In conversation

Liz Jensen, creative writing consultant and author of eight acclaimed novels including the Hollywood-adapted The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, The Rapture and The Uninvited in conversation with JJ Marsh and Karen Pegg
The way you genre hop is a joy to many writers who resist being boxed. Did you set out with that determination or was it an organic development? Have you ever experienced external pressure to write more of the same but different?

The reason I switch genres is that a lot of writers find themselves writing the same book over and over again. I wanted to avoid that. I’m an impatient reader and an impatient writer, so I just kid myself that I’m not writing the same thing, even though I do have certain themes and preoccupations.

I thought I would carry on writing comedy, I wasn’t expecting to write a dark novel. But when I wrote The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, I realised I was breaking new ground. The novel has two first-person narrators, one a nine-year-old boy and the other an adult man.
As I was writing the adult character, a coma specialist, it struck me that he was the first real ‘grown-up’ character I had ever written, because in all my previous novels the adults had been children in disguise. He was really hard to write: I didn’t really know how to deal with him. But I liked the challenge.

I had moved into psychological suspense and I was enjoying it. When you write a book it’s constructed, just like an object. It’s a bit like building a ship. Every element has its place, and all the parts must fit together so it can sail. It’s a cliche but it’s true: writing is 99% perspiration and one percent inspiration. Craft is fundamental.
That said, I don’t plan everything out beforehand. I like to be surprised, so I often don’t know how my books are going to end. Though I am pretty sure my subconscious has an idea.

Photo credit Djbril Sy


Much of your work reaches beyond the boundaries of what we might expect. Not just a what if… but in that world of what if, another what if… is that a product of a restless imagination or do you push yourself to look over the next horizon?

Some readers say to me: ‘the way you see the world is so weird’. All I can say is, it’s not weird to me. I see the world the way I see it and put in my books that way. I like asking the question ‘what if…’ because it’s so fundamental. It forces you to take a situation to its logical conclusion. I’ve been thinking about climate change for the last ten years and writing about it in the last two books, in a tangential sort of way. We’re in an era of ”what if?” so of course that’s the question I ask.
I also think ”what if?” is brilliant if you’re constructing a character. What’s the worst situation I can put this person into? What if the only person capable of changing events is the one least likely or worst equipped to deal with it?

From the internal world of Louis Drax to the wide ranging potential dystopia of The Uninvited, you evoke entire landscapes of the mind or the future with great attention to detail. Would you describe your creative process?

My creative process. Hmm. I start with reading the newspapers. I need to get fired up about something. I’m very theme-based. Character is important too but I can’t come up with my characters until I know what my theme is going to be.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is about buried memory.

There was a tragedy in my own family, long before I was born. It was all over the newspapers at the time and it scarred my mother psychologically for ever. Her father had died not long before, but in 1937 she lost two more members of her family in the space of four days, under very strange circumstances.

Her mother had taken her and her two brothers on a summer holiday in the Swiss Alps. The oldest brother, who was 19, had a row with his mother (my grandmother) and stormed off into the mountains. He was still missing four days later. By then the weather had turned so the search parties were called off but my grandmother was desperate, and she insisted on continuing alone. The next morning her body was found at the base of a cliff. The double mystery of uncle’s disappearance and my grandmother’s death were never solved. So my mother and her two remaining brothers were suddenly not only orphans, but bereft of a much-loved older brother who was never seen or heard of again.

Fast-forward 70 years, there I am writing a story about a small family going into the mountains, one member disappearing and the other falling off a cliff. The weird thing is I didn’t realise as I was writing The Ninth Life of Louis Drax that the inspiration came directly from that story which I’ d first heard as a six-year-old child. It’s so obvious, in retrospect.

Apart from that example, I don’t use my own life or family history in my novels. Mostly inspiration comes from the world around me. It can be a news story, an event or something as simple as a conversation. The book I’m trying to write now came out of a conversation I had with a glass-maker, ten years ago. Some things take a long time to gestate.

When I sit down to write, I wouldn’t describe it as a creative process because often it’s almost clerical. I enjoy rewriting possibly more than I enjoy writing. You’re applying your editing brain whereas actually writing something new can be like squeezing like blood out of a stone. If I’m working well I aim for a thousand words a day. Any more than that is a gift.
The book I’m writing at the moment I’m doing differently from the others. This time I’m not going for a gold standard chapter one. I’m writing fragments. I think of it as a patchwork quilt. I’m just doing these squares, I don’t know what order anything goes in, but I have great faith in my subconscious. Something in there is working on it. It’s what Stephen King calls the boys in the basement.

I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’ve abandoned quite a few novels over the years, two at the 60,000 word mark, because they simply weren’t working. Many writers have had this experience. You just have to keep faith with yourself.

You’ve experienced many different cultures. Do you see the influences of each on what you write?

Not all of them yet, but I’m waiting for Hong Kong to pop up, and Israel. After 30 years Taiwan appeared in The Uninvited in a key scene. I knew I wanted to do a global ghost story and when I went to Dubai to teach, I decided to incorporate it as a setting. I’ve set novels in France and Denmark because they’re countries I know well, whose languages I speak.


How far did the experience of journalism shape you as a writer?

My experience in radio was the most useful. Through the producing, interviewing and editing process I was learning all about dialogue and about how to shape a story. This was in the pre-digital era when you physically cut tape with a razor blade and shifted things around. So you were shaping something with your hands as well as your brain.

We met while we were guest tutors in Geneva and you’re now teaching at A Chapter Away. Participants enthuse about your inspiring teaching. Do you enjoy helping other writers develop?

Well that’s very gratifying to hear! I have always received a huge amount of support from other writers, and still do. The thing about teaching is that you are also learning. So it’s not entirely altruistic. I like mentoring too, which I do through a wonderful company called Gold Dust, set up by Jill Dawson. It’s very rewarding to go deep into someone’s work, one-on-one, having conversations and giving notes, and seeing someone’s work blossoming.

There’s a dark vein of humour pulsing through your books. Can you always see the funny side?

Yes. It’s a almost a duty. Some of the best jokes are told at funerals. We need laughter more than we ever needed it. These times are the darkest I can remember. Humour does a crucial job. Laughter helps us deal with the hardest things in life. Make no mistake: humour is deeply, deeply serious.

An adaptation of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax appears in cinemas worldwide from September.


Liz Jensen will be teaching a Speculative Fiction course at the Arvon Foundation in November and tutoring at the residential course A Chapter Away July 1st – 8th 2017. (


An article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? As Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics and DNA, cameras and mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation.

Today, I’m so chuffed to welcome Lorraine Mace, who writes crime as Frances di Plino.

Murder She Wrote F di P

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

The technology we use on a daily is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with it. Looking at it from a crime writing perspective, it makes our lives harder because criminals now use the dark web, but it seems you need to be a criminal to be able to access it. However, from the point of view of using technology within a storyline, I find it adds additional layers. For example, the antagonist in Looking for a Reason (book four of the D.I. Paolo Storey crime series) created a blog which was entirely private. I used this as a method of informing the reader about the crimes, while at the same time preventing the police from garnering that same information.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

For Someday Never Comes I had to research the way in which two forces would need to work together when criminals work across borders. Who would take precedence in such a case? How much information would be shared ahead of arrests? What would happen if both forces had grounds for arrest?

