Tag Archives: writer

Getting to Know You: M.J. Arlidge

Hope you’re all keeping well. If you’re looking for something new to read, M.J. Arlidge’s eighth Helen Grace novel ‘All Fall Down‘ is due out next week (Thurs, 11th June) .

Matt has joined us today to give us a little insight into his work as a writer and some advice for those of you out there who’d like to give it a go yourselves.

I’m hoping to host Matt at a Virtual Noir at the Bar in the coming weeks so make sure you’re first to find out when he’ll be appearing. Sign up to our newsletter now.

Big thanks to Matt and Orion Books for making this happen.

Vic x

M.J Arlidge

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?

I love the escapism of it. I never get tired of sitting down at my desk and opening up my laptop. There are dozens of different characters and numerous interweaving stories in each of my books, meaning I have a whole host of different people to climb inside and bring to life. I love working out what makes characters tick, what’s important to them, what would drive them to do reckless or desperate things. It’s so enjoyable to escape from my normal life, especially so during lockdown! 

There’s not much I dislike, though there’s no question writing a novel is a hard slog. I’ve just written the first chapters of a new one this morning and the road ahead seems long!!!

What inspires you to write?

Anything and everything. Just life really. I find ideas come to me unbidden and at the strangest times – in the middle of the night, when I’m in the shower, when I’m shopping in the supermarket. And once a really good idea pops into your head, it has you, you have to write it. 

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?

Yes, of course! I love reading and always find time, usually at the end of the day. Generally I read novels, but at the moment I’m making use of lockdown to consume the works of Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens, Homo Deus etc. I find his work absolutely fascinating. 

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?

So many authors to choose from. Thomas Harris, James Patterson, Harlan Coben…but I think I’ll have to plump for Stieg Larsson. When I was writing Eeny Meeny (my debut novel), Lisbeth Salander was very much in my mind. She was the most unusual, most interesting crime fighter I’d ever come across. There are shades of Lisbeth Salander about Helen Grace – I was desperate to make her as unconventional and intriguing as Larsson’s brilliant protagonist. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Wow. Good question. I would have loved to have been a photographer. Or a chef. I still harbour fantasies about the latter, but I’m probably too old…

What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s probably not for me to say! I’d say I work hard and am very committed to my writing and my readers – to the extent that when I’m writing a novel I find it hard to resist creeping back to my office late at night or as the sun is rising.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve literally just started writing Truth or Dare, the ninth novel in the Helen Grace series. Usually the first few chapters are utterly terrifying, but actually I’ve really enjoyed starting this one. 

Where can we find you online?

At my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

To borrow a phrase from Nike, just do it. Don’t spend too long prevaricating – pretending to research stuff, when actually you’re just putting off writing. Just be disciplined and get that first draft done. Only then do you have something you can work with, something you can potentially sell. When I was writing my first novel, I still had a day job, but managed to carve out one hour a day (5pm-6pm) to write. It was slow progress, but I got there in the end, and, boy, was it a good feeling!

What’s been your proudest moment?

The day Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin. To have joined the ranks of authors at such an impressive and important publishing house blew my mind!

What was the best writing advice you received and who was it from? 

When I delivered the first draft of Eeny Meeny to my agent, she declared that it was good, but needed “more emotional cruelty”. It was sage advice and something I bear in mind every time I’m penning a new Helen Grace novel!

ALL FALL DOWN by M.J Arlidge is published by Orion Fiction and out in hardback on 11th June 2020.

**Bones in the River Blog Tour**

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Zoë Sharp’s “Bones in the River“. I’ve known Zoë for many years now but here’s a little bit of background to the enigmatic writer.

Zoë Sharp began her crime thriller series featuring former Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photo-journalist. Zoë opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen.

Zoë’s work has won or been nominated for awards on both sides of the Atlantic, been used in school textbooks, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film.

When not in lockdown in the wilds of Derbyshire, she can be found improvising self-defence weapons out of ordinary household objects, international pet-sitting, or crewing yachts in the Mediterranean. (It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) Zoë is always happy to hear from readers, reader groups, libraries or bookstores. You can contact her via email.

My thanks to Zoë for having me on her blog tour.

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job:
Zoe Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in Dancing on the Grave and now in Bones in the River. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in Bones in the River, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Bones in the River“, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series, was published worldwide on May 26 2020 by ZACE Ltd. You can grab a sneak peek of the first three chapters, and is available from all the usual retailers.

Guest Post: James Henry on Writing a Crime Series

Today on the blog, I have James Henry, author of the DI Nicholas Lowry series. James’s books are popular among readers and writers of crime fiction alike.

