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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: Adam Peacock

Drum roll please! May I introduce you to Adam Peacock, a member of Elementary Writers and author of ‘Open Grave‘.

Because Adam is a debut author, I wanted to introduce him to you as I suspect you will be reading Adam’s novels for many years to come.

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

Vic x

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Tell us about your book(s).
My novel Open Grave is a crime thriller set in the North East of England. The protagonist, DCI Jack Lambert, is different to most other detectives within the genre in that he is gay. On a personal level, this is something he is struggling with, having only recently made this admission at the beginning of the book.

The main ‘crime’ within the story is that of a serial killer who is murdering people in pairs, burying them and then digging them up so that they can be found. Alongside this, gang warfare is about to break out between rival criminal groups and a well-known local celebrity reports that she is being stalked. I wanted to create a sprawling world within my book with multiple threads, the idea being that nothing ever resolves neatly, with certain storylines and characters crossing over into future novels.

What inspired your novel?
I read a lot of crime and so it felt natural to write something within that genre. The inspiration for Open Grave came about from an image I had in my head of a crime scene in which a member of the public stumbles across two bodies in an open grave (strange, I know). The story unfolded from there.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I quite enjoy editing, which is a good thing as there’s always plenty to do when you don’t intricately plot your book before beginning! Knowing that I am whipping something up into shape is a great feeling.

The thing I dislike most about writing is just how easy it is to fall out of your routine when it comes to putting words onto the page. Like most things in life, a few days away from the computer can easily stretch into weeks and this can lead to unnecessary procrastination.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I do find the time to read. As I prefer to write in the mornings, I dedicate time to read most evenings. I’m currently reading Martina Cole’s Dangerous Lady.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
As a writer, I would have to say Stephen King and Jo Nesbo. I would also include Lee Child in that list. With regards to Stephen King, I read his book On Writing before I penned so much as a character profile and I use the template he gives in terms of how to go about writing. I also enjoy reading his books!

As for Jo Nesbo, I find the protagonist Harry Hole to be a wonderfully complex character. He has many of the traits that we see in crime fiction from such detectives but I find myself invested in Harry in a way that I rarely find in other books. I also like that Nesbo leaves certain threads open between books, which always leaves me wanting to read more. With Lee Child, it has to be his pacing. I find myself flying through his books and every page carries a tension with it. This is something I am hoping to refine in my own work moving forward.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Usually they just pop into my head either as an image – like happened with Open Grave –  or as a question. I like the idea of concocting a problem, in the form of a question, which seemingly makes no sense initially. Within my own writing, I basically keep asking a number of questions until an answer presents itself. This helps create misdirection.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
I enjoy the opening scene from Open Grave, mainly because it is the opening chapter of my first published novel. In terms of a character, it would have to be gangland boss Dorian McGuinness, my protagonist’s former employer. I feel like his character has a lot of room to grow and that there are all manner of skeletons in his closet which may or may not be revealed in future…

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing the second novel in the DCI Jack Lambert series and I’m excited to see where it will go. This novel is a little more focused around one event and, with characters having already been established in the first novel, I am keen to see how they react to the hurdles put before them.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
In a non-direct sense, Stephen King’s ‘just get an idea and go with it’ has had the biggest impact on me. Whilst this can lead to a lot of editing, it minimises the scope for procrastination and I find myself able to get on with things. I also try to stick to his mantra of completing 1,000 words a day with varying degrees of success.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I’m definitely not a plotter! Get the idea and run with it. Of course, as I work through a novel, ideas spring into my head in terms of where I want things to go, but you won’t find any colour-coded charts or timelines pinned to my wall. I should point out, that’s not a judgement on writers that do spend time plotting, I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes! Read Stephen King’s On Writing, get yourself along to a writing group and don’t fret about giving it a go. Most writers I meet begin by being somewhat self-conscious about their work, often talking down their ability and/or experience. I’d say just get stuck in and see what happens. If you can get into some kind of writing routine, you’ll soon see huge improvements in your work.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
Until recent times it would have been winning the Writers’ Forum monthly magazine short story competition. However, opening the email from Bloodhound Books to find that they believed in my work and wanted to publish Open Grave has definitely topped all other writing-related moments!

You can order/download Open Grave‘ now. You can also follow Adam on Twitter and on Facebook

**Friends and Traitors Blog Tour** Getting to Know John Lawton.

Today it’s my pleasure to welcome John Lawton to the blog. His latest novel ‘Friends and Traitors‘ is available now. 

Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions today.

Vic x

Nick Shot Close

Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
I really don’t know. I’ve written most of my life. Certainly since 1957 when I first encountered Shakespeare’s history plays. And in the years that followed, since you can’t imitate Shakespeare’s dialogue unless you’re Tom Stoppard (and whoever watched or read him for his plots?), I came under the influence of writers who were writing stunning dialogue. My first sight of a Pinter play about three years later is still vivid.

Peter Cook’s EL Wisty monologues were compulsive and when the Dagenham Dialogues with Dudley Moore came along … well, I think I learnt as much from them as I did from Pinter. The really odd thing is the switch from writing drama to writing novels, which happened about 1983 … cause? … failure. Wasn’t getting anywhere as a playwright. That said, much of what I write, certainly in earlier drafts, strikes me as reading like a two-hander play. That’s how most of my books begin  … two voices talking in my head.

A taste for dialogue, a course in Russian at University, reading Gorky Park, watching Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (not the recent film of the same name) all fuelled the plot line that became my first Troy novel.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Dunno where they come from, but I know where they arrive. Usually in trains, and almost as often out walking. I do a lot of walking.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I think my favourite scene might be towards the end of A Little White Death, when Tara Ffitch takes about a page to slam the morality that put her in court. I stand by every word of that. And I’m quite partial to the scene in Friends and Traitors when Guy Burgess rattles off the list of things he misses in his Russian exile. My favourite characters would be among the minor figures … Fish Wally in two or three novels, and Swift Eddie in most of them — a part I wrote hoping Warren Clarke would play him one day.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not sure I quite understand the question, but I usually have a plot fully worked out in my head before I write a word. Only book I’ve ever plotted on paper was Black Out.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Yes. But not books by anyone doing what I’m doing.

I spent last autumn on a Mick Herron binge, and I think I’ve just begun a Timothy Hallinan binge. Neither of them write historicals.

I keep picking up and putting down Illusions Perdues. I think I might have to wait for a new, better translation, but if that theory works why do I have six different translations of Ovid?

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
“Write a book a year and take control of your life” – Gore Vidal. Somewhere I still have the letter.

I’ve never been able to do that of course. Come to think of it, I turned down a book-a-year offer from Penguin ages ago. I’m a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series which appears very regularly and I don’t know how he does it. My ‘mentor’ Ariana Franklin got up to a book a year in her seventies, but I honestly think it was exhausting for her. With hindsight I wish she’d slowed down. So good advice as yet unheeded.

What can readers expect from your books?
Writer vanity prompts me to say that I hope I can shatter expectations with the odd surprise, but a running character creates expectations otherwise she/he would be rather inconsistent. So expect politics, romance, a touch of mayhem. Do not expect a who-dunnit, as my books can bang on for another fifty pages after the who of dunnit is obvious. I cannot change Troy’s character, he will change only as the time-setting of the novels change (and I’ve never liked the idea of fiction existing outside of time …  Troy ages and hence changes) but I quite deliberately move the locations around. Black Out is set entirely in London, with Old Flames I went rural and in Friends & Traitors has a lengthy continental journey before settling back in London.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yep. Abandon all social media. Leave it to Trump, he’s welcome to it. I am looking forward to his ‘Twitts from Prison’. Shut down your twitt and bookface accounts, resign from your readers & writers group, bin your iphone, stop talking about writing and write.

If anyone asks why they haven’t seen much of you lately tell them you’ve been studying for the civil service entry exam and are hoping for a job with the ministry of [fill in blank as appropriate]. My usual choice is the ‘White Fish Authority.’ Such a wonderful name for a government ministry, alas it shut up shop in 1981. I wonder if there was ever a ‘Chips and Mushy Peas Marketing Board’?

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Like … the doing of it. One of the best narcotics around and it’s free.

Dislike … promoting a book. Best regarded as a necessary evil. I hate being photographed. (Sorry, Ali Karim.)

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yep. Third book in the Wilderness trilogy. And another game of with Zoë Sharp. All done by email as we live in different countries.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Dunno. I live by writing, which I consider most fortunate, but to say my moment was the first time I received a fat cheque would be both crass and untrue. I’m not interested in prizes, the gongs and daggers, and winning one didn’t engage with me much. I think it has to be ‘finishing-summat-that-had-me really-foxed’  … which has happened from time to time, but I’m not saying which book or books it was.