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

I would love to write crime set before the recent forensic advances but I think it might be even more difficult than writing contemporary crime. Not only would the detective not have all the modern forensic tools, but there would be no mobile phones or any social media to trace people’s movements. I sometimes watch a programme set in 1920s Australia, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which is fascinating because the detective (usually a step or three behind Miss Fisher) has to rely entirely on observation, witness statements and gut instinct. It makes for great viewing, but I would imagine writing it took even more research than trying to keep up with today’s advances.

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

For me, the criminals must never get away with their crimes. Ultimately, I have an innate sense of justice and cannot stray from it, even if I wanted to. I read a book recently where the criminal walked away because the murders were revenge for earlier wrongs. Even though I could sympathise with the emotional need to strike back, I still wanted the perpetrator to be locked up.

Murder She Wrote Lo books

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

I think most crime novels in Britain deal with small communities, even if those communities are located within our large cities. Our writers tend to look at how the crimes impact on the victims. So, yes, I do think British crime is more focused on the individual.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I don’t. I want my characters to be real people and most people step over those boundaries at some point in their lives, even if unintentionally. I never try to prevent my criminals from speaking or acting exactly as they would in real life. However, when one of the ‘good’ guys says or does something that isn’t acceptable, I make sure that Paolo raps the guy’s knuckles. For example, in Bad Moon Rising, the first in my series, one of the policemen is misogynistic and refers to a colleague as a dyke. For that (and a few other choice comments) Paolo steps in to deal with the situation.

Finally, for those of you writing a series featuring the same main character(s), would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I did kill off one of my ‘regular’ characters and was sent an email by a fan in which she said she felt like doing a Misery on me when she read that part of the book. Thankfully, she doesn’t live close enough to carry out her threat. I think if a character has gone as far as you can take him or her, and there is a danger of losing the magic ingredient that brought the character to life in the first place, then it’s time for them to go.


Find out more about Frances (and Lorraine) here:






Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? Yet as Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation. This is the second in the series of female crime writers on contemporary crime-writing.

Gillian Hamer

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

I think it very much depends on the period you set your work. Agatha Christie novels, and something like Grantchester set in the 1950s, were no less entertaining because of the lack of DNA evidence for example. There are times I yearn for the simplicity of that style of writing if I’m honest. Where intelligent characters and clever plots were more at the forefront. However, that said I’ve embraced everything modern day crime detection has to offer in my own work. It does mean more work, more research, more specialist knowledge but that’s part of the job.

I’ve written as an expert pathologist in one book and also a ‘dodgy’ pathologist in another and so took a forensic pathology course to give my writing, and my character, real gravitas. A lot of the DNA information was beyond me, but it gave me an overview, and means I have some excellent research books on hand too. I’ve also used the whole social media aspect for tracing suspects, following lines of enquiry through automated banking and vehicle tracking devices etc. So, I guess my honest answer is it neither helps or hinders – there is definitely room for both. And there should be.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

Pathology mostly. And also legal procedurals. I have had to check facts and figures, and make sure I have my legal processes were generally correct. In terms of police procedural, I do have an expert on call (ex armed police) who answers anything really technical. But in terms of influencing the plot, I don’t think it ever would. I feel my books are more character driven, and the people who read my books are, I think, probably more interested in the setting on Anglesey or Dara’s latest female escapade! I think it is obviously important to be knowledgeable and competent in your writing, but I don’t lie awake at night worrying that I may have used a wrong phrase or forgotten to put on overshoes at a crime scene! Fiction is fiction, and I don’t really write complex police procedurals in that respect, and if we aren’t serving police officers we have to use our imagination and intelligence in much the same way as we aren’t serial killers (I hope!) so can surely be forgiven if we fail to get everything single tiny element perfect!

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

Crimson ShoreYes, I would. Obviously I am from the Agatha Christie school of crime writing. I think crime fiction through the ages would be good. Roman murder plots, Tudor poisonings, right through to a WWII espionage plot. There has always been crime, so there’s plenty of scope!

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

I think it’s linked to reader expectations, and again as I mentioned this is fiction. Readers do not want to see a serial rapist walk free from court on a legal technicality even if that can and does happen in reality. So, maybe we are guided by the market in that respect. That said, I have always been a bit of a rule breaker, and my last novel, False Lights, did break the ‘happy ending’ formula.

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

False lightsI don’t think I could name a British crime writer that attempts the same kind of style as Scandinavian crime. I’m not sure what that says about us Brits – that we aren’t interested enough in politics to bother? Or that we leave it to the espionage writers, the Le Carres and Archers, to worry about politicians and society in general. I’m not sure I would say it is more focused on the individual, I think it’s maybe more focused on character and plot of each standalone story and doesn’t venture out into the bigger picture.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I think we have to be careful in our writing, again because we are trying for the most part to please our readers. I wouldn’t tame down bad language that suited the character or scene, but my rule of thumb is that if two or more of my beta readers have an issues with something then it has to go. I’m not here to break down barriers or take a stand against anything, that’s not what my writing is about.

Finally, when writing a series featuring the same main character, would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I will have to be a bit cryptic and say I don’t think so but I haven’t really made my mind up yet. I have plans to kill off one or more characters that appear throughout the series, but as I haven’t a concrete plan of how many books there will be, or how the series will conclude … then I think I will have to wait and see if my lead character annoys me enough!


About Gillian Hamer

Born in the industrial Midlands, Gillian’s heart has always yearned for the wilds of North Wales and the pull of the ocean.

She splits her time between Birmingham and a remote cottage on Anglesey where she finds her inspiration and takes long walks on deserted beaches with her Jack Russell, Maysie.

Find out more about Gillian on her website:

Or follow her on Twitter:





Is crime writing getting harder?

Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated the death of murder. Crime rates are dropping all over the world. A good thing, surely?

Unless you’re a crime writer, argues Andrew Taylor.

The article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism, and the responsibilities of female crime writers. I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation.

Here is the first in the series of Murder, She Wrote.


Welcome to Chris Curran, author of Mindsight.

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

Crime writers are inventive folk and in the same way that cyber criminals will use technological developments to inspire new crimes, I think many novelists also find they can spark fresh ideas. Our stories come to life when we give our characters obstacles to overcome and modern technology can help us by providing different challenges.

I write psychological thrillers so I have greater freedom than authors of police procedurals in choosing what to use and what to avoid. One thing that is a problem is the speed with which technology changes – often doing so in less time than it takes to write a novel! For example in my first book, Mindsight, the protagonist needs to trace witnesses to the accident she was imprisoned for causing. Originally I had her using the Friends Reunited platform to do so, but the site was more of less defunct by the time the book was ready for publication so I had to look for something else.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

MindsightClare, the protagonist of Mindsight, has already been been convicted and imprisoned for a crime before the story begins so her involvement with the police is over, but I did have to research sentencing guidelines for her particular crime. The internet is a wonderful resource for this kind of thing and I can’t imagine how time-consuming it must have been to find out stuff like this in the past.

