Category Archives: Meet The Author
MEET THE AUTHOR
OMAR EL AKKAD – AMERICAN WAR
During the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was delighted to have been invited to meet with the journalist and author Omar El Akkad to talk about his novel American War which is about a second American War Civil War which breaks out in 2074 and how the novel came about, also we talk about his time as a journalist in Afghanistan and if his experiences as a journalist and if this was behind the idea for American War.
I met Omar at the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham just a few hours before his appearance the Literature Festival and I began by asking Omar to give a brief outline to his novel American War.
OEA: American War is about a second American Civil War that takes place five to six decades from now. The America of that time is an America that is a very different place and the sea level has risen by 60 meters, so that means Florida and the Eastern Seaboard is no more. The Capital is now Columbus, Ohio not Washington and that 100 million people have moved inland from coastal areas and the government has imposed a ban on fossil fuels to halt climate change, but with some Southern States going against this what follows is a second Civil War.
What the Story is primarily about us a family called the Chestnuts that love on the edge of the Southern States, and what this does to the family especially Sarat Chestnut and how the war transforms her.
JF: Where did the idea for your novel American War come from?
OEA: The idea came about when I was watching an interview on a news show and they were commenting on protests in Afghanistan about the American involvement and the question was being asked why do the Afghans hate us so much at the time American Special Forces had to carry out night time raids looking for insurgents and they would ransack houses looking for the insurgents while holding women and children at gunpoint and in Afghan culture this is seen as very offensive and so I thought I would transpose what has been happening to people on the other side of the world and bring it close to home.
JF: As a journalist you covered the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt as well as the military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri did these assignments give you the idea for American War in any way?
OEA: The assignments did not play a role in the idea as a whole, the camps I witnessed clearly play a part in American War but the idea of American War was independent of journalism, but I had the idea to try and impose these exotic motivations on what is a primarily a peaceful part of the world but a lot of the experiences do work their way into the book, but the point of writing it was never related to journalism.
JF: In your novel the main character is Sarat Chestnut who is six-years-old when the war begins in 2074. How did you create the character that is Sarat and was your primary objective for the novel to have a lead character?
OEA: The character Sarat Chestnut arrived very quickly and when the image of the character showed up it changed the book, so when she arrived it predominantly became her story and even now I still think it is her story. While writing American War I lived with this character Sarat for years, I always knew the arc of the narrative going into writing the novel, I knew how it was going to start and I knew how it was going to end which was difficult as Sarat was living with me through the whole process and I knew how it was going to end. The story of Sarat is very much bang, bang but it is really the quiet moments in her story that will stay with me.
JF: As a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan you must have witnessed some appalling scenes, was this a defining moment for you deciding that you wanted to be a full-time writer?
OEA: Fiction was always my first home, I had a story first published when I was in Grade Three and that was it for me. This was what I wanted to do. I do not have a good answer to the question ‘Where are you from’ as I was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada and so that fiction tends to be a good home for people like me. Only when I moved to Canada did I realise that you could make a living out of being a writer, so while at college I got involved with the college newspaper and from there to a journalist with a newspaper as a job for the next ten years. I was sent to Afghanistan when I was still relatively young (25). I did think there would be this Hemmingway moment with dodging bullets but this was not the case. It was not the level of danger I was in but the level of privilege I was in, really I was a tourist, I got to go home and I could tell the stories or they would go untold. I had been asking for years to go then after attending training courses run for journalists heading to war zones which were run by former military personnel learning how to handle yourself while bullets and rockets are falling around you I then found out I was heading to Afghanistan.
JF: Did you set out to write an apocalyptic vision of the future for a second American Civil War?
OEA: It had to be in America, it to be in the heart of the empire and currently the heart of the empire is America. I set about writing a book on the universal nature of revenge but it just so happened that three weeks after I finished writing the book Donald Trump announced he was running for president and it has been released at a time when there is very much a dystopian mind-set in America. There are people who think I started to write this book on 9th November 2016. The truth is there was never a vision of what is currently going on in the States. I actually started to write American War in 20014.
JF: Fossils fuels are the reason behind the storyline what was the thinking behind the idea and were you making a statement through the story?
OEA: I was looking at analogies to the first civil war but then also looking at a very rich and commercial country that is America were the use of fossil fuels made some people very rich but at the same time destroyed many others. Many comments said that the second civil war would be fought over race not the environment. It is the idea of stubbornness and because we have always done it this way and that is why we are going to continue doing it this way. This is a mind-set so prevalent in the States and elsewhere.
JF: One the aspects through your novel is the proliferation and use of Drones (The Birds) and what seemed their random use. Was the use of Drones in the book based on experiences in Afghanistan?
OEA: Under the Obama administration they used the term ‘targeted killing’ they would send drones to places such as Libya and try kill specific targets and every now and then they would miss and hit something like a wedding and this is what the military would term as ‘collateral damage’ so the use of drones (the birds) and the random killing of civilians by drones was used in the book and on American people.
JF: With Sarat being turned into an Instrument of war and the terrible acts she commits do you want the reader to have sympathy for Sarat?
OEA: What I wanted more than anything by the time you got to the end of the book not the reader to like Sarat or to apologise for her, but to understand how she got to the place she was, when we about radicalisation or extremism we talk about people being exposed to that. We only get to know about these people at the finish line after they have done whatever horrible thing they are going to do. So by the time you get to the end of the book I don’t want you to like Sarat I just wanted to show the work that went onto creating that kind of person.
JF: We moved on to talking about how Omar went about writing American War and his writing space at home.
OEA: Yes, when I wrote the book we were renting a house in Portland. One of the spare bedrooms became my writing space and the walls were covered in maps redrawn with new borders and also to pin ideas and even sea level measurements to the point of what the coast would look like after increases in sea levels of 1 or two meters and then even higher and then how the map of the United States would then look. There was also source documents that I later used in the book some of these I wrote as the book progressed.
JF: How many draughts of American War did you have to write?
OEA: By the time we went to print we were on draught number twelve, my editor is surgical. Though the finished book is extremely close to the first draught. When my editor first read it then bought it he said it was not perfect but it was special. What followed was just a cleaning up process than say a major change to the narrative. Writing for me is filled with anxiety like it is with many writers. The editing was ten times worse than writing the book. I chose to exclude all technology from the book so there are no smartphones in the narrative on American War.
JF: What would you like the reader to away from American War at the end?
OEA: What I hope is empathy and to understand how people get to a place where they can do horrible things. Bad can be born but evil needs to be created and sometimes these can be really complex and we have an obligation to understand how people get to the place, if we are serious in eradicating these issues. Other than that the reader just reads a story of a character named Sarat Chestnut.
JF: Looking ahead to the future are there plans for you to write a second novel and any plans for you to return to the field as a journalist?
OEA: Is there going to be a next book, well that decision is for others not just me. I have an idea that early last year the research has taken many months. I started writing in January this year then the book tour for American War started and everything went on the back burner. As for the journalism I still do some which includes book reviews and features. My wife and I had our first child a few weeks after the book came out and that has given me a different look at risk. But if I was asked to cover another conflict and if there was an important story to convey I would go as it is the most important form of journalism.
My grateful thanks to Omar El Akkad for taking the time during his short stay in the UK to talk to me about his debut novel American War and also to Emma Finnigan for her grateful help in setting up the interview.
American War is now available in Hardback through Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.
MEET THE AUTHOR
CHRISTOPHER FOWLER AUTHOR OF THE BRYANT & MAY SERIES – WILD CHAMBER
~ 10 Questions ~
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I am delighted to welcome Christopher Fowler to talk about his latest novel in the Bryant & May series called Wild Chamber which is has just been released through Doubleday and is now available in Hardback through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops. For a number of years Christopher ran one of the UK’s top film marketing companies. Now a writer of novels and short stories as well as two acclaimed autobiographies and the award winning Bryant and May detective novels.
