Tag Archives: literary

Getting to Know You: Emily Koch

Today I’m delighted to be joined by Emily Koch, author of ‘Keep Him Close‘ and ‘If I Die Before I Wake‘.

My thanks to Emily for taking the time to chat to me during these very strange times.

Vic x

©Barbara Evripidou2015; m: 07879443963; barbara@firstavenuephotography.com

Tell us about your books.
My debut, If I Die Before I Wake, is a psychological thriller about a man with locked-in syndrome, who discovers that the accident which put him in hospital was no such thing – someone tried to kill him. My second novel, Keep Him Close, just came out and it’s more of a dark domestic drama than a thriller. It’s about the friendship between a woman whose son has died and the mother of the boy accused of his murder.

What inspired them?
If I Die was inspired by a news item I heard on the radio one day about someone in a coma. It made me wonder about the family around that person, and what they were doing with their lives. Keep Him Close was inspired by the prison I live near to in Bristol. Some houses back on to the prison wall – it is surrounded on all sides by residential streets. I started thinking about what you’d do if you lived close to it and there was someone inside who had done something terrible to your family. How would you cope with that proximity?

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
When people read something I’ve written and get it. Sometimes that’s my editor, or a friend – but often I get the best feeling of connection from a totally unknown reader. With both books I’ve had reviews online, sometimes only a few lines, that have made me feel – yes, you really got what I was trying to do. I love those moments! I dislike the constant self-doubt, but I try not to listen to that voice in my head too much.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
Ha! Yes, I do find some time, but not a lot at the moment with two kids to run around after. I’ve just started Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
In recent years the biggest influence has been Celeste Ng. I love her two literary thrillers, Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You.

Where do you get your ideas from?
All sorts of places! Newspapers, radio news items, things I hear people say out and about, and the usual ‘what if…?’ situations that I think most people have running through their heads. Writers just know how to notice these and harness them. I firmly believe we all have great ideas – it’s knowing how to spot them and develop them that writers do more than most others.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
The ending of my debut is my favourite section I’ve written. It’s hard to talk about without giving the plot away! There’s also a scene in Keep Him Close where Alice, the mother of the dead boy Lou, is out in her garden looking at the prison wall with her surviving son, Benny. I loved writing that scene, and what they do in it to deal with their grief and anger at Kane, the young man in the prison accused of murdering Lou.

What are you working on at the moment?
Coming up with an idea for my third novel! Or, rather, developing it. I have the basic premise and I’m really excited about it – now it’s just a matter of fleshing it out bit by bit.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
Just keep turning up at your desk – that’s what my lovely agent Peter Straus told me eighteen months ago when I was exhausted and full of the aforementioned self-doubt, trying to work on a second draft of Keep Him Close while running around after a toddler, and in the first trimester of my second pregnancy. He said I just had to keep chipping away at the novel, day after day, and it would come together. It did!

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Plotter. I love a good spreadsheet to plan out my novels. I find the planning part of the process incredibly fun and creative – and I feel confident when I start writing because I know the plot is solid.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep reading, keep writing – it’s basic but so true. Get some friends who are writing, too. 

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
When my mum texted me to tell me she’d finished If I Die Before I Wake and said she’d loved it.

Review: ‘The Body Lies’ by Jo Baker

When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of a new life and single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle. To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative writing class.

When a troubled student starts sending in chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the lecturer recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her a horrific fate.

Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late?

Starting with an assault on our unnamed pregnant protagonist, The Body Lies‘ drops the reader straight into a world where this woman is almost constantly at the behest of the men around her – from her husband who won’t look for a new job in order to facilitate a move to a place she feels safer in to the head of department who continuously expects her to take on more and more work despite her inexperience and the difficulties she has managing her work-life balance to the students who snipe at one another in her class, overruling her at every point. 

By leaving this character nameless, Jo Baker says a lot about her interpretation of the world – and how the character is unable to make herself heard and understood in her male-dominated life. However, don’t think that ‘The Body Lies‘ is a novel that is constantly screaming about inequality – its power lies in the fact that the author has managed to subtly weave the point in to almost every sentence without the reader even being conscious of it. The way the issues are presented is almost ‘normal’, reflecting how insidious sexism and inequality is in our society today. You may not notice it but it is happening.

