Monday, April 11, 2011

Guest Author Saffina Desforges

I  (Leighton)  have written before in this space about how I’m  (finally)  sold on e-readers. I went on at length about portability, accessibility and the fact that I could adjust the typeface to a size that allows me to read without my specs.
Well, folks, if that wasn’t enough for you, here’s another good reason:
Our guest today is half of a writing team, a lady who writes under the pen name of Saffina Desforges.
Saffi, as she prefers to be called, has teamed up with Mark Williams and written a book that isn’t available in print – only as a Kindle or an Epub file.
A friend of mine told me their book, Sugar and Spice, was excellent, so I downloaded it.
The friend was right. It’s a great read, better than many of the first (print) novels it was my privilege to judge when I participated in the “First Best” juries of both the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers.
And it’s yours for a pittance. You can get it, in the United States, for just 99 cents on Amazon:

Saffi lives in the UK, where the story is set, and her work is already making a big splash in that country. How big? Get this: it’s selling almost 20,000 copies a month on Amazon Kindle alone.
That’s not a typo. The authors are selling twenty-thousand copies a month of Sugar and Spice.
I have no doubt that she’ll wind up doing quite as well in the United States -- and she deserves it.
I hope you enjoy reading about her path to prominence as much as I did. And her take on the necessity of 
translating English-language novels into American English-language novels.
And now, without further ado, here's Saffi:

When you think the unthinkable, where can you turn?
This was the question raised by a news reporter some twenty years ago, when a man about to be jailed for abusing a child a second time, asked the Judge for a longer sentence because he knew he would offend again, and perhaps even kill, once released.
It was a minor news story that warranted a few column inches and was then forgotten.
But for my co-author, Mark Williams, it was the germ of an idea that, almost two decades later, has become the Kindle-UK best seller Sugar & Spice.
What that news report had done was to turn on its head the idea that a man (or woman) chooses to abuse a child out of pure, selfish lust.
Here was a man who had abused at least twice before, and who was crying out for help. A man who was actually asking to be imprisoned longer, because he knew he could not control his desires.
It seemed an interesting premise for a novel. But while digging to unearth nuggets of information about those who would abuse children another news story broke.
The arrest and trial of this man:

He's Britain’s most notorious child-killer, Robert Black.
Black toured the country in an anonymous white van abducting children at random, seemingly immune from detection by the police.

Susan Maxwell was just one of Black’s many victims. Her body was found two weeks after she had been abducted. Over four years that investigation generated seven and a half tons of paper, took in 15,000 statements, 20,000 vehicle registration numbers and had resulted in a file that contained 65,000 individual names and addresses.
Yet this huge amount of data achieved nothing. Black went on killing. The police inquiries just ground to a halt.

Black was eventually caught almost by accident. A passer-by saw a child cycle behind a white van. The child never emerged on the other side. He called the police, but the van had disappeared. By sheer luck Black returned via that same route, and the van was stopped. A child was found bound and gagged in the vehicle, but otherwise unharmed. They’d finally nailed him, but it should all have happened long before.

At age twelve, Black was one of a gang of boys who attempted to rape a girl. His punishment? Being moved from one children’s home to another.
By age fifteen, he’d molested at least twenty young girls.
At seventeen, he strangled a seven-year-old to the point of unconsciousness and masturbated over her.
His punishment? A slap on the wrist.
On his next offense, a year later, he was sentenced to a year in a borstal (a reformatory for young offenders under 23).
And so it went, culminating in murder, because he’d reached the conclusion that a dead victim couldn't identify him.