Congratulations on your latest novel in the Bryant & May series – Wild Chamber. Can you tell us a little bit about your latest novel?
Sure – In an exclusive London crescent, a woman walks her dog – but she’s being watched. When she’s found dead the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to investigate, because the method of death is odd, the gardens are locked, the killer had no way in or out and the dog has disappeared. The detectives investigate the hidden history of London’s ‘wild chambers’ – its extraordinary parks and gardens, and manage to cause a national scandal. If no-one is safe then all of London’s open spaces must be shut at night, and that’s just what an ambitious politician with an agenda wants…
Can you tell us a little of your background and how you became a writer?
I always wrote, from the age of 7, and only ever wanted to be a writer, but for a long time I lacked confidence. I grew up in the centre of London, writing about everything and everyone I saw, and while working in the film industry I started to write short stories. I sold my very first one, and continued from there, eventually writing a novel, ‘Roofworld’. I was always drawn to crime novels, though, and branched out with the Bryant & May mystery series.
You have written a number of books in different genres. Do you have a favourite?
I have a soft spot for both ‘Spanky’ and ‘Calabash’. The former is a modern take on the Faust legend, and the latter is my book about being young and having too much imagination. They have fantastical edges but can be read as entirely realistic tales too. I still get a lot of mail about them, and a novel called ‘Psychoville’ that’s very dark and funny. My back-catalogue of 20 novels and short story collections just came out as e-books.
Wild Chamber is the fourteenth novel in the Bryant & May series. How do you go about coming up with the storylines?
It’s actually the 15th – I think Amazon has got the number wrong, and it’s the 16th if you count the Bryant & May graphic novel! The stories are a combination of things I hear about in London, things I read in old books and stuff people tell me. There’s a lot more factual work in these books than you’d realise, and some of the most bizarre elements are all true. The sections on London parks sound almost made up in this new novel, but I can assure you they’re not!
I talk to a lot of authors about their writing routines, some are more creative in the early hours some need total peace to write. How do cope during your writing day?
People are always horrified when they walk into my home, especially when they see my study. ‘Where is everything?’ they ask. ‘How on earth can you work like this? There’s nothing here!’ I basically live in a glass box. The study became a paper-free zone as nearly all of my research documents, photos and letters are stored online. I’ve only kept a few book awards – most are stored in an electronic format. The study windows overlook St Paul’s Cathedral, an inspirational sight for any London writer, and there are 360 degrees of blinds which can be lowered one at a time, according to the position of the sun.
I treat my work day like anyone else’s, start early and blog, carry on until lunchtime, break, carry on until around 7pm. But I tend to work through weekends too. I work with music on, usually movie soundtracks. And I take my laptop everywhere, so I can continue to work when I’m out.
Looking back over your career, is there anything that you would change if you could go back in time?
I think I spent so much time in my day job that I didn’t concentrate enough at the start of my career on what I wanted to write. It didn’t make much money then, so my writing came second to earning a wage. But you always get known by the first things you get published, and it can be a curse; ask any writer.
I’d have loved to have made a film – I came so close to it so many times, but now the market has changed so much that I can’t ever imagine it happening.
Where do you get your inspiration to write novels?
I was born in London and spent most of my life walking its streets, which means talking to people, which means getting ideas for novels. It’s amazing how many people really want to tell you about their personal experience of London. Many have extraordinary stories, but no-one to tell them to. You’ll meet someone who looks a bit like a tramp and discover they were a wartime codebreaker, or someone who works in a coffee shop who used to be a famous gymnast. I believe everyone has a story.
Because I worked in film for a long time people often say my work feels film-like, so maybe films are an inspiration, but also I travel whenever I can get the time; it all gets fed into the laptop eventually. I’m notorious for using my friends’ traits, but I combine them with characters I’ve seen in films or read about. I also add current villains or heroes from London’s news. I like topicality, although it tends to place a time limit on your books.
You have also written short stories and two critically acclaimed autobiographies. What do enjoy writing the most?
Oddly, I wrote my first memoir, ‘Paperboy’, for fun because I was doing a lot of reading gigs and getting fed up with just reading out sections of novels, so I started improvising and talking about my childhood. These pieces went down really well, and soon I found I had a book full of stories about wanting to write and growing up in a house with hardly any books in it.
Short stories can be wonderfully satisfying to write but they’re now very hard to sell, as there are very few outlets left who’ll take short fiction. It’s a shame as almost every writer has tackled a short story at one time. I’ve written close to 200 and I’ve still not written one I’m 100% happy with. The day I do that, I’m done.
When you are away from your desk writing, how do you relax?
I partly live in Barcelona and have a sort of alt-life going on there, more outdoor-based, a very different world to my London work life. And I travel as much as possible. I wrote a volume of short stories called ‘Red Gloves’, which uses many of the locations I’ve spent time in. I’m infamous for getting into scrapes in far-off lands – and I watch a lot of European films.
As well as being a writer you have previously worked in the film industry, which do you enjoy the most and why?
Being in film was great, crazy fun – I loved working on the Bond movies, but writing novels is a discipline I seem to naturally have; it’s my habitat and I love developing ideas at home, with just the screen to argue with. I enjoy taking a break from the crime novels to write other books, though – you need to stay fresh. The world changes fast and you have to change with it. That’s part of the fun. I may write about the past sometimes but I feel as if writing keeps me living in the present.
Thank you to Christopher Fowler for joining me on Meet the Author. Wild Chamber was released through Doubleday on 23rd March in Hardback and is available through all good bookshops.
The Bryant & May – Wild Chamber Official Blog Tour Continues.
MEET THE AUTHOR
SARAH PINBOROUGH ~BEHIND HER EYES~
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I am delighted to welcome Sarah Pinborough to talk about her latest novel Behind Her Eyes which has just been released through Harper Collins and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Congratulations on Behind Her Eyes, can you tell you tell us a little of what the novel is about?
Behind Her Eyes is the story of a woman who becomes embroiled in a dysfunctional marriage. She has an affair with the husband and then is befriended by the wife and becomes fascinated by them and their past. It’s really about obsession and addiction and just how far someone will go to keep the person they love. All the unhealthy emotional things!;-)
How did you come up with such a compelling psychological suspense / supernatural thriller?
I really wanted to write about affairs, because they’re such a part of modern life and we all fear infidelity and that betrayal of trust, and yet we’ve all experienced it or been part of it in some way. It’s rare that a relationship ends without another one having begun, or someone cheating, but we all start out promising that we’ll never do anything like that even though the odds are one that at least one side will. I also wanted to write about the fascination women have with each other. We all think we’re the only ones ‘faking’ being good at femininity while every other women is a natural at it, and the strongest situation in which women obsess about each other is during an infidelity. If a husband cheats the wife invariably becomes fascinated by the other woman and vice versa. The man becomes almost just a pawn in a game of ‘what does she have that I don’t?’ I’ve seen it time and time again during personal experiences or the experiences of people I know. I don’t think men obsess about the ‘other man’ in the same way. So I wanted to make a friendship out of that fascination for Adele and Louise.
How difficult was it writing such a dramatic novel knowing that you wanted to make that ending such a dramatic part of the storyline?
Well, I was always working towards that ending so everything is structured to hit that. I’m really pleased with the ending, but I know that it might be marmite for some people! However, the clues are all there. I’m very much against cheating the reader, so I don’t mind if people don’t like it, but if they say it’s a cheat then they need to read it again more carefully because it’s all seeded there through the pages. Plus, I think that aside from the ending it’s a pretty interesting read with the shifting dynamics of the three of them, and not knowing who to trust. I hope it’s that way anyway!
You are known for also writing YA, horror and fantasy as well as adult novelist as well as a screenwriter, is it difficult to switch from style of genre to another?