Jo Baker’s skill for beautiful prose makes ‘The Body Lies‘ a truly stunning literary thriller. The slow-burn tension allows us to empathise with the main character, understanding the pressure she is under and how burdensome it is to be a woman. The imagery Baker creates heightens the tension at key points as well as showing the reader the beauty of the world despite the horrific events that occur in it. 

The Body Lies‘ is a compelling study on what it is to be a woman, how women are subjugated and taken advantage of in many areas of their lives and how unsafe many of us feel on a daily basis. 

I’m genuinely not sure I’ll find a more engaging read this year.

Vic x

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.

2018 Review: Shelley Day

Today, my good friend and fellow Bloody Mary Shelley Day is here to review her year. My thanks to Shelley for taking the time to look back over her 2018. 

As an extra festive treat, check back later for my thoughts on Shelley’s latest short story collection ‘what are you like‘. 

Vic x

Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2018?
Well, 2018 will certainly stand out for me as the year some projects came to fruition and the year I made some major decisions:

First – I decided to publish my debut collection of short stories, what are you like. I’d been humming and hah-ing for a long while, but finally this year I took the plunge and the stories will soon be out with Red Squirrel Press, a lovely indie press that was based in Northumberland but which has re-located north of the border. As I am half in Scotland anyway, it’s win-win! 

I’m so so so very lucky because AL Kennedy, and Jackie Kay, and Angela Jackson all agreed to say nice things to put on the back cover of my book. If I am looking for a special moment, that that was it. 

I’m very especially happy that my son Nico has designed the cover. If I’m looking for another 2018 moment, that was it – that was a moment like never before when I opened the email and saw Nico’s design … I’m so excited.

The book’s not officially out until next year, but we’re getting a couple of launches in before the current year is out, for very good reason. 

So, the second BIG decision was to go and live in Paris. The intention is to perfect my French, soak up some experience before the Brexit divisions start to bite (they’re already snarling too loud for my little ears), stay there for as long as it takes to finish the novel I’m working on which is set there and which features a character Clara who’s similarly done a bunk from the UK somewhat precipitously, I don’t yet know why. I’ve always wanted to spend extended time in Paris and, between you and me, I’m hoping this sojourn will get that daft idea out of my system and I can come back and get on with whatever here, or wherever. I can’t tell you much more because I’m not a great planner, either in my fiction or in my own life! 

And how about a favourite moment from 2018 generally?
Favourite moment wasn’t a moment but was a few months in the summer spent in a wooden hut halfway up a mountain in Norway. Off-grid, away from everyone and everything except the smell of pine resin and the birch logs we burned in the stove, the whisper of wind in the trees and the gentle lapping of the lake on the shore … you get the picture. And I went to the Lillehammer Literary Festival which was ace. And so it was, in that kind of Paradise, that I finally put my short story collection together. I also wrote some new things, things that have taken on something of a spiritual-sacred theme, and I’m exploring that further as we speak.  

Favourite book in 2018?
This is always such a hard question! I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and have many writer friends who write it, so it is impossible for me to be truthful and choose just one! So, instead I’ll tell you this year I have gone a bit mad with Patrick Modiano. Seriously, I have fallen in love with his work and am reading one by one through his entire oeuvre and savouring every word. I re-read the whole of Muriel Spark too this year. I love revisiting favourites, because they show you something new every time. 

Favourite film in 2018?
Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Fun, clever, political, visually amazing, as per!

Favourite song of the year?
I’m a bit mouldy, I’m afraid, and don’t catch up very often with new music. I’ve been impressed by Sigrid I guess, but as I say I don’t keep up. I still love Patti Smith’s Horses from 1975! I have my music on a hard disc and I play it on shuffle, everything all mixed up. In Norway I listened a lot to ancient music, Monteverdi’s Vespers, sacred stuff. 

Any downsides for you in 2018?
I never know what to say about downsides. Yeah, I’ve spent time in the doldrums, never quite sure how you get in there, never mind how to get out, never know how much to ‘reveal’. But yeah, life has had some bad bits in. Plus the whole Brexit fiasco, I have found it supremely supremely depressing, every single thing about it. I detest every bit of it and frankly, am living in dread. I hadn’t realized how fragile our precious democracy is until now I see it so bizzarely and blatantly under threat. As a citizen, I have never felt quite so powerless. 

