With each new book, author Martina Cole, 51, smashes her own sales records as well as everyone else’s.
Last year her latest book, “Close”, was the biggest selling hardback of the year in Britain, surpassing even publishing juggernauts like J.K. Rowling. (“Close," published by Hachette, goes on sale here in paperback on June 1).
But material success hasn’t spoiled Cole a bit, because at heart she’s still an East End girl, the daughter of working class Irish parents on both sides, and all her life she’s kept faith with her ancestry and her past. When she talks you can tell that she means what she says.
“How Irish am I? My mother was from Dublin and my dad from Cork. I knew all the words to ‘Kevin Barry’ when I was three,” Cole tells IrishCentral, followed by raucous laughter.
“Right now my production company is researching the origin of the Irish rebel song. Basically we’re researching everything there is to know about them. It’ll be broadcast here in England next year.”
Growing up with the 'bad boys'
Cole, the youngest of five, was born in the East End of London and moved away to Dagenham during the slum clearances almost 50 years ago.
“Typical Irish, my mother used to say that people make slums, not houses. It’s very true when you think about it,” she says.
“We saw a new bathroom fitting for the first time in our lives, it was like a dream. Everyone we knew then was Irish and most of us talked with Irish accents.”
Growing up, Cole was attracted to the flash lads on the estate who dabbled in crime to make some otherwise elusive cash.
“My father used to hate the lads I was seeing. He called them corner boys, which was the worst thing he could have called you back them. They had nice cars, they had some money and local respect,” recalls.
Where there are a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money, it’s inevitable there will be criminal activity.
“In my books a lot of people start with petty crime and then evolve into big time crime because they haven’t the wherewithal to do anything else. It gets them noticed, too,” she says.
“If a boy’s big and strong and has a reputation I think females are going to be attracted to him because of what he offers. I was and I still am attracted to the bad boys.”
Cole also knows how bad boys are quietly supported by their own communities.
“Growing up my brothers could have attacked someone with an axe and my mum would have said, ‘Ah, he’s a good boy really.’ It’s an Irish mother thing. But in my family we all turned out to be quite respectable. We were always too scared to get in trouble.”
Crime and punishment
Thinking about the nature of crime and punishment is a feature of Cole’s daily life. After all, she’s written 15 books on the theme.
But the clear boundaries she grew up with, the familiar right and wrong guidelines of an Irish Catholic childhood in England are gone now, she says, and to prove it she’s producing a documentary on teenage female criminality, particularly in girl gangs.
“I’ll tell you how things have gotten here. In England now a teacher can’t even put sun cream on a child. If a child falls over now and you want to pick them up you have to have another adult with you,” she says.
“You have to speak out loud and say, ‘I am now picking the child up.’ It’s ridiculous. I think it happened in America years ago and we’re always 10 to 15 years behind them on everything, be it microwaves or gangs.”
Cole’s personal on take on discipline and responsibility was formed, for better or worse, by the fearsome nuns she remembers from school.
“They’d think nothing of pulling you off your chair. But you know, you had to have done something really wrong,” she says.
“I don’t believe in beating children to within an inch of their lives, but I do believe they should have some kind of fear of you, even if it’s just that you’d be disappointed in them. Young girls now commit a quarter of violent crimes in England. I call them thugettes. People say you have to put them in context, but what about the harm they’re causing to others?”
Cole’s bestselling books, which are gritty as hell, often deal with the theme of a young woman struggling for a better life.
Singe mother/punk rocker
As a single mother in her 20s, Cole, who was a punk rocker at the time, worked three jobs, and on her few off days used to take her son to the Tower of London to be photographed by Japanese tourists (they payed her for the privilege).
“I used to put my son Christopher in bondage trousers and I’d put some food colouring in his hair and away we’d go. He’s 31 now and unharmed by the experience,” she says.
Getting started as a writer, Cole wasn’t exactly encouraged by her peers or her working class surroundings.
“When I was a girl my mum used to hit me over the head and say, ‘Would you stop the reading all the f***ing time? Go out into the garden. Would you ever go and play like normal children?’
“When I started my first novel I was 21 and living in a council estate. I didn’t have any carpets or anything like that. I started writing to entertain myself.”
Cole quickly noticed that all the books at the time were about staggeringly beautiful girls who became famous models overnight, and she hated it. Everything women seemed to achieve in literature seemed to involve being rich or beautiful or running a woman’s magazine or being an actress.
“I wanted to write a book that put a girl in a man’s world. I knew a lot about the world I wrote about because it’s where I grew up,” she says.
Living in one of the most rundown estates in Britain, Cole had to fight her way to the shops each day, a world apart from the heroines of Danielle Steele novels.
“There were docks nearby, and when the boats were in you had problems. I learned to say go away in about 15 different languages, and it wasn’t actually go away, no offense,” she says.
As she worked on her first book, Cole’s upstairs neighbor made pin money screening amateur porn films in her tiny flat, charging all the locals who wanted to watch them.
“I used to babysit for her. By that point it didn’t seem surreal or shocking to me. It was just what you did to make ends meet where we lived. I was a one parent family,” she says.
Laughter during tough times
The darkness in her books, the violence and the cynicism of her characters, comes from Cole’s own experiences and is often as funny as it is shocking.
“I laugh about terrible things all the time. I mean, what else are you going to do? Are you going to sit there thinking I’ve lived through some terrible times? No way.
“My son is a strapping man now, I’ve got a lovely daughter and a grandson, my glass is always half full, you know what I mean? My dad used to say, ‘Your mother has more fight than John Wayne,’ and she did. That’s the kind of woman I admire.”