Ha, to be honest, for me it’s harder to stay in one genre rather than switching. I like to mix genres up a bit and pick a bit from here and a bit from there and blend them. I don’t consider writing YA to be any different to writing for adult to be honest. I try and make the stories as complex as I would for adults. Screenwriting is great for a change of pace and telling stories in a different way and is also really good for improving your dialogue in novels. I find, since doing some screenwriting, I’m tighter with my book scenes. In a script each scene has to ‘do’ something, whereas in a book you can often waffle a bit! I haven’t entirely kicked the waffling yet but I do think about what’s in each chapter more when planning now.
I am always interested in authors typical writing process from start to finish. What is your typical writing day and do you have a ‘special’ place that you call your own were you write your novels? How long did it take to write Behind Her Eyes?
I don’t have a place per se, but I prefer morning writing to evening writing. I used to wake up at 7, get a cup of tea and go back to bed and write for a couple of hours before doing anything else. However, a few weeks ago I adopted a dog and now that routine has changed. There’s a dog walk first and then some writing before the next walk! It’s also hard to say how long a book takes to write because sometimes you’re working on more than one thing (like an edit for a previous book, a short story, a novella, a screenplay etc) at the same time, but on average I’d say six months for a book. I’m slower at the start where a lot of thinking is going on, and then I speed up.
I really enjoyed Behind Her Eyes and I think it will be one of this year’s biggest thrillers, how excited are you about your latest novel?
Oh gosh, that’s such a kind thing to say. If I’m honest I’m somewhere between really excited and really nervous. I was going to do dry January but I think I’d have driven myself and everyone else mad if I had because I’m getting very jittery! I need the odd glass of wine to relax! I’ve been at this game a while now and when at last it looks like something might take off and do well, it feels like such a long wait, and I keep trying to prepare myself for if it doesn’t. But hey ho, I really hope people enjoy it, and my part is done. Whether it’s a success or not is out of my hands now. But I have a US tour in February and I know HarperFiction are all behind it, and I’m really proud of it, so I can’t ask for more than that. Now just to find some hypnotherapy to deal with my fear of flying by February! Ha!
Where do you get your inspiration for your novels?
That’s such a hard question to answer. I tend to keep newspaper articles and stuff to start ideas rolling but they never end up in the final outline. I really don’t know where they come from but I do think that you can train your brain to look for ideas in the world around you so you have stuff filed away to draw on later.
Do you have a favourite author? And what are you reading at present?
I grew up on Stephen King as so many of my age did, but I also loved Wyndham and Du Maurier and I read so much as a teenager in such a wide variety of genres that it’s hard to pinpoint big favourites. I love John Connolly, I also love historical fiction, and I’m lucky enough to get to read a lot of books before they are released, and I’m reading one that arrived on my doormat yesterday called ‘The One’ by John Marrs. It comes out in May and I’m thoroughly enjoying it and not quite sure how it’s going to play out. The premise is that scientist discover we each have a gene that pairs us uniquely with one other person on the planet and it follows five people who ‘meet their match.’ However, it is a thriller and they all have secrets.
Looking back over your writing to career to-date is there one novel that stands out to you as one that you are so proud of you?
Again, that’s hard to answer. They’re all so different. There are books like The Language of Dying and The Death House which are perhaps the most meaningful, but I love the fun of the Fairy Tales, and the complex story of The Dog-Faced Gods etc etc. So, basically – no. I’m pretty proud of all of them in one way or another. Right now, I’m pretty proud of Behind Her Eyes, and also the one that follows that I’m hoping to have finished in the next six weeks or so.
Final question would have to be what advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a writer?
I don’t think anyone really needs advice to become a writer. You just start writing. That’s all it takes. I think some people really like the idea of being a writer, but you have to love writing, or at least be compelled to write and tell stories. You either are a writer or you aren’t. Writers write. That’s all it takes.
My thanks to Sarah Pinborough for taking the time to take part in Meet the Author. My review of Behind Her Eyes is below.
The Last Word Review
‘Do not trust this book.’ ‘Don’t trust this story.’ ‘Don’t trust yourself’ When this is all over the front cover the ‘proof’ copy of Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough then you know there is going to be a major promotional push on this book also coming with the Hashtag #WTFthatending you know you are onto something rather special. Does Behind Her Eyes deliver beyond the hype. You bet it delivers.
Having been avid thriller reader since my younger days (much younger) I have always loved a good tense twisting thriller that leaves you guessing until the very end but also being the reader you are always trying to guess who it was. Now the award winning author Sarah Pinborough has given us a thriller that really will keep you guessing until the very last moment.
The plot is a real twister. Louise meets a guy called David in a bar and she believes this could be the man both having drank one too many and it takes just one fatal lingering kiss and then a few days later find out that this very man is her new boss and also married to Adele. Something about David and Adele is just not right and you along with Louise are being drawn into their married world and slowly the puzzling questions come but for Louise she has no real idea of what she is getting into. For Adele though her love for David is not in question they were desperate for a new start somewhere new. But the cracks in their marriage are there and that is not all as you will want to find out for yourself.
This was one of the most taught and twisting thrillers I have read in a many a year, totally unforgiving. I could not put the book down it slowly burns on you it is not only Louise who is asking herself many questions. My oh my Adele is one character that you must discover for yourself as her past is slowly drip fed to you. So then that Hashtag #WTFthatending indeed it is and that is where I will leave it. Just for you to find out for yourself. I promise you will not guess this one.
Thank you to Jaime Frost for the advanced review copy.
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is published by Harper Collins and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
MEET THE AUTHOR
RUTH DOWNIE ~ VITA BREVIS
As part of the Vita Brevis Official Blog Tour I am delighted to welcome to the latest in a series of Meet the Author interviews Ruth Downie to talk about her latest novel Vita Brevis which is has just been released by Bloomsbury and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognitta, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.
Congratulations on the release of Vita Brevis just released now out in hardback the 7th book in the Medicus series, can you tell you tell us a little of what Vita Brevis is about?
Thank you! It’s a story featuring the regular characters of the series, Roman legionary doctor Ruso and his British partner Tilla. Most of the other books have been set in Britain but this time they’re in Rome, where Ruso takes over what he thinks is a reputable medical practice only to find a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and a message saying, “Be careful who you trust.”
Vita Brevis – A Gaius Ruso Mystery (Out now)
I guess the question you must have been asked many times why a series of crime novels set in the Roman Empire?
To my shame, even though I went to school in Colchester—which was the first Roman town Boudica burned down—I never realised how fascinating the Roman Empire was until we took our children to visit Hadrian’s Wall. Right on the line of this stark barrier between Roman and Barbarian, there’s a caption in the Housesteads museum that reads, “Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but they were allowed to have relationships with local women”.
I felt this raised rather more questions than it answered, and since the only record we have of any of these ‘local women’ is the occasional name on a tombstone or a curse, there were plenty of tempting gaps to fill with fiction.
As for the crime element—I have to admit that when my agent looked at my proposal for a rambling tale of passion and conflict, she handed it back with, “Much too much plot, and put a crime in it.” She was absolutely right: crime fiction gives a writer the chance to explore all sorts of interesting things while providing a structure that means you can’t ramble on indefinitely. At least, I hope not.
The two leading characters are Ruso and Tilla now have a baby daughter. How have you managed to keep the couple so engaging with your readers?
Good question! Having been largely brought up on a diet of “and they got married and lived happily ever after” I was afraid that once characters became a couple, they’d be less interesting. Then I realised that there’s always going to be at least one other party causing tension in their relationship: there’s Ruso’s commitment to his duty, and for Tilla there’s the tension of not wanting to betray her own people while feeling herself sliding into collusion with the occupiers. I was also worried that once they had a baby, one of them would end up doing all the detecting while the other one had to stay at home and babysit. So that’s one of the issues they tackle in the book.
How difficult is it to write a series of crime novels set against the backdrop of ancient Rome? What would you say are the main challenges you face as far as research goes?
