Tag Archives: “Q&A”

A Q&A with Laura Laakso, author of Fallible Justice

17 Oct

I haven’t been at all surprised to see great review after great review for Laura Laakso’s debut novel, Fallible Justice. It’s a pacey and absorbing introduction to the world of Yannia Wilde, and the first in the Wilde Investigations series. You can read my review here, and I am delighted to say that Laura has agreed to answer some questions about her novel, and writing generally. I hope they will illuminate Yannia’s world, and add to the enjoyment you’ll undoubtedly get from reading Fallible Justice.

Fallible Justice cover

 

Which came first, the idea for the story, or the idea for the world it happens in? How did each develop to become Fallible Justice?

The story came first. I was bored one day and idly wondered how one could fool a justice system based on a celestial being looking into a person’s soul to determine guilt or innocence. As soon as I figured it out, I knew I had to write the book. Everything else developed from there. I took a very mechanical approach to the plot and built it piece by piece; red herring, complication, motive, the mechanics of the crime, and so on. It was an interesting process, especially given that I had no experience in writing crime, and I can still remember the thrill of the pieces falling together to form a picture far more intricate than I had originally planned. The world I built grew organically around Fallible Justice and later expanded when I realised that this wasn’t just going to be one book.

The world-building in Fallible Justice is particularly strong. How did you go about researching the magical world of Old London? Did you make any discoveries that shaped or changed your thoughts about the world you were building? What’s the most surprising thing you learned?

In the very beginning, each element of the world served a purpose in Fallible Justice and they soon developed stories of their own. Each race had its own complications and agenda, which I think helped give depth to the characters from those races. With the main character, I was very clear about wanting a female PI as a protagonist, but one that wasn’t a Mage. I had an image of Yannia running on a beach, channelling all of nature, and that was it. She chose me, I suppose, and that initial image later became the opening chapter of the book.

I also wanted there to be a separate area of London for the magical races to live in and the City of London borough seemed like a perfect fit. It’s a wonderful mix of Wren architecture and modern skyscrapers, and that seemed like an apt reflection of the people living in Old London; smartphones and CCTV go hand in hand with ancient traditions and archaic social structure. I live fairly close to London and I’ve done several trips just to walk around the “Old London”. Every time I do, I see some detail that blossoms into a plot idea or setting. I didn’t do a great deal of research for the first two books in the series, but the thing that will stay with me is the sheer joy of building this exciting world that combines real places and buildings with a magical element. Writing the Wilde Investigations series hardly feels like work!

I’m interested in the terminology you use in your magical world – heralds, shamans and paladins. How did you come to choose the names?

I’ve been gaming and reading fantasy since my early teens, so I had a vast array of terms to choose from. The Heralds were named thus because I wanted a clear separation from Christian mythology. Although they are arguably celestial beings, I didn’t want them to be thought of as angels. When it came to upholding peace in Old London, I liked the idea of knights instead of police. It made sense to combine peacekeeping with the Heralds, and thus Paladins seemed like an appropriate term, although they are not quite as lawful good as in most fantasy literature. With Shamans, I liked the idea of a tangible connection with nature but wanted to make it animal specific. This was partly because by then, Karrion had wandered into my head to complain at length about pigeons. In fact, Karrion is to blame for the whole Shaman race! The Eldermen of the Wild Folk conclaves are a variation on the term alderman. I liked the idea of crusty old men, removed from the modern world, sitting around a campfire deciding the future of each conclave.

What’s the best editorial advice you had in writing Fallible Justice?

Patience, patience, patience. I have a tendency to get carried away and rush the first draft, and my first reader is forever reminding me to take my time and let the scenes develop at a gradual pace. That’s not to say there the plot isn’t constantly moving forward, but I have to remember not to gloss over descriptions and conversations that are vital to the story. I think by book 3 in the series, I was finally getting the hang of being patient.

Your route to publication doesn’t appear to follow the more familiar pattern of submissions to agents, and then to publishers. Had you submitted Fallible Justice, or other work, to anyone before? What is the impact for you of Retreat West’s involvement, and the approach from Louise Walters Books?

About two years ago, I made a Plan. At that point, I’d written two novels and was well into writing Fallible Justice. I was going to spend 2017 building a writing CV by taking part in lots of competitions, all the while editing my novels. Once I had a few writing credits to my name, I was going to start looking for an agent in the hopes of getting the usual agent + publisher deal. The Retreat West First Chapter Competition changed everything! Fallible Justice was chosen as a runner up and the literary agent who judged the short list asked to see the full manuscript. She liked it, but ultimately decided that she didn’t know enough about fantasy to represent me. My first (and to date only) agent rejection. Around the same time, a Retreat West newsletter mentioned a new indie publisher looking for submissions. I had a look at the website, saw the strict genre criteria and sent Louise the opening to my first novel. She replied almost straight away asking for Fallible Justice instead. Despite her website saying no to fantasy, crime and thrillers, she loved Fallible Justice and here we are! My publication journey is a classic example of no matter how good the Plan is, things will always happen along the way that change it. As it is, I couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out.