Whitethroat‘, the third in the series is due out in July and James is here today to give his thoughts on writing a crime series.

My thanks to James for taking the time to share his experience with us.

Vic x

James Henry

Tips on writing a Crime Series

When I start thinking about writing a new crime series, my first rule is to try and write each book in such a way that it works, as far as is possible, as a standalone novel. That is to say, a reader should not have to have read book one in order to understand and enjoy books two, three or four – each should be satisfying in its own right. The point of this, of course, is that you can still pick up new readers with each new book as your series develops – readers who may then dip back to earlier books. If you achieve that, you continue to build your audience.

To do this successfully, remember a few key points when starting out:

Keep a notebook detailing simple things – like description of characters physical traits, their age, their habits and peccadilloes. You think you will remember the simple things; you think you will remember your character prefers white bread to wholemeal; you won’t – but your reader most certainly will… You will thank yourself for having something to refer back to. 

However, I would caution against going overboard on detail too soon: you have a long road to travel, so be wary of packing too much baggage in the early days. You have to carry it all with you. Allow characters to develop gently. The first book in the series should focus on the story, making the plot as tight, engaging and pacy as possible.  

As your series progresses you can allow your characters to develop. The more books you write the more backstory you will accumulate – a sense of shared history involving character relationships, tragic events, celebrations, any number of things. You will draw on this history in your writing, but do so judiciously – too much repetition risks slowly the pace of the story as a whole. Say that book one sees your detective break up from a long relationship, as well as receive a great promotion at work. A long explanation of the reason for their new job in book two may not warrant the page space it takes to tell; but exploring the reasons why they are miserable and drinking more than usual in spite of having an important new job, very well may. 

Remember that as your series develops you have to write with two readers in mind: your new reader, the one who may be discovering this series for the first time; and the readers who have been with you from the start. From now on, think about how you orientate new readers in the world you have created as well as keep things fresh for those who are familiar with it. For instance, you can re-introduce the setting, the landscape – but perhaps you can add some new detail on the geography or history of the area. There is always a way to make the familiar newly interesting.

With all this to bear in mind, the writing may seem hard work, much beyond a one off novel say, but there is a sense of satisfaction in an adding another layer to the world you have created that can only be had by series fiction.

**Newcastle Noir Blog Tour**

The Thursday before Newcastle Noir officially opens, we run Noir at the Bar as part of NN’s fringe. As with everything else this year, Noir at the Bar is going to be a little different but we’re delighted to be running #VNatB – Virtual Noir at the Bar – as part of the online fringe. 

Noir at the Bar has been part of Newcastle Noir’s fringe festival for several years and, thanks to the festival, this free spoken word event has managed to attract writers from Iceland, America and Germany in addition to the wonderful writers who travel the length and breadth of the UK to appear. 

Noir at the Bar, the brainchild of Peter Rosovsky, began in 2008 in Philadelphia. Peter started Noir at the Bar with one author per event where they’d do a reading and answer some questions. Scott Phillips and Jedidiah Ayres then set up Noir at the Bar in St Louis and messed with the concept a little, hosting larger groups of writers but sacrificing the interview element. Eric Beetner then set up in LA when their hub for writers, the Mystery Bookstore, closed. Noir at the Bar NYC started after Glenn Gray and Todd Robinson wanted the east coast to get some of the noiry action and that particular chapter is now hosted by Tommy Pluck. 

The first I heard of Noir at the Bar was when Graham Smith ran one in Carlisle but I believe it first came to the UK with Jay Stringer and Russel D. McLean at the helm in Glasgow. I once read an article where Glenn and Todd said they started NYC N@B because Tommy Pluck bullied them into it. The same happened with me, but it was Jay and Graham who “suggested” I run one in Newcastle. 

I put the feelers out among the crime writers I knew in the area and one author suggested I get in touch with Dr Noir. From that very first meeting, I knew I’d met someone who’d have a big impact on my life. Jacky’s unending passion for crime fiction bubbled over and by the time our meeting was done, we had so many plans. 

A global pandemic, surprisingly, didn’t feature in those plans so we’ve had to get creative to ensure that our audience don’t have to go without their crime fiction fix in these bewildering times.   On Wednesday, 29th April, I’ll be running my weekly Virtual Noir at the Bar and dedicating it to Newcastle Noir. Having hosted US writer Ashley Erwin in 2018 and 2019 as part of the fringe, I wanted to keep the tradition going and I’m delighted Ashley will be bringing her unique brand of pulpy noir to our virtual audience.