Getting to Know You: Charlie Laidlaw.

Today it’s my pleasure to host writer Charlie Laidlaw on the blog. My thanks to Charlie for sharing his time and experiences with us. 

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My first book, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) was inspired by the seventeenth century witch craze. Back then, it was a crime not to believe in witchcraft. What, I thought, would happen now if someone still did believe in witchcraft? That said, to make this improbable tale work, it had to be a bit of a Benny Hill romp. It’s a fun book.

My second, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press), while a gentle comedy, is darker. It’s really a reworking of The Wizard of Oz – young woman gets knocked on the head, remembers her life in flashback, and emerges from the experience as a different person. It’s a book about the power of memory and how, if we remember things in a different way, we can be changed by that experience.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Good question because I have no idea. The basic inspiration for my second book came on a train from Edinburgh to London, which was apt as Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book. When I got home, I wrote the first and last chapters. The first has changed beyond all recognition, but the last chapter is pretty much the same.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
Not really, no. I tend to be something of a perfectionist and am constantly editing and rewriting. I hope that, for the reader, it comes across as effortless. From my perspective, everything is hard work – so I tend to like most of the stuff that eventually makes it into the final cut!

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not entirely sure what you mean. But I think that good books need good characters, a good plot, and good narrative and dialogue. Those are at least some of the basics. However, as I’ve mentioned the word “plot” I suppose I’m a plotter.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
I’m always reading because I take inspiration from other writers, and the world and the characters they create. You can’t write if you don’t read.  Simples.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
I can’t remember who gave me this advice but, like most advice, it’s both blindingly obvious and wise. Simply: you can’t edit a blank page. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing gibberish. You can go back to it later and turn it into English. The important thing is to keep writing.

What can readers expect from your books?
I hope, to be entertained. But also, maybe, to be taken on a slightly mad thought-provoking journey. I like books that are not too deep, entertain me, and make me smile. I hope that’s what mine do.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing and don’t give up. I honestly believe that some of the best books ever written will be mouldering at the bottom of landfill because their authors received one too many rejection. If you genuinely think that what you’ve written has merit, stick with it.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like the way that one idea can lead onto another and then another. I dislike it when those ideas turn out to be bad ideas, and I’ve wasted days or weeks of my life. I try now to plan well ahead, with an ending in sight.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
It’s complete and provisionally entitled The Space Between Time. While (again) a gentle comedy, it’s also about mental illness and how we can grow up with false impressions of the people closest to us. It was a difficult book to write, because it has to balance lighter elements with tragedy and poignancy.  It will be published late this year or early in 2019.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’d like to say, putting in the final full stop. But that just provokes me to go back into the manuscript and edit, edit, edit. So, perhaps the best moment is when your editor and proofreader tell you that no further changes can be made!

**Black Water Blog Tour** Author Interview

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Our guest today is Cormac O’Keeffe, author of ‘Black Water‘. I’m delighted to have been included on the blog tour of a book that has been described as ‘…’The Wire‘, set in Dublin’ (Brian McGilloway) so my thanks to the publisher and to Cormac for sparing the time to appear on my blog.

Vic x

Cormac O'Keeffe

Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My debut novel Black Water is about a boy groomed into a criminal gang and the fight to save him and bring the gang to justice.

A number of factors influenced the novel. The first was living in communities affected by gangs and the drugs trade, amid economic neglect and a struggling policing response. I wanted to tell a story about that, through the experiences of a vulnerable boy. In the areas I lived, there was no shortage of boys running fairly wild on the street, without much structure and afraid of no one. All those things and a lot more fed into my character of Jig, who is being reeled into a gang. Poured into that mix were other events and experiences from my work as a journalist.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Many of my ideas came from living in communities and my work as a journalist specialising in crime, drugs and policing. I have met many people over that time, from community workers to detectives. But really the ideas come from deep within.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
It’s hard to single out a particular character as a favourite. I have so many of them. I have three main characters that I am very close to. There are a host of secondary characters that I really like, including gang members, such as local crime boss Ghost.