Have you always written? Did you always want to be a novelist?

I’ve wanted to be a lot of things along the way, including a dolphin trainer by day and a mad scientist by night, spaceship designer and a female Indiana Jones! More seriously, becoming a novelist is a relatively recent aspiration of mine. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of bookworms, so reading and storytelling have always been a big part of my life. In primary school, when we had to write stories based on pictures we were given, I was the insufferable kid who wrote five pages more than anyone else and then asked for extra pictures as homework. Later on, much of the writing related to roleplaying campaigns I was running, but gradually I moved more into fanfiction and later original fiction. Turning 30 caused me to take stock of my life, and I realised that becoming a published author was a dream I wanted to pursue more seriously. All the hard work over the last few years has paid off big time.

Your protagonist, Yannia, suffers from a debilitating disease, which I might add she handles with a very real and affirming attitude. What led you to choose Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?

When I was developing Yannia, I wanted her to have a flaw, some complication that no amount of magic could fix. So I gave her my pain, and straight away the life she’d been born to lead became unsustainable. Old London isn’t a complete solution either. No matter how successful she becomes as a PI and even if she can sort the rest of her life out, EDS is never going to go away. It’s her reality and something she must always bear in mind, but I wanted to show that being sick doesn’t mean she can’t be successful or make difficult life choices. Giving her a condition I have meant that I could offer an authentic, but a compassionate depiction of the illness. On a more selfish note, I’m not terribly good at talking about what living with constant pain is like, but through Yannia, I have expressed things that would otherwise have remained unsaid.

There’s quite a range of characters in Fallible Justice. Who was the most fun to write? Who was hardest to get right?

Although I’ve never really considered myself a character-led writer, I’ve had so much fun with the characters in Fallible Justice (and the later books). Wishearth is a firm favourite, as is Lady Bergamon, and writing them has been simply wonderful. I also loved the interaction between Yannia and Karrion. Their friendship really grows through the series, but I love how they tease and argue like siblings. Fria was difficult to write because her mindset is so different from mine and it took me a long while to “get” her. And while I love to hate Lord Ellensthorne, in the long run it’s been challenging to strike a balance between him being a thoroughly unpleasant man and not turning him into a caricature antagonist.

Fallible Justice stands as the first in a series, Wilde Investigations. How many books do you have planned? Do you already know what’s going to happen in each, or are the stories yet to develop? And what about after Yannia. Do you think you’ll stay in the world of paranormal crime, or have you projects in different genres waiting in the wings?

At the moment, I’m editing book 3 in the series and planning book 4. I have clear ideas for books 5-8, plus another one that will come a little later, and various random ideas and thoughts floating around. While there are long-term plot lines I’ve been setting up since Fallible Justice, I don’t want to make too many firm plans too far in advance because every book brings up side plots I wasn’t expecting. Book 3 had a huge impact on the future stories and I’m still getting my head around all the implications. It feels like I’m only just getting comfortable in the series and I hope I get to write these books for some time to come!

Outside Wilde Investigations, I have an idea for a YA novel set in the same world I’d like to explore at some point, a paranormal thriller that’s completely separate, a paranormal romance (though I’m so hopelessly cynical I’m not sure I could ever write a romance novel), a psychological thriller, and a literary fiction novel waiting to be developed. And those are just the more tangible plots I’ve written down in a “Random ideas” document on my computer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be short of ideas! At the moment, all I can say is that with Wilde Investigations, I feel as though I’ve found my voice and no matter what happens in the future, writing is always going to be an integral part of my life.

Finally, if you were a character in Yannia’s world what would your magical ability be?

While my dogs no doubt expect the answer to be a Dog Shaman, I think I’d probably be one of the Wild Folk. Growing up in Finland, wilderness and nature played a big role in my life and I appreciate the Wild Folk way of living. Their world is by no means perfect, but their connection with nature makes sense to me.

Laura Laakso

 

My thanks to Laura Laakso for answering my questions so fully, and to Louise Walters for facilitating so smoothly.

Fallible Justice is published by Louise Walters Books on the 8th November, though you can order it now from Louise Walters Books direct, and you’ll get a signed copy and an exclusive flash fiction written by Laura to accompany the book! What are you waiting for!

