Martina Cole's crime debut to hit Stratford stage
What makes crime thriller writer Martina Cole proud? Is it that she went from a single mum who left school at 15 without qualifications to become a bestselling author?
Or the fact 10million copies of those books have been sold worldwide, with three of them turned into TV series?
Probably all of the above. But she said it was also because her novels, focusing on British crime, are so accessible.
"I've got the most requested books in prison and it's the most stolen book in shops in places like Barking and Dagenham," she said. "They have to keep it behind the till sometimes.
"I take it as a compliment. A lot of people who read my books have never read before - never read a book in their lives. I love the thought that they pick mine up.
"In Holloway, for example, it's good to help in prisoners' rehabilitation. Men's prisons are so shaming, they are full of people without any teaching in basic literacy."
Running writing classes in prisons, which Essex-born Cole often does, is a heartfelt passion. And it shows she isn't really a hard lady - an enduring impression she does little to dispel.
The author's warmth comes over in her smile from the first moment you first meet her. A surprise for many considering the subject matter of her gritty novels.
Indeed, during our interview the only time she declined to talk was when conversation went on to reformed gangster Charlie Richardson, whose death was reported widely last week.
Cole wrote the foreword to Charlie's brother Eddie's autobiography but she refuses to go anywhere near betraying confidences. It's what you would expect of someone who mixes in such circles - a fact that gives her books an aura of authenticity.
However, she understands all too well the British criminal underworld, magnified by the British press, is a public infatuation.
"That's why the books work," said Cole. "I allow a glimpse into that world. I've got a network of people and they help me get the patois right. Getting that vernacular is crucial.
"However, if an event happens in the book, then the storyline and characters are made up. People are always stopping me and saying 'is that so and so?' And I say 'no I made it up'."
The 52-year-old author spoke to The Wharf this week at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where two of her books have previously been turned into plays. Next month sees the opening of a third adaptation.
It takes her full-circle in her writing career as the book being dramatised is her first, Dangerous Lady, published in 1992.
Cole loves the fact her novels can be transferred to such a traditional medium.
"I used to knock about here when I was a kid but I also love the stage and any type of theatre," she said.
"Libraries are being closed down everywhere and it will probably be theatres next.
"It's terrible because where plays will always have the edge over television is they are there in front of you. Theatre really has that impact, especially at a venue like Theatre Royal, Stratford East."
As for the novel, which, like the previous two at Stratford has been adapted by Patrick Prior, it tells the tale of a 17-year-old girl who joins the family firm.
But Cole, who was 20 when she wrote the story, denies the lead character Maura Ryan is based on her.
"I've never been a bank robber," said Cole, laughing. "But Maura was such a fantastic character to write. In my books I deal with terrible dilemmas and this was a great one. It was my first book and it was a bestseller so I was very lucky."
■ Dangerous Lady, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Oct 25-Nov 17, various times and prices, stratfordeast.com.