Category Archives: Writing

Guest Post: Jennifer C. Wilson on The Joy of Supportive Writing Buddies

My friend Jennifer C. Wilson is here today to celebrate the release of her story ‘The Raided Heart‘.

Jen’s going to talk to us about the importance of having a strong network of peers who understand what you’re going through as a writer and will help you when you need it most. 

My thanks to Jen for sharing her experiences and thoughts with us. 

Vic x

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Hi Victoria, and thanks for hosting me on your blog today. To say I’m excited about the release of The Raided Heart is an understatement, and I know that you know just how long I’ve been working on it, and what a big deal it is for me to finally be releasing it through Ocelot Press. You’ve also heard a lot of the story before the book’s released, as it’s been my work-in-progress at writing group for the last year or so. 

TheRaidedHeart-Cover-HiResAnd I’ve got to be honest, if it wasn’t for writing group members, The Raided Heart might still be in the proverbial desk drawer.

Back in the summer, I was having a total nightmare with the final draft. I was struggling to hit my word count targets, and angry at myself for that fact, given that I wasn’t even writing a new story; I was rewriting one, and for the third time at that. You’d think I would know what was going to happen next, to who, how, and when? Nope. Despite having a beautifully bullet-pointed synopsis, outlining in detail the entire plot, I just couldn’t find the words to bring any of it to the page. I was writing pieces here and there, at writing group, or on a Sunday afternoon, when I practically chained myself to my desk, but it was like wading through treacle, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Given that it had been with me for so long, this was anxiety-inducing, to say the least. 

Bringing Richard III into things had helped with the plotting, and the words had flowed for a while, but now they had dried up again. Hence one miserable night at a local crime-reading event, where I ended up pouring my heart out to fellow writers Sarah and Penny. In hindsight, declaring that I was quitting writing for good may have been a tad melodramatic, but it’s honestly how I felt in that moment. 

This is where being part of a circle of writers is so important. If I hadn’t been out that night, there’s a real chance I’d have been sat at my desk, hating the blank page, and deleting things rather than creating them. Instead, I was with good friends, who talked through everything which was bothering me, and came up with a genuinely helpful plan of action. Writing can be a solitary, if not downright lonely, activity, and having a solid group of people around you who know what you’re going through is so critical in my opinion.

And it’s not just to pull you through when you’re threatening to throw in the pen – it’s wonderful to have people who understand just what it means to you when you get shortlisted in a competition, have something accepted for publication, or (drum roll), you get yourself that magical Book Deal, and become a Published Author. Family and non-writing friends will be happy for you, yes, but only another writer can sometimes really ‘get’ just what you’ve been through to get to that point, and know what it means to have that success. 

That’s the reason I love hosting North Tyneside Writers’ Circle, and attending Elementary Writers, as well as getting a week-long fix of it at Swanwick Writers’ School every summer. And it’s why I cannot wait to celebrate seeing ‘The Raided Heart‘ into the world with people who really understand that after twenty-odd years in the writing, it’s a magical feeling to hold that paperback, and see it going live on Amazon. 

Happy writing!

About the book:
Meg Mathers, the headstrong youngest sibling of a reiving family on the English-Scottish border, is determined to remain at her childhood home, caring for the land and village she’s grown up with. When an accident brings her a broken ankle and six weeks in the resentful company of ambitious and angry young reiver Will Hetherington, attraction starts to build. Both begin to realise they might have met their match, and the love of their lives, but 15th century border living is not that simple, as Meg soon finds herself betrothed to the weakling son of a tyrannical neighbour, Alexander Gray. When tragedy strikes, can Meg and Will find their way back to each other, and can Will finally take his own personal revenge on Gray? ‘The Raided Heart‘ is the first of “The Historic Hearts”, a collection of historical romantic adventures set in Scotland and the North of England.

About Jennifer:
Jennifer C. Wilson has been stalking dead monarchs since childhood. At least now it usually results in a story, it isn’t considered (quite) as strange. Jennifer won North Tyneside Libraries’ Story Tyne short story competition in 2014 and, as well as working on her own writing, she is a founder and co-host of the award-winning North Tyneside Writers’ Circle and has been running writing workshops since 2015. Her debut novel, ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London‘ was published by Crooked Cat Books in 2015, with the fourth in the series, ‘Kindred Spirits: York‘, released in early 2019. Her timeslip romance ‘The Last Plantagenet?‘ is published through Ocelot Press, an authors’ collective formed in 2018. 