Are you making resolutions for 2019?
No point in me making resolutions, I never stick to them!

What are you hoping for from 2019?
Primarily hoping my short story collection does ‘well’ (whatever that means!), and that I’ll come back from Paris with a complete first draft of my Clara book (as yet no title), and that I’ll make some progress with the new short story collection provisionally entitled Going Raw Julietta (work that one out!). AND THAT BREXIT WILL DISAPPEAR.

If you want to buy a copy of what are you like it will be available with P&P FREE via the publisher’s website. 

If you want to check out my son Nico’s artwork, best find him on Instagram.

Thank you so much Victoria for letting me ramble on on your page. I enjoyed writing this review, it made me focus. And may I wish you all the very best for 2019!  

2018 Review: Chris Ord

Today’s special guest is Chris Ord, writer of ‘Becoming’ and ‘The Storm’. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel featuring Chris, Danielle Ramsay and William Prince. 

You can find Chris on Facebook. My thanks to Chris for taking the time to review his year, it’s always a pleasure hosting you, Chris.

Vic x

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Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2018?
I released my second novel, The Storm in January. It is based on a true story and was inspired by a musical project I was involved in. It is about ‘Big’ Philip Jefferson, the first Newbiggin Lifeboat Coxswain who was awarded a clasp to his silver medal for an attempted rescue of the Norwegian brig ‘Embla’ in 1854. The rescue is the backdrop for the novel, however, the events of that night are only the starting point, as the book weaves this together with a folk tale, and a series of mysterious incidents to create a tense, supernatural thriller.

It’s gone really well. After the customary book launch I’ve appeared at several reading events and featured in regional and national magazines. They ran an article in Living North about it and gave it a glowing review. I was proud of that one. These things make all the difference for a writer. You plough away in self-doubt and isolation writing the story you love, and your hope is that others will love it too. When the feedback tells you the risk and sacrifice, the blood and tears were all worthwhile. It’s priceless.     

And how about a favourite moment from 2018 generally?
I saw ELO recently. It was at the arena which is not a good music venue in my opinion. Initially it put me off, but I bought a top whack ticket at the last minute. I was bang in the centre, in the fourth row, a cracking seat. They were incredible, one of the best live musical experiences I’ve witnessed. I go to a lot of gigs and have seen some of the very best artists over the years, and they were up there without question. Jeff Lynne still has the voice and, of course the wall to wall hit tunes. He has surrounded himself with musicians of the highest quality and capped it off with a superb light show. 

My dad loved ELO, and introduced me to them in the first place, many years ago. It was a moving concert for me for that, and lots of other reasons. Perfect. Music always provides my annual highlights. I can’t think of anything better than music. 

Favourite book in 2018?
Don’t Skip Out On Me by Willy Vlautin. Willy is the singer and main songwriter of the bands Richmond Fontaine and The Delines. I love his music and writing. There was a film released this year based on one of his novels, Lean on Pete. But for me Don’t Skip Out On Me is his best yet. It’s about a young Mexican Ranch hand who dreams of becoming a boxer. He leaves a loving elderly farming couple, who have taken him in as their own, to pursue his dream with tragic outcomes. It’s a terrific novel with well-drawn characters that creep under your skin. 

So much of modern literature is style over substance, but this is traditional storytelling of the highest order. It reminded me a lot of John Steinbeck, who I love. I’m always far more interested in story than style. Literary work has its place, but I read to escape, be thrilled and entertained. A lot of literature seems to be pumped up by the marketing machines, and prize winning circuits and gains momentum via the in-crowd. Just give me a good yarn that takes me to another world for a few hours, makes me laugh, cry, scares or excites me. I aspire to be an accomplished storyteller as much as a writer. 

Favourite film in 2018?
I loved You Were Never Really There with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a dark and brutal film about a hitman with a hammer who gets himself into a tricky situation when he takes on a job which spirals out of his control. Phoenix makes the movie with another captivating performance. I can’t think of a better screen actor at this moment. He’s one of those I will watch the film simply because of him. Some may find the film too brutal, but I’ve never been put off by gore or brutality. Readers of my work will know this.

Favourite album of the year?
God’s Favourite Customer by Father John Misty. What can I say other than I adore everything Josh Tillman does. He’s adopted the persona of Father John Misty in order to liberate himself creatively. I find this intriguing and it reminds me of my favourites artists like Bowie, Gabriel, and Bush all of whom have played theatrical roles in their work.

