Harriet Tyce, bestselling author of Blood Orange, writes about her journey to publication, her former career as a barrister, and her latest novel, The Lies You Told.
One night in the spring of 1989, Kiranjit Ahluwalia poured a mix of petrol and caustic soda over her husband as he slept in bed, and set fire to it. He died ten days later from his injuries.
She said that he had assaulted her earlier that day, and that there was a history of domestic violence within the marriage, but this was not properly aired at trial, and she was badly represented. She was convicted of murder in December of that year.
In 1992, her case was taken to appeal, through the efforts of the Southall Black Sisters. The conviction was overturned on grounds of insufficient counsel as Ahluwalia had not been made aware that she could plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
The Crown Prosecution Service did not attempt another prosecution. This case had a great impact on the law in terms of how victims of domestic violence might be prosecuted as it changed the definition of the word ‘provocation’ as a defence to murder in cases of battered women, although it took until 2009 for statute to catch up with a new defence of loss of self control.
I do not have a great recall of many cases that I studied during the law conversion course I took between 1995 – 1996, but this case has always stuck in my mind. I remember discussing it in a successful interview for pupillage, back in 1995, although that was for a place in a commercial chambers, not a chambers which specialised in criminal. I should have realised then where my interest lay, in the stories behind criminal trials and the raw emotions that lay at the heart of these cases. I did my best to work on personal injury and construction law, but the only time I came alive in it was when there was video footage from a private investigator, say, with footage of a fraudulent application for insurance, saying he had a back injury while merrily continuing his employment as a removal man, handling heavy boxes with gay abandon, oblivious to the secret camera catching his every move.
My career at the Bar was less than ten years long, and not that well considered, coming off the back in a degree in English as it did. I left when I had children, and spent some years in a career wilderness, pacing up and down with babies and battling a sense that I’d wasted everything I’d ever learned. But I kept reading, all the way through, at least ten thousand hours of reading everything I could get my hands on, detective novels and psychological thrillers a particular favourite. And finally, I started to write. I had come home.
My first efforts were poor, and I had a strange insistence on writing speculative feminist dystopias which were immensely depressing.
It didn’t occur to me that anyone would be interested in the Bar, or any of those experiences I had had, trekking back and forth between the magistrates’ courts of the south east of England. It wasn’t until I read Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty that it started to occur to me that there might be something in my former career that might feed into what I wanted my new career to be.
After a lot of rejections of earlier work, I signed up to the MA in Creative Writing – Crime Fiction at UEA and started to write Blood Orange, my first book. I used a combination of my own experiences as a barrister (a lot of research went into those hangovers) and cases that I remembered. The case of Ahluwalia, in particular, and the defences available to women (in particular) accused of murder in situations where they had killed their abusive partners – this would go on to become a major strand of the plot of Blood Orange.
My former career has practical uses, too. There are a lot of similarities to preparing a brief for criminal trial to writing a novel, gathering together all the disparate threads of points of view and differing evidence, to spin together a convincing narrative. At the Bar I had to read through an immense amount of material very quickly to prepare for cases that came in at the last minute – this has stood me in good stead for reading the proofs I’m sent now, and to keep to deadlines.
It’s even given me a second novel, . Unlike Blood Orange, this is not inspired by any cases I studied, but instead by the thought of what it would be like to try and return to chambers after having had children, as my protagonist Sadie has to do. She is juggling childcare and building up a new practice, and she’s lucky enough to be given a junior defence brief on a trial that’s taking place in the Crown Court at Inner London, just up from Elephant and Castle tube.
The realm of the book is mine and I can make life as easy or as difficult as I want for my characters – I decided on this occasion to give Sadie a manageable commute, with a case with some predictability. She has enough to deal with anyway. But this is not like real life. The catalyst for my leaving the Bar was a day spent at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court, representing someone for buying a stolen car in a pub for not much cash. He pleaded guilty and the bench decided to get a stand down report prepared before sentencing, which meant in practice that we had to wait all day while he spoke to a probation officer who then prepared a pre-sentence report. I was due to collect my son from the childminder at 5pm – 5pm came and went, and when I was finally able to return to my car in the concrete multi-storey carpark near the court, I had to remove a parking ticket from the windscreen before driving away. It was during the course of that drive home I realised that I had to leave the Bar.
For the duration of The Lies You Told, though, this hell is not Sadie’s. But she still has to negotiate the pressure of not knowing whether she will finish in time to collect her daughter from her new school at the end of each day. She’s forced to rely on the charity of strangers, the other mothers at the school gate which she has found, initially at least, to be such a toxic environment. And while her mind is focused on her trial, defending a teacher accused of an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of his students, Sadie perhaps does not concentrate closely enough on the dangers that might be swirling round her daughter, closer to home…