PUBLISHED: 09:54 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
Martina Cole's first boyfriend was a bank robber, but now her gritty gangland novels have made her a multi-millionaire, explains Pat Parker
MARTINA Cole's rags-to-riches story is so dramatic, she might have dismissed it as a plot for one of her own novels for being far too fanciful.
When she wrote the draft for her first novel, she was a struggling single mother living in an Essex council flat, having been expelled from school for truancy. Today, she is a multi-millionaire, having created her own genre of gritty crime novels, each one of which outsells the last. Her 15th and latest thriller, The Business, has inevitably shot straight to the top of the best-seller lists. She's twice married, twice divorced, and has twice been a single mother; once at 19, and again at 38. She lives now with her daughter Freddie, who's nearly 11, in a medieval hall house in Kent. She moved there from her beloved Essex about a year ago to be near her son, Christopher, his Polish wife and her two grandchildren.
'I've still got my house in Essex, though, and I'm often back at weekends,' she says. 'Don't say where it is, though. I've got enough people trying to track me down as it is.' Her novels, invariably set in the East End and the fringes of Essex, starkly portray the criminal underworld. And, because of Martina's background - when she was 14, her first boyfriend was an armed bank robber - they have a chilling authenticity.
Her accent is still as broad as the Thames Estuary; her voice husky and gravelly after years of smoking. Why, I asked her, are her books so popular? 'I think a lot of people who read the books come from that world and understand it, and another huge percentage don't, and want to know about it,' she says. 'My books are very realistic, aren't they? And that underworld is gaining momentum all the time.' Martina was born in Aveley, Thurrock, in 1958, the youngest of five children. Her parents were Irish Catholics; her mum a psychiatric nurse, and her dad a merchant seaman. As a child she was bright, and loved reading. Tests showed she was academically gifted, but, after leaving Holy Cross primary school, she was sent to a convent in Grays and started to go off the rails. 'I hated the convent,' she says. 'I loved the religion. I even wanted to be a nun when I was little. I'm still a practising Catholic to this day. But I hated the regime, and having to be there.'
She was expelled for truancy, and sent to Aveley Secondary Modern, where her behaviour didn't improve. 'They were really nice to me there, but I still hated it. I used to take all these Catholic saints' days off and go pea-picking. I found some really obscure saints. They fell for it at first, but when I started on the Jewish holidays, they found me out.' An English teacher there, a Miss Jones, recognised her talent, and told her that if she applied herself, she could make a living out of writing. 'I just laughed. I thought, "Yeah, right!"' She didn't believe girls from council estates could become writers. Martina had an emotional reunion with her former teacher many years later at a book-signing session in Bristol, and has remained in touch with her ever since.
She left school at 15 with no qualifications, and was pregnant at 18. She gave birth to Christopher at Basildon Hospital in 1979. There was no room at home for an extra mouth to feed, so she and her baby ended up in a Southend hostel. After a few months, she moved to a council flat in Tilbury.
Her father died when she was just 21, and her mother eight months later. As a penniless single mother, her plight was not greatly different to that of some of her characters, who end up on drugs, on benefits and on the game. Could such a fate have befallen her?
'Nah,' she replies vehemently. 'I think I was too strong a personality. It's not in my character. My characters channel their energies into the wrong things. Having my son at 19 was a really good wake-up call. It sorted me out and made me get some kind of life focus. And when I had my daughter some 20 years later, that was another wake-up call. I was into a West End lifestyle, with lots of money, and having Freddie brought me down to earth again.' Shortly after her parents died, she visited a fortune teller in Southend. 'She said, "You've got a hobby and you must keep it up, because one day through this hobby, the whole world will know your name". And the strange thing is, it's come true.'
She wrote stories in the evenings after her son was in bed to amuse herself. She completed the draft of her first novel, Dangerous Lady, when she was 21, and kept it in a drawer. It never occurred to her to try to get it published. Then, nearly ten years later, she decided that if she was ever to become a writer, it was now or never. She redrafted her story and sent it off to an agent. Headline made a record-breaking bid of 150,000 for the novel. Now, 14 best-sellers later, Martina is worth many millions, but she hasn't lost touch with her old school friends. She regularly visits prisons and runs creative writing workshops. She's patron of Chelmsford Women's Aid, and an ambassador for the charity, One Parent Families. It's all about giving something back.