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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.

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Getting to Know You: Lucy Nichol

I’m delighted to host Lucy Nichol, author of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes‘, to the blog.

My thanks to Lucy for taking the time to chat to us today and for her honesty. 

Vic x

Lucy N - headshot - colour.JPGTell us about your book.
A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes is a memoir that’s packed with comment about mental health stigma and how it has influenced my thinking over the years. I tried to write it humorously and accessibly, as I’m an expert by lived experience when it comes to mental health – I am not a professional. So the views on the book are simply based on what I have soaked up and how I feel about it all.

It takes us through a range of stereotypes linked to mental health, and compares them to the reality. 

front cover - a series of unfortunate stereotypes

What inspired it?
I started writing and blogging in 2016. I started working as a media volunteer / champion with Time to Change and I also when started writing regularly for a range of media titles. The title of the book came to me when I wrote my first piece for Sarah Millican’s Standard Issue magazine, which was almost a summary of everything that is in the book. It was all about stigma and how we perceive anxiety disorders, specifically, as that was what my personal experience was based on. 

I love the Lemony Snickett stories, but Aunt Josephine sprung to mind when I was trying to think of a fictional well-known character with anxiety. And I thought – Christ, I have anxiety and I’m nothing like Aunt Josephine. I was convinced she was a pretty poor role model for anxiety.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I find writing heaps of fun. I have a real thing for nostalgia, which is why I write so much about the 80s and 90s – not just my experience but everything that was happening around me – from food and TV shows to government safety campaigns and pop music. It always makes me smile and gives me context as to why and how my opinions on life have changed over the years.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I never stop! I’m currently finishing Lost Connections by Johann Hari which I can genuinely say is quite the life changer and I urge anyone to read it.

When I first started reading I was apprehensive, as I have naturally always yearned for quick fixes in everything. I think that is why I rely solely on taking anti-depressants and going for therapy, rather than adding self care into the mix as well. This book is a real eye-opener and I believe it’s good to challenge our own beliefs.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I love Caitlin Moran’s no-nonsense humour and focus on music, as well as Aaron Gillie’s (aka Technically Ron) hilarious reflections on living a life with anxiety. But I think overall the biggest influence on me was, and still is, the Standard Issue community. Sarah Millican set that magazine up (which now runs as a podcast) as a no-bullshit magazine for women. And all the contributors – from comedians to every day peeps like me – have a real authentic feel about them. It’s refreshing and it helped me find a voice. It made the in-crowd inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Where do you get your ideas from?
I look around me and I consider how pop culture / society has impacted me. I can’t comment on other people’s relationships with it, but I can share my own, and it seems to have rung true with a good few people so hopefully it is relatable.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
I’ve just started experimenting with fiction, and I have created a character I would love to hang out with. She has elements of me in there but overall, aside from her anxiety and taste in music, she’s a very different character. Far more confident, I’d say. I wrote a scene about her trip to her local pub with her best mate, who is made up of lots of people from my past, and it was so much fun to write.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the fiction project mentioned above, as well as a series of short stories I’m working on together with my husband, actor Chris Connel. It’s been interesting so far, we’ve had to be very careful to avoid the bickering, so we have set out clear boundaries – I’m doing the research and overarching concepts, he’s doing the characterisation and creative scriptwriting!

Me!.jpg

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
I arranged a manuscript assessment recently via The Literary Consultancy and author Angela Clarke was my assessor. Her review was honest and helpful, giving me some technical advice, but also getting me to think more about the bigger picture. It helped no end – giving me encouragement but also making me realise how commercial I need to be, and how I need to keep at it until I get it right (remember what I said earlier about always wanting the quick fixes – this was a reminder that I needed to hone my ideas before pitching them out).