People have often asked me if I would write under a pseudonym. Who knows, maybe I have! It’s an interesting proposition and not something I’m averse to. It has risks commercially as you have built up your fanbase and people will engage with your work because of who you are, and what you have written before. However, it could offer the opportunity to take a few more risks and try different things. 

Integrity is everything for me. It’s what attracts me about the indie route above all else. All creatives are searching for the truth, their own truth. You hope that others will relate to that truth and there is a degree of universality to the human experience you have captured. Adopting a persona would allow you to explore a different perspective and present the story from an alternative world view. It may compromise on authenticity, which is part of the risk. I’m more and more attracted by the thought when I encounter artists like Tillman. 

Seeing the world in new ways is an important part of our development as people. I believe one of the main problems today is that so many struggle to see the world from other perspectives, or at least recognise the validity of different views. There are too many that think theirs is the one and only accepted truth and should be everyones. Tolerance and respect are being undermined by populists and illiberal liberals alike. Maybe we all need to try a different persona now and again, or show a bit more empathy and compassion at least. I saw a powerful quote this year which stayed with me, ‘Stay kind. It makes you beautiful.’ I’m going to try and remember that one.  

Any downsides for you in 2018?
I haven’t written as much as I would have liked this year. Like many writers I’m only able to sustain myself financially in bursts. It’s feast then fallow. I wish at times it was different, but few write to be rich, it’s more important to seek the integrity I spoke of earlier. Integrity doesn’t pay yet bills though. As such, I have to take on contract work to meet all my family commitments, and I have a large family of four boys!

It’s difficult to find the time to write when you’re working, but I’m also a musician and play in a band. I love playing and it’s important to me. By the time I get in from work, do all the family things, and practice my horn, there isn’t much time remaining to write. However, I have hit a bit of momentum again of late. This has been driven by the passion and excitement I have for my latest work in progress. These are the moments you look for and have to make the best of. So things are looking positive again, and sometimes you need the lows as a reminder and a springboard to greater things.

Are you making resolutions for 2019?
Yes, I’m an obsessive planner do the New Year offers ample opportunity for me to indulge in ‘things to do’ lists. I will be finding more time to write, and play my music. I run regularly and hope to get a couple of half marathons done this year. I also want to go to a few more gigs. I go to watch music a lot, but this year has been a bit quiet. There have been some highlights, but I think I may need to look further afield this year. So family, music, writing, running. In that order. Same as it ever was.

What are you hoping for from 2019?
I have two books on the go at the moment. One is the follow up to my debut novel, Becoming, the other is something new. If I get my act together both may see the light of day in 2019. One is at the editing stage, but needs a bit more polish. I need to keep up the momentum I have found and find a regular pattern for writing, make the time, little and often. Hard work and discipline are talents in themselves. You need both to be a writer or the words never get anywhere. I need to keep reminding myself of that in 2019. I will. It’s going to be a good year. I promise.

 

Guest Post: Sarah Dobbs on the University of Sunderland Short Story Award

Today I welcome Sarah Dobbs to tell us all about this year’s University of Sunderland short story award. As Sarah says, entries are welcome from all over the world so even if you don’t live in the North East, you can still enter. 
Good luck!
Vic x
Many thanks for hosting us! The University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award is now in its third year. We have four categories: Adult, 11-17 and Regional (adults and 11-17). The winners in each category receive cash prizes of £300. All shortlisted entries are collected in an anthology by our publishers, Bandit Fiction.
For the 2019 competition, we have promoted a distinct regional category as the prize has always hoped to nurture and support talent in our area. Entrants to the regional category may live, work or study within Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear. You can enter both the Adult and Regional category, or just one. We also enjoy working with promising young writers after the competition in an aim to nurture talent.

There is no theme, but there is a word count of 2500 for the Adults and Regional categories and 1500 for the 11-17. Stories don’t have to reach the maximum word count however and we enjoy surprising, experimental and hybrid work, as well as a ‘traditionally’ well-crafted story.

Entry fees are £5 for each category, except 11-17, which is free and we welcome entries regardless of where you live, in previous years we’ve had a fair amount of international entries.