It’s very difficult to choose a favourite scene. There are a number of scenes with Jig that are quite moving, but I do like the shooting scene about a third of the way in and the bomb attack at the end.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A ‘pantster’ sounds more like it. I was definitely not a plotter with this novel. Anything but. I wrote about the three main characters separately, which weren’t woven in together, to about the halfway point. I had to commit an enormous amount of work (and considerable pain) to tease out and establish plots – and go over those again and again.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Absolutely. Often I might even read a novel, perhaps some literary fiction, to get into the use and flow of words, to free up my mind and then get to work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
It’s impossible to single out any particular advice as the best, let alone try and remember who said it. ‘Dive in’ was one of the first bits of advice I remember, which was true. You have to dive and dive deep for a long time. Only then can you worry about all the other stuff. You need the raw material down first (or have started that process), before dealing with, and getting entangled in, structure and plot and pace.

Rewriting, though, is absolutely fundamental. Repeated cycles of rewriting, with spaces in between if you can. Do not rush sending it out, particularly to agents. That is a real biggie. It is very tempting, but resist (counsel others who know) and go over it again and again.

What can readers expect from your books?
Ah, that is hard for me to say. I would like to think a story that is powerful, gritty but with humanity, original, authentic and thrilling. I would hope that readers of Black Water will feel like they have been dropped into a living, breathing community where people are fighting to survive.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes, but I would be slow to be too loud or firm about it. I would say, just start writing. Try not to waste too much time online or on social media. Look for a writing group, a good one if you can. Be gentle on yourself. Yes you will suffer from self-doubt and from procrastination, but don’t give up. Keep on going. Seek help from authors. Don’t rush sending it out. Hold back. Chisel. Fine tune. Polish. Repeat. Don’t crumble from the rejection. Lean on someone for support. Keep on going.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like when it flows. I like when you pierce through and carve out a piece of a character or a plot. I like when the dialogue rings true, when action sings, when you leave a reader wanting more. I like it when you come up with an idea for a plot, or how to plug a gaping plot hole.

I dislike the persistence of mistakes and errors, no matter how many hundreds of times you read something. I don’t like it when you can’t ‘see’ your writing anymore, because you have gone over it so much. I don’t like that feeling that the novel is never going to be finished.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Only inside my head.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
When, eventually, I realised that there was nothing more I could do and it was the best it could be.

Getting to Know You: Roz Watkins

I’m delighted to welcome the lovely Roz Watkins to the blog today. You can follow Roz on Twitter – and I strongly recommend that you do. 

Roz’s debut novel ‘The Devil’s Dice‘ is available now and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to reading it. I was gutted to miss the launch party in London a couple of weeks ago so I’m hoping to catch up with Roz soon to celebrate her success. 

My thanks to Roz today for sharing her experiences with us. 

Vic x

Roz Watkins

Tell us about your book. What inspired it? 
The initial impetus came from my dog’s foul habits. We were walking in the woods near to my house in the Peak District when I saw him running towards me with something in his mouth. It was swinging side-to-side, and from a distance it looked like a human spine. I thought, Oh Christ, the dog’s found a body! 

When he got closer, I could see it was in fact a hare (they are surprisingly large) but it got me thinking. What would it be like to come upon a body when walking the dog? And that’s what happens in my first book. A greedy Labrador sniffs out a corpse in a cave. 

DogHare.jpg

This is the day the dog found a hare. At least it wasn’t a corpse!

Where do you get your ideas from?
I mercilessly mine my life and the lives of those around me. My partner complains that he can’t now write the book he was going to write (when he gets a spare half hour) because I’ve stolen all his best stories. This is of course not true, but I do use my life experiences. I was previously a patent attorney so I enjoyed killing one in my first book. I trained as a hypnotherapist, so in book 2, a therapist has to deal with a girl who seems to be remembering the death of her heart donor. I’m an animal trainer, so clicker-trained killer pigs may feature in book 3. Or they may not. My mum was a GP so receives calls along the lines of, If you wanted to kill someone using… She loves it. 

Do you have a favourite story/ character/ scene you’ve written?
I do love the scene where I try to kill my main character in an underground labyrinth with water rising all around her. As I edited the book, the level of torture increased with each re-write, and it was fun! 

