Penelope Evans – lawyer turned author

Penelope Evans is a lawyer-turned-author whose work has been described by Ruth Rendell as having “brilliant authorial control over the narrative” and tension that “holds the reader in page-turning compulsion and never flags till the last word has been read”. She studied Classics at St Andrews, then Law, after which she practiced as a criminal barrister in London. Then, in 1995, she did something completely different…


mtl:  So, tell us what inspired you to write a novel in the first place?


Penelope: My first book was The Last Girl (Black Swan 1995), a psychological thriller.  I got the idea from somewhere I stayed when I came to London to do a diploma in Law (My degree was in Classics).

I found what seemed to be a magnificent set of rooms on the middle floor of a house in Holloway for no rent whatsoever (!).  The elderly owners lived downstairs, while upstairs lived their sitting tenant, Len, a rather solitary elderly man.  None of them had spoken to each other in twenty years and their sole interest in life was watching and disapproving of the tenants who came and went on the middle floor.  The middle floor tenants were invariably young women. 


The atmosphere was generally oppressive and sometimes menacing.  Len would wander through my rooms at night, leaving small gifts in surprising places.  The landlady made a point of moving my possessions from one place to another, just to make her mark.  I ended up almost as mad as they were, but I got a book out of it, thereby proving that nothing in life is wasted.


mtl:  What was the hardest part of the transition from lawyer to novelist?


Penelope: The hardest part of moving from lawyer to writer is having no money.  Simple.


mtl:  Do you ever miss your old job?


Penelope:  Just before I started to write I moved from chambers in London, where I was doing only criminal cases, to Yorkshire.  I went to work for a firm of solicitors, and very soon afterwards I realised I was missing the environment of the London Bar.  I missed the courts, other lawyers, clients - everything about it.  I left the Bar sixteen odd years ago, and I still miss it.  I can't walk through Middle Temple without a pang of nostalgia.


mtl:  So you wrote your first novel while still working as a lawyer?  How did you find the time?


Penelope:  I first played around with writing after I began to work for the firm of solicitors. 


"I can't walk through Middle Temple without a pang of nostalgia."


I guess I had to make time for it just as anyone else would find the time for the things they love doing.  Perhaps it was a form of escapism for me, another symptom of missing the villains of London.


mtl:  How did your old job influence what you wrote about?


Penelope:  The old job influenced me completely.  I remember reading proofs of evidence and thinking they were like works of fiction.  The one that will always stay with me is the proof of evidence given by (I think) William Boyce.  You may remember him as the man who strangled his wife, chopped her up in the bath and boiled the parts on his three ring electric stove.  My (then) pupil master Michael Wolkind defended him and got him off a murder charge.  Mr. Boyce's proof of evidence was a piece of pure literature. Completely spare, yet descriptive.  For the purposes of writing it showed that sometimes the devil really does have the best tunes.


It's a long time since I actually practised law.  Yet it remains the case that it has informed every word I've written since.  Law and writing have a natural affinity.  Where one activity depends so much on fact, the other gives licence simply to make it all up.  It's a perfect life balancing act.


mtl:  What advice do you have for lawyers hoping to write professionally?


Penelope:  Be really, really bad at your job, so you have no alternative except to write.  Be useless.  Get your clients sent to jail on technicalities, faint in front of judges (I did on a regular basis).  It's a sure fire way into the profession.  Otherwise, just do it when you have the time.  Use everybody you have met as a possible character, cannibalise your experiences, but be ready to deny it all.  Then find an agent.  It always comes back to finding an agent.


mtl:  What are your plans for the future?


Penelope: My plans for the future are to make enough money to keep my husband who is still a lawyer.  I promised him this fifteen years ago but have completely failed him.  Maybe all this will change with sales of the latest of my books to come into paperback.  The hero is a commercial lawyer in London chambers who might or might not be about to kill his wife (A Fatal Reunion, Allison and Busby).  Or maybe it will be with My Perfect Silence which came out last month.  Sorry, shameless plugging there.


mtl:  Penelope Evans, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck with the new book.


Penelope Evans’ latest novel, My Perfect Silence (Allison & Busby) is available in bookshops and at Amazon (click here).


If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.


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