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A Q & A with Tamar Hodes

25 Jul

 

water and the wine

It is the 1960s and a group of young writers and artists gather on the Greek island of Hydra. Leonard Cohen is at the start of his career and in love with Marianne, who is also muse to her ex-husband, Axel. Australian authors George Johnston and Charmian Clift write, drink and fight. It is a hedonistic time of love, sex and new ideas. As the island hums with excitement, Jack and Frieda Silver join the community, hoping to mend their broken marriage. However, Greece is overtaken by a military junta and the artistic idyll is threatened.

 

The Water And The Wine by Tamar Hodes is an engaging journey into life in and around this artistic community. What it is to live, love, to create and to understand oneself surrounds the inhabitants of Hydra’s creative enclave. But in the search for identity and meaning, are some more worthy than others? In the discarding of tradition and hierarchy can the unacknowledged voices find equal standing? How long can the idyll resist the pressures of the wider world?

 

I’m pleased to say the author, Tamar Hodes has answered some questions about the writing of this most summery of reads. I hope you enjoy them, and the light they cast on Tamar’s novel, The Water And The Wine.

 

 

What led you to want to tell this story?

This is a story which I wanted to write for many years. I lived on Hydra when I was three (I had my fourth birthday there) and my parents often talked about that time. It sounded fascinating to me, the way the artists met in the taverna in the evenings and discussed their work and ideas. Also, there was the added interest of Leonard Cohen who was part of that community. My father passed away in 2013; my mother in 2014 and Leonard and Marianne in 2016. My father left me his journal about Hydra, my mother left me her first edition of Flowers for Hitler signed by Cohen and all these events made me feel that now was the time to write this novel. I felt that there was a groundswell lifting me there.

 

Although you say at the start of the book that you’ve fictionalised events, a large proportion of the cast are real people. What obligation to them did you feel in the writing of this novel? Did you find you had to handle them differently to fictional characters?

I felt a huge responsibility to the characters who are real. There are many Leonard Cohen fans (I am one of them) and there are factual books/biographies about Leonard and Marianne and also about George Johnston and Charmian Clift. This is why the main facts and events in the novel are true. I have fabricated the food, conversations, clothes, letters, but I have tried to retain the essence of these people. Fiction is a passport which allows one to slip into the lives of others. Some of the local Greek characters are invented but some are real. Yes, there was an obligation to the real-life ones that I didn’t feel with the fictional characters but in some ways the former were easier to write, as the plot and events were already provided and did not need to be invented.

 

How did writing this story affect your relationship with the characters? Were your opinions of them changed in any way?

I felt much more sympathetic towards them once I had entered their lives. They went to the island to focus on their art and, although others might find that self-indulgent, no harm was intended. It is through fiction that we see through others’ eyes and so this process enabled me to do that. I think some damage was done, particularly to the children of these artists but it was not deliberate.

 

Who did you find easiest to write, and who was the most difficult to get right? Were either of these the most satisfying?

Leonard Cohen said that it would take a novel to understand his and Marianne’s relationship which was a spur if ever there was one! My family, fictionalised as the Silver family, was the trickiest as, like many writers, I was torn between two strong impulses: the desire to tell my story but also the desire to protect the family that I love. Those two wishes are often in conflict with each other. I was very worried about being disloyal and that is why I have changed their names but also not all the events in the novel did actually happen to us. Therefore, I have hidden the truth in the fiction.

 

You introduce the Silver Family to events on the island. Did you feel the need to have a purely fictional set of characters? How did their presence help in telling the story you wanted to tell?

As I have said above, they are not purely fictional. My family did live on Hydra from spring 1964 until spring 1965 and therefore that structure seemed a useful frame to me. I liked the idea of the family getting to know the island and meeting the islanders and expats as the reader did, like learning together.

 

What’s the best piece of editorial advice you had in relation to this novel?

One of my writing weaknesses in writing is wanting to explain and tell too much. I think that might come from my day job as a school teacher where one is always explaining and deconstructing. My editor at Hookline was very good in telling me to trust the reader more and not spell everything out.

 

It’s interesting whether the setting is somehow complicit in the way in which events unfold in your story. Do you think the character trajectories would be the same without the relative isolation?

I am really interested in islands, in the way that they seem to be an escape but actually they are places of no escape. You have to face reality there as there is nowhere to run to. This is why I quote Charmian Clift at the front of the novel: ‘On an island, eventually, you are bound to meet yourself.’ I was thinking about The Tempest when I wrote this novel. Prospero may feel that he has run away from his life and his past but actually it is on this island where he is forced to confront the truth and all his history is revealed. When he says to Caliban, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ he is eventually admitting that he was also partly to blame for what happened. My husband and I love visiting Mediterranean islands and I really enjoyed describing Hydra – the birds, food, flowers and goats. It felt to me as if Hydra was a character in the novel.

 

What’s next for you. Are you working on something new?

I have four short stories being published in the next few months and I am always working on a short story. I have an idea for a new novel but am finding it quite hard to immerse myself in it. I am still on Hydra!