You can find Jennifer on Twitter and Instagram

**Out of the Ashes Blog Tour**

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I have known Vicky Newham – author of ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ and ‘Out of the Ashes‘ – for several years. As regular readers of this blog will know, ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ was one of my top reads in 2018 and I’m now delighted to be part of the blog tour for the next book in the DI Maya Rahman series: ‘Out of the Ashes‘. 

A flash mob in Brick Lane is interrupted by an explosion. With fire raging through one of the city’s most infamous streets, DI Maya Rahman is called to the scene. With witnesses too caught up in the crowd to have seen anything, Maya must lead an investigation with no leads. And when Maya is faced with a second, more horrifying crime, she knows she is in a race against time to solve the crimes before East London burns. 

Feast on the first chapter of ‘Out of the Ashes‘ here and then order / download the rest of it. I guarantee you will not be able to put this fantastic book down.

Vic x

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Rosa, 2 p.m.

Rosa Feldman stood at the door of her Brick Lane newsagent’s, staring out at the street she’d known since she was four. She couldn’tshake the feeling that something was wrong. It was the shop opposite,run by the young Lithuanian couple. Since first thing this morning, the lights had been off and the shutters down. Initially, she was relieved that for once, the ugly neon sign, with its air of Margate or Blackpool, wasn’t flashing outside her bedroom window, but as the morning progressed, she felt increasingly uneasy.

It wasn’t like them at all. She couldn’t recall ever seeing the shop closed in the daytime.A tap on the glass snapped Rosa back into the afternoon. It was Mr Walker from the off-licence a few doors down. He shouted a cheery greeting and waved as he passed the window. Regular as clockwork, off to get chips for tea. Rosa raised her hand to return the gesture, but the pain in her wrists and knuckles bit again. Damned arthritis.

Mr Walker’s knock was usually her reminder to think about their meal. Today was Friday after all. But without Józef, the Sabbath meal wasn’t the same and she didn’t bother with the rituals any more. In the last year, she’d lost weight and clothes hung off her spare frame. What was the point of lighting candles when there was only one of you? She’d steam a plate of yesterday’s chicken and potatoes. That would do her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far to get home, just upstairs to the flat, even if it was still freezing at this time of year.

Over the dusty window display, two men were putting a new shop sign up where Rosenberg’s jewellers used to be. Work had been going on for weeks, and it looked like the place was nearly ready to open. Alchemia, it said. A swanky new Polish bar by the looks of it, slap bang next-door to Mr Hamid’s curry house. He wasn’t going to be happy. So much had changed in Brick Lane since she and her family had arrived, and life moved so fast on the other side of the window, it made Rosa dizzy. The pace was relentless and the change uncompromising. Inside the shop, though, she felt safe. Change there was slow and predictable. Above her head, by the door, the fan heater droned noisily and made little impact on the chilly air, but she didn’t mind. It had always done that. And she barely noticed the crumbling plaster of the ground floor walls, or the mildew which clung to ceiling corners like a nasty rash.

Her thoughts slid back to the shop over the road. The place was usually open all hours of the day and night, selling its fancy five-quid soups to whoever could afford them. She had no objection to people earning a living, but her parents would be turning in their graves. They’d survived the Ghetto on two hundred calories a day. When they left Warsaw, and arrived in London, it was the handouts from the Jewish soup kitchen in Brune Street that kept them alive. It was extraordinary to think that what had been humble subsistence for many families was now a fad-food. She’d been over for a spy at the menu, of course, when they were shut. Apart from some matzo ball soup, she couldn’t find much she fancied and didn’t know what most of it was, let alone how to pronounce it. Keen-war, or something, a youth with a bicycle and a dog had told Rosa.

She sighed. She missed her old neighbours. Those were Sabbath meals to look forward to. They were exactly how her mother described Warsaw before the war. Mrs Blum from the bagel shop would make the challah. Rich, eggy and sweet. It had been ages since Rosa had felt one of those in her hands, soft and warm, in its pretty braid shape. The Altmans would bring the wine. The Posners, candles. And the Rosenbergs, the jewellers, always came with freshly made kugel.

But now her parents were dead, and all her Jewish neighbours were either dead too or had moved away. Except Rosa.

