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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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Review: ‘what are you like’ by Shelley Day

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In ‘what are you like‘, Shelley Day studies the human condition and the uncertainties of life. Day evokes familiar yet unusual settings, a library where a mother lives on a shelf and a diner where words fall from the menu.

There is something so ordinary but so other-worldly about each of these stories, lending the narratives an ethereal quality. Day’s descriptions drip with delightful dynamism, conjuring worlds that completely envelope the reader. 

What I liked about the range of stories in this collection is that they provoke the reader and encourage us to ask questions. What is not said is almost more important than what is said in this collection. By trusting the reader, Shelley Day gives her audience the chance to explore their own feelings about a range of issues.

what are you like‘ is full of complex, detailed stories that don’t underestimate the reader and I find that this makes it unlike any other book I have read this year. 

This collection covers such a range of deep issues, dropping characters into almost-impossible situations and seeing how they fare. Shelley Day particularly manages to capture the adolescent voice well. 

An intelligent, thought-provoking read which will stay with the reader long after the stories have ended. 

Vic x

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.

 

Review: ‘The Hermitage’ by LJ Ross

When an old man is found dead inside the ancient hermitage at Warkworth Castle, Northumbria CID are called in to investigate. With no apparent motive, it’s their job to discover why he was murdered – and this time they’re forced to do it without their star detective as DCI Ryan has tracked a killer across Europe and has sworn not to return until he has his man in custody. Nathan Armstrong is a dangerous psychopath but there’s just one problem – he’s also an international celebrity; a world-famous thriller writer with money and connections.

When I began reading ‘The Hermitage‘, I was staying in a hotel very close to the village of Warkworth, where LJ Ross’s latest book is set. I loved being even more immersed in the setting than usual. However, Ross’s descriptions are so evocative that you’ll be able to picture the locations even if you haven’t visited them before. 

The Hermitage‘ is also unusual in the fact that DCI Ryan is actually out of the UK, we follow him and his wife Anna to Florence. Despite the beauty of their surroundings, Ryan and Anna find themselves fighting for their lives against an intelligent adversary. 

I really enjoyed finding out more about Nathan Armstrong’s backstory, LJ Ross demonstrates an insightful streak by understanding the motives behind his heinous acts. Combined with a keen awareness of her main character, Ross uses ‘The Hermitage‘ to inform her readers about Ryan and his family too. 

I think what continues to make the DCI Ryan series so successful is Ross’s ability to combine some awful crimes with strong relationships between the recurring characters. I particularly enjoy the banter between Ryan and Phillips. 

Ross’s stories demonstrate a duality that most of us experience: that things are rarely all good or all bad. 

I honestly did not want ‘The Hermitage‘ to end, it was utterly gripping. However, DCI Ryan fans don’t have long to wait for the next instalment: ‘Longstone‘ is due to be released on 10th December. Before that, though, is a new multicast drama on audiobook. ‘The Infirmary‘ will be available on Audible from 8th November. I, for one, can’t wait! 

Vic x

Review: ‘In A House of Lies’ by Ian Rankin

A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still – for everyone involved – is that his body was in an area that had already been searched.

Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. Every officer involved in the original investigation must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead – and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.

In a House of Lies‘, the twenty-second Rebus novel is a masterclass in how to keep a series fresh. Featuring a strong cast of characters, ‘In a House of Lies‘ is sure to thrill the Rebus faithful. Although he’s still ruffling plenty of feathers with his unconventional methods, the years of heavy smoking and drinking are taking their toll on Rebus and it’s really interesting to see how Rankin demonstrates the fallibility of his main character. Rankin seems to have an excellent insight into how his characters behave – and why. 

I thought the dialogue between characters in this novel was really strong, the banter between friends and foes is really realistic. Rebus’s dry humour really appealed to me. 

The involving plot demonstrates the trust that Rankin places in his readers. He doesn’t over-explain or try to simplify the multiple narrative strands. 

Ian Rankin’s latest novel considers the impact of historic crimes and the impact they have on the people involved. Fans of ‘Unforgotten‘ and ‘Line of Duty‘ will love ‘In a House of Lies‘. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Lingering’ by SJI Holliday

Married couple Jack and Ali Gardiner move to a self-sufficient commune in the English Fens, desperate for fresh start. The village is known for the witches who once resided there and Rosalind House, where the commune is based, is a former psychiatric home, with a disturbing history.

When Jack and Ali arrive, a chain of unexpected and unexplained events is set in motion, and it becomes clear that all is not what it seems. As the residents become nervous, and the villagers suspicious, events from the past come back to haunt them, while someone seeks revenge. 

Susi Holliday has taken the trend for combining crime with gothic horror and has produced a tantalising story that will thrill readers. ‘The Lingering‘ features a cast of compelling characters living within what is potentially a cult. 

Throughout the novel, there is a creeping sense of discomfort that sits with the reader as they delve deeper into this intriguing mystery. The tension created by the creepy setting and unsettling events is insidious and often had me turning around to check what was behind me. 

Holliday has come up with a highly original concept, interesting characters and captures the sense of place perfectly. 

This story will linger with you long after you turn the final page… 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Chalk Man’ by C.J. Tudor

A group of teens come up with a secret code to communicate with each other one summer – chalk drawings. The effects of that summer – and the drawings – have far-reaching consequences for the friends. 

This review is going to be short because I want readers of the book to enjoy the twists and turns of the story as they read it. 

I will say, though, that ‘The Chalk Man‘ is a compelling read with a vivid cast of characters. It’s insidiously creepy with a constant feeling of foreboding throughout. I found ‘The Chalk Man‘ really easy to read and eminently unputdownable. 

Fans of Stephen King will love ‘The Chalk Man‘. 

Vic x