 

Torn over your holiday destination? Never fear. Wherever you go, you can take the Greek Islands with you, and immerse yourself in the lives and loves of a mid-nineteen-sixties creative community and an enduring story of love to boot.

 

The Water And The Wine was published by Hookline Books in May 2018 ISBN:9780995623545

You can find Tamar on Twitter @HodesTamar

 

My thanks to Tamar for allowing me to read this book, and for agreeing to answer my questions about it.

A Q and A with Fran Cooper, Author of These Dividing Walls

26 Apr

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. I say lucky because it turned out to be one of my top 5 reads of last year (you can read my review here). Amongst all the press saying how brilliant it is – it is brilliant, by the way – its release next week will garner, you can also expect the word prescient to appear a good deal.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the cover is lovely too!

dividing walls

 My luck, it seems, knows no bounds as Fran Cooper has agreed to a quick Q & A with me about These Dividing Walls, Paris and her writing. Enjoy!

 

1       Although These Dividing Walls finds its origin in short stories you’d written about the inhabitants of an apartment block, it’s very much a complete and rounded novel rather than a collection of linked stories. How did this become the bigger story you wanted to tell?

In 2014 I applied for and was accepted onto the Womentoring Project. Lisa O’Donnell (author of The Death of Bees and Closed Doors) became my mentor, and she was the first person to convince me I could write a novel. Or rather, tell me I should write a novel. Her confidence was infectious, so I just thought why not? I had so many characters already floating around in my head, so I took the plunge and started weaving their stories together.

 

2       There’s a broad range of characters in your book. Who did you find the hardest to get right? Who was the most enjoyable to write?

Ooh, such a good question. Funnily enough, César Vincent flowed most easily for me – he just appeared fully formed one night, and I think he probably needed the least editing, even though I’d never really written a character like him before. It was really important to me to get the character of Anaïs right; to give her her own story and space without her becoming just another clichéd new mother. She probably changed the most between drafts one and two!

 

3       What’s the best editorial advice you were given when writing These Dividing Walls?

To not go from 0 to 100mph over the space of a single chapter! That was the most useful advice for me – it gave me the freedom to give each of the characters the space they needed and deserved.

 

4       There’s something a little conspiratorial about the style of the writing, a feeling at times of things being whispered over fences. How conscious were you of your reader in the process of writing? Is this something you enhanced in the drafting or a more organic occurrence borne out of the story’s set-up?

I’m not sure I thought about a “reader” in the abstract sense of it while I was writing! I was living in Paris when I started the book and performing short pieces from it at open mic nights in sweaty bars and basements, so I suspect that conspiratorial sense may have come from that – the fact that, in the early stages, I was sharing these snippets with people, whispering the characters’ secrets as if they were real secrets. But, looking back, it’s also the way I’ve always written. I love the idea that you, as a reader, get to know more about characters than they do themselves. I’ve always enjoyed reading work like that myself.

 

5       Your love of Paris as a city is evident in the writing, a sense of joy in the depiction even of the less salubrious quarters. Were there places you simply knew you wanted to include in the narrative? Are there any off-the-beaten-track places in the book that you’d advise a tourist to seek out? 

Paris was a very magical city for me – truly the place I feel I came of age, became my “real” self as it were. And there are certainly some very magical and off the beaten track places that I had in mind writing. The rue des Thermopyles might be one of the prettiest streets in the world. The Arènes de Lutèce blow my mind – you’re walking around the 5th arrondissement and suddenly stumble across a Roman arena with kids smoking and old men playing pétanque. And the Petite Ceinture (an abandoned railroad that runs a ring around the whole city) is an extraordinary, otherworldly place to explore (though you have to hop a fence in order to get onto it!).

 

6       Although it feels to some extent like Edward and Frédérique’s story, there are many lives running through this book. Were they intended to be the nucleus around which everything else revolves?

To me, the building is the nucleus. It’s what – physically and metaphorically – holds everyone together. Certainly, Frédérique and Edward were there from the beginning, but I didn’t think of them first and then add everyone else around them.

 

7       It’s interesting that Edward provides a foreigner’s experience of events. Was it always your intention to have, specifically, an English perspective?

Yes, absolutely. I wanted a fresh pair of eyes through which to see everything – and, for myself, I wanted the caveat that much of the book was seen through an outsider’s eyes. He remarks on things that I’m sure a French person wouldn’t bat an eyelid over. Edward’s arrival was not only a catalyst for much of the book’s action, but he was also a way to capture some of the joy and befuddlement I myself have felt as an expat!

 

8       You were mentored as part of the WoMentoring Project. How much of a difference did this make to your writing? If you were to pick one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?

