood. "It's because crime writers get rid of all their anger in their books," he claims. Perhaps he hasn't met Joan Brady.

As elegant as her background as a ballerina suggests, the first woman to win the Whitbread Book of the Year (in 1993) is dressed in signature black (an act of rebellion that stuck) and younger in appearance than her birth certificate suggests (she turned 70 last year). About her is an air of amused refinement, and when she speaks, it is with the kind of American accent found in Katherine Hepburn films. (Born in San Francisco, she moved to the UK 35 years ago.) Yet appearances can be deceptive. However cool she may seem on the surface, inside she seethes. Fury oozes from her pen, and has already spawned one bestseller, Bleedout, a thriller in the tradition of John Grisham and Scott Turow. Now it has bred another, Venom, a corporate whodunnit involving big pharma, sinister government agencies, corporate criminals and an awful lot of blood.

"If you get really, really angry, what you wish more than anything else is that you were a big strong man who could go around killing people," says Brady. In the case of Venom, the big strong man is David Marion, an ex-con with more chips than a stonemason. He kills before asking, and for someone as angry as Brady, acts as literary primal therapy.

The cause of her anger was an eight-year battle with South Hams Borough Council and Conker, a hippy shoe manufacturer neighbouring her old house. Acrid fumes from Conker's factory seeped into her Totnes home, leaving her with a legal battle that almost led to prison (due to destruction of property) and, she claimed, long-term health problems. Damages of £115,000 were no antidote to the poisoning. She decided to leave her home of 35 years and move to Oxford. Her new house is a stark contrast to her old home. It is a bright, airy Victorian terrace over three floors, a short walk from the canal, and it is here that she wrote the two thrillers.

Despite the "pleasing" body count, neither book appears to have resulted in the catharsis that Brady craved. Though she says she is tired of talking about the case, it bleeds into our interview with the raw intensity of a fresh wound. "This is proper, old-fashioned wish fulfilment," she says of the many and violent deaths in Venom. Later, she almost spits as she alleges: "I was set up. You don't think it is possible in small places, but they wanted me to shut up."

If Brady sounds paranoid, it is perhaps understandable. After complaining about noise and fumes from the shoe factory, Brady found herself on the wrong end of a writ. In a bid to cut out vibrations from Conker's machinery, she had ripped out a back staircase and, the council claimed, damaged a listed building. Fifteen court appearances ensued before she was cleared.

The experience tainted her views of the justice system. The presumption of innocence is missing, she says. "When I went to court the first time I was all dressed up, nice and ladylike. There were these guys standing around, who get drunk and drive, fight or set fires. They were all furious and full of hate. My first reaction was that they were clearly all guilty." She pulls a parody of a righteous face. "It took only three court appearances and I was right there along with them." She adds, her body growing taut with fury: "The whole system humiliates the accused. The justice system has become ritual humiliation."

Given this sense of injustice, I am surprised when she laughs at my observation that the two thrillers are heavily politicised. In them, corporations and government are vilified – Brady is especially incensed by the fact that some corporations are so big they are able to strangle the economies of countries unwilling to cooperate.

"Here is a terrible confession." She leans forward conspiratorially. "I have the vote in two countries and I have never voted in one." There is a note of pride in her voice, though not in her look, and I realise that what fires Brady's anger and determination, what inspires her to fight with local councils or write vengeance fantasies aimed at exposing corruption, is not politics. It is recalcitrance. She is an implacable member of the Awkward Squad. It appears to be genetic.

At the height of the McCarthy era, her father, the anti-fascist economist Robert A Brady, was blacklisted from Berkeley University in California for refusing to sign an anti-communist oath. He was one of 30 who refused, blighting a brilliant career in the process. Brady witnessed her parents go through a "terrible time". Recalling her father's reaction, she says: "It wasn't just that they said you were not to be a member of the Communist Party, but that you were not to think like that. It was about thought crime. His argument was, 'They can't control my thoughts and they have no right to.'"

That her father baulked at such an abuse of power comes as no surprise. Following the American Civil War, his father, Alexander, had been sold into slavery. Though he escaped, he remained bitter. The venom of that bitterness poisoned the generation that followed – of his seven children, four committed suicide, including, in 1951, Robert (though he botched the attempt and it took him 12 years to die). Alexander formed the inspiration for Jonathan Carrick, the white slave protagonist of Brady's Whitbread- winning breakthrough novel, A Theory of War.

"I dislike authority. I hate being pushed around," Brady says as simple proof that she is her father's daughter. That stubborn streak has manifested itself throughout her life. Though the daughter of distinguished academics, she failed at school and chose ballet instead. Typically, she excelled, joining first the San Francisco Ballet and later the New York Ballet. At 20, she defied her mother to marry the writer Dexter Masters, 30 years her senior and her mother's lover. The rift the marriage caused was not easily healed.

"To some degree I think it is just an obsessive nature," she confesses. "I decide what I am going to do and keep at it. Many people thought I was quite silly to keep fighting [South Hams Council]. Perhaps I was, but once I am committed to a course I find it quite difficult to change."

This tenacity only manifests itself when faced with a fight. In her career, Brady has performed pirouettes, shifting from ballet to housewife, to editor's secretary and student to writer. Considering her own background and that of her husband – the Masters' dynasty includes poets and writers, and Brady's son Alexander wrote the award-laden Stuart: A Life Backwards – it is surprising she didn't start writing until she was 35.

A closet academic (she has a degree in philosophy and books on nuclear physics and mathematics are prominent on her bookshelves), it was a course in probability that gave Brady an idea for a short story. She suggested the idea to Masters, who challenged her to write it herself. She did, and the story was published. Two novels followed and an autobiography, Prologue, about her time as a dancer. When A Theory of War, her third novel, won the Whitbread prize, her reputation as a literary star seemed sealed.

Then the chemicals began to seep into her house, and her work on a fifth novel ground to a halt. In the vanguard of a move by literary writers into crime fiction, Brady's move "downmarket" was not applauded in all quarters. No critics doubted her ability to write a page-turner, but one particularly snippy piece in The Times claimed that Bleedout was the product of her toxic neuropathy, which had "destroyed" her ability to write.

Sales of 50,000 have tempered the criticism and she laughs about it now. She abandoned literary fiction for thrillers "because I was too preoccupied with wanting to kill people", she says. Writing thrillers has taught her a new skill and self-discipline, she adds. Every word must count. "You can't allow yourself all this self-indulgence. You can't sit and contemplate a crumpet or you will have lost your audience."

She is laughing as she says this, but looks tired; a symptom of her illness is that she tires easily. But weirdly, this wonderful, indomitable 70-year-old is not bitter. Angry, yes, but not bitter. "It is amazing how much anger – impotent anger – and aggression you can feel in the position I was in," she recalls. "You feel there is nothing you can do. But I could write a thriller." It is a comment of which Ian Rankin would approve.

The extract: Venom, By Joan Brady (Simon & Schuster £12.99)

'... Helen had her father's green eyes and her mother's dark hair. But both parents were dead. Both deaths had been sudden, brutal, unnecessary ... Helen woke every morning in despair and wandered through the day aimless, adrift, depressed. She envied the bees. They didn't have to live like that. Their lives had purpose and meaning, a suicide bomber's sense of community'