Lorne Jackson speaks to a former prison officer who has successfully turned her hand to writing.
I’m trying to make Anna Lawrence Pietroni turn nasty.
Not that I want her to start chucking scalding coffee at nearby customers in the diner where we’re chatting.
Savage stories are what I’m after – not evil actions.
To be more precise, I’m hoping Anna will tell me some juicy yarns about her time working as a prison warden.
I’ve chatted to a few ‘‘screws’’ in my time, and they’re usually buzzing with anecdotes about wicked men (and women) and their wicked ways.
I recall one prison-warden regaling me with grisly gossip about his time in the service.
It involved a rusty razor, a raging prisoner and a few pints of fresh blood.
I can’t reveal more than that in these pages.
Surely Anna, who was raised in the Black Country, has numerous stories that are equally eye-popping. (And eye-gouging.)
Instead of discussing hairy knuckles, swastika tattoos and the best way to disarm a knife-brandishing jailbird, she ends up talking about literature.
We bounce around Beowulf, then on to Gulliver’s Travels before settling on Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.
Which makes sense, really.
Because Anna isn’t just a former prison warden with time served at HMP Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs.
She’s also a novelist, and her first book, Ruby’s Spoon is out now.
Writing is the dream job, and she is glad to have replaced prison keys for the keys of a word-processor.
She says: “I remember really distinctly being in the reception class in Lutley Primary, and sitting on the carpet at the end of the day.
“We had this fearsome teacher who looked like the teacher in the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons.
“Really hefty and quite scary. She got this battered old book out and read us these amazing stories, which I later found out were Enid Blyton stories.
“It was almost as if the air was fizzing with magic. That sounds a little bit naff, but it was just so magical.
‘‘And I remember thinking, ‘What if you could make this yourself? What if you could make that kind of magic?’”
Anna certainly made all the right moves to achieve her goal.
After school she went to Oxford University, where she bagged a double first in English.
Then she studied for a Masters’ degree in Children’s Literature from Warwick University. One of her tutors was Philip Pullman, the author of Northern Lights, and other books for young adults.
However, studying the great writers resulted in Anna losing confidence in her own abilities.
Attempts at writing were faltering, and she felt pressed to forge an alternative career to the one planned.
“Like a lot of people I got a bit lost in my twenties,” she says.
“If you want to do something really passionately, like be a creative writer, and you don’t pursue that, then you are kind of banging your head against a wall, and it takes a while to find your way through.
“I did lots of temping, volunteer work, working for arts organisations and anti-poverty organisations
“Having given up on the idea of writing, I wanted to do something that was socially useful. I also wanted to do something that was quite structured, because I thought maybe I just wasn’t made to do something as unstructured and self-motivated as being a writer.
“Plus I did feel quite passionately about the issues involved in working in prisons, so that’s where I ended up.”
By her own admission, Anna wasn’t the best prison warden.
“I wanted to be sitting down with the prisoners and hearing their stories,” she says.
“I didn’t want to be conducting drug strategies or searches. I was just really interested in people, and pretty incompetent in the management sort of stuff.”
However, the job proved just as important to Anna as her stint at Oxford.
“Working in the prison system was critical in me becoming a writer, absolutely essential,” she says.
Yet her first novel isn’t about the Dreaming Spires of Oxford or the rusty spikes of Wormwood Scrubs.
Instead, Anna has returned to her Black Country roots.
Ruby’s Spoon is a magical evocation of a fictional West Midlands of the 1930s. A world bounded by canals, grief and superstition.
It tells the story of motherless 13-year-old Ruby, who dreams of fleeing the grime of her hometown for the sea.
When a mysterious, witchy woman named Isa Fly appears on a strange quest, she quickly enchants Ruby.
The book is a blend of gritty realism and fairy tale mysticism.
Best-selling novelist Susan Hill has described it as ‘‘one of the best first novels I have ever read’’.
Anna, who now lives in Birmingham, is working on her second book, and happy to be a published writer at last.
“Working in the prison service was an extraordinary experience,” she says. “And one I’m really grateful for.
‘‘Especially since it helped me to realise what I really, really wanted to do. It opened my eyes to the fact that I hadn’t given up on the dream of being a writer, and that I would never be happy unless I was pursuing this vocation.”
* Ruby’s Spoon, by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, is published by Vintage (£7.99)