Diana Wilkinson has been thrilled to have her son James (23) home during lockdown. He had just completed a gap year, taking in Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and South Africa and was just starting to look for work when everything shut down.
“It’s been lovely having him at home. I just love it because obviously he’s been away for a year and I missed him. Although he’s been quite demanding on the food front, as is my husband, because he’s working from home as well,” Diana says.
Their way of coping with lockdown has been to stage a series of epic tennis battles in the garden of their home in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, between Diana, her accountant husband Neil and James.
“We’ve got a little tiny mini tennis court, which is like a couple of lines and a little net, and we play to the death every day,” Diana says.
“Every time we stop for coffee or tea, we go and play. It’s like a battlefield — we’re shouting and swearing at each other, but it’s great fun. It’s great for fitness. We play with small bats and softballs, but it’s absolutely brilliant — I’d recommend that to anybody.”
The Belfast-born writer brought out the first of her latest thrillers, 4 Riverside Close, at the end of March and in the first six weeks sold more than 22,000 eBooks, making it a firm fixture in the top 100 books sales list on Amazon eBooks.
Meanwhile, her second book, You Are Mine, was released at the start of this month and a third thriller, Watching You, Watching Me, is scheduled for release in January next year. She self-published her debut novel, Fifty Fifty, a few years ago and admits it only netted largely local sales, so this sudden success has been something of a surprise.
“4 Riverside Close has done surprisingly well. I can’t believe it’s done 22,000 sales,” she says.
For many artists whose work was scheduled for release during lockdown, it’s been unfortunate timing, but for Diana, it has worked out well, as the bulk of her sales are eBooks.
“I hate to say it, but for writers selling eBooks, it couldn’t have come at a better time to bring a book out, because all the bookshops are closed and hard copy is not selling the same as it was. People can’t browse to see a hard copy, so they buy the Kindle books,” she says.
“People are turning to books — I think at the moment certainly book sales have gone much, much higher than they would have done, because people are at home, and certainly the children are reading more, and for adults, it’s something to do. People always say ‘I must read a good book’ and they are actually doing it, whereas normally they wouldn’t have time.
“It’s been good for me, bringing a book out just before lockdown started, which was not deliberate or anything like that — it was just the way things turned out.”
As a child growing up in north Belfast at the height of the Troubles, Diana was a passionate tennis player and longed to win Wimbledon some day. She grew up on the Old Cavehill Road, close to Cavehill Tennis Club.
“That’s why I took up tennis, because I grew up directly opposite the tennis club, and you weren’t allowed to join until you were 10. So once I was 10 I was at the tennis club every day and that’s where my love of tennis grew,” she says.
Her late parents, James and Sally Kennett, were well-known in the area — Sally was a part time teacher and James worked at Belfast Harbour and was also a JP. Although Diana says her dad was never a target for paramilitaries, she is now amazed when she looks back at how restricted people’s lives were at the time.
“A couple of times I was caught up in bomb scares and one time I only just missed a bomb going off, in the sense of I remember seeing the bomb go off down the road and saying ‘Oh my God, I have to get home’,” she says.
“So it was a scary time and I think in some ways that affected you more than you realise.
“Looking back, life was very much curtailed, slightly like the lockdown now — Belfast had shrunk dramatically. And, funnily enough when I was at Durham University I did geography and I wrote my thesis on Belfast city centre and the effect the Troubles had on it, the impact on what you could do, where you could go.
“When I had the chance to leave and go to Durham, I sort of jumped at it because life had become quite narrow. Now it’s vibrant, I’ve been over a few times, and I think it’s very vibrant — Belfast city centre is wonderful, and I love going back. It’s so friendly compared to here — people are so relaxed.”
Diana describes herself as a studious child, who would give her all on the tennis court. “I was so competitive — I still am competitive, always pushing to be the best,” she admits.
“I was Irish under-15 champion when I was about 13 and I played for Ulster for many years and won a lot of Ulster titles as well as the Irish ones. I would spend every summer travelling, doing the tournaments — I would get two buses to Windsor Tennis Club. You just got out and did it yourself. I was very self-motivated.”
After studying geography at Durham, there was a short stint in teaching, before Diana returned to her first love of tennis, and moved to London to build a career in the sport.
“I would temp for a week and play for a week, but that was very difficult to do, because you had no money and you were competing with people from around the world, from Australia, everywhere, who were coming to play the circuit in England,” she says.
“But they had loads of money and I didn’t, so I eventually gave it up and decided then to go into the business of tennis instead, which is much more realistic and much more fun.”