And there was that feeling again, a gnawing emptiness, a sense that life had moved on without her. It was so unsettling. Every fibre of her being was exhausted by the continual need to think about whether to follow her compatriots out of the East End and into the London suburbs.

The sound of voices jolted her back into the present. Yelling. Music. Outside in the street, a thumping bass beat started up. Tremors vibrated through the shop, and a booming noise invaded the silence of her thoughts. Yobbos, probably, spitting everywhere and pumping out music from one of those dreadful sound-systems. They’d pass in a minute.

But they didn’t.

The music got louder and louder, and – oh, typical – the group had stopped outside Rosa’s shop. All guffaws, swearing, floppy hair and hoodies. More voices, bellowing and cheering, and one by one, people were joining them. What on earth was going on? On a Friday afternoon, from lunchtime onwards, she was used to the steady trickle of people down Brick Lane, getting ready for a night on the tiles and a curry, but it was unusual to see so many people together. She edged over to the corner of the shop window to get a

better view. The music had changed, and one by one people pulled black bandanas into masks, over their mouths and noses, and were dancing, if jabbing a finger in the air and screaming counted as dancing these days. Teenagers, by the look of them. Some younger. She wasn’t very good at judging age, and they all wore such similar clothes, but she’d put money on some of them not being a day over ten.

Rosa pressed her nose against the pane of glass. Outside, the street hummed with joy. There was an innocence to their dancing, even if the masks were a bit scary. And they weren’t doing any harm, were they? She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She used to know all the kids round here; knew their families by name, but none of this lot were familiar. There were at least ten of them, dancing in the street, throwing themselves about like acrobats, bending, leaping, twirling each other around. For a moment, Rosa was reminded of the tea room dances she and Józef used to go to before Agnieszka and Tomasz were born. They’d save for weeks, get dolled up in their best clothes. Oh, how much fun they’d been.

There were more than twenty of them now, maybe thirty. Someone was lighting sparklers and passing them round for the kids. She adored sparklers. And before she knew it, her fingers pulled the door handle and she was outside, the bell dinging shut behind her. The sulphurous smell set light to her dulled senses and she felt the day’s irritation shake itself from her shoulders. She was a kid again, at crisp November bonfires and balmy mid-summer street parties, with people passing sparklers round.

Rosa cleared her throat. Coughed. Her lungs weren’t good these days, weakened by years of a poorly heated flat, the damp shop walls, and Józef’s cigarette smoke.

 

She joined the throng of passers-by who were huddled, mesmer- ised by the dancing. Was it a student gathering? She was puzzled. Who was in charge? She couldn’t see any organisers or anyone giving instructions, and had no idea where the music was coming from. People were merging with the group of their own accord and encouraging others to do the same. They all looked so carefree.

 

The music brought a smile to Rosa’s cold lips. Her heel began to tap and she was lost to nostalgia. It was such a relief to forget the pain and drudgery of the last year. To forget her arthritis and money worries. Was that Lulu and ‘Shout’? Her heart leaped. Many a time she and Józef had danced to that tune. Her mind was flooded with memories of all the occasions when they’d danced together, his warm hand in the small of her back, guiding her forwards, the other clasping hers, keeping her safe. She felt a lump in her throat. They were glorious memories, even if they were now tainted by the agony of loss. It had only been a year and she still missed him so much.

A waltz kicked in, floaty and dramatic. Initially, it had been youngsters dancing but now it was people of all ages, lured over by the infectious atmosphere of Brick Lane on a chilly April afternoon. Hearing the waltz start, a Sikh man checked his turban and, with a huge grin, he clasped the hands of a woman in a navy-blue trench coat. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, a small flat bag diagonally across her body, her head tilted back, carefree and stunned, as though she hadn’t had so much fun in ages. Rosa guessed the woman was about her age. Perhaps she was a widow too?

Rosa’s hips started to sway, and she was tempted to go over and join in. What was she thinking? She was being silly. She couldn’t. Who would mind the shop while she was cavorting in the street?

Another crowd of youths piled in, hee-hawing and smoking, in their thin cotton clothing and baseball shoes. Some with their bottoms hanging out of their trousers, others in drainpipe jeans. Didn’t they feel the cold? Several more children were in tow. Why weren’t they all at school? Before Rosa knew it, one of them had taken her hand and led her towards the group. Elvis’ crooning tones wafted down the street and once again Rosa’s spirits soared. The teenagers looked so funny, impersonating the rock ’n’ roll moves of ‘All Shook Up’. It was the most fun she’d had on a Friday afternoon since . . .