See no. 1! This was a game-changer for me. It gave me the confidence to just go for it. When you’re not in this world and don’t know how it works, it can be very daunting. Having someone who’s done it before point you in the right direction is an absolute godsend, even if they’re just telling you that it’s important not to sound nutty in your cover letter. That’s my biggest piece of advice to people now – don’t write a nutty cover letter when submitting your book! You hear about some real corkers…

 

9       The possibilities for the residents of Number 37 to appear in their own stories are endless. Have you considered taking any of the characters further on their journeys? Or are you working on something completely new? Is there anything you can tell me about it?

Ahh, I haven’t really thought of doing that, though I wouldn’t want to say definitively that I’m done with all these characters and their individual stories. I’m in the process of editing my second book now, which is, in some ways, very different. But I think the themes of community and secrets are probably just as strong.

 

10     There’s often something of an overnight feel around a debut novel, though of course there are years of writing behind it. What has the path to publication been like for you? What are you looking forward to, or perhaps viewing with trepidation, for the months to come?

I’ve been enormously lucky. I have a wonderful agent and a wonderful editor (who was the person who actually signed me, back when she was working as an agent!) so my path to publication has been guided by very diligent, careful and caring hands. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the idea of your book actually being in the shops though. I wrote the vast majority of These Dividing Walls at home, in my pyjamas. Writing is an enormously intimate process. And then suddenly, it’s off, out in the world… I think it’ll take me a good long while to get my head around that.

 

Finally, I’d just like to say congratulations. I enjoyed These Dividing Walls immensely. It was one of my top 5 books last year, and I’m sure it’s going to win you many fans!

— Thank you so much for your kind words! As I say above, you spend so many hours alone writing these things thinking “god, am I talking complete rubbish? will anyone get this?” so to hear such a lovely, enthusiastic response is enormously heart-warming!

 

 

These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 4th May 2017 ISBN: 9781473641532

 

You can find Fran on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My especial thanks to Veronique Norton for arranging this Q & A.

A Q & A with Janet Ellis, author of The Butcher’s Hook

29 Feb

I’m very happy, along with Jaffa Reads Too, to be kicking off the blog tour for Janet Ellis’s compelling debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook (you can read my review here). Janet kindly agreed to answer some questions (I could have provided pages of them but – spoilers) her answers to which I hope you will enjoy.

janet ellis author pic

 

Anne Jaccob is quite a singular character. A protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable but there does need to be a level of acceptance with the reader. There are influences to set against her behaviour but how important do you think the period you chose is to encouraging that acceptance (I can imagine Anne garnering little sympathy in a modern setting)?

Hmm… setting aside what Anne gets up to (I know that’s not easy!), she’s almost like those friends who are trying but loveable, isn’t she? But, yes, although I hold firmly to the belief that people of any bygone age feel all the big emotions – like love, greed, hate, jealousy and sorrow- and the little ones (scorn, irritation etc) as we do, there’s no doubt Anne’s a child of her time. Her sequestered, claustrophobic existence and her unique experiences have helped her make interior decisions that manifest in rather dramatic exterior actions. And having no peer group, no confidante and certainly no therapy does leave her adrift. added to that is the fact that, as a girl in Georgian England, her opinion was of no consequence and her future decided without consultation. All that gives her plenty to rail against. Nowadays, she might have found other outlets. I wonder….

 

Your settings are richly-evoked, centred as they are more in the sensual than the visual. Did your research take you to any interesting places, or bring any unexpected discoveries?

I hadn’t linked the fact that I’m short sighted with the reliance on our other senses in my writing till now! But I suppose the visual clues- the art and architecture- are more instantly available than what London smelled of, its noise and even its temperature. Making one of the characters a butcher’s apprentice meant I wanted to find out what happened in the abattoir and the shop. I spent some time in the library of The Worshipful Company of Butchers, trying to find answers to specific questions and often stumbling across unexpected facts. The actual details of the killing haven’t changed much over the years, but the way cattle were driven into London in great herds – often having swum from island to mainland – was fascinating. And people’s attempts to disguise their lack of washing (of themselves and their clothes) with various scents must have added to the heady cocktail from the open sewers that ran through many streets and the manure from all the horses. And when I’ve been trussed up (that’s how it feels after our comfortable clothes) in Georgian period costume, I’ve been only too aware of how long it would have taken Anne and Fub to remove those clothes for, well, anything.

 

I felt a distinct nod towards Dickens in the naming of Mr Onions. Did you feel the influence of our rich literary heritage when you set out to write The Butcher’s Hook? What were the books that inspired you?