It was the day-to-day details of life for women in prison that demanded most research and I did this by trawling through the (very few) research papers and personal accounts I could find.

That was both upsetting and fascinating and influenced at least one major plot strand as well as helping enormously to enrich the character of Clare.

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

I’ve already done so! My next novel, Her Turn To Cry, which is due out at the end of June, is set in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s within living memory and fingerprinting was obviously around, but it was still a very different world as far as policing was concerned. The whole story hinges on the disappearance of my main character’s mother and I realised how much easier it was then for someone to go missing without a trace. I hate to think how many serial killers must have gone undetected in the past.

I began writing the book before most of the revelations about the prominent people who got away with sexual abuse in those days came out, but that is one of the novel’s themes so despite the setting it turns out to be very relevant today.

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

I think one reason for the popularity of the crime genre is that people crave the kind of full resolution that is unusual in real life. Having said that, I don’t think the ending must be happy and a certain amount of ambiguity can be even more pleasing than a neatly tied up solution. And as writers we have the luxury of showing what happens outside the justice system. So it’s possible to allow a criminal to apparently get away with it, but to reveal that they suffer a different kind of retribution.

An ending that gratifies me as a reader is one that gives a satisfying answer to the question the author has posed. One of my favourite writers, Tana French, leaves a major crime unsolved in her first novel, In the Woods, and apparently that annoyed some readers. But for me it worked perfectly because I don’t think that particular novel asks who or why dunit, but sets out to explore some of the long term effects of a violent crime on a young victim.

Killer Reads

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

I imagine Rankin is thinking of Scandinavian police procedurals like the Martin Beck series and Henning Mankell’s Wallenberg. So I’d be interested to hear the opinions of those of you who write about the British police.

My books are classified as psychological or domestic noir and this sub-genre definitely has the individual experience at its heart. However we often tackle important subjects that affect society as a whole. To mention just two of my recent reads: Claire Kendal’s, The Book of You, confronts the issue of how violence against women is perceived by the general population, including juries. And, although Gilly Macmillan’s, Burnt Paper Sky, begins with the abduction of child, the main theme is victim blaming in the media.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

This can be tricky because readers sometimes see characters as the author’s mouthpiece and assume that their utterances reflect the writer’s own views. Her Turn to Cry has two characters who are caught up in the purges against homosexuals during the 1950s. Attitudes were very different then and even well-meaning people might use terms we would now consider unacceptable. I would never want to appear to condone any kind of prejudice, but I’ve recently read a couple of books set in the same period that go so far in their attempts to avoid offending modern sensibilities that the attitudes seem anachronistic. So it is a balancing act, but above all I try to be true to my characters and to the demands of the story.


Chris CurranChris was born in London but now lives in St Leonards-on-Sea near Hastings, on the south coast of England, in a house groaning with books. She left school at sixteen to work in the local library and spent an idyllic few months reading her way around the shelves. Reluctantly returning to full-time education she gained my degree from Sussex University. Since then Chris has worked as an actress, script writer, copy editor and teacher, all the time looking forward to the day when she would see her own books gracing those library shelves.

Twitter @Christi_Curran

Images courtesy of Chris Curran and Carlos ZGZ – Creative Commons


Ghost TownCatriona Troth, my colleague at Triskele Books, is the antithesis of the bang-out-a-book-a-year philosophy. Ghost Town was not an easy delivery. I followed the gestation of this book and couldn’t have been happier when it finally came out. I asked the author why.

Let’s start with the facts. How long did this book take – from start to finish?

I worked out that, start to finish, Ghost Town had taken me 14 years. My daughter, who was 18 when it was published, told me she couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on it.

What about the genesis of Ghost Town – why did you decide to tell this story?

I actually had in mind an entirely different story – a sequel to Gift of the Raven with Terry as an adult, finding his way as an artist. But I quickly worked out that I couldn’t write about being an adult in Canada in the 80s when I’d left as a teenager in the 70s. So I looked around for a different location, and thought about the time when I’d worked in a night shelter for the homeless in Coventry.

I remembered a little about the tensions that were around back then – as well as the joyous sound of Two Tone that synonymous with the city. But when I started to do my research, I realised that so much had gone on that I had been virtually unaware of. Coventry had taken itself to the brink of an all out race war – and then stepped back and said ‘not in our name.’ I became obsessed with telling the story of how that had happened.

How did you fit in the writing between motherhood and a full-time job?

KatActually, I was lucky enough, after my children were born, to be able to go part-time. But I was still commuting into London three days a week. And motherhood was full-time, as it always it. It was the commuting that made it all possible, actually. I’d bought a stack of A5 note blocks from Smiths, and spent that precious 40 minutes on the train filling them with scribbles and ideas and diagrams. Then in the evening, after the children were in bed, I would type up what I’d written, editing as I went.

Can you explain a little about the research process?

My primary resource was the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph at the city’s Central Library. They were the only newspaper to cover what was going on. Apart from that, I read everything I could get hold of, from the Scarman report on that summer’s riots, to books (fiction and non-fiction) about the British Asian experience. As it happened, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire (which is referred to at the start of the book) was happening as I was writing, and one of the legal teams was posting transcripts of each day’s proceedings as they happened. I read those from start to finish, even though it was barely relevant to the book, because it helped so much to understand what it was like to be Black or Asian in Britain at this time.

I’ve described before how I ended up with a timeline spread across my wall – with one line for actually events in Coventry, another for events in Brixton and London, a line for story events and finally a line for the progress of Maia’s pregnancy.

Two Tone Panel_cropped

Catriona on the Two-Tone panel, Warwick University

When you finally had a first draft, what were the next stages?

Well, before I had a first draft, I had another ‘tear it all up and start again’ moment. About half way through, I realised that the main female character no longer belonged in this story. She belonged to the one I had originally conceived, and now the story was focused on the clashes between skinheads and young Asians, she didn’t fit. So all her chapters up to that point were torn up. Maia emerged, and of course, as she was a different person, that affected the chapters I had written from his point of view too.

But I did eventually have a completed manuscript. I edited it using the ‘triage’ approach recommended by David Michael Kaplan in his book Rewriting (which I would still recommend to anyone, by the way). Basically you start by looking for big problems (whole sections that aren’t working etc) and then work your way down to the minutiae of word choice etc.

Once I’d finished editing and created a submission pack, I started sending it off to agents. The first three or four I sent it to all asked for the full MS. But all eventually turned it down. I’d just started a new job and the book ended up lying fallow for a couple of years.

In 2007, I discovered online critique groups and thought I’d test the waters. It was an eye-opening experience. The first chapters I posted were ripped to shreds and it would have been very easy to give up there and then. But I kept going, posting a handful of chapters at a time, listening to the feedback and acting on it. The hardest thing was the response I had to the female lead character, Maia, who in some ways is quite close to me. Time and time again, I was told she was unsympathetic. To me, it felt as if I were opening veins writing her, but that wasn’t how she was coming across.

