Kimberley Chambers and her book The Brothers. Images courtesy of HarperCollins
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Kimberley Chambers: from Roman Road Market trader to best-selling crime author

‘I used to hate my voice, now I don’t care what anyone thinks of it’: Kimberley Chambers on growing up working class and writing about the East End.

Kimberley Chambers was never destined for a nine to five. She left school at sixteen without a plan or a single O-Level to her name, until one day her mother threw water over her head and demanded she got a job. 

She wasn’t a fan of school in Dagenham, but she wasn’t afraid of hard graft either and quickly began trading on the markets at Roman Road, Whitechapel and Petticoat Lane. ‘They used to sell pets there and everything, you could walk away Petticoat Lane with a little monkey, it was mental.’

Selling lycra leggings, Burberry dupes and rugby-tackling market thieves might be a far cry from penning best-selling novels, but those years of trading would later fuel Chambers’ literary imagination. ‘If you’re going to write about a big, villainous family, the East End back in the day really works,’ she says. 

Chambers herself has led a ‘colourful life’, and has several friends who have spent time inside such as “Mad” Frankie Fraser. She’s in good contact with a former chief inspector in the East End who once arrested her but now gives her tips for stories, such as insight on the time it takes for a corpse to decompose in Hackney Marshes. 

Before becoming a regular on the Sunday Times Bestsellers List, Chambers grew up obsessed with director Ken Loach’s gritty kitchen-sink dramas. ‘I have a love for working-class reality, I write about people trying to do their best to make something of themselves,’ she says. ‘Coming from a working-class family and living on council estates myself, it’s what comes naturally to me.’

Chambers looks back fondly at the 80s, trading ladies’ fashion on the Roman to women dressed to the nines in dramatic fur coats and killer stiletto heels. ‘Apart from what I do now, it’s my favourite job of all time.’ She often visits G Kelly for a nostalgic pie n’ mash and is still friends with trader Harold who took her on as his assistant in her teens. 

For Chambers, the atmosphere dramatically shifted on Roman Road when Tower Hamlets Council introduced parking restrictions in the 90s. ‘It kind of killed the market off, it was such a tragedy.’ Spending her next years as a DJ and a cabbie in Romford, it wasn’t until Chambers was 38 that she penned her first novel, Billie Jo.

‘I said to my mum I’m going to make it with this, and everyone laughed at me, but I really believed in myself.’ She sent the first few chapters and a cover letter ‘that went down quite legendary in the publishing world’ to 25 agents, ending it writing: “PS, take a chance on me, you won’t regret it. This time next year, I intend on shopping in Prada rather than Primark.”‘

Chambers’ newest book, The Brothers, is her 17th novel and offers a follow-on to The Family Man. It focuses on twin brothers Beau and Bret Bond, the descendants of a notorious gangster family, who are ‘handsome on the outside, but quite ugly on the inside’. 

The story follows the fallout of Beau’s marriage at 16 to a young girl from a travelling community, something Chambers could write about from first-hand experience when she ‘dated a travelling lad as a youngster’. The match is unfavourable to both families, and war ensues. ‘In my books, marriages don’t normally end up happy,’ she says. 

Having spent so much time in the East End, Chambers’ books are steeped with local knowledge. Her characters hang out in the traditional boozers of her teens – The Blind Beggar, The Horn of Plenty, and the now-closed Needle Gun – and mourn the disappearance of ‘old-time shops’ like the butchers and greengrocers that used to line the pavements. In Queenie, Chambers travels back to March 1943 and revisits the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster.

Even after achieving the top position on the Sunday Times Bestseller List four times, Chamber still vividly recalls the initial experience. ‘It was with Payback, the second in the Butler series. I couldn’t believe it, it was the most surreal feeling ever, the buzz, I’ll never forget it.’

She might be able to shop in Prada now, but Chambers is proud of her working-class roots and still insists on writing all her books by hand, feeling unconfident with technology. ‘The genre I write in isn’t taken seriously when it comes to awards, they see it as The Jeremy Kyle Show of the book world, but I don’t care if I’m appealing to people who watch Jeremy Kyle, because everyone deserves to read and lose themselves.’

While Chambers has noticed a snobbery among some middle-class authors, she’s been fully embraced by her publishers at HarperCollins. ‘They’re wonderful, everyone gets me there, and they accept me for who I am,’ she says.

In 2021, she appeared on Radio 4’s Loose Ends and her wise-cracking, no-holds-barred Cockney humour had the guests in stitches.

‘The way I speak stands out. I used to hate my voice when I was younger, but now I don’t care what anyone thinks of it. I’m proud of what I do and what I write about.’

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our interview with Roman Road Market trader Rosie Smyth

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