Józef would have enjoyed this.

‘Come on, Rosa,’ he would have said in his calm, decisive voice, and he’d have locked the shop, led her out into the street and begun whirling her around with that boyish grin of his.

A quick head count told her there were about fifty people dancing now and a good twenty more hanging around. The street whiffed of whacky-backy. Rosa had forgotten her nagging joints and aching legs; the grimy shelves with mounting dust; the delivery boxes she couldn’t carry. For a few sweet moments, she’d stopped feeling sick to death of the damn shop, of book-keeping and fretting over decisions. She didn’t care about any of it anymore. All she wanted was—

A loud splitting sound tore through the air, followed by a series of cracks and bangs. Rosa gasped as orange flames burst out of the top floor windows of the shop opposite, and billowed upwards. Swirling streams of black smoke inked the pale sky. Fire raged behind the first-floor windows, and the ground floor shop was filled with smoke and flames. She cried out in pain as acrid fumes hit her lungs, forcing her to clamp her hand over her mouth. Everyone was shouting and running for cover as burning timber peeled away from windows. Screams pierced the air as lengths of wood and red-hot embers rained down on the crowd below. Rosa’s legs were like jelly and she felt dizzy. She stumbled over something on the ground in front of her and lurched forwards. She made out a woman, clutching her arm.

 

‘Help,’ came the agonised cry at Rosa’s feet. ‘Please help me.’

Panic engulfed Rosa, and she was transported back to the sensory onslaught of the Warsaw Ghetto, to primitive memories of endless screaming, to the cacophony of bombs and blasts and gunshots. From behind, someone shoved her out of the way and she stumbled forwards. All around her, people were coughing, retching and staggering, scarves and hands clasped over their mouths, desperate to escape the blaze. The air was cloying. Putrid. She was plunged into blind terror, realising she could die. This wasn’t Poland, and it wasn’t the end of the war, but she had to get away from the fire and ring 999 before someone died.

As the blaze ripped through the roof, smoke continued to spiral upwards into the sky. Rosa staggered blindly towards the blue door of her shop, to the step and doorway, arms groping ahead for something to grab. The fumes bit at her lungs and she was gasping for air so much she was retching. Finally, her hands grabbed the handle. She used all her weight to heave the door open and stumbled inside, pushing it shut behind her as quickly as she could.

She sucked in some air. It was like breathing through needles. She had to get to the phone in the back room. Stands and magazine racks flashed past her as she lurched towards the till, gasping for breath and snatching for a hold. She hauled her way round the counter, head spinning, and grabbed the phone receiver from the wall. Her eyes were streaming.

Keep blinking, she told herself. Breathe. She tried to calm herself; to rub away the tears that the fumes had produced; to steady her shaking hands and press the buttons. What should she say? Was it terrorists? Had there been an explosion?

Just say FIRE.

Rosa felt her head starting to spin. Lights flashed, dots appeared and she went floppy. Her mind slipped sideways and everything stopped.

Review: ‘Critical Incidents’ by Lucie Whitehouse

DI Robin Lyons has been dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders. Unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she is left with no choice but to move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. This time, though, Robin has her teenage daughter Lennie in tow. 

In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, Robin’s best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. As Robin begins her own investigation, she realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, and she begins to wonder how well we ever know the people we care about. 

Having read Lucie Whitehouse’s ‘The Bed I Made‘ several years ago, I was intrigued to read ‘Critical Incidents which seemed a rather different premise to the ‘The Bed I Made‘. 

As I have come to expect from Lucie Whitehouse’s writing, ‘Critical Incidents‘ is a superb story, with sensitive characterisation and an emotional pull that you often don’t get from crime fiction. I couldn’t put ‘Critical Incidents‘ down. It’s a wonderful blend of pacey plot and intrigue with a touch of humour in the darkness.

There are plenty of interlinking stories here which some may dismiss as “convenient” but I actually enjoyed the story so much that I was happy to suspend my disbelief. 

Whitehouse has a real skill for presenting fictional crime alongside domesticity and I really like that about her writing. She really captures familial tensions perfectly – the tense relationship between Robin and her mother adds plenty to the story.