I also remember, when I very first started writing a proposal for my book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, author and blogger, Claire Eastham asked me some tough questions to help me to craft the proposal. She apologised for being so challenging, but it was her most challenging questions, I believe, that have helped me the most.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Ha – probably a pantster. I just write and write whatever comes into my head. In experimenting with fiction, I have, however, done a bit of planning with regards to characterisation and an outline structure, which has been immensely helpful. But for blogs and comment and my own memoir, I fire up the laptop and see what happens.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I still see myself as very much a fledgling writer, so I am learning all the time. But I think the most important things I have picked up are to keep at it. I’ve had rejection after rejection – and I’m still seeking a literary agent to this day. But I am not giving up. I read somewhere you have to enjoy writing and writing for yourself. That way, regardless of what comes of it, it’s time well spent.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
I could go for the big one and say it was when I was invited to Buckingham Palace with the Time to Change and Mind teams for World Mental Health Day in 2016. It was pretty amazing to be part of that and sit on a royal throne (of the lavatorial kind, of course). However, I think the proudest moment for me was seeing the impact that my writing has had. One person, who I won’t name but she knows who she is, has made me feel that every single hour put into writing and trying to get my work out there has been worth it, after messaging me to say she was close to calling an ambulance during a severe panic attack, but she asked her husband to read my blog out to her and it helped to calm her down. There’s nothing that can beat that kind of response to your work. That has to be the proudest moment for me.  

2018 Review: Annie Doyle

Whether you’re a reader or writer of crime fiction, we have a very strong community in the north-east and that’s how I met the lovely Annie Doyle. Annie is always smiling when I see her and I’m really chuffed to have her on the blog to review her year.

My thanks to Annie for taking the time to answer my questions.

Vic x

Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2018?
I’m delighted to have completed my first short story and submitted it to a competition. Throughout my life I’ve written lots of parts of stories and created lots of plot and character ideas, but this is the first time I’ve finished a story and done something productive with it; it feels like a huge achievement!

And how about a favourite moment from 2018 generally?
Being able to enjoy an autumnal walk with my mam. She’s had a long spell of illness and I didn’t think we’d be able to enjoy a walk together again. However, effective treatment has meant she’s regained the use of her legs and we’re walking together again!

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Favourite book in 2018?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith. An American friend gave this to me when I visited Cape Cod in September. In-between days out cycling and evenings out eating, I read it from cover to cover in a few days. A coming of age/rite of passage/family saga story, it’s expertly told through the eyes and thoughts of young Francie Nolan. Francie’s reflections on her family and her personal situation are by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. It left me wanting more and needing to know what became of the adult Francie.

Favourite film in 2018?
Doctor Zhivago. A rotten cold relegated me to the sofa with Lemsip and a hot water bottle one rainy weekend in October so I consoled myself with a movie-fest. I’d never seen Doctor Zhivago before! I was immediately captivated by the music, the story, the romance and oh yes, by Omar Sharif. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I want to get cold again for an excuse to watch it but it’s definitely on the to-be-watched-over-and-over-again list!

Favourite song of the year?
Demons by Robert Vincent. I first saw this talented Liverpudlian singer-songwriter perform at the Sage SummerTyne Americana music festival in July. I was completely captivated by his music and his voice. I can’t compare him to anyone else; his voice is unique. I’ve seen him perform again more recently at the Old Cinema Launderette in Durham. Yes, it used to be a cinema, yes it’s now a launderette and yes, it hosts gigs! Fantastic concept for an event venue, you can have a drink, see a gig and do your washing, all in one evening! Robert Vincent is a talent to watch, in my opinion.

Any downsides for you in 2018?
My mam’s illness. A cancer diagnosis is always devastating for any individual and for that person’s extended family. We’ve had an extremely tough year, watching Mam battle invasive treatments and infections. She’s met each challenge head-on and she is my inspiration in life. The upside to this downside is that she’s currently living well with a chronic cancer and at 86, that’s some achievement!

Are you making resolutions for 2019?
To continue to make progress with my first novel. It’s been waiting to be created my whole life so it’s about time I just got on with it!

What are you hoping for from 2019?
Good health and happiness for my family and friends.

Don’t Quit the day Job: Jonny Keen

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’s guest is Jonny Keen, an NHS worker who has published two books so far: ‘The Rider in the Waves‘, a collection of fantasy short stories, and ‘Lightfoot‘ which is a fantasy novel. Jonny’s writing is often described as light fantasy or comic fantasy, but the piece he submitted for WriteNow was literary fiction.

Jonny also writes non-fiction articles for a range of publications including Teach Early Years and the Manchester Evening News. He’s also the editor of Llandudno FC’s matchday programme. 

My thanks to Jonny for being involved.

Vic x

jonny keen author pic

A friend told me recently that I’m getting to be a bit like Homer Simpson; I seem to have a completely different job every week. I’ve been a computer game researcher, a call centre drone, a test subject for an experimental drug, a nursery nurse, a personal assistant, a medical typist and a few other things too. All this before the age of 25!