Anything you read is like a little building block, isn’t it, helping to build your thoughts. I’ve always read voraciously and widely, and must have been taking it all in. It’s hard to refine my inspiration down to one or two books – but as a child I adored Black Beauty, I really loved Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Rumer Godden, Mary Renault and Daphne du Maurier. I could go on. I’m (very) flattered by the allusion to Dickens, his depictions of people are so vivid that if you’re reading something by him, you can’t help seeing everyone around you in Dickensian mode  (I like to pass the time on train journeys by casting my fellow passengers in Dickens novels). I collect names, too, ready to give them to unsuspecting characters as they appear. I expect Onions was hoping for something fancier, though.

 

I recently finished reading Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of The Sea Maid, another book set in the mid-1700’s with a strong female protagonist hemmed by convention, although the paths these two women take are very different. What are your thoughts on these books being considered feminist novels, especially where strong female characters in classic novels (Lizzy or Kathy or Jane) don’t necessarily draw the same comparison?

I haven’t read that yet – it’s on my list. It’s an odd one, the F word, isn’t it? I have no hesitation in describing myself as a feminist (I’m perplexed by people who don’t, to be honest) and Anne draws no line between getting what she wants and being a woman, so she’s signed up. Despite the fact that the characters you mention are hidebound by social convention, I still think they’re in favour of an equal society – and both the Brontes and Jane Austen took swipes at what women of their time were expected to do over what they could have achieved. I’m happy if Anne’s attitude stands for strong women and seizing opportunity. Although some of her methods are ‘don’t try this at home’.

 

The dynamic between mother and daughter is quite affecting. Again I suspect this would be viewed in a different manner in a modern setting, but how important is the distance in that relationship in shaping who Anne has become?

I don’t think their relationship is specific to their time, actually. Don’t we all know mothers who don’t feel close enough to their daughters to share real intimacy. Her mother’s acceptance of life’s difficulties and unhappiness, her shutting down after bereavement and her inability to stand up for herself all feel contemporary. Nowadays, she might have been more aware of what her relationship with both her husband and daughter could be, but that doesn’t mean she’d have been able to act on it. That’s what keeps the agony columnists busy (I speak from experience), isn’t it?

 

There’s a small moment near the end of the book that made me smile it was so in-keeping with Anne’s character (it involves some money and a worn-to-nothing old boot). This scene also serves to highlight the difference between Anne and those characters who are stifled by circumstance. Were you conscious of having something to say about the fate of the downtrodden?

I could make all sorts of claims for wanting to highlight this or champion that, the truth is more that Anne, as an equal opportunities opportunist (!) seizes the moment constantly. But the moment you mention was there to illustrate that she was never going to be overwhelmed by sentiment. Or gratitude, come to that. I felt really sorry for that chap – her, not so much.

 

Alongside the harshness there’s a dry humour too. Did you know when you began that you wanted those moments of levity or is this something that rose naturally from Anne’s disposition?

Yes and yes again. My favourite people are the ones that make me laugh and think, both together. Often, the darker the circumstance the more likely we are to find inappropriate humour in it, although we can’t often admit it. It helps us adjust to the awful reality in a way, doesn’t it? I knew early on that Anne would have a sideways take on things.

 

Behind every great book there’s always a host of people who have assisted in some manner along the road to publication. What’s the best editorial advice you had for The Butcher’s Hook?

I’ve had a plethora! From the word go, my agent and my editor and their teams have been terrific in their clear-sighted approach to making the book better. Probably the best bits of advice were ‘Don’t be scared of the copy edit’ (it looks TERRIFYING when it first arrives) and ‘Do it again please,’ (but way more cleverly put) when I’ve been the teensiest bit, um, lacking in some rewrites.

 

Novelist is one of many features on the map of your career and I always think it’s difficult for people who come to writing when they are well-known for other things. For my money, The Butcher’s Hook is a great story well told. Was it important for you to feel your work was accepted for its quality and not your name?

  Have you always written? Has it always been an ambition to write?

Thank you SO much and, you’re right, it is hard to change careers. I’ve absolutely no regrets about what I’ve done so far – far from it – but the book is incredibly important to me. I’ve never minded looking daft as an actress or presenter (just as well), but I take my writing very seriously. That’s one of the (many) reasons why it’s taken me this long to produce a book. When my agent first suggested I submit The Butcher’s Hook under a pseudonym, I wasn’t keen – I HAD written the thing, after all. But he convinced me that decisions about the book should be made alone, without any possible connection to past occupations. He was so right – and it’s a fact that I hug to myself, with joy. I’ve always written, though I’ve never finished a book before – but it was a massive ambition. The only one I ever had, actually. I knew I’d be an actress….as you do when you’re a child – but could only dream of being an author.

 

Is there anything you can tell me about your next novel? Historical fiction again or will you be looking in a different direction?