#VNatB will be here every Wednesday for fans of crime fiction until restrictions on social gatherings are lifted – and possibly beyond. 

Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to find out the full line-up every week.

See you at the (virtual) bar! 

Vic x

The Newcastle Noir fringe Noir at the Bar crew, 2019.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Neil Broadfoot

It’s my pleasure to host my very good friend Neil Broadfoot on the blog today.

Neil’s latest book, ‘No Place to Die‘ is available now. ‘No Place to Die‘ is the sequel to ‘No Man’s Land‘ (you can read my review of the first book in the Connor Fraser series here).

Once a controversial venture capitalist, Blair Charlston reinvented himself as a development guru after a failed suicide attempt when a business deal went disastrously wrong. So when he decides to host a weekend retreat on the outskirts of Stirling for more than 300 people, Connor Fraser is drafted in to cover the security for a man who is both idolised as a saviour and hated as a ruthless asset stripper.

For Connor, it’s an unwelcome assignment. He’s never had much time for salvation by soundbite, and Charlston’s notoriety is attracting the attention of reporter Donna Blake, who’s asking more questions than Connor has answers for.

But when an old colleague of Donna’s is found brutally bludgeoned to death, and the start of Charleston’s weekend of salvation becomes a literal trial by fire, Connor must race to unmask a killer whose savagery is only matched by their cunning.

No Place to Die‘ is available now and Neil is here to take part in our ‘Don’t Quit the Day Job’ series.

Vic x

Don’t quit the day job?

Nice thought. But thanks to this virus, that’s what we’ve all been forced to do. The old ways of working are gone, society reshaping itself to this new bizarre reality we find ourselves faced with. A reality where book festivals and mass gatherings are fondly remembered dreams, and meeting your pal for a pint seems like a life goal rather than a normal occurrence. 

And yet, the crime writing community has risen to the challenge. With bookshops closed, festivals axed and book launches scrapped (I was meant to be doing events in St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Stirling, Newcastle and Durham to launch No Place To Die), writers, bloggers and event organisers are getting creative. Virtual Noir at the Bars are being held, authors are holding online launches, bloggers are flying the flag for books more enthusiastically than ever. And while we may all be in social isolation, social media has never been more robust in getting the message out about books and new works.

Case in point. Thanks to Vic and this blog, you’re hearing about No Place To Die. The second Connor Fraser thriller, this time it’s set in a hotel just outside Stirling, where a self-help weekend for a couple of hundred people is being held (without a face mask or a mandatory 2-metre gap in sight). As ever, things go south and, as the bodies, pile up Connor is hot on the heels of a killer who will go to any ends to fulfil his plan. 

It’s a book that reflects the time it was written but, as the old lyric goes, the times they are a changin’. I’m due to start my next Connor book, out next year,  later this week, but every time I go near the keyboard I’m haunted by a thought – how do I reflect what’s going on right now? What will the world look like when Connor returns? Will he still be providing close security for clients, or will that business have gone belly up, driven into extinction by social distancing and the fact that no-one leaves their house any more? Which then raises a question – what would tempt someone to break the lockdown, to venture out? And what happens if that person is then found dead? 

(Sorry, sorry. I’m a writer. I’m always thinking stuff like that up. Especially now, when I’ve a lot more time to think than normal. Whether that’s for good or ill, I’ll leave you to decide.) 

But despite all this uncertainty, there’s certainty too. Connor will still be Connor. He will not stop until he solves the mystery. Along the way he’ll get into fights, do a bit of cooking, hit the gym and continue his will-they-won’t-they dance with Jen. Donna will be her ruthless self while Paulie will lurk in the shadows, a friendly psychopath just waiting for his moment to strike. I hope you enjoy No Place To Die, I had a blast writing it, and, in these uncertain times, that’s about as much as we can hope for, isn’t it?  

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Philippa East

OK, so COVID-19 is a thing and the UK is enforcing social distancing – thank goodness. With that in mind, lots of bloggers are trying to help people get through the partial ‘lockdown’ with book recommendations as well as introducing you to some new authors.

As part of that, I’ve decided to resurrect my ‘Don’t Quit the Day Job’ series.

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

Today it’s the turn of Philippa East to tell us about how her work as a clinical psychologist helped her writer ‘Little White Lies‘. My thanks to Philippa for sharing her experience with us.

Stay safe, everyone.

Vic x

Philippa East headshot

I first got the idea for Little White Lies when I caught a snippet of a news story on TV – a teenage girl in Spain had disappeared then re-appeared a few weeks later, all under mysterious circumstances. There were many question marks over the case: had she been abducted, or was something else going on? The TV showed the family in a courtroom and I found myself thinking – what on earth are these people feeling now? Do they trust each other at all?