The good thing about it is that Rome had no police force in the sense that we understand it, so nobody’s going to be asking “why don’t they fetch the police?” when things get a bit tricky—always a problem when you’re writing about an amateur sleuth. It’s also a relief to know there are no present-day police officers out there clutching their heads in despair at my inept grasp of their procedures. (Although there may be a few classicists, of course.) With no mobile phones to call for help, it’s relatively easy to get your characters into trouble.
On the other hand, it takes ages to get anybody anywhere and when you need to send a complicated message, you have work out how fast the ship/horse/runner can travel, and then allow for the weather. This used to be a nightmare until some kind souls at Stanford produced an interactive website showing exactly that – http://orbis.stanford.edu/ I’m sure they have no idea of the joy they’ve given to a lot of writers.
The real challenge of research, I think, is that in order to create a world that you—and hopefully some readers—can believe in, you need to check out all sorts of things that don’t go in the book, but are necessary to underpin what does. Who’s in charge? Where does everyone’s food come from? Who’s really in charge? What language are they speaking? Who are they afraid of? How are the houses built? What do the door-latches look like? Are there sheets on the beds? (You’d be amazed at how much time I wasted on that one.)
In fact, please can I rescind the start of that last paragraph and put it here instead? The real challenge of research is knowing when to stop playing about with it and get on with the writing
Where do you carry out your research and then write your books, would it be that you spend time in libraries and museums to get the inspiration for your next historical crime novel?
I did all of my early research through libraries and museums and visiting sites—basically anything that didn’t cost a lot of money or involve talking to people, because I was too embarrassed. Since then I’ve learned that people who have expertise are often incredibly generous and helpful. There are also some excelllent courses available online now, many of them free. Anything Ruso knows about the abdomen or the upper limb has been learned from anatomy lectures on the internet—although he’d be amazed at some of what’s in my notes, because he’s restricted to the knowledge that was around in the second century. Luckily we still have many of the textbooks that would have been available to him, so there’s plenty of information to draw on.
Another great resource is experimental archaeology and re-enactment groups. The best of them are meticulous in their research and it’s always inspiring to walk into ‘real’ houses and to meet people who make and wear the kit, use the weapons (carefully!) and cook the food.
Ideas for new stories, though, usually come from a place. The third book, where Ruso and Tilla visit his family in Gaul, started out with a visit to the amphitheatre at Nimes. I couldn’t think of anything new to put in the arena but the maze of corridors and stairs below the seating was just crying out for a chase scene.
I talk to a lot of writers about their writing process and the one question I have to ask is are they a night or a day writer. Do you have a quiet place to write?
Well I’m definitely not an early morning writer! As a deadline approaches the work carries on later and later into the evening and when things are really desperate I sometimes decamp to the library during the day to get away from distractions. At home, though, I’ve progressed from a desk and a noticeboard in the bedroom to a whole room full of books and stuff that isn’t really junk. Honestly.
Do you have a favourite part of the history of Roman empire? do you have a favourite Roman?
I seem to have burrowed down into the reign of Hadrian without ever really intending to, but it’s a good time to write about because so much was happening. He was a man of wide interests and vast energy who travelled about the empire inspecting and improving things. (Whether people wanted them improved, or not.) There are also tantalising scraps of evidence about a crushed rebellion in Britain at the start of his reign—just enough to make my Britons very resentful but not so much that I have to write battle scenes, which I couldn’t do at all.
As for my favourite Roman—Hadrian was a gifted emperor, but he comes across as a bit of a know-it-all. I’d go for his wife, Sabina. We don’t know much about her, but around about the time he was visiting Britannia, she was involved in some sort of scandal with his top men. This was great news for me because Ruso and Tilla could get involved in it. Apparently he told people she was moody and difficult and she said she refused to give him children because any child of his would harm the human race. Despite this bracing honesty, they were together for decades and the marriage only ended with her death. I’d love to have met her and asked how they did it.
I was reading through your website and you have taken part in some archaeological digs. How important is this to you and is there one site dig that has been important to you?
The fascination of Roman Britain for me is that it isn’t some ‘other place’. It’s here, under our feet, shaping the roads we drive along and the cities where lots of us live. For many years I was privileged to be part of a community group excavating a Roman villa site in Northamptonshire—you can see more at www.whitehallvilla.co.uk. I’ll never be a classicist or an historian but I know what substantial chunks of Roman Britain feel like when you pick them up and scrape the mud off them. And that, for me, is priceless.
What are you reading at present and do you have a favourite writer?
I’m currently enjoying Tony Dixon’s Bristol Channel Gypsies – the story of the lifeboats that used to patrol the waters near where I live – http://tinyurl.com/z8teu62 and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. http://tinyurl.com/jjxz62b
Favourite writer? It varies, but I’m awfully fond of Martin Cruz Smith’s Detective Renko. A total hero.
With Vita Brevis now out in the shops have you started to plan your next writing project?
Oh yes. It’s the eighth book in the Medicus series, it’ll be set in Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) and my editor is expecting it on 1 November. So I may be spending a lot of time in the library this month!
My thanks to Ruth Downie for joining me on Meet the Author. For those wishing to learn more about Ruth’s novels you can visit her website Ruth Downie.com and you can follow Ruth on Twitter @ruthdownie
Vita Brevis and all of Ruth’s previous novels are available at Amazon.co.uk/VitaBrevis
You can follow the Official Vita Brevis Blog Tour:
MEET THE AUTHOR
~ KATIE MARSH ~
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I am delighted to welcome the wonderful Katie Marsh who’s second book A Life Without You has just recently hit the bookshops also her highly acclaimed debut novel My Everything both published through Hodder & Stoughton. Here we talk about Katie’s books and life as an author.
Congratulations on your second novel A Life Without You for those that are about to discover your book for the first time can you give us a brief synopsis.
The book tells the story of Zoe, who is about to get married when she gets a call telling her that her estranged mum Gina needs her help. She leaves the wedding, putting her relationship in jeopardy and the book follows them as they reconnect, only for Zoe to discover that Gina is showing signs of early-onset dementia. It’s about the two of them becoming close again against the ticking clock of Gina’s illness, and about coming to terms with the past before it’s too late and making the most of every moment you have.
Your second novel is a poignant story of the relationship of a mother and daughter. Where did the inspiration for A Life Without You come from?
My granny had Alzheimer’s, and for years I watched my mum trying to look after her and making such difficult decisions in order to try to keep her safe. Her bravery was a major source of inspiration to me in writing this book. Equally, I thought of the idea when I had just become a mum for the first time. Every chapter ends with a letter from Gina to Zoe, written on every birthday, from first to the present day. Through them the reader learns about how close they once were, and about the family secret that rips them apart. They are my favourite part of the book and were inspired by letters I write to my own daughter on her birthdays. I found motherhood seismic, to say the least and so the book is very influenced by that – the fact that when you become a mum you try to do the best for your child but never really know whether what you’re doing is right.
When you decided to write second novel you must have had to face a lot of research, what challenges did you come across during the writing process and how long did it take to write?
I think the challenge with this book was how very personal it was – keeping the story and structure tight while trying to convey the depth of emotion I wanted was incredibly difficult. Also, it was my first book written under contract and as such it took only a year (my first published novel, ‘My Everything’ took five). There were some long nights at the keyboard, and my structural edit notes were about ten pages long, but I have a brilliant editor who really helped me to unwind the good from the bad and keep the book pacey, humorous and – hopefully – moving.
As an author how do you decide on the characters that you want to play in you books?
I am not a planner and I find that the characters do just tend to walk straight into my head. In this book Gina came first – fully formed, while Zoe took longer to fix on the page. Then came the rest of their family and Zoe’s fiancé, Jamie, and there was my main cast of characters!
You previously worked in healthcare has this played a major role in writing your books?
