Today I’m delighted to revisit my Five on Friday interview with Fiona Erskine which was first posted in March 2019. It’s been brought up to date to include Fiona’s latest publications.
Fiona’s series of high octane thrillers feature the brilliant Jaq Silver, a whizz with explosives, using her brain where others use brawn, blowing things up to keep people safe. Her debut novel The Chemical Detective (2019), was shortlisted for the Specsavers Debut Crime Novel Award. Her second thriller, The Chemical Reaction (2020), was shortlisted for the Staunch Prize and her latest in the series, The Chemical Cocktail (2022) was deemed an FT Best Summer Book of 2022. Her standalone novel Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects unravels the mystery using a mix of real life anecdote, scientific explanation, and a touch of fiction, woven together to create a vivid account of the life and decline of a factory over five decades.
Fiona Erskine is a professional engineer based in Teesside. She grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, before heading south for university. She is married to Jonathan, a university academic, they have two sons, a magic cat and a lot of fun.
Over to Fiona:
Which five pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
I love music, and as I get older I love listening to music, especially live classical music. I used to have music playing in the background all the time, but now I find it distracting because I stop to listen.
JS Bach St Matthew’s Passion. My primary school sang a small part in St Matthew’s Passion at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. We were meant to go home after the first act, but I hid under the stage so I could listen to the rest. The aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy, my God) might be the pinnacle of all music for me, the alto voice and violin weaving melodies around one another with haunting, transcendent, pathos. Listening to it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Nina Simone – Sings the Blues. I love strong female vocalists, they defined my teenage years: Joni Mitchel, Joan Armatrading, Janis Ian, Helen Reddy, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald – But if I have to choose just one it would be singer, songwriter and amazing jazz pianist, Nina Simone.
Elbow – The Seldon Seen Kid. My two sons have introduced me to podcasts and lots of amazing music. I love Guy Garvey’s gruff voice, the inventive melodies and many-layered lyrics, especially the ultimate love song “An Audience with the Pope”. It makes me think heading off on family holidays in the car, with everyone singing along.
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust. I had regular dreams about this international superstar all through my working life. He was surprisingly interested in chemical engineering and always gave excellent career advice in our regular, if slightly peculiar, sleep encounters.
Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and String. When I listen to the recording by Peter Piers and Denis Brain in China, I come to terms with jet lag induced insomnia. Who needs to sleep when you can listen to something so pure, so sublime, so perfectly still.
What five things (apart from family and friends) would you find it hard to live without.
Spike the cat. He’s my feline muse. He sits on my lap when I’m writing in the early morning and purrs encouragement. He has a very loud purr.
My polar bear onesie. I get up very early to get 2 or 3 hours writing time before I cycle to the day job. My cream fleece onesie may not be flattering, but it means that Spike and I are deliciously cosy on dark winter mornings.
My bicycle. I love that I can cycle to work across a park. Even in the middle of Teesside, I see deer and herons.
Books. Although I have a kindle, and it is great for travelling (though not great when it falls in the bath), I love physical books. My recent favourite was Ironopolis by Glen James Brown, but I have a huge pile of books still to read.
Bath. Most of my reading happens in the bath. I can stay in for hours. I have some soggy books.
Give five pieces of advice to your younger self?
Put in the hard work early on to play a musical instrument well. I was a fast learner, a great beginner, but I never stuck with any single instrument long enough to excel.
Knitting during university maths lectures is a very bad idea.
When you travel long distances in a foreign country, don’t leave your rucksack and tent at the back of the train and walk to the front, just in case the train splits in two and you arrive at your destination without shelter. If you arrive in a foreign place without shelter, don’t go to the police station. Always carry a padlock to lock others out.
Don’t take up ski-ing aged 50 if you are overweight and unfit.
Take risks. You don’t know what you are capable of until you try.
Tell us five things that most people don’t know about you
I learned to sail racing yachts on the Firth of Forth, dodging oil tankers. The waters of Southern England required different skills. I became the worst sailor in the history of the Cambridge University sailing team when I capsized a dingy on a flat calm lake during a critical competition. They still gave me a half-blue.
My cousin, Cathy, is a belly dancer, and when I was a teenager she used to take me to her shows in London restaurants and I’d be given wonderful things to eat.
My friend Marjory and I lodged in a very friendly guest house for quite a while before figuring out that it was a working brothel.
I love motorbikes, but I stopped driving them after my children were born.
I am no good at skiing.
Tell us five things you’d still like to do or achieve.
California – my eldest son moved to Los Angeles last year and is a fantastic guide and host. Last year we got talking to a male stripper beside a swimming pool, and he snuck into my latest story when I wasn’t paying attention.
A big swim. We love going on outdoor swimming holidays with Swim Trek. My husband is a brilliant swimmer, a former lifeguard who likes to race the others, whereas I like to swim to admire the scenery. We meet a great bunch of people and the hard work during the day makes the relaxing at night all the more rewarding.
Eurorail trip – a train journey through Europe, criss-crossing from Finland to Turkey, Portugal to Poland, visiting some good friends and finding new outdoor swimming spots.
A trip to the North West coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, with some of the most beautiful swimming places in the world.
There are lots of places I have visited for work, but never had time to explore: Brazil, Russia, India, China. Now that my children have left home, I plan to try to co-ordinate work trips with my husband so we can do a bit of travelling together. And find more places to swim.
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The Chemical Detective (#1)
Dr Jaq Silver. Skier, scientist, international jet-setter, explosives expert. She blows things up to keep people safe.
Working on avalanche control in Slovenia, Jaq stumbles across a problem with a consignment of explosives. After raising a complaint with the supplier, a multinational chemical company, her evidence disappears and she is framed for murder. Jaq must find the key to the mystery.
But can she uncover the truth before her time runs out?
The Chemical Reaction (#2)
As Jaq is pulled further into a murky underworld of deceit and corruption, things take an explosive turn…
After escaping almost certain death amidst the ruins of Chernobyl, Jaq finds herself in even hotter water. Deep in debt, she decides to take on a risky contract in China. But when her former student and the chemical factory she was meant to be investigating both mysteriously disappear, she realises nothing is as it seems.
From fraudulent art auctions in London to a troupe of male strippers in Shanghai, the mystery of the vanishing factory begins to look ever more complicated as the days pass. Can Jaq work out what happened – and whether it has anything to do with her nemesis Frank Good – before time runs out?
The Chemical Cocktail (#3)
When Jaq’s mother dies, she is handed a poisoned chalice. Amid conspiracies and corruption, Jaq travels from Portugal to Brazil to get to the bottom of her family mystery. But she is not the only one with an interest in her unusual inheritance. Racing against the clock as threats to her life increase on all sides, Jaq must use her scientific know-how to save what matters most.
Phosphate Rocks : a death in ten objects
As the old chemical works in Leith are demolished a long deceased body encrusted in phosphate rock is discovered. Seated at a card table he has ten objects laid out in front of him. Whose body is it? How did he die and what is the significance of the objects?