The way in which Whitehouse portrays Robin is pitch perfect. Despite obviously being a competent officer, Robin’s unwillingness to play by the rules consistently gets her in bother. I like that Robin has her problems but her intentions are good. I could really identify with Robin and her well-intentioned missteps. 

Critical Incidents‘ is a must-read. 

Vic x

**Running in Circles Blog Tour**

 

Today we welcome to the blog Claire Gray to the blog as part of the blog tour to celebrate the release of her new novel ‘Running in Circles‘.


Claire Gray lives in
 the South Lakes with her husband and two small children. She studied Creative Writing at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts. She graduated in 2006 and then went on to complete a journalism course at Darlington College. 


That same year
, Claire won a Northern Promise Award from New Writing North, and her work was featured in their anthology, ‘Ten Years On‘. Claire now works as a freelance copywriter and continues to write short stories, some of which have been published in magazines and online. 


Sapere Books published ‘Running in Circles‘ in 2019 and Claire is really excited to have published her first novel!
My thanks to Claire for sharing her experiences with us.


Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job: 
Claire Gray

It’s difficult for novelists to make a living purely through their writing. I’m probably only a Google search away from the official statistics, but I would guess only a tiny percentage of authors are able to sit at their desks every day, working on their latest manuscript, without worrying about paying the heating bill or feeding the kids. 


Many
 novelists supplement their income by working in education, or by editing other people’s work or writing for newspapers and magazines. That’s the tier of professional writing that I aspiring to reach, and it still seems very far away. But I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be in the position that I, and many other writers, are in. We’re the writers who have day jobs; jobs completely unrelated to the creative work we do. While it can be challenging in terms of time management, and occasionally dispiriting because of how far removed it is from what we really want to be doing, having a day job is valuable. To write you need to have life experience. Working is one of the most natural ways to achieve this. 


I studied Creative Writing at college and then found myself
 working in betting shops across Cumbria and the north-east. What started as a weekend job rapidly became full-time as I realised (and probably should have realised much earlier) that Creative Writing is not a vocational course. But it wasn’t all bad. I met some interesting characters amongst the staff and the customers. There was a period in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where I narrowly missed a number of armed robberies, which was horrible but also great fuel for short stories. One of my co-workers was a published poet, and I still have the signed book he gave me as a leaving present. The writing and gambling industries seem to go well together, somehow. 


Eventually
, I enrolled on a Journalism course at Darlington College. Once all the exams were over I was qualified to work as a junior reporter. For various reasons, this didn’t happen. I’d moved to North Devon with my husband who was in the Royal Marines, and there weren’t many local newspapers or junior reporting jobs around. But I’ve worked as a freelance copywriter and my journalism training was certainly not a waste of time. I discovered the power of an opening sentence, how to firmly grab the reader’s attention, and the importance of editing. The main characters in my novel are journalists, and it is good to have background knowledge about the industry.


Since then I have moved around the country a fair bit, working on my novel, doing the odd piece of copywriting, and working in a succession of NHS administration j
obs. Much like the betting shop period of my life, this is a line of work I fell into accidentally, but somehow it stuck. I like working for the NHS because I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and it is inherently unpredictable; things rarely get dull. There are stories everywhere inside hospitals. You hear about, and see, some horrible things and some wonderful things. These polar opposites help to fuel my writing when I find time to switch on my laptop in the evenings. 

 

Running in Circles‘ is available now.

Review: The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven

A serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles.

Leaving no clues, the murderer – nicknamed The Immolation Man – is managing to render the police useless. When disgraced detective Washington Poe’s name is discovered carved into the charred remains of the third victim, he’s brought back from suspension despite wanting to be no part of this gruesome investigation. 

Reluctantly partnered with the brilliant, but socially awkward, civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, the mismatched pair uncover a trail that only Poe is meant to see. The elusive killer has a grand plan and for some unknown reason Poe is part of it.

As the body count rises, Poe discovers he has far more invested in the case than he could have possibly imagined. And in a shocking finale that will shatter everything he’s ever believed about himself, Poe will learn that there are things far worse than being burned alive. 

I tore through ‘The Puppet Show‘, unable to pull myself away from this compelling narrative. The characters are well-drawn and Craven appears to have a deep understanding of their back stories and what motivates them. I am, of course, #TeamTilly. Despite this being a dark, violent crime drama, Craven paints Tilly with sensitivity and, in her relationship with Poe, manages to bring some light relief when things get heavy. Craven, a former probation officer, has used his experience to create compelling, realistic characters.