It certainly makes for a range of experience that can serve to inspire creative writing. Last year, I sent part of a novel to Penguin Random House for a competition called WriteNow. This is an initiative that aims to help writers from minority backgrounds get their work published, and since I have a disability (dyspraxia) I was eligible to apply. The piece I sent in focused on a character trying to navigate the daily trials and tedium of working in an office. It came from personal experience and I couldn’t have made it authentic without having had that personal experience to base it on. I was selected as one of the 150 entrants invited in for a day of writing seminars, workshops and a face to face consultation with one of Penguin’s publishing assistants, so it’s nice to know my working life got me somewhere in the literary world.

But I think there’s more to be said for working than just inspiration. Working in so many different industries has certainly helped my creativity along. The two emotional states I tend to switch between whilst at work are those of boredom and stress. Oddly enough, I find both states highly conducive to creativity. Those emotions cause me to seek mental escape and I often think up interesting story ideas whilst at work. Occasionally, a job even had good opportunities to note down ideas. When I was a nursery nurse, I used to draft short stories whilst supervising a room full of sleeping toddlers. That job was especially good for inspiration. My first book, The Rider in the Waves, was largely inspired by the slightly surreal things children of two and three would say to me on a daily basis, and the strange games they would make up.

I remember starting my first part time job as a teenager and absolutely hating it. It was in a call centre and I couldn’t stand the environment. I consoled myself with the thought that in a few short years I was bound to be a published author and then I would be free. It didn’t take long before I learned that things were a little more difficult that and even some very successful authors still hold down day jobs to pay the bills. This became a bit of a struggle for me. As I grew up, I had to get to grips with the idea that I was going to have to work a regular job for the foreseeable future. But whilst I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t love to write full time, perhaps remaining in work is a good thing. It helps me to stay motivated, keeps the creative juices flowing and gives me plenty of real world experience to base my writing on. Finding the time to write with a full time job and other commitments can be tough, but sometimes the difficult things in life can help to shape us into better, stronger people and I think that’s certainly the case with my writing.

the rider in the waves

Getting to Know You: Kate Rhodes

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to chair a panel of three fabulous crime writers at my local library. It was such an honour to interview Kate Rhodes along with Rachel Abbott and Mel McGrath and I’m absolutely delighted to have Kate on the blog today to talk about writing. 

My thanks to Kate for taking the time to answer my questions.

Vic x

Kate Rhodes, by John Godwin 2014.jpg

 

Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My latest books, Hell Bay and Ruin Beach are inspired by childhood holidays. I was lucky enough to visit the Isles of Scilly often as a kid. It’s only as an adult that I realised they would make the perfect setting for crime novels. There are just five inhabited islands, and Hell Bay is set on Bryher, which has just eighty permanent inhabitants. In winter the islands are surrounded by the raging Atlantic, and travel to the mainland becomes difficult. They’re beautiful but supremely isolated, 45 kilometres from the mainland.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Interesting real life places and events are my usual starting point. My first novel, Crossbones Yard began after I stumbled across the only sex workers graveyard in London, which seemed like an ideal place to start a crime novel.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I’m very fond of my current hero, DI Ben Kitto. He’s a fifth generation islander, but has served ten years with the Murder Squad in London. Since the death of his colleague he has been lumbered with looking after her very intelligent wolfdog called Shadow, who tends to complicate his life. I like characters with believable quirks, so Kitto has a few interests and obsessions that may people should be able to relate to.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A bit of both! I try to plot diligently, but my stories tend to develop a life of their own, veering off in unexpected directions!

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
It’s a struggle. I tend not to read crime novels while I’m writing one, or plots get tangled and ideas get lost. I read a lot of biographies and factual books, and listen to the World Service or podcasts like This American Life instead.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
Very early in my career Julian Barnes told me not to give up, and to write every single day, even if I could only find an hour of clear time. Both suggestions have helped me ever since.