In the past we’ve been fortunate to have been supported by judges who are literary agents and publishers, last year we welcomed Professor Ailsa Cox, the world’s first professor in short fiction and this year we’re delighted to have Dr Guy Mankowski, author of An Honest Deceit and recipient of an Arts Council Award to research his novel Letters to Yelena. Guy is also a lecturer at Newcastle University and runs the arts and spoken word night, New Art Social, at Ernest. Nicholas Royle is also on this year’s judging panel.
Entries open on the 17th December 2018 and close on the 1st July 2019. Further details and links to the entry form are on banditfiction.co.uk and it’s worth taking advantage of the fact you can download the 2018 anthology for free.
We look forward to reading your stories!
Sara

**Summer at Hollyhock House Blog Tour**

SAHH blog tour poster (1).png

Today I’m pleased to welcome Cathy Bussey, the author of ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ to the blog to talk about writing a realistic heroine. This topic is of particular interest to me and I hope it’ll be of use to you too when considering how to make original, realistic characters. 

Cathy is an author, journalist and hopeless romantic who wrote her first book at the tender age of six. Entitled ‘Tarka the Otter‘, according to Cathy it was a shameless rip-off of the Henry Williamson classic of the same name, and the manuscript was lost after she sent it to her penpal and never heard a jot from her since. 

Fortunately reception to her writing became more favourable and she spent ten years working for a range of newspapers and magazines covering everything from general elections and celebrity scandals to cats stuck up trees and village fetes. She has been freelance since 2011 and written for ‘The Telegraph’, ‘Red Online’, ‘Total Women’s Cycling’ and other lifestyle and cycling publications and websites. 

She is the author of three non-fiction books and her debut and thankfully non-plagiarised novel ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ has been published by Sapere Books. 

Cathy lives on the leafy London/Surrey border with her husband, two children and a dog with only two facial expressions: hungry and guilty. Her hobbies include mountain biking, photography, wandering around outside getting lost, fantasising about getting her garden under control, reading, looking at pretty things on Instagram and drinking tea. You can find her there, on Twitter or visit her website. 

My thanks to Cathy for sharing her experience with us. 

Vic x

Cathy Bussey

Writing the heroine you want to be
By Cathy Bussey

The stories of women’s lives have always gripped and fascinated me. I grew up with chick lit and I’m firmly part of the Bridget Jones generation. The Shopaholic series, Sex and the City – these were the cornerstones of my literary and emotional education.

I adore the intelligence with which women write about the issues that affect us all. Love and romance, friendship and family, mental and physical health, children, ageing parents – there’s so much in everyday life to explore that I’ve never tired of the women’s fiction genre. But. 

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

I always struggled to find heroines with whom I could truly identify. 

The classic city girl who can’t get a hair out of place and screams at the sight of a spider – that ain’t me. 

I can’t walk in high heels since I had children, nor do I want to. Glossy shopping sprees, makeovers, shoes, handbags, manicures, Prosecco, spa weekends, nights out with the girls – the stereotypical setting of chick-lit doesn’t reflect my internal reality. I’ve never once fantasised about moving to New York.

I have only once found a heroine that spoke to my other, wilder side. 

One of the best romcoms I ever read was called Going Ape and it came free with a copy of Cosmo. I can’t even find it on Google so I assume it’s out of print, but it had an enormous impact on me. It was set on a monkey sanctuary and the heroine was a scientist. I adored her. She was no less flawed and quirky and adorable than Bridget, Becky, Carrie et al, but she got her hands dirty. Very dirty, actually. 

So when I came to create my own heroine, Faith, I wanted to write her for women like me. For girls like the girl I used to be. 

She’s a nature girl, a bit of a wildflower, she’s outdoorsy and active and energetic. She rides bikes down gnarly trails and digs ponds with a shovel. She gets the guy – or does she? – on her own terms. 

She represents a different definition of femininity, and one with which I can both identify, and aspire to. I created her for me, and I really hope somewhere out there other women might feel that I created her a little bit for them, too. 

Summer at Hollyhock House.jpg

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

**The Last Day Blog Tour** Guest Post and Review

Last Day Blog Tour

I am absolutely delighted to welcome Claire Dyer to the blog today as part of her blog tour for ‘The Last Day‘. 

Claire is here to chat to us about Beginnings and Endings today which, given the subject of ‘The Last Day‘, is very apt.