Alongside his obvious understanding of the motivations of his characters, Craven’s experience within the criminal justice system shines through. Craven maintains the fine balance of demonstrating his depth of knowledge while ensuring that the story isn’t bogged down in minutiae. ‘The Puppet Show‘ is a well-plotted, fast-paced read. 

 Setting these grisly murders against the beautiful scenery of the Lake District was a stroke of genius by Craven, too. I really appreciated the experience of reading about somewhere I’m familiar with, turning it from a place of rugged beauty to something far more terrifying.  I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. 

The Puppet Show‘ is the first in the Washington Poe series and I can’t wait for the next one. ‘Black Summer‘ is due out later this year. 

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Desmond P. Ryan

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Today it’s the turn of Desmond P. Ryan to tell us about how his work has influenced his writing. My thanks to Des for sharing his experience with us.

Vic x

For almost thirty years, every day of my working life began with either a victim waiting in a hospital emergency room to report a violent crime, or a call from a bystander, witness, or sometimes even the perpetrator to a street corner or a ransacked, often blood-soaked room where someone had been left for dead. Murder, assaults on a level that defied humanity, sexual violations intended to demean, shame, and haunt the individuals who were no more than objects to the offenders: all in a day’s work. 

It was exhilarating, exhausting, and often heartbreaking.

    As a Detective with the Toronto Police Service, I wrote thousands of reports detailing the people, places, and events that led up to the moment I came along. I investigated the crimes and wrote synopses for guilty pleas detailing the circumstances that brought the accused individuals before the Courts. I also wrote a number of files to have individuals deemed either Not Criminally Responsible due to mental incapacity, or Dangerous Offenders to be held in custody indefinitely.       

    Now, as a retired investigator with three decades of research opportunities under my belt, I write crime fiction. And, when Vic asked me to contribute to her blog, you can imagine that I jumped at the opportunity to share my story of how my job has influenced (just a tad!) my writing. You could say that I have an unusual skill set that makes me particularly prone to writing crime fiction.

In fact, I started writing my Mike O’Shea Crime series while I was still working as a police detective. As you can imagine, in real life, things don’t always turn out the way youmight like, and the people I dealt with didn’t always find the justice they deserved. Writing was my way of giving voice to those whom the justice system had silenced. 

When I retired, I was a bit afraid that I’d become that guy in the corner at the pub who tells old cop stories to no one in particular. The obvious alternative was to continue on with my writing and get the series off the ground. After several months of writing, I found the police procedural format of the Mike O’Shea Crime series feeling too much like work (a good thing for my readers!), so I began a cozy mystery series featuring Mike O’Shea’s mother, Mary Margaret, as the sleuth. Now THAT was a lot of fun to write. 

Check out my website at RealDesmondRyan.com and be sure to order your copy of 10-33 Assist PC, the first in my six-book series.

Getting to Know You: Daniel James

Over the last couple of years, I’ve got to know Daniel James, author of ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas’. I’ve been lucky enough to host him at Noir at the Bar a few times as well as being invited by Daniel to read my own work at his ‘After Dark’ event for Books on Tyne. 

Daniel will be in conversation with Jacky Collins at Waterstones, Newcastle, on Wednesday 30th January. Tickets are £3 and I’m reliably informed that there are a few left – reserve your space now!

My thanks to Daniel for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

daniel james, zurich, october 2017Tell us about your book.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on the real life story of Ezra Maas, a British artist who became famous in the late 1960s, but who turned his back on fame and created his greatest artworks from the shadows, before eventually disappearing altogether in mysterious circumstances in the early 2000s. I became interested in telling the true story of Maas’s life and presumed death, but nothing could have prepared me for the truth that the book uncovers.

It quickly occurred to me that in searching for the true story of Maas’s life, travelling around the world to the cities he lived, visiting the galleries where he created his work, and interviewing those who knew and collaborated with him, that my role as biographer was essentially a kind of literary detective. As such, I consciously decided to write these chapters of the book in the style of a detective story, a page-turning mystery thriller through a postmodern, existential lens. However, the book is also very much a biography and there are chapters dedicated to documenting Maas’s life from 1950 onwards in a more journalistic style, accompanied by reproductions of authentic archival material and correspondence, including news clippings, letters, emails, phone transcripts and more. If one half of the book is like a detective story, the other half is a biography written by an investigative journalist. There are a lot of different styles and techniques being employed throughout the text, but they come together to create a new kind of book where readers are challenged to become detectives themselves, following in the footsteps of my investigation, as I attempt to separate fact from fiction and history from myth, page by page, chapter by chapter.