That complete start-to-finish rewrite took more than two years. And even after that, a brilliant friend, who is now a distinguished creative writing tutor, took a scalpel to it and encouraged me to cut almost 35 thousand words from the MS.

Back to sending it out to agents. Even though I knew I had a much better book on my hands, the reception was much frostier. In those three or four years since I last tried, the industry had changed. I ended up being kept dangling for two years by someone who would have been my dream publisher, until I finally wrote them a rejection letter and joined Triskele.

One of the things that most impressed me was your thematic use of black and white – it’s a very visual book. Do you think it would transfer well to the screen?


Coventry Cathedral

Thank you! Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s odd, because I don’t think I am a naturally a very visual person, but I have written one book with an MC who is an artist, and one about a photographer. Baz takes photos in black and white, and that forced me to look at the world in that way. The conjunction with that, and Two Tone music, and the racial themes, happened organically.


How different would this book be if you’d finished it in a year?

Gift of the Raven Cover MEDIUMI would have stuck with writing a sequel to Gift of the Raven – so the Coventry story would never have been told at all. But even if I take that as one year from when I started writing Baz’s story, then female lead would have been an entirely different person, the depiction of the background events would have been sketchy, unrealistic and with very little depth. And the writing would have been clunky as hell.

What are the benefits of taking your time over the work?

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take quite as long as I did. I was basically teaching myself to write, and whereas saner writers have MSS tucked away in their bottom drawer that they have perhaps started and never finished, or written the first draft of then wisely abandoned – because I had become so obsessed with telling this one story, I kept writing and rewriting the same MS.

But it did enable me to burrow into the history of the events and into the characters, to give them a depth I could never have achieved in just a year. It allowed themes and symbols – like the black and white you mentioned – to emerge. And it gave me time to hone the use of language.

And how’s the next one coming along?

Slowly … again. I have three wonderful characters. And I have a premise. What I don’t have at the moment is a plot with enough momentum to drive the story forward. I’ve never been strong on plotting, and this time I don’t have a sequence of real events to piggyback on. Wish me luck.


Two tone

Members of the Selecter and the Specials at the Belgrade Theatre for the announcement of a new production of the Two Tone Musical, Three Minute Heroes, July 2014

Ghost Town

Ghost Town1981. Coventry, city of Two Tone and Ska, is riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

Photographer Baz—‘too Paki to be white, too gora to be desi’—is capturing the conflict on film.

Unemployed graduate Maia—serial champion of liberal causes—is pregnant with a mixed-race child.

Neither can afford to let the racists win. They must take a stand.

 A stand that will cost lives.


Facebook Author Page:

Twitter: @L1bCat

Pinterest for Ghost Town:




I’m an indie author and proud of it.
But I didn’t exactly go it alone.
I chose the collective route.
Here’s why.


Triskele Books is an author collective spread over three countries and two time zones. So it’s no surprise that all Triskele novels have a strong sense of time and place.

How does it work? Answers from the gang.

How does an author collective differ from a small press?

Jill: It’s very similar to a small press, but the crucial difference is our independence. Legally, we wanted to retain our own rights, so we chose not to create a publishing house. Instead, we just act like one. We’re a group of people who can edit, proof, consult, advise, co-promote and market on a shared platform. Each of us works as an independent entity but we all benefit from mutual support. Financially, we contribute equally to any costs incurred, such as webhosting, print materials, etc, but each of us keeps the profits from our own books.

What factors triggered each of you to go indie?

Liza: We’d met each other via an online writing group, and found ourselves in a similar situation: Gillian and I both had agents, but they couldn’t find our books a home. Jill stopped trying the trad route after an agent called her work too cerebral. Catriona was left dangling by a publisher for two years, until she wrote them a rejection letter. And Jane (JD) loved the freedom of creativity found by going indie.

We got together and discussed our options. Going the independent route, as a team, felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and committed ourselves to publishing the books we wanted to write, not what the market dictated.


Kat, Liza, Gilly, Jill, Jane

How did your publishing cooperative come together, and what made you decide to establish it? How many of you are there?

Catriona: I began reading about author collectives in the States. And I thought this has to be the way forward, the power in working together.
So four years ago, the original members of Triskele met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Ten of them.

Triskele has five core members and periodically we bring ‘associates’ on board, whose writing we feel we can develop. We were recently dubbed The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing.

What elements of the publishing process are done collectively? How do you handle the finances, such as royalties and so on?

Gillian: We critique, edit and proof each other’s drafts before they go for professional proofreadings. If needed we all give advice on cover design too.

Finances have been relatively simple. We all keep our own royalties from sales of our own books. If we choose to market or advertise Triskele collectively, we all contribute equal shares. And for joint ventures, like The Triskele Trail, we divide initial outlay and profits go into our Triskele bank account to cover future overheads like webhosting, print materials, advertising etc.


Where does the Triskele name come from? Does a Triskele book have an identifiable style that sets it apart?

Jane: The name came from the Celtic symbol of the triskele, which shows three independent circles joining to form something greater than its parts. It represents the concept of our collective – authorial independence balanced by mutual support. Going it alone, together.

Triskele books are top quality – they must be well-written, tell a good story and contain a strong sense of place, which is Triskele’s USP. They’re also thoroughly edited, proofread, carefully typeset and have a professional cover.

What about the design aspects? Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

Liza: We’re lucky enough to have talented designer JD Smith on the team, so yes, we all use the same designer. We don’t go for a shared look since we range across different genres, but we try to harmonise all our visual material.

heads soft

Triskelites in Porto

You are located in three different countries. How do you manage the communication issue?

Gillian: Skype! And email. And we have our own Facebook private page. We communicate every day but only meet physically three or four times a year. But when we do, it’s brilliant fun!

What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages? What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same?

Catriona: Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say, so you don’t become one of those awful people on social media who just keeps bleating, ‘buy my book, buy my book!’ Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.

The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution. And on a larger scale, there’s the Alliance of Independent Authors, an amazing source of information.

Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.

My advice would be to learn from those who’ve gone before, then find the path that’s right for you. There’s no one way to do this. do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Triskele Books? Are you actively seeking new members?

Jane: Writing good books is a given. We as a group need to ‘fit’. When working so closely as a team, it’s important everyone pulls their weight and believes in the collective as a whole. We share experiences, snippets of information, the highs and lows, opportunities for genres, news stories relevant to an author’s theme, place or period. We’re really supportive of each other and the group. We’re not seeking new members at the moment. We’ve found our ideal balance.

What are your plans for the future?

Jill: Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We’re planning The Big Launch Party for November 2015, writing new books and organising festival appearances; exploring formats, such as audiobooks, boxsets, translations and adaptations, and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.

Triskele_Group_041 bw


Gillian E Hamer’s novels are set in North Wales, blending modern crime, ancient history and an otherworldly element.

JJ Marsh writes contemporary European crime. The Beatrice Stubbs series explores ethics, politics and justice – from Athens to Zürich.