What can readers expect from your books?
Setting matters a great deal to me, so they can expect to be immersed in Scilly Isles scenery, which is so important in my recent books that the landscape becomes like another character. I also want to tell gripping stories that keep my readers guessing until the very last page.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Treat writing like learning a musical instrument. There are no short cuts; the more you do it, the better you get.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like the sense of absolute focus that comes when you’re immersed in spinning a story. I dislike deadlines! I’d love to be able to take ages over every book, but it’s important to write a book every year if you’re building a series, but that can be a real challenge if the rest of your life gets in the way.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’ve just finished the third book in my Hell Bay series. It’s called Burnt Island and it’s set on the tiny island of St Agnes, which is less than a mile long, with less than a hundred inhabitants. It’s been a pure pleasure, from start to finish, and I got fly down to the island on a tiny eight-seater plane, which was a brilliant experience.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Winning the Ruth Rendell short story prize back in 2014, because I got to meet one of my favourite writers shortly before she died. In more recent times, it has been very exciting that my Hell Bay series has been optioned for TV.

 

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Richard Rippon

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.

Richard Rippon appeared at Noir at the Bar Newcastle in May this year and read from his novel ‘Lord of the Dead‘. The excerpt Rich read was really intriguing and it made me want to read the whole novel. 

My thanks to Richard for sharing his experiences with us.

Vic x

 

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When I started writing in 2007, I was working as a lab technician in a factory. My eldest daughter had just been born, and that seemed to kick-start something in me, probably a realisation I was getting older and if I didn’t do something about my writing ambitions soon, I possibly never would.

I’d always enjoyed writing at school, but never imagined I could make a living from it. Such an idea felt fanciful, so I put it to one side and pursued a safer, more ‘sensible’ route. I was pretty good at Biology, so I studied science at A-level and a degree in Microbiology. I went on to work in a range of labs, usually for massive multi-national companies. It took me a long time to realise it wasn’t for me.

I starting writing short stories and articles, which I hoped to get placed in magazines and on websites. I won an article writing competition for a local newspaper and when I came across the Northern Writers Awards, I entered that too, with the first three chapters of a comedic detective story set in Newcastle. When I won a prize, it started a chain of events that has changed the course of my career entirely.

Things in the lab had reached a bit of a tipping point. Whilst the boredom was useful – I had plenty of time to think of story ideas – I’d had it with the place. Some jobs came up for Social Media Community Managers, a relatively new job title in 2011. Reading between the lines, it appeared to be an invitation to write creatively and fanny about on Facebook for a living. I applied and hassled the hiring manager, until she took me on. I was tasked with writing conversation calendars for brands and regularly headed to London for meetings with advertising agencies. It was fantastic. The sense of release I felt compared to my life in the lab was exhilarating.

Meanwhile, the Northern Writers prize I won led to me signing with an agent, but she struggled to find a publisher for The Kebab King. I started to think about a more serious crime novel, which eventually became Lord of the Dead, which was published last November.

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Things began to change at work. They stopped relying on us to write our own copy, and all the creative bits I loved were farmed out to agencies. I thought it might be a good idea to look elsewhere, and I was lucky enough to land a job at the best advertising agency in Newcastle. I have to say this, because I’m still there, but also because it is. 

The job has evolved from being a social media man, to ‘Creative Copywriter’. Basically, I think of ideas to help people sell things and come up with the words to go with those ideas.

It feels great to finally have the word ‘writer’ in my job title and also have had my first novel published. It’s just taken a bit longer than you might expect.

 

**The Gilded Shroud Blog Tour** Author Interview

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It’s my pleasure today to have Elizabeth Bailey, author of ‘The Gilded Shroud‘ on the blog.

Elizabeth Bailey says she feels lucky to have found several paths that have given her immense satisfaction – acting, directing, teaching and, by no means least, writing. 

She has been privileged to work with some wonderful artistic people, and been fortunate enough to find publishers who believed in her and set her on the road.

Elizabeth has kindly taken the time to answer my questions so we can get to know her, and her writing process, better. My thanks to Elizabeth for taking the time to answer my questions. If you fancy getting in touch with her, you can tweet Elizabeth

Vic x

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Tell us about your book(s).
The Gilded Shroud
 is the genesis of Ottilia, Lady Fan, who turns by chance into sleuth extraordinaire and, incidentally, meets the love of her life in the process. It’s a murder mystery set in the late 18th Century, with a dollop of upstairs downstairs and a touch of romance too.