Diana went into coaching in London and would eventually buy up three disused tennis clubs, in the leafy North London suburbs of Crouch End and Muswell Hill, turning them into tennis schools.
And it was there that she gleaned the inspiration for the characters in her thrillers in the shape of the tennis ladies that she coached. Diana says her favourite coaching sessions were the daily ladies mornings and the sociable coffee dates that followed.
“We used to share coffee afterwards, and we would all talk and chatter and you listen and it’s from those ladies that I got an awful lot of inspiration,” she confesses.
“A lot of the ladies had relationship issues — they were in good marriages, bad marriages, fun marriages. I put them into the books, not as individual people, but you combine personalities. That’s where I learned about what makes the women tick.
“They were women of all ages, classes and types, married, single, really every type of woman, and that’s why I try with my characters to be as broad as I can, because at different ages, different types of women have different issues.
Their choice of tennis coaches could sometimes be a bit of a red flag — Diana soon realised that some of her tennis clients were attracted to the young male tennis coaches, although she was firmly opposed to anyone mixing business and pleasure at her own clubs.
“A lot of the young tennis coaches were very handsome, and some of the ladies would try and book in lessons, always with the man — they didn’t want me,” she says.
“And you can always tell the ones... I was probably one of the better coaches, but when they didn’t want me I thought, ‘Mmm, okay, they want that guy.’”
She ran coaching schools and coached in other clubs for around 30 years, even teaching some of the well-known Spurs players at one point.
“I used to teach some of the Tottenham Hotspur players — I played with Glenn Hoddle, (inset top), I played with Paul Miller and obviously Chris Waddle and his wife used to come. I organised a match between our club and the Tottenham players. I was never into football myself, but it was a good spectacle for people, so that was a really good moment.”
After hanging up the coaching racket six years ago, Diana decided to turn to writing, publishing her own book, Fifty Fifty, before signing with Bloodhound Books for the latest three.
“I love twisty relationship thrillers and that’s what I aspire to — books like The Girl on a Train, which was just a really easy read and a great setting,” she says.
Her first thriller, 4 Riverside Close, makes similarly great use of the constrictive setting of a north London cul de sac, whose residents enrol in a seemingly innocent social network only to become embroiled in a web of manipulation and murder.
“The cul de sac was the setting, the claustrophobia, and so on. To create a scene, you have to have a scene within the book before you can picture your characters in it,” Diana says.
But her thrillers aren’t dry procedural crime novels — instead they focus on the twists and turns of relationships, drawing on her knowledge of women trapped in loveless marriages, abusive relationships and in the grip of obsession. “I’m quite interested in the obsessive side of love. A lot of my books deal with obsessive characters who are grasping at the elusive relationship, and that is what has interested me and driven a lot of my writing,” Diana says.
“I knew quite a few women who were having affairs. People have affairs all the time but they were able to share with other women and obviously I was always in the centre of it.
“They opened up and you learned all sorts of things — the only thing nobody ever shared was a murder!”
Work on her next books has kept her occupied during the Covid-19 pandemic and she’s optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I said to my friends in March that there’ll be a vaccine by July and I still strongly believe the vaccine will be a success. I think our scientists are the best in the world. Oxford University is always coming up trumps and I think their vaccine will succeed,” Diana says.
“They keep saying we might never get a vaccine and everybody’s all gloom and doom, but sorry, I disagree. I think we’re brilliant and I think we will have a vaccine.
“But it’s very hard for people. I have a lot of elderly neighbours who I shop for and drop the stuff around to them and it’s very, very distressing because they don’t see their families. These ladies around me are in their 80s and it’s very upsetting for them. It’s a tough time and it slows us all down. It’s fine for writing because I can sit and lose myself, but I worry for my son getting a job and for elderly people, it’s very scary.”
And as for letting her guard down? Well, it looks like there will be more family tennis matches for the time being. “I’m not massively happy to be going out just yet,” she adds.
Naturally, this lifelong tennis enthusiast will miss Wimbledon, which was due to take place over the next fortnight. She says: “Every year I’ve taken a trip to Wimbledon as it is always, for me, the highlight of the tennis season. It’ll have to be strawberries and cream in our back garden sadly this year!”
4 Riverside Close by Diana Wilkinson, published by Bloodhound Books, is available on Amazon for purchase. It is currently available for download for 99p. Follow Diana on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DiKennett), on Instagram (@dianakennett37) and Twitter (@DiWilkinson2020)