Definitely. I saw so many emotions while working in hospitals and clinics around the country – and so much bravery all around me no matter where I was based. My writing tends to walk the line between laughter and tears, and my years in the NHS were definitely key to me deciding what kind of books I wanted to write. I found it incredibly inspiring seeing people cope with so many challenges with so much humour, bravery and determination.
I talk to a lot of authors about their writing routines, some are more creative in the early hours and some are happy in a bustling environment. Can you tell us about your typical writing day?
I have to start early, or my day slides into oblivion. I am usually up and writing by 7 and I write all morning. In the afternoons I do my research, catch up on emails and – of course – pretend I’m not spending too much time on Twitter.
How has the process of writing your second book A Life Without You differed from your first book My Everything?
It was a LOT quicker. It did feel pretty pressurised, as I wasn’t used to the book in a year cycle, and I did come pretty close to the wire on my deadlines. However, as I now have an expert agent and editor to read early drafts, I found it a much more satisfying process, as the book took shape more quickly with their help.
How has the journey to become an author been, how long did it take to have your first book published?
It took me ten years to progress from writing my first word of fiction to seeing my first novel in print. I wrote two novels that didn’t quite make it along the way, and was just about to give up when I thought of the idea for ‘My Everything’ and it wouldn’t let me go. Once I’d finished it five years later, I quickly got an agent and got a two-book deal with Hodder a few months later after yet another edit.
Do you have any advice for any writers out there seeking to start their journey to become an author?
I found Twitter incredibly helpful and supportive – and I actually first met my agent, Hannah Ferguson, via a friend I made on the site. So I’d recommend getting on there, and also just reading a lot and writing a lot. Everyone always says that, but it’s TRUE.
Some writers I talk to never read any reviews about their books and some hang on every word written about them. Are you a reader of reviews people have written?
I certainly am. So far I’ve been pretty lucky, and I’m learning not to take the bad ones personally – as one of the joys of books and reading is that everyone has such differing tastes. I also store away the lovely reviews and read them when I feel stuck on my current book – I find they help me to keep the faith when I’m really struggling to get a story into shape.
Are there any writers that have inspired you to become a writer?
Many. Jojo Moyes. Rowan Coleman and Rosamund Lupton would all feature here, but also childhood writers like Cynthia Voigt or Dodie Smith. They made me love stories and writing, so are probably exceedingly responsible for my choice of profession!
Now that you have two books under your belt and now an established author, what motivates to want to write more books?
There are so many stories in my head – I very much doubt I will ever write them all down. I can’t imagine I would ever stop voluntarily and I am training my daughter to be a story addict too – I love making up stories for her starring her toys and friends.
Do you have a favourite book of all time?
Argh. The nightmare. If I did have to answer, it would be an equal tie between ‘I capture the castle’ by Dodie Smith and ‘Wonder’ by RJ Palacio.
Are you planning a summer holiday? What will you be reading?
I’ve actually already been on holiday (Cornwall – amazing). But over the next few weeks I’m reading several Tamar Cohen’s (I have just discovered her), Cathy Rentzenbrink’s ‘The Last Act of Love’ and the new Emily Giffin. I can’t wait.
What’s next for Katie Marsh author?
I am about to hand in the first draft of my third book which I am utterly overexcited about. I have been wanting to write it for years and while I can’t give anything away I can say that I can’t WAIT to share it with you all.
My thanks to Katie Marsh for taking the time to answer some questions on Meet the Author. For more on Katie Marsh visit her website Katie-Marsh.com
You can follow Katie on Twitter via: @marshisms
If you have not yet discovered both books by Katie the links below will take you to both. And they are truly worth reading.
My Review of: My Everything
My Review of: A Life Without You
The Wolf Road – Beth Lewis
The Official Blog Tour
MEET THE AUTHOR
BETH LEWIS – THE WOLF ROAD
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I am delighted to welcome Beth Lewis to talk about her stunning debut novel The Wolf Road which is has just been released through The Borough Press and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
Congratulations on your debut novel The Wolf Road, can you tell you tell us a little of what The Wolf Road is about?
The Wolf Road is about Elka, a young girl who discovers the man who raised her, is a killer. Upon finding this out, she flees into a scarred wilderness to find her real parents but neither the man, Trapper, nor the law on his tail, aren’t letting her go that easily. To me, it’s about a girl’s journey, about facing her demons and trying to find her own place in the world.
How did you come up with such a compelling post- apocalyptic storyline?
Firstly, thank you for calling it compelling! It was pretty organic. I had a start point, Elka in the trees watching the man she once loved, I had a moment in the middle, and a vague sense of where I wanted Elka to end up, but other than that, it all came together on its own. It’s that old, annoying thing writers say, ‘the character led the story’ but Elka really did. Like hell I could make her do anything she didn’t want to do!
Can you give us a little idea of the research that was required to write such an extraordinary book?
Thank you! The research was the best part. I was already an ardent, long-time fan of survival shows and movies, and nature documentaries, so knew I wanted to write something set in the wild. I had the base knowledge of the area and skills but I wanted a more hands-on experience so I spent a weekend in the woods learning bushcraft and survival skills. I slept in the woods, built a shelter, made fires, set traps and prepared game. I was uncomfortable and hungry and cold, woke up shivering, covered in dew. It was brilliant and gave me invaluable, real experience to draw on for Elka’s story.
The cover art design is incredible. Did you come up with the idea for the artwork?
I can’t take any credit for that! Dom Forbes at HarperCollins designed the cover and it’s just perfect, he did a fantastic job. My only real input was saying I liked bold, typographical covers. They took that, ran with it, and came up with something striking and beautiful.
I always like to ask authors about their writing process, how long did it take to write The Wolf Road? And do you have a ‘quiet’ location where you write?
It took about three months to write, all over one rather frenzied summer. Looking back on it, it’s mostly a blur but I remember it being crazy fun. My wife told me I was a nightmare during that summer but I think she’s happy with the results.
In terms of a ‘quiet’ location, hell no. I can’t write in silence but I can’t write to music either. I spent my weekends and days off in a café. White noise, no TV, and rubbish WiFi are key ingredients to my perfect writing environment.
How does it feel now that you have your first novel published? Are there plans for a book tour?
It still feels unreal, even after seeing it in bookshops. It’s always been my dream to have a book published, right from childhood. It’s the reason I work in publishing and the reason I spend my evenings and weekends hunched over a laptop, so to have that dream come true takes a bit of getting used to. It’s amazing and I’m so thankful. I’m not sure about a book tour at this stage but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Do you have a favourite author? And what are you reading at present?
It’s too hard to pick just one favourite but I adore David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and I loved The North Water by Ian McGuire, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and so many more. I’m currently reading Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting and Barkskins by Annie Proulx, what can I say, I like trees!
For your chance to win a copy of The Wolf Road read on.
The Last Word Review
As debut novels go The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis stands as a post-apocalyptic novel that takes the reader on a journey into the wilderness of North America. Written through the words of the leading character Elka a young lady brought up by a man she only knows as ‘Trapper’ a hunter and very much a loner. This following a storm in what Elka knows as ‘the Big Stupid’ an apocalyptic event. Without spoiling for the reader I will let them decide what this event was.
Trapper has looked after Elka whereas she would not have survived alone and so young, I would not go as far to say they lived a happy peaceful life together but more or less co-existed. He taught her to hunt and stay alive the very things needed in this ‘new’ world following the ‘event’.
While venturing into town Elka discovers the Trapper has a name Kreagar Hallet and he is wanted for murder. This changes everything for Elka and she realises she can no longer stay with the man who has been looking after her. She needs to escape and now we join her on a journey to try and find her real parents. If indeed they are still alive. Out in the wilderness were you must fight to stay alive where others would wish you harm. But there was something else about that wanted poster that puts Elka’s life in real danger. She is being hunted. This is an enthralling epic adventure that from the very first page Beth Lewis snares the reader and you face every twist and turn with Elka. It is brilliantly written and as dark and sinister the plot is there is some great humour added.