What inspired it?
Ezra Maas’s incredible life story was the inspiration. In 2011, I received an anonymous phone call suggesting the true story of Maas would make an interesting biography and everything led from there. It didn’t take long for my research to reveal a number of contradictions and inconsistencies in the authorised version of Maas’s life, and naturally, the journalist in me began asking questions. The more I asked, the more secrets I uncovered, and I soon found myself being warned off the story. Of course, as soon as that happened, I knew I had found something special and there was no turning back.

Alongside that, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between truth and fiction, the self and reality, as a writer. And in many ways, Maas’s life was the perfect gateway into those subjects and themes. His life, and my interests as a writer, were perfectly aligned and the phone call that set me on the path to writing his biography couldn’t have come at a more ideal moment. I was in the right place at the right time.

I recently read an interview with a writer who described her latest work as ‘existential noir’ because of the way it used the structure of a traditional mystery story to explore unanswerable questions of being and knowing – what can we ever know with any real certainty, about ourselves or the world – and that’s very much the territory I like work in – crafting stories around questions of identity and reality that lead us down the rabbit hole, and force us to confront our deepest subconscious fears.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I’m happiest when I’m writing regularly because it feels like I’m fulfilling my potential and doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my time. Kafka supposedly said that ‘a writer who isn’t writing, is a monster courting insanity’ and I completely understand what he meant. Whenever I’m not writing, I feel like I should be, and when it’s going well, it’s like electricity flowing through me – it’s a serious high, but more than that, it also provides a deeper sense of purpose and satisfaction.

And on a lighter note, it’s great fun. Who doesn’t want to make up stories and let their imagination run free? I love the freedom that writing gives me. I can create entire worlds, people, and histories. I’ve always been a daydreamer and writing allows me to share my dreams and imaginings with others.

I don’t really dislike anything about writing itself, but like any physical or mental endeavour, there are days when it can really feel like hard work. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to listen to my body and not force myself to write when it isn’t flowing. You can still work on your book without actually writing. You can read for research, visit a location, watch a film, listen to music, take a walk. Professional athletes warm up before an event, they stretch, eat and drink the right things, and get their bodies ready to perform. Writers need to do the same with their minds. Sometimes it’s about clearing your mind to allow space for the ideas to come in, other times it’s about tuning into a certain frequency, atmosphere or mood, and channelling a particular character or scene.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I love reading. It’s one of my great pleasures in life and it’s ultimately the reason I wanted to become a writer myself. I try to get through a novel every couple of weeks if I can. The books I return to the most are detective novels – Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James M Cain to modern greats like James Lee Burke – and also postmodern works. At university, I specialised in fiction from 1940-1990 and that’s the era I find myself returning to the most when I’m looking for something new to read. I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels too (I practically grew up on Marvel Comics in particular). I’m a fan of Science Fiction and many other genres, and I read quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly literary and cultural theory, but it depends on what I’m working on at the time. I read a lot of books on contemporary art history, biographies and journalism when I was researching Ezra Maas, and I can imagine I’ll do the same with future novels. 

Currently sitting at the top of my to be read list currently are two excellent new novels – Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash and The Study Circle by Haroun Khan. The last book I bought before those was by the late, great Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist who blogged under the name K-Punk. I highly recommend his work to anyone who has yet to come across it. Mark’s writing introduced me to the concept of Hauntology, which I touch on in my own book.

Earlier this year, I also read the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer after being intrigued by Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first in the series, Annihilation. I’ve got a huge stack of books waiting to be read though. I love buying books and I love reading, but I do take long breaks when I’m actively writing myself, so this has resulted in an increasingly expanding To Be Read pile that I’ll probably never get through!