Liza Perrat’s historical fiction novels are set in rural France against the backdrop of the French Revolution, WWII and The Black Plague from the perspective of extraordinary women.

Catriona Troth’s novella, Gift of the Raven, takes place in Canada in the 1970s while Ghost Town tackles the themes of race and identity in 1980s Coventry.

JD Smith’s retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend brings ancient Ireland and Cornwall vividly to life. The Overlord Series takes the reader back to 3rd Century Syria to tell the story of Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra.


Alison and I ‘met’ on the happy occasion both our books were chosen as Editor’s Choices in the first Bookseller Indie Author Preview. Turns out we have a lot in common – indie authors, series writers, international women and feminists. So on International Women’s Day… meet Alison Morton.


Alison Morton_sm  

Alison, I loved the premise of Roma Nova, the setting for your three novels. A society north of Italy where the decision-makers are women. How did you come up with that?

It goes back to my own history when I was eleven on holiday in north-east Spain one summer. Drawn in by the mosaics at Ampurias (a huge Graeco-Roman site), I wanted to know who had made them, whose houses they were in, who had walked on these floors.

After my father explained about traders, senators, power and families, I tilted my head to one side and asked him, ‘What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?’ Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism surfacing or maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smartarse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, ‘What do you think it would be like?’

My teacher mother, an early feminist, brought up my brother and me equally; we both learned to knit and sew, we both had train sets at Christmas. I never knew the ‘girls’ way’ to button my double-breasted school mac. Naturally, we both went to uni. And equally naturally, it never occurred to me why women couldn’t take on leadership roles or join the military, as I did.

When my need to express something about my life-long fascination with Rome pushed to the surface, my feminist values took over. Thinking outside the box wasn’t for me. I didn’t know there was a box.


Can you tell us where Roma Nova is, geographically speaking? Or is that a secret?

The Italian Federation is to the southwest, New Austria and Bavaria to the north, the Helvetian Confederation nearby and the Balkan Republics to the southeast.

I do let out of the bag which country’s geography I pinched [link:] but Roma Nova isn’t that country!


The social structure of Roma Nova seems fully realised. How did you go about conceptualising that alternate world?

SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800Plausibility and consistency are key when writing ‘into the void’. Readers don’t mind going into a strange place as long as a writer guides them logically and doesn’t abuse their trust.

For instance, the structure of the ancient Roman world was patriarchal, although less enforced as it aged. However, subverting overt limitations, many women became strong influencers; nobody could, or can now, downplay Livia’s political advice and networking for Augustus.

Step 1 – we have some well-known examples of strong women from history.

Next, I gave the Roma Nova founders’ leader a tough Celt as a wife, Julia. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four children, all daughters, were amongst the first pioneers, so necessarily had to act more decisively and assume more authority than they would have done in a traditional Roman urban setting.

Step 2 – we now have female successors leading the society.

Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles and status.

Step 3 – women have defended their homeland in the most basic, but very Roman, way.

And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions.

Step 4 – spiritual values are nourished by a male and female pantheon of gods.

A country with a small population needed children, and patriarchal, legalistic ties were loosened to encourage this. Women chose their partners and as providers of the next generation increased their social weight. Copying Celtic practices where descent was through the female line, women’s line of inheritance assumed precedence. After all, it’s usually obvious who a child’s mother is…

Step 5 – the social power structure changed out of necessity.


What key characteristics of a female-dominated society make it different to the one we live in?

Roma Nova is more ‘egalitarian-plus’ rather than women-dominated per se. There is no bar on men’s roles; some professions, e.g. the military, have by their nature a higher proportion of men to women. However, the legal and social structures of Roma Nova in the 21st century are as entrenched as the paternalistic ones are in most western countries.

As attitudes, films, writing, politics, commerce and civic life are ‘normally’ seen here through the ‘male gaze’, so the Roma Novan equivalents are naturally seen through a female lens. I use the technique of gender mirroring in my writing to keep in the Roma Novan mindset if I am in doubt. Try swapping the male/female characters’ dialogue in any book or film, especially crime, thriller, mystery, sci-fi or fantasy fiction; it can be a revelation!


Geert Hofstede measured various cultures according to value dimensions. One of those was the Masculinity/Femininity index. Does Roma Nova correspond?

The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures.

Neat question! Has that trickster, Mercury, been whispering in your ear?

For me, each person sits in a unique place along the masculinity/femininity scale. But much of that scale is too crude as are the general presumptions about masculinity and femininity in Hofstede’s description above. It would be better to use a 3-D model. The other question is one of natural instinct v. cultural value adoption. Ditto, needing a 3-D model.

Hofstede’s Masculinity/Femininity index is one of six that he uses to assess a culture; they’re designed to be used collectively to illustrate tendencies:
Power Distance Index

Individualism versus Collectivism

Masculinity versus Femininity

Uncertainty Avoidance Index

Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation

Indulgence versus Restraint

For Roma Novans, the other five value scales are probably more relevant.

Alison and forum

In Western Europe, we have seen some women in power, but we’re still a long way from anything like equality. If you were Queen of Europe, what would you change?

Juno, what a question! I’d love to alter social attitudes and approaches to people and tasks because that would improve everything. In no particular order…

– gender neutrality in occupations; the only criterion being ‘fit for purpose’

– less grandstanding and more getting down to the work

– more cooperation, thus less waste of time, energy and resources

– less shilly-shallying and more decisiveness

– individuals taking responsibility for themselves and their actions

– not bleating on about entitlements and marginal complaints when there are so many more people without the basics who should have first call on help

A bit Roman here….


Having thoroughly enjoyed INCEPTIO, I’m now looking forward to PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. Will there be more?

The fourth in series, AURELIA, is due out in May. It’s the first of a new three-book cycle featuring an important secondary character from the first three. We learn about a great enmity, why Aurelia is so driven and determined, and in the fifth and sixth books, what did happen in the Great Rebellion.


Thanks for your time, Alison, and I wish you and the Roma Novans all the best!

Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF – all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But but something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women…

Now, she writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines…


Fiction and Social Media …

A subject that scares and intrigues me, so I was only too happy to participate in MA student Jo Furniss’s research for her thesis.


In classic form and content presentation, Jo has posted her findings as a pop-up blog, including interviews, video and audio. (Yes, you can hear what I sound like – please bear in mind I was breathless and eating a blueberry muffin.)

Five brief posts, every one easily digestible over a latte.  Each experience provides more food for thought than any form of pastry product.

It’s all about authors, trad or indie, creating an online image. For many more articulate opinions and ideas, have a browse through …

The Hard Sell

Thanks Jo!

Fraumunster bookmark

Detail from the artwork for Behind Closed Doors

I took the decision quite early in the publishing process to have different covers for my ebooks and paperbacks. And for the latter, I needed a fine artist. My inestimable designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, who creates the covers and formats the interior, found just the right person.

James Lane. As soon as I saw his work, something felt absolutely right. He lives in California, I live in Switzerland, we’ve never actually met, but our creative collaboration has been a joy.

I asked James if he’d talk about the process, answering and asking some questions. As always, he exceeded expectations.