What inspired them?
My original idea was Ottilia as a potential heroine for the first in a series of sweeping romantic historicals which never materialised. My brother one day suggested it might make a detective story, and that set me off thinking. When I finally took the plunge, I intended at first that Ottilia, a wispy retiring sort of female as I thought, would be the brains in the background behind the apparent showy male sleuth, but the moment she set foot on the page she took centre stage and refused to be dislodged. So that was that.

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What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I love the way it surprises me with turns and twists I never expected, and I like finding creative ways to express things rather than turning to clichés. I like the process of watching it unrolling as I write what I see, like a film reel projecting onto a screen somewhere in the air around me. 

I hate what we writers call treacle books, when the words won’t flow and you just have to drag them out one by one, sticking with it as you really feel as if you are wading through a sticky sea. You learn to keep at it, and quite often find you do good work in spite of the stop/start nature of the writing. Fortunately, readers can’t usually tell if a book was treacle to write. There’s always the editing process to fix it.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I can’t not read. I started as a reader and reading feeds my imagination. My reading time is an hour or so before I go to sleep – assuming I’m not so hooked I can’t put the book down. I’m just finishing Tarquin Olivier’s book about his famous father, and I’ll be starting on Jodi Taylor’s latest St Mary’s Chronicles, to which I am addicted. My TBR pile is pretty eclectic as I read all sorts of genres, as well as biographies and books that add to my knowledge of my period and other history.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Primarily Georgette Heyer – of course. Also Daphne du Maurier, who does dark with panache and beauty; Rumer Godden, who is both lyrical and cryptic, as she doesn’t tell you everything. And Dean Koontz, who is so good at surprising twists. Finally, PG Wodehouse for humour. He has the one-liner gag down to a fine art. But I can learn from almost any writer – a turn of phrase, a twist, a different voice. It all goes into the maelstrom and comes out somewhere without my realising it.

Where do you get your ideas from?
They tend to leap out from nowhere. I might catch a rhythm, a fleeting glimpse of some image, song or dream, a snippet in a news item or programme, a phrase or word in a social media post even. The spark might not even reveal itself because the idea wafts in and before I know it the what-if game is on. I do jot ideas in notebooks. If I’m stuck for a plot, I can sift through to see if anything catches my imagination. I think most writers have more ideas than they know what to do with, or will ever write up as stories. The ones that gel will hopefully roll into fodder for readers, if the process goes well.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
My current completed book is usually my favourite. Not the one I’m writing because that’s in too much upheaval to be loved. Though I am usually falling in love with my characters in the work in progress. But the one that’s done and dusted, that’s the one I can afford to love until it gets superseded by the next. I do have a few that are perennial favourites and I am rather in love with Lord Francis Fanshawe. As for scenes, when I have occasion to re-read a book, sometimes I find one that really pleases me, and I will wonder how I managed to make it that good.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing another Lady Fan mystery, in between my traditional Regency romances. Mysteries take more thought, more time and energy as one must tie everything in together and half the time I don’t know what’s about to happen.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
Funnily enough, it was my mother, who is a poet rather than a novelist and my beta reader in my early days, who gave me the best piece of advice. She said one day that she thought I was ending my chapters in the wrong place by running a scene to a conclusion rather than keeping it back. She woke me up to cliffhangers.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
When I began writing I plotted extensively, but was forever having to adjust the plot as new ideas sprang up. Now I’m a total pantster. Apart from the opening springboard, I have no idea where the story is going and must trust to my inner writer. That is not to say that ideas don’t float about in my head, but when I sit down to write I never know what words are going to come out through my fingers. Still less do I know who committed the murder!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep at it. We all say that. Get the words down any way you can. You can’t edit a blank page. Being a writer is all about persistence. Not just keeping going against the rejections. But keeping going when life throws brickbats at you; when you think you’ll never get to the end; when the deadline is looming and panic strikes; and when you’d honestly do anything – take out the rubbish, clean the car, walk the cat – rather than sit down and write. Successful writers work through every pit stop and drive through to the end. Every time.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
Apart from my very first acceptance which sent me to the ceiling where I remained for days, I think it’s the review of The Gilded Shroud that said: “Georgette Heyer lives – and is writing mysteries as Elizabeth Bailey”. That accolade said it all for me. I grew up on Heyer and still consider her the greatest writer in the Regency genre she spawned. We all wish we could write at her level, so this was to me the best compliment ever.