The real beauty for me was in the fact that all the hunting and survival skills that ‘Trapper’ taught her she uses in the wilderness to stay alive, now the real Elka comes forward as she fights the elements right down to catching and killing for food you are alongside her every step of her journey out of the hell and the darkness of her past. Imagine being out in the devastated wilderness and fearing you are being followed and hunted down, you run for fear you run for the fear of what will happen to you if they catch you. And Elka does run as fast as she can. This is a land were law and order does not exist so it is a fight for survival and trusting only yourself. As time moves on Elka starts to think about the past and she starts to question herself and was she Kreagar’s accomplice what was her role in all that took place. She must put this aside to keep her safe.
The Wolf Road is a remarkable story and one of the best stories of survival it is an astonishingly brilliant in the way the voice of Elka comes through every page it is unique in how her voice is transcribed onto the reader. Very quickly you will be accustomed to Elka’s personality and style of language.
I must admit to loving The Wolf Road and the story of a brave tough young lady fighting her surroundings and fighting to survive. A stunning debut novel from Beth Lewis and one I am delighted to recommend.
Thank you to Jaime Frost at The Borough Press for the advanced review copy.
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis and published by The Borough Press was released on 30 June 2016 and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
The Wolf Road Official Blog Tour 2016.
You have read the interview with Beth Lewis and then my review, so now I have wetted your appetite, do you fancy winning a copy?
Now here is your chance to win a copy of the excellent The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis Just head over to my Twitter feed @Thelastword1962 and follow and Retweet the pinned review tweet and you will be entered into the draw. (UK Only) The free draw closes on today 8th July 2016 at 20.00hrs. The winner will be selected at random and notified via a DM through Twitter and a copy will be sent out by the publishers.
The French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold
MEET THE AUTHOR
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk Hallie Rubenhold about her latest historical novel The French Lesson which is has just been released through Doubleday and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
I began by asking Hallie about her latest novel.
Congratulations on your latest book The French Lesson published by Doubleday. Being a lover of history and historical novels, I have to admit at enjoying it very much. As it is just published can you give a brief synopsis of The French Lesson?
I’m so pleased you enjoyed The French Lesson! I always have a very hard time giving a synopsis of this book because I feel I’m too close to it to be able to discern the woods from the trees.
It’s about a lot of things, but I think it’s quite well summarised in the phrase, ‘it’s Dangerous Liaisons meets A Tale of Two Cities’, with a little bit of Thackeray thrown in for good measure. The French Lesson is the second book in a trilogy about my heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot and how she evolves from being an innocent girl to a scheming woman (which hints at what’s to come in the third novel). It’s told in first person, as a memoir when Henrietta is much older and involved in an on-going battle over reputation with her very dysfunctional family. I won’t reveal anything more than that as there are many twists and turns in this story and I don’t want to give anything away. Although it’s part of a trilogy, it’s also very much a stand-alone read.
What made you want to be an historian and historical writer and become involved in broadcasting and historical consultancy work for television drama’s such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?
I’ve always loved history, writing and filmmaking since I was a child. In fact they really are just extensions of the same thing – story telling. I find the past fascinating and I think that growing up somewhere where a sense of the past was so noticeably absent – Los Angeles – made me more desirous of connecting with it on some level. I also blame the place of my birth for my interest in film.
Do you think history is important today?
History is absolutely important today, however if we define history as simply a memorised roll call of names and dates, then it loses all meaning. I feel very sad when I hear that this definition of history is what so many people associate with the subject.
Personally, I feel that social history has the most relevance in our lives – it’s fundamental that we understand how we lived and how we have evolved as a society. History is and should be the study of what it means to be human.
Is there a favourite period in history that you like to write about?
The period called the Long Eighteenth Century (c. 1680 – 1837) really is the era that I most love, though I find the nineteenth century and the seventeenth century pretty fascinating too.
If you were about to make a long journey and could take only one historical book with you what would that book be? Apologies for putting you on the spot with this one?
I’m assuming you mean historical novel. I’d take Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which is one of my all-time favourites. This novel is so layered that I’d never tire of re-reading it and contemplating the complexities of its characters.
I like talking to authors about their writing routines, some can be creative in the early hours and others like to write in busy coffee shops with the hustle and bustle of everyday life around them, can you tell me about your writing routines and what motivates you.
I’m useless in the morning and have always been so. I’m not a great sleeper so my brain usually doesn’t kick into gear until after 10 am. If I’m working from home I try to do my chores in the morning – answer emails, go to the gym, the supermarket, etc and then settle into work around lunch time. I try to work from the London Library at least a couple of days a week when they have late opening. This means I can interact with other people, which keeps me sane. The London Library is a great resource for writers – there’s a nice community of us there and we’re all quite supportive of each other’s work.
I tend to work fairly late into the evening, unless I’m going out. Often I’m writing until midnight, with breaks for dinner and coffee. I seem to really hit my stride after 4pm, which annoyingly is when many people are just starting to wind down their working day.
I love the silence of a deserted library in the evenings. I love it when my mobile stops ringing and the emails taper off. That’s pure writing bliss.
With your busy schedule do you get time to read? Are you currently reading a book at present?
I’m a very peculiar and fussy reader. When I’m writing fiction I can’t read fiction as I find that the voices of other authors start to intrude on my own. I read nonfiction when I’m writing my novels, and I read novels when I’m writing my nonfiction. At the moment I’ve been reading a lot of late nineteenth century journalism and commentary about the lives of the poor which will factor into my next book. I’ve just finished Jack London’s People of the Abyss, which was completely absorbing.
Are currently working on another project?
My next book is going to be a nonfiction book about the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper. It’s absolutely shocking that in nearly 130 year’s no one has ever thought to write a collective history of these women’s lives. The amazing thing is that everything we think we know about them is wrong. Only one among the five was what might be considered ‘a career prostitute’. None of them came from the East End – they were from all over. One of them came from Sweden, another had lived on a country estate as the wife of a coachman. With the exception of one, all of the women were in their 40s, and most had been married and had children.
I’m really excited about writing The Five, which hopefully should be completed within two years. Watch this space!
I am extremely grateful to Hallie Rubenhold for taking the time out of her busy schedule to take part in ‘Meet the Author’. If you would like more information on Hallie’s work or further details of The French Lesson please visit Hallie’s website: HallieRubenhold.com
My thoughts on The French Lesson
The new historical novel by Hallie Rubenhold called The French Lesson is the second book in a trilogy about Henrietta Lightfoot and is written looking back at her time in Paris during the bloody French Revolution.
We find Henrietta caught up in the bloodletting that has set neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend and even Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are not immune from the Revolution and are imprisoned. Henrietta’s lover has let her go and despite the fact she could have escaped the fighting and gone back to London our heroine chooses to stay and sets off in pursuit of her one great love George William Allenham and soon there is trouble for Henrietta as well as grave danger and she needs help and support to survive.
Along comes Grace Dalrymple Elliott no ordinary woman is our Grace, she has a reputation and soon Henrietta soon falls under the protection of Grace but with this comes one very heavy price to our heroine and she comes face to face with some of the most powerful women in France and she put her own life on the line as she tries to find her lover.
The French Lesson is a fabulous gripping account at a time of war and tyranny and the smell of blood is in the air and heads are rolling literally. This is so wonderfully written with a blend of factual and real life people put together in a tale of love and lust and nothing is as it seems as the old order is put to the sword or the guillotine. This is not to be missed.
The French Lesson follows on from the first book Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot- Mistress of Fate and the third book will follow in time but The French Lesson can be easily read as a stand-alone book.
My thanks to Patsy Irwin at Transworld Publishers for a review copy.