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Paul Auster. Raymond Chandler. Samuel Beckett. James Joyce. Thomas Pynchon. Philip Pullman. Philip K Dick. Jorge Luis Borges. Alasdair Grey. Flann O’Brien. David Lynch.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Everywhere. My life. Other people’s lives. History. Dreams. Music. Films. Ideas are all around us, all of the time. You’ve just got to open your eyes, listen and be in the right frame of mind to be inspired.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
Well, the novel is the best piece of work I’ve written so far and Ezra Maas is probably the most complex character I’ve brought to life, not just because he is a real person, but because there are so many conflicting stories about him. I’ve tried to reflect this in the book by capturing the multiple, overlapping narratives and descriptions, allowing them to coexist alongside each other so that the emphasis is on the reader of the book to play detective themselves and separate fact from fiction in Ezra’s life.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m about halfway through a second novel, which I hope to finish within the year. I actually started working on it in 2013, but Ezra Maas took over my life , so I put the other book on hold temporarily. Now that the Unauthorised Biography’ is out, I can focus on new projects, including returning to my work-in-progress second novel. Once that’s completed, I plan to work my way through the other novels I have planned, although I wouldn’t rule out one of those new ideas becoming my second novel – it just depends which idea excites me the most.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
“Write the books you want to read.” 

Philip Pullman said that to me when I met him at the Durham Book Festival in 2015. It was very reassuring advice to receive from such a master storyteller, particularly as that’s exactly what I’ve always tried to do. I’ve been writing stories since the age of four or five and have always written for myself. If the story excites and interests me, if I want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next, if I find myself disappearing into the world of the book and thinking about it every waking second, then I know I’m on the right track.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I’m somewhere in between. Generally speaking, I like to follow my intuition and let the story guide me, rather than plotting the entire book out in advance. I have a destination and a road map in my mind, but it has enough wide-open space to allow me to go off on unexpected adventures and detours as and when I need to. I might be the author of the book, but it’s a process of discovery for me too. An author is almost like a pioneer heading off into the wilderness. They discover the trail and share it with the readers who follow them.

Of course, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on real events, so it required several years of research, travel, interviews, and quite meticulous planning. At the same time, I remember the moment when I decided to write the book very vividly and I could already see the story fully formed in my mind. It all came to me in an instant. It was a Big Bang moment. One second there was nothing and then… everything. I knew where to start, how I wanted to present the story, with letters and emails and phone transcripts, and I knew exactly how it would end. But it also surprised me on multiple occasions. It kept me guessing all the way through with its twists and turns. It genuinely had a life of its own, sometimes in quite scary ways, almost as if the story couldn’t be contained on the page and wanted to bleed out into the world. Perhaps because it’s based on a true story, it has a special kind of power that makes it dangerous. I may have written it, but I don’t think even I know the book’s true potential.

This book, more than any other idea I’ve ever had, felt like it had already been written in a strange way and I was simply receiving it, like a transmitter, from somewhere out in the ether and it was my job to put it on the page; bring it to life.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
If writing books is really what you want to do, if it’s genuinely your dream in life, then don’t ever, ever give up. Keep going, keep believing in yourself, and keep writing, no matter what. You can and will make it happen, but only if you keep believing and keep writing.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
The moment I found out the book was going to be published will always stand out in my mind. I didn’t tell anyone – not a single person – for about a week as I was worried I would jinx it somehow. It was something that I wanted so much and so badly that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it. About two years after that, I walked out onto the stage at the Newcastle Book Festival in front of a crowd of about 80 people, including my family and friends, and I read an extract from the book for the very first time. I was introduced on the night by Professor Brian Ward, we premiered a documentary video about Ezra Maas featuring the award-winning writer and artist Bryan Talbot, and we finished up with a Q&A where I was interviewed by Dr Claire Nally. Everything went as planned and afterwards we celebrated with cocktails created especially for the book at a late night after-party in a speakeasy-style basement bar called The Poison Cabinet in Newcastle. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night and it was definitely one of my proudest moments.

The long-awaited launch of my novel with a trio of fantastic events in the North East, featuring guest authors and speakers and more than 150 attendees in total. This included a return to Books on Tyne and a special late-night event afterwards entitled Fiction After Dark with cocktails, live music and readings by Elementary Sisterhood. And of course, there was the launch itself at the wonderful Forum Books in Corbridge. It was a really lovely evening and a special moment for me. I can’t recommend Forum Books enough and I think it’s really important to support independent bookstores and local businesses

My next event will be at Waterstones Newcastle – the biggest bookstore in the North East – on Wednesday 30 January at 7pm, so that will be another proud moment. I’ll be reading an extract from the book, answering questions from the brilliant Dr Jacky Collins, and signing copies of my novel at the end. Tickets are £3 and on sale now.