Jill: How does the artistic approach differ when trying to reflect 80,000 words, as to portraying a mood, or a moment in time?

James: When creating an image we’re working towards that “Aha!” moment that the viewer feels upon that first glimpse. It should spark someone’s interest quickly while remaining true to the content of the story. Having said that, the “Aha!” moment is exactly what I’m trying to avoid while working with an author because it behooves us both to know what to expect as we move through the process. It doesn’t make any sense to leave the author in the dark in the hopes of loving the image at the final stage because if it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board for both of you. Once we have arrived at a basic idea of how the painting should turn out, I can have fun with it and let the inspiration come through.


Detail from James’s original painting

Jill: Have you collaborated with other creatives from other media, such as graphic designers, musicians, dancers, etc? How did you find the process?

James: As a musician I collaborated often, but painting and writing can be very solitary endeavors, aside from the feedback we receive. Paintings and books are generally not co-authored. I would love to see collaborations by contemporaries like Gauguin/Van Gogh or Sargent/Sorolla. It can be helpful for painters and writers to sympathize with each other and realize that you’re often in the same boat from a psychological standpoint. While working on these book covers it has been a tremendous help to be given a specific passage with a lot of visual imagery from which to draw. This also shows me that the author has taken the time to think of their story in visual terms.

BCD kindle

Behind Closed Doors front cover

Jill: What were your initial concerns about a) working virtually and b) on a book cover?

James: Working virtually was never a concern for me because it’s so common these days. It helped to have a few skype chats so we could get to know each other. I think small talk, joking around, brainstorming and commiserating will always help any creative process, rather than simply emailing back and forth.

Working on a book cover poses specific challenges, especially when you are painting it because you can’t just hit the “Undo” button in Photoshop until you get back to a previous stage in the image. Again, as long as you both agree to a plan you can move forward without too much stress.


Detail from Raw Material artwork

James: I appreciated receiving a list of influences from you, including other artists and works that you admire, the palette and general mood of the painting, even musical scores. How do you go about determining what you need for your covers and what recommendations do you have for communicating those expectations to the illustrator?

Jill: While pondering this question, I realised I approached working with you purely on instinct. I had no formula or experience of collaboration with a fine artist so I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. But I have previously worked as a theatre director – communicating concepts to lighting and set designers whose methods I don’t really comprehend – so I know that when different types of artist understand each other, it quite simply works.

I remember trying to find a designer for Cyrano de Bergerac. I interviewed many slick, classy, experienced people, but didn’t click. Then a young Edinburgh design graduate turned up, bursting with enthusiasm and just ‘got’ it. We finished each other’s sentences, extrapolated on our ideas and she created some of the most beautiful and evocative stage moments I’ve ever seen.

Raw Material_Cover_Paperback_MEDIUM

Raw Material front cover

As for determining my covers, a key feature of all my novels is place. Art also plays a minor role, yet each reference is carefully chosen to play its part. I wanted my paper covers to have a fine art feel, a Golden Age quality which states: This Is Not Your Average Crime Novel. The covers should suggest depth, culture, location, and be something people want to look at, touch and pick up again.

So I think an author, director or any kind of collaborator can use random references to illustrate the image – music, art, fabrics, food, seasons, imagery and lines from the book which encapsulate its essence. If the artist is worth her/his salt, they can appreciate a synaesthetic vision.

James: Most authors and publishers work with illustrators who use Photoshop and Illustrator. What tips would you give to an author who is working with someone who uses traditional methods such as oil paints, pen and ink, etc?

Time. Give the artist space, time, and do not expect results in 24 hours. One of the things I loved most about the creation of the first cover is the video you created of its gradual emergence. That gives such a clear perspective on how much work and thought goes into such a piece.


The original painting for Tread Softly

Also, and this goes for all kinds of media, be receptive to what the artist can introduce. The line between knowing what you want and micro-controlling is a tough one to call. Creative skill comes of talent, experience and training … and vision. If I hadn’t trusted you and followed your judgement, my books would look a great deal poorer. So I recommend openness and communication, with a healthy dose of respect.

Lastly, a reader pointed out how very dull and generic he found a lot of book covers. He picked up mine because it was different. As an independent publisher, thankfully, I am not dictated to by marketing departments or sales teams. That creative freedom is priceless, so should not be squandered. Finding an artistic partner who’s willing to take risks, who’s prepared to tackle new sets of parameters, who’s happy to cope with creative direction via email/Skype and who even reads the books first … it sounds a near impossibility. I guess I got lucky.


Tread Softly, in paperback and ebook, is released on 1 June 2013.

Tread Softly pb cover

Tread Softly – complete finished cover

Fantasy? Don’t like it. Not my kind of thing. Then I started reading some. And it turns out I do like fantasy after all.  So I invited two authors whose work changed my mind to discuss the genre’s advantages, prejudices and attractions.

Jo Reed and Darren Guest – In Conversation

Jill: What attracts you to writing fantasy?

D: When I first graduated from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Spider-man comics, I started reading non-fiction, but it was the mind-expanding stuff like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, books on alien abduction and life after death – anything like that.  But then a friend suggested I try fiction and gave me a battered copy Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers to try.  I resisted at first, thinking fiction isn’t real, let alone fantasy fiction, but that book changed my reading life; the scope of it just blew me away.  Not long after that I can remember penning the first chapter of Dark Heart in a lined pad, but lost my nerve and didn’t pick it up again until many years later.

Jo: Lost your nerve?

D: I feared there was some hidden ‘thing’ to writing that I couldn’t see but everyone else could, and to continue would mean me walking out of a toilet with loo paper tucked into the back of my jeans and the roll unravelling behind me for the rest of the writing world to see.  It was only when I discovered what that hidden ‘thing’ was that I found the nerve to continue.

Jo: I think every writer relates to that one! So what was the ‘thing’?

D: Grammar.  After that I was just fulfilling the need to write what I wanted to read, and with King’s novels I always preferred the supernatural ones and so naturally I wanted to write those kinds myself.

Jo: It’s interesting that your early reading was mainly non-fiction. I spent my entire childhood and teen years avoiding reality and immersing myself in the fantasy classics – anything from CS Lewis and Tolkien to the epics of Stephen Donaldson and Roger Zelazny. It wasn’t until much later though, and firmly rooted back in the real world that I realised what a good vehicle fantasy could be for exploring human character.

D: How’d you mean?

Jo: Well, it was the day job that finally kick-started me into serious writing. I studied evolutionary psychology as part of my degree and spent several years researching the relationships between genetics and behaviour. That meant reading hundreds of articles on the effects of inbreeding, from modern day eugenics programmes right back to the physical ‘deformities’ that were seen as distinguishing characteristics among the ancient tribes of Easter Island. The topic was so full of ‘what ifs’ that for me, the only way to explore all the speculations in my head was through fiction, and fantasy seemed the obvious genre.

Jill: So can you pinpoint a particular book, series or writer who influenced your writing choices?