The French Lesson written by Hallie Rubenhold and published by Doubleday and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
FREE PRIZE DRAW
Now here is your chance to win a copy of the excellent The French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold. Just head over to my Twitter feed @Thelastword1962 and follow and Retweet the pinned review tweet. You will be entered into the draw. Terms and Conditions: Open to UK residents only. The free draw closes on Monday evening at 20.00hrs 25t April 2016 and entries after this time will be excluded. The winner will be selected at random and a copy will be sent out by the publishers.
MEET THE AUTHOR
~THE A-Z OF YOU AND ME~
OFFICIAL BLOG TOUR 2015
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk to James Hannah about his debut best-selling novel The A-Z of You and Me which is published in paperback today by Doubleday.
I must begin by asking as a debut novel how did the idea of The A-Z of You and Me come about?
‘For long and complex reasons which I’ve just explained in full and now deleted, I happened to be thinking about forces and structures to which we are all subject. Everybody uses a language, and everybody has a body of some description. It was a short hop to wonder what it would be like if you took a Gray’s Anatomy reference book and read it from cover to cover to find that the ‘body’ being anatomized was an actual character with a dramatic back-story. So that’s where the kernel of the book came from.
From there I engaged in a mechanical process of answering the questions that the structure posed: Why is our character dividing up his body like this? Answer: he’s playing a listing game. Why? To occupy his mind. Why? His mind is fretful. Why? He’s gravely ill. Why?
And so on.
So it was initially from very mechanical beginnings that I came up with the idea. It was only afterwards that a purer story began to fill in the spaces and take over from the alphabet – and it was a story that I had no notion that I was going to write’
How challenging did you find the premise of the story line connecting body parts A-Z and flashbacks of the leading character ‘Ivo’?
‘Persuading the whole story to flow and connect was initially surprisingly easy and eventually surprisingly difficult. I was happy to relinquish control of precisely what happened to Ivo, so I was happy to be guided by whatever body parts were around at the time. Whatever stories I thought of, that’s who Ivo is.
The obvious place to start was at the difficult letters: what was going to happen at Q? X? Z? So these were the body parts I started with, and I retrofitted the rest of the alphabet around the more stubborn plot points.
So far, so good.
The further I progressed, however, the more the story began to take over and strain against the body parts. The example that always leaps to mind is ‘G’. It became apparent that the ‘love/romance’ plot (between Ivo and Mia) needed to get moving at around the G section. Any sooner and I wouldn’t have had to time to establish other elements; any later and it would become too much of a squeeze on the rest of the plot. ‘G’ is, it so happens, a singularly unpromising zone of the body-part alphabet to get any kind of romance going. So, establishing Ivo and Mia’s relationship took some creative mirroring and echoing across the E, F, G, H sections. It was very hard work.
What remains in the final book is a tight negotiation between what the story wanted to be, and what the body parts would permit. I wouldn’t have it any other way: this story has really had to fight to be told’
It is story of love and regret but with some wonderfully funny moments, was the storyline a difficult one to write? How long did it take to write The A-Z of You and Me?
‘I felt my primary task in choosing this already-sad subject was to realise it in as kind and funny and humane a way as possible. That generates pathos, which helps in contemplating certain awful situations; it’s still possible to smile when you’re crying.
I owe it to the hospices that have hosted such experiences in my family’s life to represent them without melodrama. Rather than being difficult, writing The A to Z of You and Me served as a way to process the grief and other experiences my family and friends have been through in recent times.
Certain elements of the back story – the plot involving Amber and the woman in the room next door – emerged unbidden to coax my main plot into a better, more progressive place.
I like the fact that you can say the same about the book that you can say about a hospice: OK, this is a sad place, but there’s a lot of wrong things people would presume about it. There’s a lot of love and pleasure in it too’
What was the last book you read?
I tend to have a couple of books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. The non-fiction book I most recently finished was ‘Threads’, the biography of artist/fisherman John Craske by Julia Blackburn, which invades and occupies your mind in a quite fantastic manner. One can only aspire to generating such a connection with one’s subject.
Aside: Do you think the pronoun ‘one’ will soon be obsolete? Or is it the gender-neutral answer we’ve all been asking for? Discuss.
Fiction-wise I’ve just finished the soon-to-be-published The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, a cautionary tale of curtain-twitchers who take against one of their number. Keep and eye out for it; it’s really sparkily written, thought-provoking and compassionate in its portrayal of difference in suburbia.
Are you writing a new novel and will this be something completely different to that of your first book?
‘At the moment I’m concentrating on being a good husband and father after many years of editorial hair-tearing, hand-wringing and head-hanging. And that’s just the Hs.
But when the time arrives I’d like to work to another ‘universal’ structure and see what the dynamics are in that. In theory I could spend my entire time rewriting the alphabet over and over while choosing different paths from the start. But maybe I should try something else’
I am extremely grateful to James Hannah for taking the time to take part in ‘Meet the Author’. If you would like more information on James Hannah’s work or further details of The A-Z of You and Me please visit http://www.jameshannah.com/
MEET THE AUTHOR
SHARON BOLTON – LITTLE BLACK LIES
OFFICIAL BLOG TOUR 2015
In the Fifth of a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk to best-selling author Sharon Bolton about Little Black Lies, the chilling dark thriller based on the Falkland Islands. This is a special edition to coincide with the launch and official blog tour. You can read my review of Little Black Lies Here
What made you think of the Falkland Islands for a setting for Little Black Lies?
I love island settings. I love their physical constraints and the impact these have upon a book’s spirit. I love their closed, claustrophobic communities with their own social customs and moral codes. I love the sense that anything is possible, that one has stepped into a world apart, and that when the sun goes down, there is no escape. Islands are perfect for the books I write. The trouble is, most British islands have already featured in more than one crime novel and I really wanted somewhere new. I was talking about this one day when a friend of mine suggested the Falkland Islands. I wasn’t sure at first, but the more I found out about them, the more perfect they seemed. A place we have all heard of, and yet know practically nothing about. More British than Britain, in many ways, and yet so remote as to be verging on the alien.
As part of the research for the book did you visit the islands? How long where you there for?
My visit to the Falkland Islands is yet to take place! I’m sure some readers will question my failure to visit already, but what people often don’t realise is how tight the timescale is for producing commercial fiction. I have less than a year from deciding to write a particular story to seeing it go to print. When I factored in the distance, school holidays and the different hemisphere (my book is set in Spring, so my trip would have had to be in our Winter) a visit just wasn’t practical. Instead, I relied heavily upon desk research, more formally through books and websites, less so through social media. I was also lucky enough to have some people who do know the islands well read through and check the final draft.
For a dark psychological thriller set in the South Atlantic what where the challenges you faced in coming up with the plot?
The setting itself presented few challenges as far as the plot was concerned. The plot of Little Black Lies could work in any tight-knit community. For me, the importance of the setting was in the atmosphere it lends to the book and also in its impact upon the characters and their behaviour. For all that the islands are British and should feel very familiar, I wanted a sense of: ‘things are done differently, here.’
Little Black Lies deals with many themses such as ‘Friendship, Grief, Jealousy to name but a few, was this your intention to highlight some key themes as part of the story line?
No. For me, themes are an added bonus. My novels are invariably so complex that I can only really focus upon the plot when I’m planning and even drafting a book. The characters, themes, atmosphere, etc, all have to take care of themselves. at least for the first couple of drafts. What does usually happen, though, is that themes emerge as the writing process continues. When I spot this, I can build upon it, adapt events to bring a particular theme to centre stage, adjust character development, but I would never try, artificially, to impose a theme upon a story. I think the result would be very clumsy and obvious.
For me, the key issues arising from Little Black Lies are a) how can those whose lives have been devastated find a way home and b) how do we ever really know what we are capable of, until we’re put to the test?
When you wrote Little Black Lies were you conscious of some the issues that the storyline brings to the reader such as suicidal thoughts and self hatred and was this difficult to write about?