Black’s story alone would have made the basis for a compelling crime thriller, but Mark saw he had something much bigger if he linked it to the earlier story of the man who asked to be jailed longer, because he feared he would progress to murder if freed.
By then, Mark was sitting on two years of research.
Two years? Remember this was way back in pre-internet times, when it might take a month just to track down a journal or reference book, and then one had to actually read them to find the relevant information.
By the time I first met Mark, the research was pretty much wrapped up, and the skeleton of a story was already in place, on a floppy disk in a drawer gathering years of undisturbed dust. Mark was busy with other things and the story was just a memory.
Bizarrely, we had begun working on a dark, urban fantasy novel I had started writing, Equilibrium (due for release on Kindle this autumn), but once I saw the early chapters of Sugar & Spice I knew this was something potentially ground-breaking, and tried talking Mark into shelving Equilibrium to get Sugar & Spice finished.
Mark actually wanted to concentrate on Equilibrium. From previous feedback, he’d become convinced that the subject-matter was a step too far, that the world of commercial fiction wasn’t ready for the kind of story he had to tell.
But just to get some peace and quiet Mark agreed to postpone work on Equilibrium and blow the cobwebs off Sugar & Spice.
Together we overhauled the old manuscript, now in desperate need of up-dating (the internet, mobile phones, paedophile registers, changes in legislation, etc, all needed to be added). We revised, re-wrote, revised again and re-wrote again until we were happy we had something not just good, but different.
Mark had never intended this to be a run-of-the-mill serial-killer slasher novel, and I agreed we had to make this exceptional.
So we took a chance, went against all the advice about what is taboo, and what can be done with a crime thriller, and turned Mark’s original research into a key element of the story.
We took the lunatic killer abducting children and the inability of the police to catch him as our starting point, but then introduced new threads such as a convicted paedophile wrongly arrested for the murders, and how Claire, the mother of a murdered child, confronted him -- only to realise he was innocent.
Except, he wasn’t “innocent”. He was still a convicted and self-confessed child molester. Just, not the convicted and self-confessed child molester that killed Claire’s daughter.
Realising the police are on the wrong track, Claire and her partner team up with a forensic psychology student and a truant schoolboy to try track down the killer themselves.
But that’s only part of the story. Remember the man who asked to be jailed because he feared what he might do?
Greg Randall is such a man. His story, of a doting father of six year old twins who finds himself fighting a growing sexual attraction to children and seeks help, provides a second and at first independent strand to the novel. We follow Randall as he confronts his worst-case fears in therapy at a specialist clinic, in scenes described by reviewers as car-crash reading.
And of course the seemingly independent thread of Greg Randall’s fight against obscene desire inexorably comes together with the main story of the mother’s hunt for justice.
Sugar & Spice was originally a British novel, set in the UK with British laws, British institutions and “British” English language.
I say originally because the following review set us thinking.
“Well-written mystery/thriller. Only complaint is that there were a lot of Britishisms that are not understandable to non-British English speakers.”
Clearly this was proving heavy going for some readers overseas, notably in the US. And not just because they can’t understand why there’s an “a” in the word paedophile!
The British prison slang for a sex offender, “nonce”, has apparently left many struggling, and they are at a loss as to the role of a solicitor or barrister. As for CID?  The Met? Inspector? Superintendent? One reviewer thought the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) was the Child Protection Service.
And where’s the FBI in all of this?
Come to that, why didn’t the mother just shoot the guy? Don’t they have guns in the UK?
With so much American art, literature and cinema dealt out to us across the world on a daily basis we tend to have no problems understanding what an attorney is, or a sidewalk, or why someone is eating biscuits and gravy, or that chips are actually crisps. We understand that a fat ass is not an overweight donkey.
Occasionally it can still leave one struggling. John Grisham delights in leaving British readers stunned by someone tucking into a plate of hush-puppies, for God’s sake. (For any non-Brit’ readers, hush puppies in the UK are a particularly naff brand of footwear worn by certain politicians.)
It got us wondering how many British books make it on the other side of the pond. And it soon became clear, especially in the crime realm, that few do, precisely because our legal, criminal and justice systems are so different.
Not for nothing do the Americans remake all our successful TV shows and films and serials, with American settings, American actors and American English.
That’s not to say many Americans do not read and savour “foreign” literature, just that clearly (and quite understandably) some readers just want to enjoy the story, not have to guess what a Superintendent is, or a pair of knickers, or a nonce.
Steig Larsson’s Scandinavian thrillers have achieved huge success in the US, but they are the exception to the rule, and Hollywood might just have helped them along...
So Mark and I put our heads together (figuratively speaking, obviously, as he lives in South Africa, and I live in the UK) and decided to try an experiment.
We decided to produce an American version of Sugar & Spice.
Same compelling story, same characters, same controversial subject matter, but American locations, American characters, American police legal and justice system, etc. And of course American English.
It all seemed so easy!
Global edit paedophile to pedophile, solicitor to attorney, Inspector to Captain, biscuit to cookie, make London New York, and all done!
But, as we progressed, the reviewer’s struggles became more and more apparent.
Words like trousers and knickers are meaningless to the average American. British brands, shops and stores mean nothing to them. Roads here in the UK have names, not numbers.
The US still uses gallons, but not our gallons, even if we’re old enough to remember pre-decimal. Tell an American you weigh thirteen stone and they’ll look at you like you’ve just told them you weigh thirteen pebbles. (A “stone” is a unit of weight equal to fourteen pounds or about six kilos, by the way.)
Milk in tea? Fish and chips? Yorkshire pud? Eastenders? Corrie? Lord Sugar?
The US and UK are two nations, divided by a common language. (A quote variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw and Winston Churchill -- all people from my side of the pond, although it doesn’t appear in the writings of any of them.)
So this month sees the release of Sugar & Spice (US edition) in what may or may not be the start of a new trend in trans-Atlantic sales pitches.
For those buyers who like their “foreign” books, the original Sugar & Spice will still be available.
But for those Americans who feel they need a glossary to make sense of things, the US version, set in New York state with police captains, lieutenants, the FBI and American-standard spellings will shortly be available.