I knew I wanted to write a book about a missing child, I also knew there was a solid precedent of popular books on the shelves exploring this topic. But as a psychologist and therapist, I have always cared most about the pieces of the story that never usually get told. Tragically, children go missing all the time; I was fascinated by what might happen once a missing child came home. 

But what did I really know about this topic? Heartbreakingly, cases of children being found alive months or years after their disappearance are incredibly rare. My story started where most other ‘missing person’ books ended. So how on earth was I going to write about that?

The question really quite stumped me until I realised that, while I had never been involved in a real-life case like Abigail’s in Little White Lies, maybe I did have expertise that could help me, via my work with adult survivors of childhood trauma. In Little White Lies, against all odds, Abigail has escaped and survived her abduction. In the same way, the clients who I was seeing in my work had (physically) survived their childhood experiences. For both Abigail and my clients, a whole new journey would now begin. 

Little White Lies is about a family trying to heal after the very worst of traumas. The book focuses on the relationship between Abigail and her family – her mother Anne especially – both before and after her abduction. The more I wrote, the more I found myself delving into issues of responsibility and guilt, the instinctive desire to avoid what is most painful, and the healing power of acknowledging what went wrong – all themes I had encountered many times in my therapy work. Little White Lies went through many, many drafts as I wrote it, but it was when these themes came together as the heart of the novel that I was able to shape the story into the book you’ll read today.

These days, I am struck time and again by how much being a writer and being a psychologist have in common. Both therapy and writing are all about words and narratives; these truly are the “tools of our trade”. In both fiction writing and in the process of therapy, we share and absorb stories in order to make sense of the world, and try to understand our own complicated human natures. And both characters in stories and the clients in my practice go on profound journeys of change. 

Looking back now, I wonder whether I would ever have had the confidence to write Little White Lies without my background in psychology. To be honest, I am not sure that I would! 

LITTLE WHITE LIES JPEG copy

**I Will Miss You Tomorrow Blog Tour**

blog tour visual

I’m really pleased to be taking part in the blog tour for Heine Bakkeid’s ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow‘, the first in a new Norwegian crime series.

Fresh out of prison and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, disgraced ex-Chief Inspector Thorkild Aske only wants to lose himself in drugged dreams of Frei, the woman he loved but has lost forever. 

Yet when Frei’s young cousin goes missing off the Norwegian coast and Thorkild is called in by the family to help find him, dead or alive, Thorkild cannot refuse. He owes them this.

Tormented by his past, Thorkild soon finds himself deep in treacherous waters. He’s lost his reputation – will he now lose his life?

My thanks to Raven Books for inviting me to be a part of the tour and to Heine for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Vic x

Tell us a little about yourself…
I grew up in the North of Norway, in a place called Belnes. Just five houses, with the polar night looming above, the mountains behind us and the sea in front. It’s the kind of place where, as a kid, you can run around all day, play, and not see another human being. I used to read a lot, and developed a sturdy imagination, something that resulted in me getting lost I my own thoughts whenever and wherever I was. I still get lost in my own thoughts, usually thinking about characters I have created/want to get to know better, scenes I want to write, plots, and forget that I’m with other people, people that expect me to answer back when they talk to me. (My wife especially, finds this hilarious😊) Growing up in such a small place, you kind of get to be comfortable in your own skin and being on your own. Becoming a writer was therefore the perfect match for me, also because writers are often easily forgiven for being kind of weird sometimes, so …

And what can you tell us about ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow’? 
One of the things that has always fascinated me is how men, the kind of men I grew up around, handled their problems. It’s kind of expected that you sort yourself out and get on with your day. The main characters in crime fiction always seem to have certain traits; when you first meet them, they are broken in some way or form, and I always wondered why. How did they get there, to this point? So, when I first started writing about Thorkild Aske, I knew that this was something that I wanted to explore in the series. But also, what happens with a lone investigator-type, who doesn’t even want to fix himself, who can’t put himself together and just get on with it, but who actively sabotages his own well-being. So, when we first meet Thorkild in ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow‘ he’s just been released from prison, has lost his job as an Interrogation Officer with the Internal Affairs and is heavily abusing the pain medication his psychiatrist has given him. He is then forced to travel to the far north to investigate the disappearance of a young man who was renovating an old light house. What he then finds, is a young woman without a face in the breaking sea.