Jo: I don’t think I can trace my choices back to a single influence, but certainly one or two authors have made my jaw drop in admiration, and at the same time set my brain racing with the possibilities a theme can have in the hands of a good writer. I remember being given Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort and being completely carried away by the ease with which he was able to provoke sympathy not only for the hapless, and very human, heroes of the novel, but also for the entirely self-serving monsters fighting for their own survival. Two more massive influences on my writing have been Mary Renault and James Clavell – both masters of flawless characterisation.

D:  I think you hit the nail on the head there, Jo.  Whether it’s fantasy, literary or whatever – it all boils down to characters.  Aside from King, Cormac McCarthy has been my biggest influence, and he’s all about characters.  He rarely lets you inside his characters’ heads, but you’re left in no doubt as to the way they’re feeling, and that’s down to the quality of the dialogue and its delivery, and the way in which description is filtered through the eyes of his characters.  McCarthy’s writing epitomises SHOW not TELL, and it’s something I try to instil in my own work.  It means both me and the reader have to work a little harder, but it’s gone a long way towards giving me a definitive style – more so in my writing nowadays.

Jo: Interesting you use the phrase ‘the reader has to work a little harder’. As a reader, I like having to work in order to extract all a book/story has to offer. But spoon-feeding readers exactly what they expect seems to be far more popular (not only in fantasy). From the feedback I get from my readers, most prefer to do some thinking for themselves. What’s your take on this?

D:  On the microscopic level, like in dialogue, if the writer has done his/her job it should be clear what’s going on, and clear how things have been said and how things have been received.  We’ve all seen it: a line of dialogue followed by a paragraph of exposition explaining the dialogue.  If the dialogue is good, then the only reason you need to interrupt the flow of conversation is to add essential ‘beats’ of description and such.  On a larger scale, spoon-feeding can mean explaining character motivation, which in other words means ‘plot’.  In fantasy where stories are generally plot heavy compared to literary works, it’s easy to fall into that bad habit of explaining everything to the reader for fear of them not understanding.  Explaining stuff ‘outside’ of the story, either through character introspection, or just plain old authorial intrusion, means I haven’t done my job properly and I’ll rework where I can.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and I’m not really talking about crime writing – although McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men may contradict me here – and style plays a factor, I know, but still… Most readers will get it if you give them the chance and the respect, and there’s no exception for fantasy.

Jill:  Having your characters inhabit an ‘Otherverse’ must involve a huge amount of background knowledge. How much do you establish before you begin writing? Or does the world evolve as you write?

Jo: I always start with a set of basic ground rules. No matter how fantastical a world is, it must obey its own laws, and once they’ve been set the author is totally restricted by them, just as a writer would be in any other genre. For the Dancer series I do have the slight advantage that I’ve chosen to place the characters in a real world setting, so maintaining consistency is just that little bit easier – I mean, water doesn’t flow uphill, and I don’t have the gravitational pull of three moons to worry about! I’ve just made a start on a new fantasy novel that does have a ‘created’ world as its setting though, and I’m spending a great deal of time mapping out the detailed geography of that world, in my head and on paper, before letting my characters loose in it! But to get back to the Dancers, yes, they have a very complex social and biological universe which has evolved over the course of three novels but which still remains firmly within the original boundaries. If it didn’t, I think the readers would be the first to let me know! I’m sure you would agree with me?

D:  I do, but I’m more of grab-my-coat-and-go kind of writer.  I have a rough idea of the over all, and a few scenes that I want to hit along the way, but what I’m really waiting for is inspiration to strike and throw up something better than my original idea – something I could never have sat down and thunk up.  That way if the rules of my urban fantasy need to change halfway through to accommodate the new direction it’s not a huge problem.  I’m waiting for it, actually.  But once the book is done, then the laws and logic are set, and that also means the laws of nature.  Nothing irritates me more than when a character is confronted by something otherworldly and all they can muster is: ‘Run there’s a monster!’  If you saw a ghost for real, your whole world would be changed, not just your underpants.

Jill:  Who are your heroes, both in the genre and elsewhere in literature?

Jo: Surprisingly, one of my most long-standing literary heroes is not best known for his fantasy writing. When I was seven, my grandmother gave me a copy of ‘The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories’, saying I’d ‘grow into it’. I immediately fell in love, both with Holmes and his creator, Conan Doyle. Within a couple of months I’d read every story at least twice, blown away by the sheer cleverness of the writing. It wasn’t until I raided the library for more that I discovered, to my complete delight, that Doyle was also responsible for some cracking fantasy – Professor Challenger quickly became an all-time hero!  I then discovered that Doyle was not the only writer to dabble both with fantasy and crime. Edgar Allan Poe managed to mix his genres with equal facility, and between them I think they have done much to influence my own approach to writing, which is as much rooted in crime as in fantasy. My current fantasy heroes have to be Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. Both have managed to avoid what I see as a common error in the genre – focusing on world creation at the expense of plot movement. However complex their worlds become, their plots are always driven by well developed, meaningful characters about whom the reader really cares, and that is something I seek to emulate in my own writing. Outside of fantasy, I’ve always had a soft spot for historical fiction, and I am the proud owner of a very old and complete set of Baroness Orczy’s Pimpernel novels. Most recently, though, I have been left speechless with admiration for the sheer brilliance of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’d have to agree with those who place her in the top rank of the world’s best living writers.

D:  I like my history modern, so I’ll pass on Mantel, but I’m just getting into Dennis Lehane’s writing after realising he was already a hero of mine.  The films Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River I thought were fantastic – simple but clever and packed with emotion.  Psychological stories with morally grey characters and bittersweet endings – Donnie Dark, Memento, A Simple Plan – anything that moves me intellectually and emotionally I will draw from and try to inject into my work.  Fantasy can be all of that.

Jill:  Fantasy, to me, seems limitless. Are there limitations?

 Jo: For me, yes. As I said earlier, all fantasy is naturally limited by the world the author has created, and whether it’s magical ability or the appearance and behaviour of a fantastical creature, everything within that world has to be explicable – and normal – within the rules of the created universe. That’s not all there is to it though. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say ‘This is how things operate around here,’ and expect a reader to take it at face value. The writers I admire most are also able to explain precisely how a thing happens in a way a rational mind would accept. The works of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss illustrate this very well. Magic doesn’t just ‘happen’; it is a skill that is developed, often with great difficulty, along the scientific principles of the universe in which it operates. Without that underlying logic, and the ability of the writer to explain exactly how something is achieved, the whole story falls down and the enjoyment of it is lost.

 D: Imagination, ambition and skill are the only limits.  That and commercial publishing.  Just look at the success of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Give quality writers as broad a canvas as fantasy has to offer, and beautiful things can happen.

Jill:  When reading both your books, I find them incredibly visual. How far do you write with an eye on the cinematic possibilities?