Thanks to Claire, and The Dome Press, for allowing me to be a part of this tour.

Vic x 

Claire Dyer

Beginnings and endings
By Claire Dyer

Every ending starts with a beginning …

One of the creative writing classes I teach at Bracknell & Wokingham College is on beginnings and endings. We start by talking about some of the most notable beginnings from the literary canon: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier); ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens); ‘Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,’ (Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare) and we analyse what has made them memorable. It’s not an easy exercise because everyone has their own take, their own set of memories and expectations.

What’s also interesting in this section of the class is when I tell my students that most writers will not keep the original first few sentences of their novel; they will go through many iterations and, in some cases, whole opening scenes and chapters will be deleted.

We then look at endings and again, I pick a few favourites: ‘Reader, I married him,’ (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë); ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ (The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald), etc.

And we talk about why these endings work. Is it because they bring the story arc to a satisfactory conclusion? Or, is it because they don’t? Do they leave the reader alone with their own emotions, casting their gaze into the future lives of the books’ characters with their own take on hope, regret, sadness, joy? Or, as in the case of one of my favourite recent reads, Together, by Julie Cohen, the ending is the beginning?

Again, it’s hard to tell. Whatever the case, there is a certain alchemy at work with both beginnings and endings and I’ve learned a lot about this particular type of magic from working on poems. One brilliant piece of advice I’ve been given is to look carefully at the first and last stanzas of a poem and ask whether they are necessary. Do they serve a purpose for the poem or are they just a frame in which the poem sits? This discipline has, I hoped, helped me with the beginnings and endings of my novels.

So, we can study the theory and practise our own but, in the end, our beginnings and endings are at the mercy of our readers, all we can do is make them the best we can.

And so, I try. The first paragraph of The Last Day came very late in the writing process. The ending crept up on me and when I realised I’d got there I had to step away from the keyboard and not risk that last, lone brushstroke which may have ruined everything. Whether my own attempt at alchemy will work will, of course, be up to others, but I have loved every minute of trying.

Review: ‘The Last Day’

by Claire Dyer.

Boyd moves back into the family home with Vita, his estranged wife, to get his finances back on track. Accompanying Boyd is his beautiful, young girlfriend, Honey who is running from her past. The unlikely housemates manage to make their living arrangement work despite all the odds but memories are never far away and the ghosts of the past threaten to derail the new normal in Albert Terrace.

When I first read the premise, my interest was piqued because of the unusual situation of a man living with his estranged wife and new lover.

Claire Dyer manages to make the reader suspend their disbelief and accept this peculiar situation by creating nuanced characters that readers can empathise with. Everyone is afforded a compassion and understanding which is often lacking in fiction and in life. 

The language used in this book is beautiful and adds to the poignancy of the storyline. It’s obvious why Claire Dyer is an award-winning poet thanks to her thoughtful turn of phrase and rich descriptions. 

Long after I’d finished reading ‘The Last Day’, I found myself thinking about Vita, Boyd, Honey and Boyd’s mum. This beautifully written, observant novel will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. 

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Robert Parker

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, we have Robert Parker discussing how his occupation helped inspire his crime writing. I first met Robert on the Crime & Publishment course in 2016 and he’s a top chap. Robert has, however, chosen to retain his anonymity – I’m sure you’ll understand why soon… 

Thanks to him for sharing his experience with us. 

Vic x

You are now twenty times more likely to be a victim of cyber crime than you are to be mugged in the street. It makes a lot of sense, from a criminal perspective. Why would you bother to actually mug someone these days? Why take all the risks; the chance of someone calling your bluff, the chance of someone mugging you right back, the chance of going to jail, if, like me, you harbour a suspicion that you might just be a bit too pretty for that? Why take the gamble when you can sit on a couch in the comfort of your underwear, with a laptop, eating food that probably came in a bucket, scrolling, clicking and punching in the odd stolen card number.

That’s where we come in. Online fraud is big business these days and as time goes on it’s only getting bigger, more complicated and harder to spot.

I wound up in my job almost by accident. Almost. It isn’t something you can fall into. There’s a bit of commitment required. Competition for jobs can get fierce. It isn’t an option you just settle for. But I didn’t know it was something you could do until about a year before I shoehorned my way in.