How long have you been writing? 
I started writing in my late twenties in 2003. I was studying programming in Stavanger and was well on my way to become a System Developer. Being a writer isn’t really something people from where I come from see as an option. Programming is as close to the inner circles of hell as you can get; it’s so structured, narrow, and has no freedom to go beyond the boundaries of the programming language, and I hated it.
One night, I had been hung up on this scene with this character (which later became Thorkild Aske) for a whole week and couldn’t sleep, so I just got up and started writing, hoping the scene would go away so that I could get some sleep. I wrote about fifty pages the following days, but quickly realized that I was way too young to write about such a character and decided that I was going to wait with the Thorkild Aske books until I got older.
But I still loved writing, this new-found way to escape the pains of programming, so I just kept writing and finished my first novel for young adults the same month as I completed my bachelor’s degree. I told myself that if the manuscript got published, I would become a writer, and if not, I would go on to my Master’s degree and slowly die, one day at a time, in some stupid office.

What was your journey to publication like?
I still know by heart the first line in the official letter from the publishing house that took on my manuscript. They had sent the manuscript to a well-known Norwegian YA-author who was consulting for them. “Finally, something that is pure gold, in an otherwise regular work day where everything is just so-so.” (I’m really butchering the English language on this one😊) So, with those words in mind I felt that I had moved a couple of inches away from that office space in hell, and decided to tell my wife that I was starting over again, from scratch with only my student debt in my backpack. I was going to become a writer. The book got published in 2005, and three years and three books later, in March 2008, I quit my day job and became a writer full-time.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us about it?
Right now, I’m working on the fourth installment of the Thorkild Aske series. The story takes place in Stavanger, where the police have just dug up the body of one of their own, a dirty cop who went missing in 2011, a man that Thorkild Aske shares a personal past with. This one is going to get pretty intense.

What do you like most about writing?
As I said in the beginning, for as long as I can remember, I have been reading and making up my own stories and creating scenes in my head. Becoming a writer was the perfect outlet for this affliction. Telling stories is also the one thing that makes me truly happy.

What do you like least?
Editing. If I find a better way to tell a story, I will go and rewrite. This makes the editing process longer and more painful.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt. Very promising😊

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
The Norwegian writer and poet André Bjerke. He wrote children’s books, poems and psychological mystery novels in the 1940’s.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I did these writing courses for school kids in Norway after I got published and saw all the raw talents that were out there, young girls and boys that reminded me of myself at that age. I used to tell them to forget the “good student” type of writing and find their own expression, their own way to tell a story, to portray characters, their emotions and so on. Because that is what readers (and publishers) are looking for: something unique, different. That, and to edit, edit, edit and edit.

What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
This one, most definitely😊 Being published in the UK, the land of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter and C. J. Sansom, among so many others. Though, I must admit that my new favourite author is actually Irish: Adrian McKinty. The Sean Duffy series: wow, just … wow!

Review: ‘Black Summer’ by M.W. Craven

Jared Keaton, chef to the stars, is charming, charismatic and a psychopath. He’s currently serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his daughter, Elizabeth. Her body was never found but Keaton was convicted largely on the testimony of Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.

So when a young woman staggers into a remote police station with irrefutable evidence that she is Elizabeth Keaton, Poe finds himself on the wrong end of an investigation, one that could cost him much more than his career.

Helped by the only person he trusts, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, Poe races to answer the only question that matters: how can someone be both dead and alive at the same time?

And then Elizabeth goes missing again – and all paths of investigation lead back to Poe.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I loved The Puppet Show‘ by M.W. Craven (you can check out my review here) and was dying to read ‘Black Summer‘. Thanks to the generosity of M.W. Craven, who I have been fortunate enough to interview twice this year, I got an advance copy of ‘Black Summer‘. 

I loved ‘The Puppet Show‘ so much that I thought Craven had given himself a tough job in trying to top it but I shouldn’t have worried: ‘Black Summer‘ is an absolute triumph. As with the first Washington Poe novel, Craven evokes locations perfectly, using the beauty of the Lake District in contrast to the brutality of the crimes Poe is investigating.

The relationship between Poe and Tilly Bradshaw, his brilliant but socially awkward colleague, has progressed since the first book in the series as the pair continue to be an investigative dream team. Craven’s ability to balance drama with humour is testament to his skill as a writer. Bradshaw and Poe’s friendship often provides some light relief when things get really dark. 

One of the most impressive elements of ‘Black Summer‘ is the character of Jared Keaton who is one of the most repugnant villains I think I have ever encountered. The back and forth between Poe and Keaton is well-written with their conflict leading to Poe finding himself in a jam that may prove too difficult even for him to get out of . 

M.W. Craven’s Washington Poe series continues to get stronger. 

Vic x

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.