  1. Hi Saffina.

    Very interesting. I remember the Black case vividly. Also intriguing how the story came together. Interesting that you feature a character, seemingly a sympathetic one, who recognises his paedophiliac desire. I wonder if your book had been published by a 'mainstream' publisher, whether they might have requested you leave him out given the current climate (for US readers, following a recent case, some confused and illiterate vigilantes attacked the premises of a paedetrician...)

    I also recognise the occasional difficulties one has when using British colloquialisms for US audiences. A remark to a heavy-smoking character that he 'loves his fags' was edited to avoid this confusion.


  2. Fascinating story, thanks for sharing it. I am amazed by how some criminals are able to get away with so much.

  3. Hi Saffina,

    Quite a story you have there. I can't ever get my head around the sort of person who commits such acts against children. More years ago than I care to remember I was involved in investigating suicides in New York City jails. There, everyone arrested unable to make or be granted bail remained until tried, meaning the lions were in with the (relative) lambs. But the worst were not always as you would expect. To this day I see the slim frame and choir boy face of an inmate in his early twenties, charged with the horrific sexual abuse of two-dozen children under the age of five. Regrettably, he was not the subject of one of my investigations.


  4. I am amazed that so much work had to be done to make the book readable for an American readership. It doesn't seem possible that anyone who is a fan of the genre hasn't read many books written by British authors. The differences in the vocabulary aren't, for the most part, extreme. Most can be figured out by context just as we figure out new words in books written by American authors.

    So much of the flavor of the book is lost when it doesn't reflect the culture of the setting.


  5. I guess, for me, part of the pleasure of reading a British book is reveling in the differences in language. It's fun to learn new things, even if it is in a crime novel. I just downloaded your book, and look for justice to be served, eventually.

  6. Hi guys,

    Thank you so much for your interesting comments, always appreciated.

    To the guys who commented re: the US edition, we received lots of feedback regarding whether readers preferred the standard original British thriller or would like to read something more familiar and the response was varied. So, for the amount of work that it took (and we have altered everything, not just language) we figured that it would be nice to give people the option.

    Thanks again for looking/reading!

    @ Dan - I guess we might find out. Our book is with an agent as we speak. Will be very interesting to see (if it gets that far) whether a publisher insists on major changes or not?

    @ Jeffrey - how interesting, you must have some amazing stories! Isn't it just the quiet ones sometimes?


  7. Hi Leighton, Saffi,

    Loved your intro for Saffi.

    I just wanted to say if you haven't read Sugar and Spice you're missing a great story with real life insight into the lives of people who have suffered in one way or another by pedophilia.

    I read it twice and was wowed both times.

    (Black looks like he should have been arrested just in case based on that photo, very creepy looking.)