D:  All the way, but only so far as to narrate what I’m seeing.  There’s no conscious thought going into a possible movie deal (not that I’d complain).  My stories are built around ideas that I translate scene by scene, which I’m told has a cinematic quality.  In my head I’m directing, I suppose.  Doesn’t’ everybody do that?  I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Jo: Neither can I.  Like Darren, I write what I see in my head.  I am frequently told that I write in a cinematic way, but it’s certainly not deliberate.  I think it is partly that I tend to plot in dialogue. I use conversation between characters to build up scenes initially, and often need to paint in the backdrop later. That gives the writing a cinematic feel.

Jill:  A writer I met recently lamented the lack of respect afforded to fantasy writers. Have you encountered such pre-judgemental opinions? If so, how do you counter them?

Jo: I think it’s very easy to whinge about the lack of respect for your own genre, but I don’t think it applies to fantasy more than to any other. I hear crime, and other commercial writers, say the same thing. The fact is, there is a fair amount of poor writing out there, and readers who are unfortunate enough to stumble on bad examples of a genre will quickly lose respect for it. The answer, I think, is simply to write better books, ones that do command respect from readers.  I did come across a creative writing tutor a couple of years ago who opined, very loudly and often, that any prose that was not literary fiction was not worth reading, and rhyming poetry had no place in modern literature. Needless to say, I didn’t go out of my way to recommend her classes to my students.

D:  Sorry, Jo, I’m gonna have to partly disagree.  I think genre does suffer from a lack of literary respect, and it’s not entirely unwarranted.  The quality control bar for publishing genre is set much lower.  Publishers will often take a book because it’s of the moment and saleable; they’re not concerned with literary merit or the quality of the prose – passable is fine. Sometimes less than passable is fine.  So-called literary works have their duds too, but I’d say the over all entry-level standard is higher.  But the literary snobs know how good genre can be, because every time a fantasy writer produces the goods, those same snobs claim that writer as one of their own.

Jo: Put that way, I don’t think we are in disagreement – what you say about the quality control bar is spot on. Genre fiction goes in waves – the most recent high rider is the multi-volume medieval epic, popularised by GRRM. Therefore, publishers will jump at anything similar in the hope they will make a quick killing – even if what they grab is poorly written and off-putting for the reader. I wouldn’t exclude literary fiction from that tendency though. Every genre has its bandwagon!

How does the day job inform your writing?

Jo: A great deal. I’m lucky enough to have had a fascinating career as a psychologist, and that inevitably spills over into my writing. The Blood Dancer series arose from a lifelong interest in genetics, and particularly the effects of genetic manipulation. Fantasy fiction was the ideal way to explore those themes. My current work in progress, although not fantasy, also has a strong psychological theme, and it just seems natural to use what I know as a springboard for my imagination.

D:  You’re lucky, Jo – not much inspiration to be had painting houses.  Although in Dark Heart my main character is a property developer, something I did for a while.  I suppose it’s good to know the building trade from a research point of view, but the only thing I draw from the day job is the unwavering desire to want to write for a living.

Jill:  You both blend modern-day accuracy with fantastical elements.  Do you find yourself adopting a different mindset when writing each ‘world’?

Jo: No. For me, when I’m writing, that is the world. I see no dichotomy between the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastical’ elements of it. Of course I have to be satisfied that within the parameters I’ve defined, what happens is theoretically (and physically) possible. In all other respects, writing fantasy in a ‘real world’ setting is like writing any other novel. The world is seen through the eyes of its characters, and the range of understanding and acceptance they display.

D:  I’m with Jo there.  Whichever world I’m painting at the time, it has to be real.  I’m a stickler for details and authenticity, and find myself researching more and more.  If you’re trying to sell the fantastical as real, you need to suspend the reader’s disbelief.  The more reality you can inject it the unreal, the better.

Jill:  Your books, despite the drama, action and adventure, are thought-provoking psychological and philosophical. You use an alternate reality to address some pretty serious questions. Did you specifically choose this genre as the vehicle for such themes?

Jo: Yes, absolutely. I chose a fantasy setting as I felt it would allow me greater freedom to speculate on the issues I wanted to explore. Using an alternate reality meant I was able to step back and allow my train of thought to evolve in a way that would not have been possible using the timescales and rules of a ‘normal’ world. Another big advantage of fantasy, for me, is the scope it gives to allow in-depth internal investigation of the human condition. For example, if it is normal for characters to live several hundred years, how will that affect their mode of thought, behaviour etc?  How will they react to change, and where will their moral compass point? Working through such questions is a fascinating, revealing and sometimes magical journey. Of course, most importantly, it’s also great fun!

D:  I was always going to write speculative fiction, and the finer aspects like theme and metaphor will always come secondary to story.  Dark Heart was as good a book as I could write at the time with the talent I had at the time, and although there’s a strong redemption theme present, I didn’t consciously set out to explore it; I wasn’t trying to write a literary novel.  My second novel Through the Eyes of Douglas has much stronger themes and ideas, and again, I didn’t set out to write a literary novel, but there was a definite turning point in the first draft where I had to make a decision about what I was creating.  First and foremost it’s a supernatural chiller; I never lost sight of that and I never wanted the story to get bogged down with anything other than story, but I had something to say too, and once the first draft was done I spent a long time shaping the ‘other story’ to coexist within the main narrative.  I could never have crafted a story around a theme, I think themes should occur more organically than that, but if I could, fantasy would be my vehicle of choice.

More about Jo and Darren …
Jo Reed won the Daily Telegraph Travel Writing Competition in 2008, and her short story credits include Mslexia, Lancashire Magazine, The People’s Friend, The New Writer and Words with Jam. In 2008/9, she won an Arts Council supported Apprenticeship with Adventures in Fiction for her first novel, The Tyranny of the Blood, which was subsequently taken up by Wild Wolf Publishing in May 2009. A Child of the Blood followed in 2010, and the third novel in the series, Malim’s Legacy was published at the end of October 2012. Jo currently lives in Bristol, where she continues to write and lecture in psychology, physiology and creative writing.

The Tyranny of the Blood (Blood Dancers, #1)The Blood Dancers Series

As the tribes of ancient Britain defend their lands against the might of the Roman Empire, another battle rages, unseen by the warring armies. It is a fight over blood. The product of a mutation as old as the human species, Corvan, like all his kind, possesses gifts beyond the dreams of normal men. The Dancers live long, kill or heal with thought alone, communicate over great distances, mind to mind. But Corvan is not satisfied. He seeks power, immortality; most of all he seeks to control time. In the wilds of the Scottish Highlands he creates a twisted dynasty, the ‘Family’, whose only goal is to produce a child who can conquer the barrier of time – a child of the Blood.

Darren J Guest led a vampiric existence in his youth, spending much of the 80s hidden from sunlight within the crypt-like snooker halls of Essex.  But at some point in the mid 90s he buried his professional snooker career and rejoined day-lit society. Darren writes psychological urban fantasy, supernatural suspense and cerebral horror. Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp, was published in 2011 by Snowbooks. His second novel, Through the Eyes of Douglas, is represented by John Jarrold Agency.  He now lives and writes in Suffolk.

Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo StampAvailable Now

On Leo’s sixteenth birthday, something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that once offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when life can’t get any worse… Leo dies.
A demon returns after twenty years.

An angel follows close behind.

Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

Next Page »