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A bit of a mixture. I try to plot, but then it all goes horribly wrong as I start writing. I haven’t really worked out a system and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier! I write in a tiny room that’s impossible to keep tidy, surrounded by piles of paper and post-it notes and stray animals. But I fantasise about owning a huge loft apartment with acres of space where my mind would magically be clear and organised… 

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
I always read. At the moment I’m feeling guilty about all the authors who’ve said nice things about my book and whose books I haven’t yet read, because my TBR pile has become so huge! So I’m concentrating on reading proofs at the moment. Sometimes the style of a particular writer seeps into my writing, but not in a way which causes a problem. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who was it from?
That’s a toughie. I was struck by someone (it may have been Matt Bird) talking about how at the start of a book, we don’t care much about the characters so we’re not really bothered if they’re in jeopardy. You can dangle them off a cliff or throw them under a train and the reader doesn’t necessarily care very much. But we’re wired to want answers to questions, no matter how banal. On my local radio station, they have this thing where they say something like, 35% of men admit to doing this. And you have to carry on listening to find out what it is. Even though it’s a matter of total irrelevance to your life.  You have to listen. Do they not change their underpants every day? Do they pluck their ear hair? WHAT IS IT? I learnt a lot from that. Pose questions on page 1. 

What can readers expect from your books?
Hopefully a detective they can relate to because she’s a normal woman who worries about normal stuff and is a little bit fat and possibly has cat hair on her clothes. A few possibly supernatural goings-on and a touch of classic whodunit, plus a little bit of sardonic humour (I’m told!) 

THE DEVILS DICE

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Write about what makes you angry or emotional, because it keeps you going when things get tough.  And treat writing a publishable novel as a learnable skill, rather than something you should just be able to do. I started off writing absolute junk, but I devoured books on writing craft and sought feedback all over the place. 

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I find the first draft feels a bit like pulling teeth, although I do love coming up with the ideas. I enjoyed the first draft of my first book (done without a deadline!) but now I get obsessed with word-counts and how behind I am! I like editing. 

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’m on book 3 (and behind where I should be…) A woman goes missing from an abattoir, and all the evidence points to her having been killed and fed to pigs. 

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’ve been so lucky there have been many over the last couple of years, but I’m going to choose standing in a piazza in Venice and receiving a call from my agent about a life-changing offer from a German publisher. 

 

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Matt Potter

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 I’m chuffed to bits to have Matt Potter on the blog to talk about how his work experience gave him plenty of material for his writing. My thanks to Matt for sharing his time and his stories with us today.

Vic x

2 pic for book

Sometimes, it takes someone else reflecting back to you, about your writing – a blurb or review of your work – for you to realise what you write about.

It took me years to pinpoint just what it is I write about. As for genre, I would think domestic or intimate comedy (whatever that really is, I kind of just made that up).

But what I really write about, the constant theme, is compromise. What are the deals we do with ourselves to get through life. What are we willing to put up with to get what we want? When does not enough become really not enough? When do we decide to walk away, and when do we decide to return or start anew?

Many of the day jobs I have held have been in community services, because I am a qualified social worker. Disclaimer: I have never been a very good one, certainly not in the traditional mould.

Many of these jobs involved advocacy – supporting others by being their mouthpiece, or assisting them to do so; or planning (future health or care issues); or training and information provision (hundreds of public sessions); or in communication roles: web content, newsletters (when newsletters were really a thing), media releases, leaflet and brochure text, poster and flyer design.

Many of these jobs also involved talking to people about their lives – really talking with them and listening – and of all the things I did in my social work career, chatting to people about their lives has always been the best, most fun, most interesting thing for me.

Setting the scene or environment so people can talk about themselves – despite me also being a great talker – has always been really easy for me. Getting to know people intimately, and quickly, so they unburden themselves, give me what they need to, sometimes when they don’t really want to or initially feel uncomfortable doing so. It’s about being open and receptive and the other person recognising this instantly.

I also taught English as a Second Language for a number of years, and ultimately, found that more rewarding than social work, but that’s another story.

Have I ever directly written about the stories people told about their lives? Only once – a man in his late 20s told me he had finally dealt with his father issues, which meant he wasn’t gay anymore! – and another story has played around in my head for 11 years or more … again about personal deal-making.

1 - On the Bitch cover for back pages

A reviewer of my new novella On the Bitch wrote that I have “the ability to put the reader into whatever scene is playing out at the moment” and I think that is true. So it’s about instantly being there, in the situation, and not somewhere else. YOU ARE THERE! And that’s what listening to the hundreds of people who spoke about their lives and their troubles and their issues and their plans taught me. BE IN THE MOMENT. You can read it, see it and experience that on the page through my writing.