It’s set in the Seventies (history for some!) and is about an affair, a mistaken connection and making the wrong choices. I’m not sure how it’ll finish, but I didn’t know how The Butcher’s Hook would end either, so I’m not too worried. That’s not true, I’m VERY worried, but I’m hoping Marion, Adrian and Sarah, my new characters, are going to help me out.

 

 

My thanks to Janet for answering these questions, and for The Butcher’s Hook. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fabulous novel, and I hope the first of many. Thanks also to Rosie Gailer,  Yassine Balkecemi and all at BookBridgr.

Don’t forget to catch the remaining stops on The Butcher’s Hook blog tour.

 

Butchers Hook blog tour poster

A Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

21 Jan

The Chimes PB cover

I’m delighted to welcome you to the first stop on the Blog Tour for Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, published in paperback by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of those questions to Anna.

Anna Smaill author pic

 

While reading The Chimes I was strongly reminded of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, not only in the reverence you give to music in the story but also in the simple language Simon uses to tell his story. Who are your touchstones in writing – those you admire, those who inspire you, those whose books you go back to?

 

I think you may be the first reviewer to spot that connection. The Glass Bead Game made a big impression on me when I first read it as a teenager (probably the perfect time to read Hesse), and it was continually in the back of my mind while I was writing The Chimes. The concept of an intellectual elite whose philosophy and ethics are structured by music was essentially lifted from Hesse’s novel, though of course The Chimes is also very different. The writers I most admire are those for whom writing is some kind of essential mediating device, a way of decoding or just surviving existence. I love Janet Frame, Russell Hoban, Kafka, Borges, Marilynne Robinson, the NZ novelist Pip Adam. I also often re-read read George Eliot, Ondaatje. I find myself continually shaped and inspired by my favourite books from childhood, too. Particular favourites are Rosemary Sutcliffe, K. M. Peyton and the Uncle books.

 

Have you always written?

 

Yes, since I can remember. I’ve kept journals since I was about 9 or ten. It’s really very much how I work out what I think about things.

 

The scene between Simon and Steppan brings home the chilling reality of a world without memory. Simon feels balanced between feral and humane. Why did you focus on memory?

 

I think I’m so focused on memory because it seems so close to the core of what makes us human. For some reason the idea of losing memory has terrified and fascinated me from quite a young age. Trying to make sense of your memories, putting them together in a way that seems meaningful – I don’t take this for granted in any way.

 

You take the idea of music as a means of communication to an extraordinary level in The Chimes. What was the seed of this idea and how did it develop into the world you created?

 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea came from. When I was playing the violin, I got a bit obsessed with thinking about the differences between music and language as two different forms of communication, and was always seeking direct equivalencies between the two. Of course, they can’t be reconciled in this way. There were other elements there too. I had an utterly eccentric music theory teacher when I was at university, who liked to expound on a methodology of his called ‘Body Tonics’. His basic argument was that chord progressions in a piece of music could be matched with physical movements, and that if we enacted these movements while listening to the music, we’d gain some deeper musical insight. I may be bastardising his theory. It was basically a sol-fa technique (the thing the Von Trapp children do while running around in the mountains) that engaged one’s whole body. So, there was that, and also Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is about how aboriginal Australians ‘sung’ their sense of landscape into being, so that all physical markers – rock formations, valleys, lakes, etc – can in turn act as a kind mnemonic device for their creation myth. All of these things coalesced somehow.

 

I’d like to ask about Jemima. Though she only appears for a short while you portray her in quite a touching way and she presents an interesting counter to Lucien. The question of course is that posed by Simon. Is she immune to the effect of Chimes?

 

I enjoyed writing Jemima because she’s nicely practical and pragmatic – which offered a bit of a relief from the intensity and idealism of Simon and Lucien. She seems older than them, in a way; more worldly. In some ways I didn’t want to examine Simon’s question too far. In a practical sense, she’s still affected by Chimes because they involve infrasound – vibrations that are inaudible but affect you physically at the level of your nervous system. However, I liked to think that because her awareness and communication isn’t directly reliant on music, her mind and consciousness is different – she’s developed different ways of thinking and remembering.

 

I found the Order intriguing. With their presenting and reinforcing of ‘OneStory’ they seemed to me somewhere between a religious parallel and a political one. Were you conscious of creating them in either a religious or political mould, or did you strive to avoid those direct associations?

 

I wasn’t striving either to cultivate or avoid those specific associations. I guess, it’s more that political or religious extremism was simply another arm of the sort of extremism I hoped to represent with the Order. I was interested in what happens when we take idealism to an outer limit. How does that pursuit allow for the ordinary mess of human lives, and the human impulses that can’t be tidied or understood? The Order obsessively believe that human expression, and human thought, is our highest function – which means that all that isn’t perfect, or orderly, has to be expunged. I think this impulse is fairly similar in much religious thought, that sense that the body is a threat to the spirit. They’re very basic and central human impulses, but they become destructive when they’re taken to an extreme.