It was 2010 and I was working two jobs at once, waiting on tables in the family-owned coffee shop and fitting cattle mattresses (yes, really) for my step-dad’s agricultural engineering business. I was living away from my fiancée during the week and driving the hundred and thirty dark winter miles to and from Edinburgh either side of the weekend. I needed to spend more time where I supposedly lived. I knew I would have to find something a bit different. They don’t do farming in the big smoke. I’d never worked in an office. I thought I could give that a go. It had to be warmer than a byre in January. How hard could it be?

I failed the data entry test (yes, really). That sounds like it would be hard to do. In my defence, I didn’t know my way round a keyboard, much less a clunky, chunky, nineties relic, mothballed in the damp basement of a recruitment agency. They were prepared to take a chance on me. They were counting on me. I couldn’t let them down, I was told, by an overly earnest man who had to be ten years my junior.

I was sent to the offices a of a tech firm who needed me to enter data for two weeks. It meant I could spend some time with Caroline, if nothing else. I remember thinking then that there must be something more interesting than data entry going on inside the offices of a travel website. I just had no concept of what that might actually be.

I didn’t get to do any data entry. I managed a tour of the city centre office, a coffee and slack-jawed stare at what must have been an expensive view of the castle, before someone in the contact centre got fired for looking at Facebook.

That’s how I wound up in a contact centre. A couple of weeks later I overheard a conversation between two of my new workmates in the pub, one asking the other “How are you finding the fraud department?” That was the light bulb moment. That was when I knew I’d found the something more interesting. It took me another twenty months to get in, but I’ve been here ever since.

So how has it contributed to my writing? In a lot of ways that I might have seen coming and a few more I didn’t.

First of all, there’s the day-to-day. I’m a fraud analyst, part case-by-case investigator and part long-term strategist. We deal with the fraud as and when it arises, working individual cases, catching people in the act and hopefully stopping them, but we also follow patterns, predict trends and take steps to counteract them. Where we can, we help the police, build cases and compile evidence, with a view to putting people safely away.

The first thing you learn is that it isn’t quite as glamorous as the expectations of your friends and family. My mum seems to think my day job is something like cyber CSI, and it is, but like a real life CSI. It’s methodical. It involves hard work and you don’t actually get to chase, or even see the bad guys, not in real life, though ironically for the girl whose job I originally stole, I do spend far more time on Facebook than can ever really be healthy.

It isn’t something you could write a book about, not a thriller anyway. Man-gets-mildly-excited-and-spills-cappuccino-after-left-clicking-and-discovering-some-fraudulent-transactions or man-deals-with-brief-existential-crisis-after-opening-an-intimidating-Excel-file doesn’t make for a particularly compelling elevator pitch. Or maybe it’s just a bit too literary for me.

It’s all relative though. You can get lost in the data for hours and you do get a buzz when you uncover a web or a pattern. But it’s the stuff I’ve learned as a consequence of my job that inspires and informs plots, research and characters.

So much of our lives today happen online. Like it or not, you leave traces of yourself wherever you go. Even a Google search records multiple pieces of information, all of which affect what you’re shown next time around. Police investigations naturally have a higher emphasis on our online, connected lives as time goes on.

It isn’t just fraud that has moved online either. The dark web is a one-stop shop for anything you want. Feel like ordering up a kilo of heroin? An Uzi? A human being? It’s all out there, lurking below the surface. You just have to know where to start digging. And the customer service is better than you’ll find anywhere else.

You learn about these things when you come into contact with the right – or wrong – people, when you’re trained by the right people. It’s the stories you hear that stick in the mind. The public consciousness seems to have fraud down as a victimless crime, but a conversation with the police would quickly convince you otherwise. Fraudsters are pretty often the same people committing the more serious crimes, with the proceeds going to fund the drugs, guns and human traffic.

Different gang cultures have different hierarchies. With the world getting smaller there are clashes. That thought led me to the plot of my first novel, Snow Storm. Throw in a conspiracy theory, a few bodies, add a twist or three and hopefully you’re halfway to a decent story.

Sometimes though, inspiration can be as simple as dumb luck and geography, like my wife dropping me off at work, bleary eyed and achy after the office Christmas party, next to a lamppost someone had hung an oddly shaped bag from.

“Do you think there’s a head in there?” I heard myself say, through a boozy haze.

And the opening of Snow Storm landed, fully formed, between my ears.