Friday 5th October 2018
As mentioned, I'm here in Writing Magazine this week. This is subscription only. But here's the full Q and A anyway!
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer - late or early in life?
Early in life. Having said that, as a child, I had no idea what being a writer was all about. All I knew was that like most authors, I was fascinated by fiction. I'm the youngest of three, but my brothers are much older, and that age gap meant that our interests diverged. It gave me time to spend on my own and out of their hair. I did that with a book. And I enjoyed writing English essays at school. Story as an art form stayed with me through my education and subsequent training in medicine. But it was only after finally qualifying as a surgeon that I allowed myself the luxury of actually writing. The seed might have been planted in childhood, but the first shoots only poked through in my early thirties.
Do you have any other creative people in your family?
No. My brothers are educators, my father was a miner and my mother raised the family and worked in a factory. She was the reader and lover of film. She never wrote herself but always checked my work when I was a child. She introduced me to the local library. Even as I write this I realise how dated it all sounds. As a child in the sixties and seventies, there were three channels on TV, the cinema showed two films—an A and a B movie—at every performance and there was no internet. The library was the doorway to other worlds.
Who or what was the initial inspiration for Detective Anna Gwynne?
I've been a writer for a long time, drawn to the darker side of human nature. I also consider myself something of an introvert. A great number of authors are. Introverts are happy inside their own heads and are well suited to writing. John Green famously said, "Writing is something you do alone. It's a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don't want to make eye contact while doing it." Of course, that all sounds a bit extreme, but I wanted to explore crime from the viewpoint of a character who is very good at her job, but whose gifts could so easily be misconstrued as flaws. Indeed, Anna's childhood has not been easy. Different, might be one way of putting it--though her mother might have something to say about that. So, Anna comes from a place where many ideas have crossed. She's an INTJ. An Introverted thinker trying to make sense of the normal world around her and somehow finding it easier to disentangle the abstract chaos that serious crime so often is.
The Silent Girls and Blood Runs Cold feature the sadistic murders of young women or little girls. Why do you think crime novelists and readers of crime fiction seem to be so fond of stories in which young women and girls (as opposed to older women, men of any age and boys) are killed? I can't remember the last time I read a crime novel in which the murder victim(s) was/were male. But young women and girls seem to get chained up/tortured/murdered in cellars all the time by both male and female novelists.
This was the doozy
Why indeed? On the one hand it is a sad reflection of our society. Young women and children are the most vulnerable. Predators, even human ones, are driven by primal urges. On the plains of Africa, it's the need to eat. In human society, it's very often a paraphilia.
Is it clichéd? The stats say otherwise. That's not to say that elaborating on all of this does not come with a certain degree of angst. But it would be naïve to think that if we didn't write about it somehow it would go away. As such it makes some kind of sense to try and deal with the most abhorrent of subjects in an attempt at letting the reader, and to an extent, the author explore the psyche of a killer. Crime novels are mirrors of what is going on around us. And though there may be a great deal of social conflict surrounding petty crimes, it's the murders and kidnappings that grab us by the throat. My job is the conductor on the nightmare roller coaster. You pay me for the ride, I need to make sure that you're tightly strapped in and 'enjoying' it while you scream and sweat. The hope is that I can get you back to the beginning safely. And, unlike real life, I can also ensure that the perpetrator always gets what's coming to him. Catharsis writ large. Oh, and Anna's next case does not involve child kidnapping or targeted girl murders.
Do you draft outlines/synopses/treatments before you start writing your novels, or do you start writing and wait for your characters to guide you?
I always have to know where I'm going. The initial treatment/synopsis is just a spine. I now know that there is no need to sweat over believing that this is ever rigid. But I certainly need to know how it might end before I begin. In that sense I am a plotter and not a pantser. Crime fiction that involves a lot of discovery in the plot requires a blueprint. Of that I am certain.
What are you writing at the moment - more crime, more fantasy, more children's books?
More Anna, definitely. Book three is in structural edit. I have a couple of contemporary fantasy books that I am polishing. The children's books are on hold while I sort everything else out. But I will revisit them one day. One day...
How do you organise a typical writing day - that's if you have such a thing?
I get up early. I'm usually in front of computer screen by 6 AM. If I'm doing the day job, I'll work until 7.30. —go to the hospital—and come back to the writing for an hour or two in the evening. if I'm having a writing day, I try and break it up into chunks. 6-10.30AM, maybe 4-6PM and perhaps an hour or so in the evening.
Who are your own favourite/inspirational novelists?
So many. Heinlein, Asimov, Scalzi, Tolkien, Pratchett, Rowling—science fiction and fantasy. John Connolly, Stephen King, James Lee Burke, Thomas Harris, Mo Hayder—crime. I think it's no accident that the crime writers I like write very dark fiction. Mea Culpa.
What is your favourite aspect of being a novelist?
Completing a book. I actually don't mind editing, but the first draft is a struggle with doubt and blood and sweat always. Once that last sentence is done, no matter how dire the prose, I get a fantastic sense of achievement.
What's next up for Detective Anna Gwynne?
No picnic, I can tell you that. Hector Shaw- the incarcerated killer who has taken a shine to her—looms ever larger. His preoccupation with the Black Squid, the online suicide game responsible for his daughter's death, brings another victim to Anna's cold case team. This time it's very much closer to home and so her investigation aligns reluctantly with Shaw's conviction that there is someone out there behind this game. He believes that it's about time Anna found out exactly who that is.
But there are others who aren't so keen on her digging.
Please could you share some hints and tips for novelists still on the journey towards debut publication?
The landscape has changed dramatically since I began. These days, with self-publication available for everyone, it's possible for anyone to publish a book and have it up there for the reader to see. I consider myself a hybrid author, both traditionally published and self-published and I have no qualms about either. The new models of publishing embrace the power of eBooks as a way of getting the work out there and at a price point that is accessible.
The days of waiting for your book to reach the selves of every book store on its day of launch is an expensive pipe-dream for all but the most successful of authors - or celebs. And the two are not often the same thing!
However, if anyone is considering the self-pub route, I would say that it is essential that the process is subjected to the same rigour as a traditionally published book. That means paying for editorial services, a proper cover and becoming a bit of an entrepreneur in terms of marketing. Get the stuff written, professionally produced, and out there. If it's any good, people will read it. If it's not, keep striving until you get better or take up golf.
As for the writing itself, there is no substitute for sitting on a stool with a keyboard and screen in front of you (I used to say pen and paper, but it now gets too many laughs—who uses pen and paper!). And there are courses and self-help books galore. Read a few and take what you need and want from each of them and then apply. I have an online bible of culled wisdom because there is not one that shows you exactly how to succeed. If there was it'd be the number one all over the world. But if I had to recommend one for now, it would be Lisa Cron's Story genius. Full of the good stuff to read—and a cheat sheet to apply.