 

There’s something very close to fairy tale in what you present in The Chimes: a band of outsiders and a governing organisation, the uncovering of clues and the overcoming of obstacles, and the passing down of a tale in rhymes. There’s even an aged mad woman. Were you aware early in the writing process that you wanted this reflection of the importance of oral history or did this develop as the story came together?

 

I started writing The Chimes very much under the influence of the young adult literature that moved and interested me. A lot of the radical freedom of excellent fantasy and YA is that, maybe because it isn’t weighed down with the responsibilities of realist representativeness, it can really cut to the fundamentals, the verities – love, loyalty, the struggle for meaning. Those mythic rhythms and emotional chimes are ones I also find in fairy tales, myths, stories which tell us something simple and deep about being human. I suppose I was striving for and craving that sort of deep resonance in what I was writing. I had just finished a PhD on contemporary poetry, and most of my previous days had been filled with dense academic language!

 

Your choice for The Pale Lady is a very good fit but I wonder whether you began with scientific reasons for the choice, practical reasons around availability or whether the word play led you there?

 

A little bit of all three, in a somewhat circular way. I knew I wanted a sort of ore, a shining metal that would act as currency yet also present a sort of mystical physical and spiritual pull. I happened on to palladium, as far as I recall, because it had the pleasing attribute of being occasionally used in the production of concert flutes. The slang forms for palladium followed naturally, but it felt as though they’d also preceded me somehow – particularly as the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ had already shown up in the writing. The scientific connections – ie the fact that palladium is used in catalytic convertors to filter exhaust, and as a conductor in electronics, added a sort of synchronicity and metaphorical richness to the idea for me. Though I should state that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the uses to which I put palladium in the novel…

 

There’s something a little ‘overnight sensation’ about debut novels and the way they’re marketed (though with a Man Booker longlisting, and having read The Chimes it’s the overnight bit that to my mind is the false note). How long did it take from first putting pen to paper to publication?
What’s the best editorial advice you had for this book?

 

Yes, I agree – there tends to be a fascination with that breakthrough moment. I think in part, it’s fair. There is something distinct and utterly unusual about first novels: they involve so much of your life, they’re a kind of leap into the unknown, a massive and intriguing gamble, and they can utterly turn your life around. But these are all narratives that don’t ultimately connect with the nitty gritty facts of writing. The first glimmers of The Chimes came way back in 2009, while I was finishing my PhD. I didn’t acknowledge that I was working on a novel, though, until 2010. In 2011 my daughter was born and any semblance of a writing routine flew away and then I only returned to proper routine work on it early in 2013. With two days a week to write, I finished in about 4 months. It had a long long gestation, but a very fast delivery. Then the editorial and pre-production of debut novels is typically quite slow, as they want to spend a decent length of time on publicity and marketing prior to the release. And now it’s 2016, a terrifying number of years later, and the paperback is coming out!

I had so much excellent editorial advice with this novel. My agent Will was one of my first readers, and just prior to submission he dropped a particular gem about how one might go about sustaining uncertainty in the reader. The beginning of my book is essentially a cloud of vagueness, but he made the important point that I had to distinguish between the general mystery of the opening (ie – the facts of the world that were simply yet to be revealed to the reader) and the things that were weird or perplexing to the protagonist. It sounds simple, but it really transformed how I thought about the opening sections.

 

What does the future hold for your readers, can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?

 

I’m working on a new novel, which feels in many ways utterly different from The Chimes. It’s set in a contemporary, far more familiar and realist Tokyo. But, I can’t quit that drive toward the fantastic, so the city is becoming denser and odder as I write. There is also music creeping in as a method of plotting the story (I won’t give away too much), and elements of a thriller also.

 

If you had to travel with a roughcloth bag what would your objectmemories be? (sorry, I know it’s sacrilege to ask, but…)

 

It’s not in keeping with the universe of The Chimes (where they’d have been burnt long ago), but I’d probably take my journals. They all have different associations, depending on where I bought them, the paper, the pens I used, so that even if I couldn’t read them, I think there’d be sensory memories there. I think, a bit embarrassingly, I’d probably take my old Burberry trench coat. I lent it to Simon for the novel, but I had it first! Bought off Ebay before my daughter was born, and my single most-worn item of clothing ever. There are plenty of memories in that homely old gabardine.

 

 

My thanks to Anna for making my questions look insightful (and for adding a few more names to the TBR pile), and my congratulations for writing such a wonderful book. I feel it will be with me for quite some time! Thanks also to Ruby at Hodder for making this Q & A possible. Don’t forget to check in with the other stops on the blog tour.

chimes_facebook_post

And, of course, don’t forget to read the book!