All my books are difficult to write. They all deal with events and problems that we hope never to come across in our normal lives. Catrin is living our worst nightmare and naturally it was difficult to put myself into her shoes. When I came to Rachel’s point of view, in many ways it was even worse. Suffering a terrible tragedy is one thing, being responsible for that of someone you love is quite another entirely.
How long did it take you to ‘pen’ Little Black Lies and would you say it was your best novel to-date?
It takes a year, from start to finish, to complete a novel and this usually involves the input of several other people, including agents and editors. I’m pleased with Little Black Lies, but ‘best’ is a very subjective judgement. There are people who still think Sacrifice is my best novel, and probably always will, no matter how much I might feel I’ve improved since then.
Thank you to Sharon Bolton for taking the time to talk to me ahead of the launch of Little Black Lies which is published on 2 July by Bantam Press
Competition time. If you would like the chance to win a copy of Little Black Lies. Head over to my Twitter feed @Thelastword1962 just retweet the message to enter the draw. The competition closed at 9pm today and the winner will be drawn and contacted on Wednesday morning. Good luck.
Details of the Little Black Lies Blog Tour 2015
MEET THE AUTHOR
In the Fourth of a series of Meet the Author Interviews I talk to Wendy Holden about Born Survivors and the story of three courageous women who defied death to bring life and why this has become her ‘legacy’ work.
You have written a number of historical books, what made you want to write about the three incredible and brave women?
I came across an online obituary of a woman who’d been in Auschwitz and who’d had a baby there that had died. It made me realise that I had never before read a book that gave a full account of any babies born during the Holocaust who had survived. I was staggered to discover that in 70 years no such book had been written to my knowledge, so I decided to investigate further.
Born Survivors is about three women. Priska, Rachel and Anka who were all pregnant when they entered Auschwitz II-Birkenau. How did you come across their stories?
My research first led me to Eva, Anka’s baby, who happened to live an hour from me in Cambridge, England. After spending an emotional day with her as she told me about her mother, I asked if she would allow me the privilege of writing her story and that I believed it to be unique. She told me she had been waiting for me for 70 years but that five years previously she had discovered almost by chance that two other mothers who had shared the same journey as her mother had also given birth to babies who’d survived. Each of them were only children and had since become “siblings of the heart”. Even though it would be three times the research, I knew then that I had to encompass all three stories into one epic volume.
What were the main challenges you faced during research and writing Born Survivors?
Keeping control of my emotions. It was extremely harrowing to visit Auschwitz and the other key places in the story with my three mothers so fresh in my mind. I have a vivid writer’s imagination and it was painful to see these sites through their eyes and walk in their footsteps knowing how frightened they must have been. But I also knew that unless I did that and felt some of their fear then I wouldn’t be able to convey that to the reader.
Their stories are remarkable & incredibly brave, how did they manage to keep their pregnancies secret?
Each of them would say that it was luck – luck that they were relatively young, fit and healthy when they were first sent to Auschwitz. Luck that they were thrown inappropriate random baggy clothing that hid their tiny bumps. Luck that they were fed little more than a liquid diet for seven months and each went down to under five stone (70lbs). Luck that they didn’t injure themselves or die of disease or lice infestation along the way. Luck that their pregnancies weren’t spotted by the SS guards who would have sent them back to Auschwitz and Dr Mengele.
The three women gave birth in differing circumstances. What happened?
Priska gave birth on a plank in the slave labour factory while her SS guards leered and took bets on the gender of the baby. Rachel gave birth in an open coal wagon on a 17-day train journey to be gassed, surrounded by dead or dying women. Anka gave birth on a cart full of dying women at the gates of the camp they were finally sent to.
The fact that all three women and their babies survived shows there was an element of luck as well as their mothers’ determination to make sure their babies survived ?
As discussed, luck played a huge part but knowing that they had a tiny life growing inside them and hoping that they would one day be reunited with the husbands they had married for love definitely kept them going.
In the end how were they liberated?
The Nazis had run out of gas by the time the mothers arrived at Mauthausen, the final camp, so they were left to rot or starve in the barracks as the guards fled. A week later the Americans arrived and were horrified to find such conditions in the camp. Although 40,000 prisoners were initially liberated at least 1000 died in the days following liberation – of disease or from eating food after months of ,starvation.
How poorly were the mothers and their new babies when they were liberated?
They described themselves as walking skeletons and were extremely vulnerable to typhus and other diseases. The babies were suffering from chronic malnutrition and both mothers and children were riddled with sores from lice bites
At the war’s end, when they were finally allowed to go home, what happened to the three women and their children, with no home to go to, where did they finally settle and call home?
Going home was traumatic – they each lost large numbers of their immediate families their homes and possessions had been stolen from them so they had no money and nobody to support them. Rachel ended up in America after a few years in Israel, Priska returned to her home country – now Slovakia – and stayed there until she died, and Anka came to live in Cardiff, UK. Rachel and Anka remarried and all made new lives for themselves and all lived to a ripe old age.
We have been talking about Priska, Rachel and Anka and there newborn babies but what happened to their husbands. Did any of them survive the concentration camps?
Sadly, all three husbands were murdered by the Nazis and each almost at the end of the war having suffered great privation in ghettos and concentration camps. It was my dream to be able to find out precisely what happened to each of them and where they might be buried but I soon discovered the problem that so many survivors faced which was that it is likely that nobody wil ever know.
As the three children grew older did their mothers confide in them as to how and where they were born?
Each of them grew up knowing that their fathers were killed during the war. Many of their schoolfriends had also lost parents and grandparents in the war so it didn’t seem that unusual. Mark’s mother told him he had been born on a train and he assumed it was a regular passenger train until he discovered the terrible truth later. None of them discovered the full horror until they were teenagers and mothers fed them snippets of information over the years.
The story of Priska, Rachel and Anka and giving birth to their children under the most horrendous conditions is one of courage and hope, do you think that the fact the women were preganant helped in their determination to survive and give their babies a future?
Undoubtedly. I think they emerged from the war with something positive – unlike millions of others. In the early months they didn’t yet know about their husbands and still hoped for the best but by the time they learned the truth, they had small babies to care for and that helped occupy their minds.
Have the children been back to the places where they were born?
Yes. Priska has been to Freiberg and took Hana with her as a teenager. Mark isn’t sure exactly where he was born on the train but he has driven its route, and Eva has been to Mauthausen many times.
Looking back on your experiences during writing Born Survivors, what effect has this had on you?
I have developed a great passion for these women and their babies, Born Survivors has become my legacy work and much more than just another book. These ‘babies’ will be the last survivors of the Holocaust and I call them the ” voices of the voiceless”. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to chronicle what happened to them. I feel humbled.
Your book was launched on May 7 and has since been published in 18 Countries and translated into 14 Languages and you are also on a book tour at present, how is this going?
It’s all been incredible – moving and emotional and exciting. We launched the book at the camp in Mauthausen, then came to London and appeared on multiple TV and radio shows, then we went to Chicago to launch the book at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and meet the sons of the U.S. Liberator of the camp, whose grave we visited. Then Eva and I have just been in Madrid. Next we go to Portugal and – later in the year – to Slovakia and hopefully the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and back to the U.S. We have also been invited to the Austrian Embassy in London for a special presentation. I am sure that there will be more invitations for us to talk about these amazing women as word gets out.
Any plans for a UK book tour during this year?
Eva and I will be attending several book festivals this year – at Dartington Hall in Devon, Henley, Southwold and the Isle of Wight. We will also be on tour as part of Jewish Book Week next year and making multiple other appearances including a book signing at Heffers book store in Eva’s hometown of Cambridge in September.
I am extremely grateful to Wendy for taking the time out of her busy schedule to take part in ‘Meet the Author’. If you would like more information on Wendy’s work or further details of Born Survivors or any of her previous best-selling books please visit http://www.wendyholden.com/
*Stop Press: As this interview was being published it was announced that Born Survivors is to be published in China making the total now 19 territories and 14 languages.