Interview with Lesley Kelly

The pandemic is spreading.

On Friday, three civil servants leading Virus policy hold a secret meeting at the Museum of Plagues and Pandemics.

By Monday, two are dead and one is missing. It’s up to Mona and Bernard of the Health Enforcement Team to find the missing official before panic hits the streets.

Lesley Kelly
This week, I'm delighted to share my interview with the fabulous Lesley Kelly with you all. I first met Lesley back in 2016, when we were at Bloody Scotland and we've stayed in touch ever since. Lesley is the author of 'A Fine House in Trinity', which was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, and the series 'The Health of Strangers'. Her latest book, 'Death at The Plague Museum' is the third in this series. Her books are absolutely amazing, so if you've not yet read them, what have you been doing??

Your fourth book, ‘Death at the Plague Museum’ has just been released. This is the third book in the Health of Strangers series. Tell me a bit about it?
The Health of Strangers series is set in a parallel Edinburgh where there has been a Virus, not unlike Spanish flu. Most people survive the Virus, but around 5% of the population dies. My books focus on the Government response to this. In this world, the Government have established a regime where everyone needs to go for a health check every month. If you don't turn up the Health Enforcement Team (HET) come and track you down.
The HETs are made up of seconded staff from the health service and the police, and nobody really wants to work for them. The staff of the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team are all there because they've blotted their copy books in some way. However, they are markedly more competent than the other HETs across Scotland so any difficult cases involving sex, religion, or politics makes their way to them.
In the latest book, Death at the Plague Museum, three civil servants had a secret meeting at the Edinburgh Museum of Plagues and Pandemics on a Friday night. By Monday, two of them are dead and one of them is being hotly pursued by the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team…

Your characters are always very vividly drawn. I can imagine them all bickering in their office, and generally living their lives. If the Health of Strangers series was made into a TV adaptation, who would you like to see playing the main characters?
Oh good question! Mona's very pretty but also very aloof so it would have to be somebody like Karen Gillan, perhaps? Bernard’s a bit of an everyman, so there are several Scottish actors that I’d have to rule out because they are just too good-looking. And having said that, it would just be rude to suggest any other actors! I reckon Winston from Still Game would make a very good Mr Paterson. He would do his repressed rage very well.

When I interviewed you last year, you said that you hadn’t made lots of notes on your characters, but that you thought you might have to start (in order to recall details on more minor characters). Did you ever make the notes? How do you keep on top of the details?
I did have to do a lot of checking of facts while writing this one, things like what were character’s spouses called, or how old were their kids. I think I'm going to have to read all the books before writing any more of them and start making some character notes. I’m very aware that books take a lot longer to write than they do to read. I’ve had years to forget about a minor character, but if you read all three books in a row, you might notice that the character’s name has changed, or they’ve got a different colour of hair or something!

The chapters tend to be from either Mona’s perspective or Bernard’s. Was this a deliberate choice, or did it develop organically from writing the books?
Originally I wrote the Health of Strangers from five different viewpoints; I read a lot of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books when I was younger which have multiple POVs and I was trying to emulate them. It was strongly suggested to me that two POVs were plenty, and Mona and Bernard seemed to me the characters with the most interesting inner lives, so I chose to focus on them.

In both ‘Songs By Dead Girls’ and ‘Death at the Plague Museum’, Mona isn’t sure which ‘side’ some of the characters are on (and neither are the readers). How much fun has it been, tormenting your characters (and readers) with this?
I'm definitely a planner when it comes to writing my books, but I have to say even I'm not sure when I start out exactly which side some of my characters are on. One of the characters in this turned out to be a good deal more evil than I had anticipated. It's a lot of fun when you find a minor character turning out to be much more significant than you had at first thought.

We’re all desperate for there to be more from the Health Enforcement Team. When might we be able to read more about Mona and Bernard and the team?
I've got 65,000 words written of the next book, so hopefully you won't have too long to wait to find out what happens.

And more generally, about life…  

What do you do to encourage yourself when the going gets tough?
The main pressure I find with regard to writing is getting enough space to do it. When I find myself moaning about not having enough time I remember that the day will come when I've got all the time in the world, and that's actually quite a scary thought which tends to make me count my blessings.

What’s your favourite way to unwind?
Writing is what I do to unwind!

Who inspires you?
I give politicians quite a hard time in my books, but in real life I am absolutely in awe of their ability to keep going in the face of the abuse that gets thrown at them, particularly female politicians. Nobody should have to put up with the way some of our politicians have been treated recently.

Have your kids realised what a cool Mum they have yet?
No, and I don't think they ever will unless I start writing computer games. But I'll keep insulting them in my acknowledgements until they actually start reading the books.

Thank you so much for letting me grill you!

About the author:
Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. She has won several writing competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Her debut novel, A Fine House in Trinity, was long-listed for the William Mclvanney award in 2016.

Lesley's Books:
The Health of Strangers Series:
The Health of Strangers
Songs by Dead Girls
Death at the Plague Museum

A Fine House in Trinity

You can keep up to date with all of Lesley's news on Twitter or Facebook, or on her website: