Interview with Gary Donnelly(DI Owen Sheen Series) Conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am delighted to welcome Gary Donnelly author of the DI Owen Sheen Series to my blog. Thanks for joining me Gary.

GD: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: What made you decide to write crime fiction?

GD: In many ways it chose me rather than the other way round! I certainly did not set out with an express intention of writing crime or noir, but looking back it made a lot of sense for me to hang my hat there. I love reading crime fiction, and when Sheen was first forming as a character and the series was slowly taking shape, I was reading a lot of Michael Connelly (especially the Harry Bosch series), Peter Robinson’s understated and musical DCI Banks novels, Mo Hayder’s creepy tales, Ian Rankin and of course Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville’s Northern Irish crime work. So, having explained this, it probably made a lot of sense for my own novel to be (largely) a crime story.

In saying that, Blood Will Be Born set a tone for the Sheen series by also smudging those clean genre lines a bit, adding dabs of Stephen King’s supernatural eeriness, playing with romantic themes and exploring the tensions of personal issues and relationships on a wider canvas of historical, political and conspiratorial big backgrounds (my youthful love of Frederick Forsyth, Robert Lundlum and of course King and Dean Koontz).

DS: How long did it take you to write the first DI Owen Sheen book Blood Will Be Born? What was the hardest obstacle when trying to complete that dreaded first draft?

GD: I started writing in a serious way after attending an online novel writing class with the City Lit, London in, I think, mid-2014, but it was only in 2015 when I made an active decision to change my job (all-consuming and never satiated up until this point) that I found the mental space to engage and really begin. At that point I also had the impetus of knowing I had downsized my professional prospects and therefore knew that I wanted a novel to show for it! Mind you, I was still working pretty much full time so it took the guts of a year (it’s feast or famine when it comes to writing for me) before I had knocked out a first draft by August 2016 (in time for my BIG 40 which was no doubt also in the mix on some level).

So Blood Will Be Born took about a year but the learning curve was steep, and that was far from the end of it. The first draft had the bones and structure of the story as it stands but it was a hefty, overweight beast of a thing that had been written with no plan or plot until about half-way (amazing to think that as I look back at the process, but that’s the truth) and then herded into shape from that point until the end. Amazingly this process worked and worked pretty well, but not, at that point, as a crime thriller. At some level I think I was aiming for something closer to Stephen King’s The Stand meets Ulysses (pass me my smoking jacket and cravat)! To use a phrase which the journalist David Roy coined while speaking to me this week, I’d created a Sheeniverse, but fun as that was, it needed to be edited, sculpted to allow the real story to emerge.

So that process, following feedback from first readers and prospective agents, took me into early 2017. It’s something they rarely teach you about in writing classes, but it is the equally essential counterpart to hacking out the first draft. By the time I was done, I knew the book was so much the better for it, and I could say with confidence where it ought to sit on a crime thriller shelf. So the hardest part? For the first draft it had to be (and probably still is) starting with a commitment that the book is on and then writing consistently, doubts and fears be damned, until that draft is finished.

DS: What I love about the series is that Belfast becomes a character in its own right. What made you decide to set the series there? And how on earth do you make it so vivid?

GD: Thank you, I am so pleased it is brought to life for you. I am always minded of that phrase that we do not live in the past but the past lives in us, when I think about this question. The Belfast of my childhood and youth is long gone and I live in London, so I rely on the sensory memories of the past and from my visits. The freshness of the air, the ever present guarantee of rain, the crispness of the light and the beauty of the encroaching countryside as well as the sometimes dreary and sinister bleakness of parts of the urban landscape. I close my office blinds and ignore the London sunshine (so abundant when I was drafting the third book, Never Ask The Dead, it was torture), and I try to see through Owen Sheen’s eyes. I also employ little tricks when needed. An online search will give me an instant image of a place, and sometimes having it dated is even better as it summons the atmosphere I want. Sheen’s Belfast also has the feel of risk and edginess and this is something I think I turn inward to find.

I left Belfast when I turned nineteen and when I arrived in Cambridge I felt like I’d been dropped into a toy town. I could walk home after a few drinks at night and my furtive glances over my shoulder were wasted, strangers asked me questions about politics and religion with genuine interest, and with no agenda attached. Which was an eyeopener. But I suppose to quote another well-used adage, you can take the boy out of Belfast, but at some level, you will never take Belfast out of the boy.

DS: In the series Northern Ireland’s dark past is ever present. I am wondering was this a conscious decision as you can truly imagine the reality of the troubles as you read?

GD: Yes, I think of it as a ghost in the works, perhaps represented most tangably by The Moley, John Fryer’s tormenting demon that he must feed with fresh blood in book one. As mentioned above, I remember many things first hand, though unlike Sheen, who was subject by the worst kind of personal trauma, my experience like so many, was more cumulative. A stone added to a sack that was carried daily and to which we had become so accustomed, the weight was not consciously felt, perhaps, until it was finally lifted. Indeed, there is also a kind of trauma from watching others become victims, the sense of the near miss, attending the funeral of a friend’s father, eating my school packed lunch in a park where soldiers were stripped, beaten and murdered. These things must have an effect. And the proof of that is there in the books.

In the same way I did not set out to write crime fiction to begin with I also did not consciously begin with a view to engaging with legacy issues, but there they are! I am proud of the Sheen series for the way in which (I hope) this has been managed and cautiously navigated. Ian McEwan wrote about the importance of empathy and imagination as the essence of our humanity after 9/11. I am sure politicians, historians and others have their part to play in coming to terms with the dark past which we all shared. As a writer I have a wonderful licence to create, challenge and explore as well as entertain.

DS: In the series Owen seems to be feeling his way back into his own forgotten past, almost as if he is an outsider looking into the shadows waiting to see what will jump out. How much of Owen’s backstory did you know before you began writing, and how much grew organically as you wrote? As I love his voice throughout.

GD: Thank you again. Sheen arrived pretty much fully formed. I knew I wanted an outsider of sorts to arrive in Belfast to start up the SHOT (Serious Historical Offences Team) and Sheen was a perfect vehicle for this. In doing so, Sheen had some built in neutrality and gave me the licence I needed to engage my home town afresh. Plus, I now know North London as well as I ever knew Belfast so I was sure I could find his voice quite easily. Then, as I introduced him, and I searched for his layers, I thought about how sweetly weighted and apt it would be that he had once lived in Belfast, but has no concrete memories of that time. It was then that I had the eureka moment.

What if Sheen is back in Belfast for more than police work? What if he wants the truth about a personal issue, something that caused his family to break and leave their home in the first place? And so it went. But this did not take long. He really did come to me when I called, wearing that God awful leather jacket and simmering with anger and secrets and questions.

DS: How much of your personality do you put into your characters? Which character would you say is most like you?

GD: This is a tough question. They are all my dark progeny! Of course the obvious answer is that Sheen is closest to me. A me reinvented and turned inside out perhaps, but I never really saw it that way. To do so risks self consciousness, having my ego conflict with his journey and that would be bad. I think by definition I bring parts of myself to every character, but it is more accurate to say that they become the expression of going beyond the parameters of myself and playing like we used to when we were children. ‘Just pretend,’ we used to say before telling our siblings and friends how we wanted to imagine the game. For me, it is very much the same and when it works it really is child’s play, the characters give me the freedom to go elsewhere. When they’re good, they are better than I could hope to be. When they are horrid, it has nothing to do with me! I just tell their story. 🙂

DS: Which 3 books do you believe everyone must read in their lifetime and why?

GD: Sheen 1, 2 and 3. Haha, not really. I don’t really count myself as well read, it has always been a bit of an insecurity for me, so great question! I’ll dodge this a bit by saying read Dickens, for the love of language and his love of everyday people. Read House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski because it is reality warping, mind blowingly original. Read Dubliners By James Joyce, as a reminder of how so much quality can be distilled into a small volume.

DS: What is your comfort read and why?

GD: I will return to my favourite Stephen King time and again. ‘Salem’s Lot and It especially. There is something about King’s ranging, landscape spanning style that is so accessible, and also so intimate that it feels like a literary warm bath, like telepathy without effort. He also writes about what matters to him and what he loves in a context that is local and parochial. Favourites from my youth and the former has at least one little homage in Sheen book 2, Killing In Your Name. I wonder if you can spot it?

DS: Is there anything in your series that you would change if so why?

GD: I always want it to be better. Better written, better paced and making better use of the past as a context and character. But, I have also learned the importance of being thankful. That I wrote the series at all, that it has been published and that so many readers actually ‘get’ it and want more.

DS: Finally, what is next for Gary Donnelly?

GD: Well, I knocked out a little stand alone during Lockdown 1 which I have just edited and I will be interested to see what may come of it. Very different from Sheen is all I can say. But Sheen is not done yet, I am working on the fourth in the series and I need to crack on and do what’s needed (refer to question 2!). I always have the nets cast though, even as I work on deck. Patience is a virtue, but from experience I know I will see the lines twitch soon. And when they do, I’ll strap into the chair once more, scary as it is, and see what I can land from the deep.

You can buy Never Ask The Dead now. Check out this link https://www.amazon.co.uk/Never-Ask-Dead-Owen-Sheen/dp/0749025476 or from all good bookstores.

Cover for the third book in the series doesn’t it look glorious.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Gary enough for taking the time to answer my questions. I adore the DI Owen Sheen series. Why not buy it now and find out why.

Interview with Author David Fennell (The Sleeper Series and The Art of Death) Interview conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Hi David thank you for agreeing to do the interview.

DF: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: How did you first get into writing?

DF: I first started writing way back in primary school. I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, which was a tough time. Our teacher encouraged us to write stories to help understand what was going on around us. Something clicked when I started writing, and this became a significant turning point.

DS: How did the idea for The Art of Death come about and can you provide a spoiler free description of what to expect?

DF: The killer in The Art of Death uses social media to catfish and capture his victims. This is a subject I really wanted to explore because it is current. Also, it reveals all of us as potential victims because of the data we show to others. An an added twist, my killer is also an artist and exhibits the corpses of his victims. Nice chap. One to introduce to your mother.

DS: The Art of Death features a strong but troubled female detective. What made you decide to write a female character, and how difficult did you find writing a female character from a male’s perspective?

DF: I write all my characters as honestly as I can regardless of their gender. All the emotions that the protagonist, Grace Archer, goes through are emotions I have experienced. Also, I’ve always loved reading and watching female leads triumph over adversity in environments that men think they control. A female detective was the right fit for this novel, pitting her against a savvy serial murderer. I couldn’t resist it.

DS: The Art of Death is the beginning of a new detective series for yourself what can we expect in the next dose?

DF: I’d love to succeed in making readers as unsettled with the book 2 as they were with book

DS: Who was your favourite character to write in The Art of Death and why?

DF: Definitely Grace Archer. Archer has a troubled past that I really enjoyed writing. You get a taste of it in the first book and more will come in the next.

DS: How much of your own personality did you put into your characters, and did you learn anything new about yourself from writing Art of Death?

DF: As mentioned earlier, some of Archer’s emotions are from my own experience and I hope I have done them justice. My partner thinks I have written myself as Archer’s sidekick, Harry Quinn. He loves to tell people that. Perhaps there is an element of truth in it. I suppose I have a similar sense of humor to Quinn.

DS: What is the best and worst writing advice you have received?

DF: Possibly the best advice is read lots of books of all genres and learn how other authors write character, story, emotion, etc. Worst writing advice is “write everyday”. Can’t agree with that one. Writing is a job that can suck the life from you. There are days when you will need to step away and do other things. Grab them when you can.

DS: Who is your comfort read?

DF: At the moment, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones. I can leave his books for months and come back to where I left off and know exactly where I was in the story. Granted, this may be largely down to the TV adaption. I also really admire his writing style and get all nerdy over it while I’m reading.

DS: Who are your influences when it comes to writing?

I’m not sure I have influences that I am aware off. Like most writers I try and keep as individual a style as I can, but who knows. Authors whose work I love include Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Ian McGuire, John Connolly, to name a few.

DS: Which three books do you think everybody must read in their lifetime and why?

DF: Three books that stand out for me are:

Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

During my teens I read these books over and over again and always found something new that I had missed. I could not get enough of Middle Earth and its mind boggling range of characters, locations and stories. I will always love these books for what they gave me during those troublesome teenage years.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

I think I was in my thirties when I read Wuthering Heights. A late age (I know!) to pick up one of the greatest novels ever. And it really is. I did not know what to expect when I started it and was instantly drawn into the unforgiving world of Heathcliff and those around him. It ignited a lot of emotions: anger, pity, sorrow, disgust, happiness. It has it all. One of my favourite books of all time.

I am Legend, by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson’s post apocalyptic thriller about the last man on an earth populated with vampires is a classic sci fi novel that spawned four different movie versions and was the inspiration for many zombie films. At its core, it’s the story of Robert Neville dealing with loneliness and fighting for survival against a violent new race of people who will not leave him alone. Some are his neighbours risen from the dead! I found it both terrifying and moving. There is also a terrific twist at the end and great final line. No spoilers. Although I expect everyone has seen one or more of the movies. 

DS: What advice would you give to writers?

DF: See answer 7 😉

This Interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank David enough for taking the time out to answer my questions. I learnt so much from this interview. I hope you did aswell. You can buy The Art of Death today from all good bookstores.

David Fennell - D H H literary agency

Interview with Author Joseph Sale (Writer of Dark Hilarity, Black Gate Trilogy, Save Game and many more) Interview conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: Today I am honoured to interview author Joseph Sale on my blog. Thanks for taking the time Joseph.

JS: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.

DS: How did you first get into writing?

JS: I was very fortunate that my mother and father were both very passionate about literature, and so, from a very young age, I was inundated with stories. My father loved the classics, and we read them together before bed. My mother read 2000AD (Judge Dredd and Slaine in particular), and also epic fantasy novels. Words cannot express how important this was for me, growing up. One other important thing to note is that though my father was a writer, and my mother an artist, neither of them ever forced me down one path or another. For a time, I wanted to be a professional fencer, and did make the GB team before I realised that it was not satisfying for me; they fully supported this, and didn’t in any way try to coerce me into being “like them”.

I then wanted to become an actor, and spent a lot of time on stage in my teenage years, which I did thoroughly enjoy, but over time I realised that I was even more interested in the words themselves than in how I was supposed to say them, and I wanted to make little changes (except, of course, when I was performing Shakespeare, in which case I merely stood in adoration). It was after this stint of acting that I really began to sit down and seriously write. What I learned from acting I found useful as a way of getting into the heads of my characters, however. Although most of my experience was with poetry and plays, I found that novels suited my yearning to describe the imaginative settings that I conjured in my head. My first “proper” book was a novelisation of the epic Germanic poem The Nibelungelied. It’s still floating around on the web, though I don’t direct people to it these days! You can tell a sixteen-year-old wrote it

DS: Where on earth did Smiley come from? He has tormented my dreams.

JS: Haha, I’m simultaneously glad and very sorry to have caused you such grief. Smiley… where to begin? Undoubtedly, he is the most important character I have ever written. I suppose the truthful answer is that Smiley came out of the mirror. He’s me, though I didn’t immediately realise this. Craig Smiley is an anagram of Mr Cigy Sale – this is again something I only later discovered with a mixture of horror and delight. In my childhood, my friends and I often fashioned ourselves as epic heroes (you might imagine we were real toffs when I say that, but the opposite is true—we were penniless no-hope nerdy sewer boys—which is why we found the heroic comparison so hilarious). One was Achilles, one was Odysseus, and I was Cygnus, an often forgotten Trojan hero, who, upon death, transformed into a cygnet (hence where we derive the word from). My friends therefore affectionately called me “Cigy”. This was another “in joke” as I was the only one of them never to smoke.

When I was writing Gods of the Black Gate, I had been through a rough patch.  My initial focus was on creating a detective story in the style of True Detective season one. However, increasingly, my focus shifted from the detective, Caleb Rogers, to the antagonist, Craig Smiley. I realised, quite shockingly, that I sympathised more with Smiley than I did with the detective. And, I began to become aware that though I imagined him to be Texan and a soldier, two things I had never been, Craig Smiley was a ciphered version of me. There was a kind of horror and wonder in that moment. Craig represented a part of myself I’d been repressing in trying to come through my personal struggles. Craig was the part of me that really, really wanted to burn civilisation to the ground, and most importantly: who would let nothing, not even the entire universe, stand in his way. Certain life experiences had led me to feel weak and powerless. Craig Smiley was my rage against that condition. He was a mortal that even the gods of the abyss feared.

The thing about Craig Smiley is that whilst he is undoubtedly evil in many ways, he didn’t just represent my “bad side”. He represented a lot of the aspects of my personality that I liked: reckless determination, an ability with words, monomaniacal focus, self-belief of a certifiably insane degree, and so on. I couldn’t hate Craig, because he wasn’t just all my evil poured onto the page. He was something more. He was a synthesis. I think, in a way, he was my mind trying to pose a solution to the problem of my life: this is who you need to become to succeed. And, in a bizarre way, that became true. Minus the sacrifices, of course.

DS: Your new book Dark Hilarity is a deeply personal book I felt was that intended?

JS: You’re very perceptive, Dan. Thank you for reading so closely. It is a very deeply personal book and the relationship between Tara and Nicola is especially true to the reality of one enduring friendship I have had since childhood, a friendship that has defined who I am, and saved my life, in many respects. Some people were a little shocked by some of the early, distressing childhood scenes in the book, but sadly these are very true to the reality we lived growing up.

At my wedding, this same enduring friend made a speech in which he said, “Me and Joe grew up inhabiting worlds known only to us.” We both cried when he said that. I think we knew that fantasy, the worlds we shared, were the only thing that had redeemed us from a truly awful fate. In some ways, the entire book came out of that beautiful line.

DS: In my opinion Dark Hilarity is your best work to date. Your growth as a writer is incredible. How long did it take you to write? What themes or ideas do you hope people take from the text?

JS: You are too kind, Dan. I would like to thank you profusely for being such a loyal and dedicated reader all of these years. It is amazing that someone is there to see that growth, and I’m glad you feel that I’m getting better, it makes the hard work worth it!

Writing Dark Hilarity was extremely difficult. Firstly, it’s the longest individual novel (or indeed book) I’ve ever written by some way. Secondly, it is, as you observed, probably the most deeply personal thing I’ve attempted. It took most of a year to draft, and months of editing. Some scenes were painfully hard to write.

In terms of themes and ideas, I think there are three key ones: the book explores the interrelationship between escapism and depression. I am not against escapism, and as I’ve said before, fantasy and imagination saved my life. But, I also recognise that at some stage we need to confront reality, and our history books are littered with people who failed to do that. Depression is an insidious, poisonous plant that grows in the mind and cannot be easily rooted out. We all respond to depression differently, and I know my resort was often to disappear into fantasy worlds, but though it helped at first, eventually it became no different to hitting the liquor bottle: a way to numb the pain rather than confront it.

Secondly, I think the book explores addiction. There are many forms of addition, and the book touches on some obvious ones, such as substance abuse, but I think it also explores subtler addictions: addiction to escapism, addiction to misery, addiction to failure. All three principle characters (Nicola, Tara, and Jed) have addictions to triumph over.

Lastly, it explores friendship, what true friendship is, and how rare it is. I have been blessed with not just one but many incredible friendship. It is, undoubtedly, the greatest blessing of my life, to be surrounded by love that just keeps on giving and shining. 

DS: The Gods of the Black Gate trilogy has so many themes it is difficult to know where to start. What inspiration stemmed the initial idea that helped spawn in my opinion one of the best dark trilogies in the last decade?

JS: Wow, knowing how much you read, that is high praise indeed. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much Dan, those words will stay with me forever.

As I mentioned before, Gods of the Black Gate initially came out of the idea of doing a kind of homage to True Detective but set in space. However, I quickly realised that there was no way I could possibly rival Nic Pizzolato’s dialogue, or the charismatic duo of McConaughey and Harrelson. Some initial scenes for the book which did not make it into the final draft, between Caleb and Thom, were very flat indeed. So, I had to do something different. Luckily, I didn’t really have to “think” of a solution, because one was already emerging in the form of Smiley himself.

As you can tell by the ending of the first book, I didn’t really imagine I would write anything further about those characters. However, years later, I had a dream in which I was Smiley… I lay in a field of multicoloured grass. Slowly, I got to my feet. There was an alien wind blowing. A small hill rose. I walked through the hill and suddenly found myself looking down on a phantasmagorical city. A realisation pieced by heart with the keenness of an arrow that this city was real, I wasn’t dreaming, I was walking in another world; and in this world I was him. Then I started awake.

The dream shook me, and over the next few days, I began to reflect on it. One of the strangest things is that Smiley had been different. He’d matured, healed slightly. The old Smiley had died, but now he was living again as something else. I realised that there was another story to be told, one that was even more focused on Smiley, and this was a fantasy epic, not a detective serial. This dream, and its accompanying revelations, became the basis for Beyond The Black Gate.

Each iteration of the Black Gate trilogy took me in a new direction; and introduced new themes. However, it was clear that there were emerging patterns to the themes, that they were organically growing out of what came before. The Black Gate trilogy in many ways reflects my personal development, from a hateful wretch who would blow up the world rather than admit he was wrong, to someone humbled and humanised—a man for the first time in his life. Some people have even read this as an evolutionary metaphor: the primal and ape-like brutality of book one giving way to a journey toward primitive civilisation in book two, and finally to true “humanity” in book three. If I had to name one ultimate and overarching theme for the series, however, it would be redemption, not evolution. I’m glad people see different things in it, however, and their reading is likely more valid than my own, in many ways.

Of course, it was never planned as a trilogy, and I almost didn’t write the last book. In fact, I can honestly say that without Christa Wojciechowski and Steve Stred’s encouragement, I might never have attempted it. With the final book, Return To The Black Gate, many times people told me not to do what I was doing: the plot sounded ridiculous, mixing the two multiverses I’d created was a mistake, there was simply no way Beyond could be continued. These doubts were like the vulture that daily savages Prometheus, punishment for his audacity in stealing fire for humankind. I pushed through them, and I will be forever proud of what I produced as a result. And, to be fair, many of the doubters admitted they were wrong, subsequently.

DS: You write both novels and short stories. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

JS: I write far fewer short stories than novels, which is quite funny! However, I often find that the ideas which come to me generally tend towards more expansive themes and concepts. My strength is in the “long game”. I think I’ve come to view myself as a writer who rewards patience. I’m of course working on improving my books and making them compelling from word one to the final page, but if you look at my earlier work, many people commented that those books are slightly hard work but worth the effort in the end. I’m quite happy with that, if I’m honest. I’d rather be that way around than gripping from the start but with a disappointing finale. I maintain that the ending to any story is it’s most important part.

Short stories are great for capturing a “moment in time”. They are a deep plunge into a particular feeling. They leave lots to the imagination, which is both their strength but also their weakness. I probably write fewer short stories because I am not as big a fan of reading them. There are some writers out there who write masterful short stories, stories that can take you on an immense journey in just a few thousand words; that is one of the most tremendously skillful things a writer can ever do and I freely admit that I feel I’ve rarely, if at all, ever achieved that level with a short story. However, on the flip side, I often find many writers use short stories as a veil to hide the fact they do not have an ending or answers in mind.

Novels are hard to write, there’s no question. They are marathons, not sprints. They require you to occupy one frame of mind for an extended period of time. When I wrote Return To The Black Gate, I had a piece of music, “Dream 3” by Max Richter, playing over and over again on repeat for months, hypnotising myself into the right frame of mind to tackle such an emotionally heavy story. However, novels are also easier than short stories in some ways because they allow you space and time to work with. I am not a great artist, though I do paint and sketch, and I guess one comparison would be the difference between having a 4’ by 3’ canvas versus an A4 sheet of paper. No doubt that you can do a lot with an A4, but the 4’ by 3’ gives you a lot more room!

DS: Which 3 books do you think everybody should read in their lifetime and why?

JS: Now you’re asking very hard questions, Dan! This is a tricky one. Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, perhaps even one of the greatest novels ever written. The ending harrows and releases me. I should say that My Best Friend’s Exorcism was definitely an inspiration point for Dark Hilarity. The way Hendrix handled the friendship between Abby and Gretchen gave me heart and courage to tackle my own portrayal of a deep friendship. Masterful, human, and unbelievably well-written— this is a book everyone, even those who don’t normally read horror, should read before they die.

The Lord of the Rings has to be on there too. I mean, there will always be people out there who hate on it, who say it’s just silly fantasy, or who say it’s not well written (the Michael Moorcock brigade) but we all know it’s more than that. It’s one of the most profound stories about addiction and friendship ever written. It never fails to reduce me to sobbing. “I can’t carry it for you, Mr Frodo. But I can carry you.” Was a more heroic line ever written? Possibly not.

Lastly, every single person on Planet Earth should read the Sick trilogyby Christa Wojciechowski. Christa is one of my favourite writers of all time. She is one of the greatest writers alive today; a Gothic master reborn in our modern age. Her prose will shake you to the very root and rewire your brain. She has not yet received the credit she deserves for the power of her storytelling and prose, but I think it’s coming.

DS: What does a typical writing day look like for you and how would you describe your writing process?

JS: Recently, my writing process has changed quite a bit. At the moment, I’m actually writing by hand, luddite as that sounds! But I’m finding it very rewarding. I type up what I’ve written after I finish a chapter and then I correct it. This is a very slow process but it is producing a higher quality result, I think. I used to write in the mornings, but that has changed too, and I generally do other work: editing for my wonderful clients, administrative tasks, etc, in the morning, and then I tackle personal creative projects in the afternoon.

In terms of talking about my writing more broadly, I used to be a very meticulous planner, hence why I outlined the Five Act Structure, but now I think that I write in a slightly more “pantser” way, though I prefer to think of it as allowing the subconscious mind to populate the page with ideas. Really good writing can’t be forced. Stephen King once wrote that “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work” and he is right in one sense, but he is also wrong, in that writers do need space and down-time to generate their best ideas. Real writing doesn’t come from the intellectual “head”, it comes from somewhere deeper. The universe itself operates on this principle. Lightyears of dead and meaningless matter all serve as the necessary emptiness to produce the single fertile pinprick of Planet Earth and human life. The greatest inspiration comes from the void, when we’re listening to the internal voice, not allowing it to be drowned out by the endless chatter of modern life.

DS: Who are your influences in your writing?

JS: Tolkien has to be mentioned. Of course, he has influenced so many fantasy authors, but I think more than anything it isn’t Tolkien’s worlds that have influenced me but his writing style. I am more drawn to dark and Lovecraftian worlds that the high fantasy landscapes of Middle Earth, if truth be told, but Tolkien’s way of writing, in turn influenced by the oral poetry of the Anglo Saxons, as well as the Nordic and Germanic epics, is simply sublime to me. There is poetry and meter in virtually every line. Also, The Lord of the Rings is another book about transcendental friendship. There are more than a few parallels between Tara and Nicola and Frodo and Sam.

I’be already mentioned that Grady Hendrix was a huge influence on Dark Hilarity, but another would be China Mieville. You were one of the first people to compare me to China Mieville, Dan, long before I read any of his work, and now I have fallen in love with him, particularly his Bas Lag series, such as The Scar and Perdido Street Station. So, you once again have proved prescient! Mieville’s worldbuilding heavily influenced the scope of Dark Hilarity’s world: Dae’eshta.

I’m also hugely influenced by Clive Barker. I regard him as one of the most powerful and fertile writers of the age; the way he combines horror and fantasy into startling visions is simply awe-inspiring. His prose is spellbinding. And I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any writer, living or dead.

One final life-changing book for me was Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s an epic poem, so it’s not an easy read, but for lovers of fantasy, this is what I regard as the original English fantasy epic. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling that sprawls over an epic, bizarre landscape whilst also deftly weaving in an allegorical moral framework. It has some of the most incredible heroes in it, such as Britomart, who is a female knight with an enchanted lance. She sets off from her homeland ravished by the idea of a man she’s never met, whom she glimpses in a dark mirror made by a wizard. It’s Arthurian but far darker than any of the better-known incarnations of those legends. Spenser’s imagination is vast and disturbing, and his feminism is pretty astonishing, especially considering he wrote it in 1590. The monsters in this book will also give you nightmares. I regard Spenser as one of the first writers to truly bring horror and fantasy together in a compelling way.

What’s really fascinating is whilst many have mistaken Spenser’s work for an attempt to butter up the royals and the Queen (the book is, after all, inspired by and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I), something far more interesting emerges when you read between the lines: let’s just say every glorious light casts a shadow.

DS: Who were the easiest and hardest characters you have wrote and why?

JS: I’m going to cheat a bit, because Smiley was simultaneously the hardest and easiest character I’ve ever written. I joked recently in a writer’s mastermind group I’m a part of called Let’s Get Published (which is amazing, by the way, and anyone reading this should definitely consider joining if they’re serious about their writing) that, “It was a lot easier when I had Smiley around: he would just tell me what to write.” And there’s a degree of truth in that. However, sometimes Smiley would occasionally either elude me, or want to take me down paths that would completely destroy the story, and those times were when he was hardest to write. Also, writing him was tiring. He’s a manic depressive, in many ways, as I was, and so he only occupies emotional extremes: frothing rage, soul-crushing despair, galactic triumph. He has no in-betweens, no intermissions, no brake pedal. He is absolute, in every sense of the word. That’s exhausting, after a while!

DS: What advice would you give to writers?

JS: Everyone has to follow their own path, so I don’t mean to prescribe. However, here are some things that have helped me:

(1) Read a lot. Read the genre you’re writing in. Read outside the genre you’re writing in. Keep reading. So many young writers come to me for feedback on their work and it’s clear from the first two pages that they have no idea what’s out there. We can all fall prey to cliché, but when we read widely, we can broaden our awareness, and circumvent it more readily. It also means that your work will have more influences which will give it more of a unique flavour. I am influenced by everything from Japanese anime to epic poetry; everything I absorb is then transmuted into a fuel I can use for writing. The process of discovering your writer’s voice never ends and my writer’s voice has changed over the years and will continue to change. In fact, perhaps the biggest change yet of my entire literary career is about to happen with what follows Dark Hilarity… But still, the more you read, the more informed that voice will become.

(2) Write regularly. I used to advocate writing every day (and used to write daily after my twelve hour shifts at a call centre, without fail) and for some people writing every day is a good practice. Nowadays, however, roughly three times a week works well for me. If you write regularly, you begin to train your mental muscles in the same way as an athlete regularly training before a competition. You cannot expect to write at your best if you leave it months between sitting down to write. You need to be kind to yourself and warm those muscles up and practice. Of course, I understand that time (and indeed energy) is limited for many of us, but writing is worth making the time for, as it will improve every other aspect of your life. Or at least, it has for me. Writing has undoubtedly been a healing therapy. It helps me focus. It de-frags and cleanses my mind. When I stop making time to write, other things begin to fall apart.

(3) Join a writing group. This is quite important. It will give you accountability partners, but it will also give you good times sharing experience and sympathy with other like-minded writers. It generates creative frisson. I’ve mentioned it before but I highly recommend Let’s Get Published. It’s affordable, friendly, and there’s an amazingly good community there. They do weekly write-ins (which makes carving out time for writing even easier), as well as courses on the craft of writing and also the publishing process. Even if you don’t sign up for a professional and paid group like this one, I recommend any writer having some kind of writing community around them. Like I said, without the support of others, I might never have written Return To The Black Gate.

DS: Finally, what is next for Joseph Sale?

JS: I’m currently working on a new book called Virtue’s End, which is unlike any book I have previously written both in terms of style and substance; I think it will be a big surprise for some. I can’t say much more about it other than it’s fantasy and undoubtedly the most imaginatively ambitious thing I’ve ever done. I won’t say it’s my best work, because my readers get to decide that! But I’m very excited to share it with the world and see what they think.

This year I’m also going to be releasing Dead World: Desecrated Empires, which is my dark fantasy narrative role-play game; although to say it’s a “game” is to diminish just how crazy it is and all it encompasses: lore tome, bestiary, world-building toolkit, and a way of taking friends on epic, cathartic journeys, all in one! I should say that an earlier version of this game formed the logic that underpinned my novel Save Game. It’s co-written with my two awesome friends Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. For anyone who loves Dungeons & Dragons, it’s simply a must (this is very cheeky, but I honestly think it’s better, and I’m not the only person saying that). There is also going to be some non-writing related Dead World content in the works; I can’t say too much, but look out for some unusual storytelling issuing from the Mindflayer’s domain in the future!

Lastly, I’m going to be doing some pretty cool things with my Patreon, The Mind-Vault, this year. Patreon has been an awesome way for me to connect with fans, to share never-before-released content, and to show a little bit more of my personality and life; to show people what’s behind the social media veil, the real person informing the fiction. If you’re subscribed to my Patreon, you get to hear about all these awesome projects first, and sometimes participate in them! You also get a monthly dose of never-before-seen fiction and videos. There’s already more than 30,000 words of content on there and it grows month by month. If you would like to have a front row seat, and possibly become a co-conspirator, in Mindflayer’s attempt to take over the world, then the Mind-Vault is the place to be!!

I’d like to thank you profusely for taking the time to interview me, Dan. You have asked some of the most searching questions of any interview I have ever done. Thank you.

This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Joseph enough for his mind-blowing answers, and for taking the time to answer my questions. It was an absolute pleasure getting to do this. Please check out Joseph’s work today.

Interview with KV Johansen Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to welcome KV Johansen. Author of the Gods of Caravan Road Series for an interview on my blog.

DS: Thanks for being here KV. Its a pleasure to interview you.

KV: Thanks Dan. Its a pleasure to be here.

DS: Lets begin

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?

KV: I’m a Canadian with an academic background in Medieval Studies and English Literature. I started writing as a kid because I’d always been fascinated with language and with stories. I used to tell stories to my sisters; the natural progression was to start writing them down. They were always fantasy stories; I mostly read stories that were fantasy or had an historical setting (whether by virtue of being historical fiction, like Rosemary Sutcliff, or being stories of an earlier era, like Arthur Ransome), so fantasy seemed to be how I naturally expressed the stories I wanted to tell.

DS: Your dialogue is extremely rich. Do you plan the dialogue, or does it grow organically as you go?

KV: I don’t plan the dialogue in advance. It just flows out while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll compose quite long bits in my head while I’m walking or driving, too, though once I get back to my computer and start writing them, they’ll shift and go in different directions as the larger story demands, but that’s not exactly planning that some particular characters are going to have a conversation that’ll do X or Y. For me, it’s important to have a good ear attuned to the way that the characters are speaking. They may use certain diction in specific situations, and another mode of speech entirely in a different circumstance or with different people. Speech seems to be part of shaping the character, when I write. I don’t consciously consider how a particular person’s way of speaking will reveal them; it seems to be a fundamental thing that happens naturally as the character grows. I suppose that goes back to this lifelong fascination with language. It’s like developing an ear for music — it’s been something in my head for so long I just do it.

DS: You have wrote stories for all ages from picture books to adult novels. What different challenges did each style of writing present? How did they make you grow as a writer?

KV: I find that remembering being someone of that age taking in stories really helps in hitting the right voice for the audience. In a way, it’s a case of writing for yourself at whatever age or reading level you’re feeling that a particular story is for — telling that past you a story you would have wanted. If you have that memory, it’s a huge help in keeping the tone you need, in remembering what matters and what doesn’t. If you write for the very young you who would have been delighted by “Pippin splashed in that puddle, splish! splash! splosh! until she was muddy from her great big ears to her curly black tail ..” rather than for some imagined adult gatekeeper, you’ll hit the right tone, rather than sounding arch and condescending, which is a pitfall potentially lying in wait for picture book writers.

I suppose one challenge in the children’s novels was that the Torrie books, but most especially my YA series Warlocks of Talverdin, kept edging towards something older and darker as time went on, because I although I had been writing adult fantasy all along, I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or a publisher at that point in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and the desire to be working on that more kept leaking into other things I was working on, so that I had to keep reining in the complexity — not because children or teens couldn’t deal with it, but because no Canadian publisher was going to let me have that kind of length. It wasn’t what the market in Canada wanted at that time. It drove me to writing Blackdog, to be doing the kind of thing I needed to do that wasn’t able to find full expression in Canadian YA.

I think that in writing the Torrie books in particular, I was reminded of what really mattered to me in a story, and thinking about that consciously became something I could take into my writing for adults. Torrie, more than any other of my children’s books, was me writing for myself.

DS: Who were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?

KV: Tolkien was by far the biggest influence on me. His use of language, and the way the language shifts to suit the mood and the mode, really affected how I expected words to work. Other writers I read who were big influences on me would be Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Farjeon, Mary Stewart (her Merlin, not her romance-thrillers), and Alan Garner. Also, as a teen, Cherryh, McKillip, LeCarré, and Deighton.

I’d encourage everyone to read Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones. Sutcliff wrote historical fiction for young people, more often featuring youngish adults, not children or teens, and she took her characters through some pretty dark places in their lives. At least three of her books end with the hero’s self-sacrificial suicide or outright sacrifice, though usually she ends on a note of hope and the carrying on of light into the future, even in those. She wrote with an intense feeling of landscape and of people finding a connection with their land — the one to which they’d come, not necessarily the one in which they’d been born or grown up. She wrote about characters wounded, in body or spirit, who found a way to heal and survive and carrying something onwards into the future.

Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, is an author I never read as a child, though finding a blurb for The Ogre Downstairs in the back of some other book in the library (Garner, maybe) I wanted to. I never found a book by her until I was an adult researching the book I was writing on the history of children’s fantasy, which was when I bought and read them all. She was an incredible, awe-inspiring writer in her mastery of story, impossible to predict. She also wrote very complex psychology with incredible lightness of touch. It’s just there, in a way children perceive and understand without consciously thinking about it, and yet by showing these things, her books open up minds a little wider, shed a little light in dark places where you can start to see and think about things you might have been desperately needing to without anyone ever offering you the words. (I’m thinking of one of her more obscure books, The Homeward Bounders, here, and Jamie’s isolation and determination to do what needs to be done to keep his world safe. Or Christopher’s behaviour in The Lives of Christopher Chant and his growing self-awareness when he’s so close to becoming a terrible and dangerous person.) But she’s also very funny and mind-bogglingly inventive. Quite chilling, too, when she wanted to be — Time of the Ghost, for instance.

DS: Are you a plotter or discovery writer or a mixture of both? Which ever you chose what are the benefits of this, and what are the drawbacks if any?

KV: I usually start with a character in a situation and figure out the story as I go along — definitely a writer who has to discover the story along the way. That said, I’ve been trying to work it out more in advance for my next project. I work by writing until I grind to a halt, which usually mean the story has gone down the wrong path, backtracking to where it was working and then writing onwards from there again, so that by the time I get about half to two-thirds through, the first parts may have gone through  five, a dozen or more drafts. By half or two-thirds suddenly I can see everything, this synergy kicks in and its all there and I write the rest really quickly and have a quite polished final draft. However, there’s an awful lot of frustration along the way. I’ve hit twenty-five drafts for … I think it was Gods of Nabban. I’d have to look at my files to see; when I do a major ‘out of cheese error, redo from start’ thing (to steal a phrase from Pratchett) I renumber the file.

I’m not sure if trying to work out the general shape of it more in advance is really working for me or not. I still seem to have been writing and rewriting the start of the new project for endless months, with the variation that each time I do, I have to rewrite the outline as well. On the other hand, for my ‘lit’ project, a real world non-fantasy thing, I did have most of the story in my head before I started, and was able to write a sketchy outline of the structure and then sit down and write the book. It would be nice to take that approach into a fantasy novel, I think. But on the other hand, that was dealing with a clearly established world — Kingston in 2016. I didn’t need to invent it; I just had to make what already existed come alive. That exploration as I go way of writing is a huge part of how I make a world come alive in writing fantasy. I guess the approach that works for me is always going to be the metaphor of a path through the forest, or a tree growing, but I’d like to be able to bring a bit more outlining into it, to cut back on how many drafts I have to write to find my way to the end — to at least have a sketch map when I set out on the journey.

DS: Which characters do you enjoy writing and why?

KV: I  enjoy writing almost all my characters. I think maybe the two I love best to write are Ahjvar and Ghu — the way they interact and bring each other to life for me is something special, but two I particularly enjoyed in The Last Road were Yeh-Lin and Ailan. Yeh-Lin has such a zest for life; she’s been in the series since The Leopard but in The Last Road she really gets to shine, and to show what she’s made of. It was a chance to do her justice as a central figure at last, rather than as someone peripheral to Ghu’s story. Ailan is a new character; he comes in as the young, inexperienced person falling into a story where he’s surrounded by competent hero types, and he’s trying so hard to figure things out, to figure himself out, too. His story is really only just beginning at the end of the book. He’s also someone who brings a new perspective to Ahjvar, both as a point of view observing him, and as a way for me to show some of the changes that Ahjvar has gone through.

DS: Would you mind talking about your upcoming release The Last Road? The final book of the Gods of Caravan Road Series. What can we except no spoilers please?

KV: In The Last Road you can expect things to get darker. The stakes being played for may be the very existence of the gods. There’s an army of religious fanatics advancing on Marakand from out of the west, led by an incarnate god who, in contradiction to what everyone understands of the nature of the gods of the earth, is not bound to his land, and who is destroying the gods and goddesses of the lands he conquers as he comes. You’re going to find out more about the nature of the devils and the Old Great Gods and the relationship between them, and see all the non-human heroes of the previous books come together to stand against what looks like the ending of their world as they know it. You’ll meet some new mortal human characters, too, not just Ailan, whom I mentioned above, but the cowherd turned warrior Jolanan, and Nikeh, an orphan who survived the massacre of her village to be adopted as an apprentice scholar and spy by Yeh-Lin. And you’ll finally get to see what happens when Moth is pushed too far.

DS: Finally, what is next for KV Johansen?

KV: My next project is going to involve a much smaller map, not an entire continent, and a smaller cast of characters, but it will bring the same richness of character and world to its story. I’m hoping it will have a bit of the flavour of ancient legend in the background, vast forests with mysteries in the shadows, and the protagonists, not sure whether they’re the heroes or the villains of the tale, entangled in treason.

DS: Thanks so much KV for your fantastic answers I have really enjoyed interviewing you.

KV: Thanks for your wonderful questions Dan. I have loved being on your blog. Thanks for having me.

This interview was carried out over email. Thanks to KV for doing the interview providing such brilliant answers. I encourage everyone to read her work.

If you would like to learn more about KV and her books. Then why not check out these links below.

kv

K.V. Johansen
http://www.kvj.ca
http://www.pippin.ca
http://thewildforest.wordpress.com

https://twitter.com/KVJohansen

 

 

Interview with Roger McKnight Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to be interviewing Roger McKnight. Author of Hopeful Monsters a wonderful collection of short stories recently published by Storgy Books.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Roger I really appreciate it.

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?

RM: I was born and raised in downstate Illinois. I worked as a teacher in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico before coming to Minnesota for grad school. I now reside in Minnesota.  I’ve always been a writer, though first as a student of journalism (whose courses I didn’t much like but learned from) and then on scholarly research projects.  I’ve always written fiction.  In recent years I’ve worked with a bit more determination at getting my fiction published. Composing stories was my dream even in childhood.

DS: Addiction and Obsession are two key themes throughout the collection. What made you decide on these themes and how did you shape your stories around them?

RM: I consider addiction, if by that is meant drug or alcohol abuse, to be a key theme only in “Rain Shadow” and “Iago.” What interested me most in those stories was not the substance abuse per se, but the mind-set that led the characters Raul and Nick down that path.

Obsession as a theme occurs during the stories, in my opinion, only in the sense that the world has been experiencing troubled times ever since Vietnam.  Most of us, as I see life around me, are eager, if not desperate, to find answers to those troubles, both world-wide and personal. In some cases, as in “Forgetting She Forgot”, they search insistently for answers to life dilemmas (resulting, in this story, from a disaster such as Desert Storm) that aren’t wholly of their own making.  If the present-day search for answers can be described as an obsession, then we’re all probably obsessed to one degree or another. Being troubled by what’s facing us is what flesh is heir to.

By the same token, one can empathize with the anxiety experienced by Jake and Al in “Basic Skills,” even though they keep their feelings under wraps below the surface.

DS: You have lived in both Europe and the US? What are the differences in cultures that interest you? Which have helped inform your writing?

RM: I’ve lived in Scandinavia and the US.  Differences do exist, no doubt about it, but they are hard to put a finger on in brief. In general, one feels more respect for human dignity in Scandinavia, on both the personal and governmental levels.

I tried to write that attitude into “Out the Window,” in which the Swedish employees and the Swedish government have every seeming reason to toss the hospital patients out in the cold, especially the ones who came to Sweden from other countries, and some Swedish employees would not be against doing so.  Yet society chose to keep, house, and protect the helpless.  In that story, Laila has a lot to teach Ewen.

As for Hopeful Monsters as a whole, reviewers tend to remark that the stories all hold out some hope in the end. That softening influence comes from my experience of Scandinavian life and culture, an attitude that’s not wholly missing in Minnesota and will be needed greatly as the state becomes increasingly multi-cultural.

DS: I adored how you drew history into your stories, to reflect how turbulent the world has been over the years. How much research did you do for each story?

RM: For some stories, much research was needed. With tales like “Iago,” “Out the Window,” “Down the River,” and “Sixteen,” I read a lot and talked with people who were there and experienced it.

For example, what happens/happened in a crack house; what was the history of institutions for the developmentally challenged in Sweden; how could the Civil War Era’s Old Slave House have existed in a free state like Illinois and why would Abraham Lincoln have visited there and dined with the illegal slave owner while blacks were held captive in the rooms above them; what was it like fleeing Somalia and coming to the US (I got that straight from a 15-year-old boy in Minnesota).

For other stories, I used my own memories from living in the US and Sweden as events happened, including hearing detailed descriptions of washing diapers by hand, as in “Speed Clean” (though I had to read up on Speed Clean washing machines, even if my own mother owned one).  Fact and fiction blend together and suggest the truth.  Research and lived experience worked in unison.

DS: Where there any moments when you were writing the stories that you thought I am maybe going to far? If so in which stories and why?

RM: In the expository sections of the stories I never made any authorial claims to the truth or any favouritism. I made a conscious effort to address vital issues without taking an authorial stance. Some of my characters do take definite stances, but throughout the stories I worked at maintaining a sense of ambiguity about the status of their attitudes.

In “Victoria” Sylvia agrees to do what she can to help Tori, but she isn’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.  She ends the story wondering if ‘good’ is always the same as ‘right’.  In “Loving Sören” Karen and Josh have definite opinions on sensitive issues, but they are willing to reserve final judgment on them while trying to figure out if they truly understand Kierkegaard or not.  “Yesterday’s Storms” brings up the debate between creationism and scientific proof.  That debate is never settled in the story; the issue ends in ambiguity. Ex: Gerome first argues for an expanding universe, but he ends up describing a closed universe.  It’s not clear what he, an astronomer who’s expected to know, does believe in, except the beauty and mystery of what’s out there.

No, I never went too far. I made an honest effort to address important issues without being polemic.

DS: Would you mind talking a small about your writing style please? As I find it extremely unique. I am curious to learn how it developed and where it first came from?

RM: I can try out some comments on my writing style, but I’m not sure exactly what to say. First of all, I didn’t know it’s unique.  If it is, that’s surely because I think in an unlikely combination of academic circumspection and straight-to-the point southern Illinois rural dialect mixed in with some Minnesota neologisms (a contrast I vaguely touched on in “Speed Clean”).

Also, I read lots of Scandinavian literature, in which understatement and chariness of comment are common.  There’s kind of an iceberg effect in much Scandinavian lit, in which as much is left unsaid under the surface as appears above it. What one critic called “the art of the half-told tale.”  I hope my stories tell more than half, however. I try to be somewhat subtle.

DS: Who would you say were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?

RM: Steinbeck.  Hemingway.  Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Winesburg, Ohio.  Spoon River Anthology.  T. S. Eliot. Thoreau.

People should read: the Swedish novelist and dramatist Hjalmar Söderberg (1879-1941). 

Try his novel Doctor Glas.  It’s about a medical doctor, who goes about committing the perfect crime.  And his collection of stories called in English simply Short Stories.  You might have to get them through a library or very good bookstore.

For a perfectly structured drama, I suggest Miss Julie by the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912).  Study how the drama’s skilfully put together.

DS: Finally what is next for Roger McKnight?

RM: Another collection of short stories.  Maybe a novel.  I’m fishing around.

Thanks to Roger and Storgy Books for allowing me to do this interview. The interview was carried out over email. Thanks Roger for your insight answers to my questions.

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You can buy the book now! On the link below:

HOPEFUL MONSTERS: Paperback & Ebook available now!

 

Interview with Daniel James Author of The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas Conducted by Dan Stubbings

DS: After giving his incredible debut The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas five stars, making it one of my reads of the year so far. I am delighted to welcome Daniel James to my blog for an in depth interview about his work. Welcome Dan thanks so much for doing this.

DJ: My pleasure Dan thank you for having me.

DS: Let’s get started

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?

DJ: I’m an author and journalist from Newcastle upon Tyne. I live by the sea with four cats and a collection of empty bourbon bottles. My first novel, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, was published at the end of 2018, but I have been writing seriously since I was a teenager. Becoming a published author has always been my dream. I ended up studying literature at university and went on to become a journalist on the basis that it would help refine my writing and bring me into contact with lots of different people and the stories of their lives. It did exactly that – and what began as a day job turned into a decade-long career. I was nominated for several awards, including UK Young News Writer of the Year and worked as a freelance journalist in London and overseas. I spent a few years as an investigative journalist and gained no shortage of enemies for asking difficult questions and trying to discover the truth. By the end, I was mainly working on arts and culture, having finally been allowed to gravitate towards my own interests, and got the chance to write more experimental, creative non-fiction-style interviews and features about musicians, writers and artists. Despite the relative success of my career in the media, I still consider myself to have been an ‘accidental journalist’, as my heart and mind were always set on one day becoming a published author and writing my own books.

DS: Where did the idea for Ezra Maas first develop? How did you know it was the correct idea to choose for your first novel?

DJ: It began with a phone call in the dead of night. That was my introduction to Ezra Maas. I can’t be sure of much that happened after that, but I know that’s where it started. Everything else – how I would tell Maas’s story and how I came to realise my own place in the narrative – came together very quickly after that. I knew straight away that I didn’t want to write a traditional biography – it had to be experimental, a combination of fact and fiction, drawing on different genres, different sources and different media. Walking the streets of Newcastle late at night, in the hours after the phone call, the novel presented itself in my mind, almost fully formed, as if it already existed somewhere out there in the dark, and my task was simply to bring it into this world. It was a strange experience in many ways, like a kind of possession. When Beckett was writing his trilogy of prose novels in the late 40s, he described the experience as ‘the siege in the room’ and that’s exactly how I felt. The novel was being transmitted to me – channelled through me perhaps – and I had to commit it to the page and in doing so, make it real. That’s how I knew it was the one – the idea that would become my first novel. Never before or since, had I been so excited to start writing and so driven and committed to write every day until the work was done. Even now that the book has been published, I still open it sometimes and that electricity is still there.

DS: What do you think makes a perfect novel and why?

DJ: I think everyone’s perfect novel is different. Books have this incredible ability to be both universal and deeply personal. When you read a novel and you disappear into that world, it’s ‘your’ experience, just you and the world of the book. It’s spiritual. And yet, the same book can be read by thousands, perhaps millions, of people, each connecting with the text in their own unique way. Stories provide an escape from reality, but the truths they contain also help us see the world with fresh eyes and new clarity. Books don’t take us away from the real world, they help us reconnect with it by blocking out the noise. Fiction is a doorway to the truth.

DS: You have poured a lot of yourself into the narrative, so my question is where does Dan James end and Ezra Maas begin?

DJ: You could say the book is as much my autobiography as it is Ezra’s biography. It’s definitely an authentic snap-shot of my life while I was writing the book from 2011 to 2018 – or at least, as I’ve been described, ‘permanently hungover, flirting with danger, disappearing and reappearing at will’. At the same time, I feel like the more I talk about myself, the more I write about myself, the less I reveal. This is something I learned from Ezra and reference in the novel:

“Maas didn’t have to hide his secrets, he casually scattered them on the ground for all to see and watched the trees grow up around him. For in a forest of signs nothing could be seen clearly at all.”

DS: What kind of writer would you say you are and why?

DJ: A good one, I hope.

DS: What topics would you like to write about in the future and why?

DJ: Everything. All of the ideas I have in my head and all of the ideas I’ve yet to have. I wish I had more time to write all of the stories I’ve dreamed up over the years, but I’m going to have to prioritise those particular narratives – like The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas – that demand to be told. By the end, I hope to have written novels in many different genres and styles and to have created a body of work that continues to be read and enjoyed long after I’m gone. Ultimately, I just want to continue writing books that I would love to read. I did exactly that with Ezra Maas and that will remain my guiding principle when choosing which novels I’m going to write over the next few years and beyond.

DS: You use several different methods to get your message across. From interviews to journal entries. What made you decide to use these techniques to such wonderful effect?

DJI remember a story about the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s manuscript for The Third Policeman being lost to the wind after the boot of his car opened and it blew out, almost as if the story was too much for the page. I always thought of the truth about Ezra Maas in the same terms. Ezra Maas, as a subject, was too big to be contained by a single genre or format. When you’ve got a subject as complex and multi-faceted as Ezra Maas, a traditional biography was never going to cut it. Others tried going down that road and failed. I had to create something as experimental and unorthodox as Maas’s own body of work.

I also wanted readers to be able to investigate his life and death alongside me, to read through the letters, interviews, official records, newspaper clippings, emails, phone transcripts, and try to separate fact from fiction. By including authentic archival material in the book, the sections between chapters feel almost like a live ‘case file’ through which readers can play detective themselves before returning to the main narrative. You’ve then got the chapters from the Maas biography itself, covering 1950 to the present day, alternating with my hardboiled-style investigation in 2011-12, as I travelled around Europe and the US, searching for the truth about Maas’s disappearance. Finally, you have the work of my editor and the 500+ footnotes. Like the man himself, the book has many layers and many different faces.

DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

DJ: I don’t really compare myself to anyone. You begin to establish your own voice and your own style, every time you write, even if you’re not aware that it’s happening. The journey to being published is about discovering that voice and acknowledging – sometimes only after your novel is out there in print – that you have a style that is yours and yours alone. You don’t necessarily get to choose your style, as much as you might aspire to write like your literary heroes – it develops naturally the more you write and the more you read. There are writers whose work I love and admire, who have definitely influenced my work, but they’re all very different, and my writing style is nothing like theirs, at least on the surface. Their influence goes much deeper, to the level of ideas. You’ve got to find your own voice and your own style just as they found theirs. I wouldn’t compare myself with my favourite writers or to anyone else. Comparisons are for readers and critics to make and I’m always interested to read different perspectives on my work. I’ve been very lucky to have had some excellent reviews from very knowledgeable readers and they’ve all had their own unique insight into the book and on my style as a writer.

In terms of my favourite writers, it’s a very long and eclectic list that I’m adding to all the time. Samuel Beckett. Raymond Chandler. Paul Auster. Thomas Pynchon. Jorge Luis Borges. James Joyce. Philip Pullman. Ross MacDonald. James Lee Burke. Cormac McCarthy. George Orwell. Philip K. Dick. Bob Dylan. Patricia Highsmith. Virginia Woolf. Kurt Vonnegut. Elena Ferrante. Joan Didion. Hunter S Thompson. Leonard Cohen. Wes Anderson. Bryan Talbot. William Burroughs. Alasdair Gray. William Hjortsberg. Marc Behm. Ted Chiang. Flann O’Brien. Stanislaw Lem. Michael Connelly. Franz Kafka. Clarice Lispector. Charles Bukowski. James M Cain. Joel and Ethan Coen. Alain Robbe-Grillet. Martin McDonagh. Edgar Allan Poe. William Goldman. Aimee Mann. David Lynch. And many, many others.

DS: How do you create your characters? 

DJ: They come from real life, from history, from the world, from the people around me, from my own mind, everywhere. I draw a lot on personal experience, but I also try to be open and receptive to the stories taking place around me. There are potential characters everywhere.

DS: What’s next for Daniel James?

DJ: Tangier maybe, during the Interzone years. Or maybe a return to Los Angeles or Paris. I have unfinished business in both cities. Tokyo would be somewhere entirely new. I don’t know where I’ll go next. All I know is that one day soon, I’ll disappear. Sometime later, I’ll be found watching the world from a cafe or a bar, with a cold drink on the table and a notebook in my hands, looking out for the next story.

I’m working on a new novel now. I’ve actually got four separate books, all at different stages, underway simultaneously (which is madness obviously) and more planned after that. I’ve had an idea for a collection of short stories too. The ideas never stop. It’s just a case of deciding the order I’m going to write them all and that’s more of an intuitive process, like divining for water. You can’t force it, but when you know, you know. It’s like being struck by lightning. You can’t miss it.

This interview was carried out by email. Thanks so much to Dan for giving up his time and producing some spellbinding answers.

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Interview With Susie Williamson Author of Epic Fantasy Return of The Mantra Interview Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am pleased to welcome the incredibly talented Susie Williamson. Author of Return of The Mantra, one of favourite books of 2018 to my blog for another female author spotlight interview.

DS: Welcome Susie. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview

SW: No problem Dan. Thank you for having me.

DS: Lets begin I am dying to find out more. For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?

SW: Growing up in a village in West Yorkshire, some of my favourite childhood memories are the Saturday morning ritual of visiting the local library, and returning home with a stack of books to devour. Stories are a gift, and I started writing them as soon as I could write, mostly pages and pages of adventures that never seemed to have an ending. For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to write a book. Life took many tangents, until I finally found the inspiration, and space, to get serious. I returned from four years living in Africa and settled in Exeter. While taking walks around the river Exe, I mulled over characters and scenes, and soon my door was covered with scribbled on post-it notes. The plan was developing, the characters taking shape, and 300 words a day around various shift work saw the first draft make progress. After several drafts I began to believe I might one day have a book I wrote nestled on my bookshelf. I still live in Exeter with my partner Kate, and my writing partner, Mia the cat. And with Return of the Mantra nestled on my bookshelf, I’m working towards seeing my second book sitting next to the first.

DS: Please can you tell us a little about your writing routine if you have one?

SW: I allocate writing days. I have a tendency to analyse, overthink, and get distracted, so writing on days filled with work or too many chores doesn’t work well. Writing days involve get up, get dressed, and turn the computer on by 8am at the latest. Aside from a midday walk, I’ll stay there until 5ish. I don’t have a problem with self-motivation, and find that just making a start, writing something, anything, gets the creative juices flowing. In the early days I found these stints more difficult to maintain, and disciplined myself by writing to a word count. 300 words at the very beginning, turned into 500 words and then 1000 words. When I hit 2000 words I stopped counting. Then, when I started editing with the mantra, every word must count, I realised that progress involved reducing the word count. Ultimately we all have to find our groove for what works for us, but make a start, write something. You can’t edit a blank page!

DS: You’re quite the globetrotter. How much has your travels impacted upon your writing?

SW: Living in Africa from 1999 to 2003 greatly influenced my debut novel. From the extraordinary sights and sounds of Khartoum to South African township life, the colours of the social and geographical landscapes inspired the world building in my novel. Living and teaching among local African communities, with drumming, prayer and ritualistic chanting the norm, magical realism didn’t feel too big of a stretch. Together with extraordinary African wildlife, the concept of the book, complete with its magic system, was born. Writing Return of the Mantra became a refuge to revisit Africa and relive cherished memories. When I read extracts now, I’m reminded of life in the rural South African township; the smell of bonfires, and cowhide soaking in big barrels of water, then being dragged out to dry in the sun ready for making drums. The seemingly magical rituals of the Sangoma, and the tight bonds between members of the community as they lived with the reality of poverty and violence. I’m reminded of the lush green landscapes and incredible wildlife, and the efforts to preserve it. And then there was the contrasting Sudan, with its arid landscapes, rolling haboobs and much needed rainy seasons. I’m reminded of the old woman roasting coffee beans over hot coals in the market, of the stern Sudanese soldiers upholding curfew, and a gift I received from a Sudanese friend – a matchbox with a big emerald green beetle inside. He told me a story that day, about a game he used to play as a boy, tying string to the legs of these beetles and flying them like kites. This childhood tale is just one example of how I used realism to add depth to the characters and environment in this land of contrasts

DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?

SW: Primarily, as with any novel, I look for character driven storylines. Beyond that, imaginative settings with a plausible magic system. I look for protagonists that I can root for from the first, someone I can relate to and empathise with. I look for settings that spark my imagination, plot lines and character back stories with depth, and fantastical elements that make sense, that are explained, that have logic. I look for diversity among the characters, written with sensitivity and free from stereotypes, stories that are inclusive and represent our diverse societies. I think the genre of fantasy in particular gives us great opportunities to reflect this diversity.

DS: Your main protagonist Suni is a teenager. Yet you make her endure some brutal experiences. What made you decide to write these scenes for such a young girl, and what do you feel this brings to Return of the Mantra?

SW: I aim to write with representation of diversity in mind, to attempt to reflect society. For me, this is more than looking at gender, race, etc…, but more broadly, including life experiences. In writing my debut, I thought back on my life and the lives of women and girls I’ve known, both in Africa and here in the UK. In the UK I spent five years working in a women’s refuge, supporting women and children fleeing domestic violence and abuse, as well as prostitution. Domestic violence and abuse was discussed at length with students in the Sudan, and this, as well as sexual oppression and violence was sadly prevalent in the South African township. In writing a female protagonist, as well as a number of female secondary characters, I wanted to see women and girls represented, to include real life experiences, to not shy away from the suffering experienced in real life but to also include messages of empowerment. Some of these experiences are more common than many would like to believe, are uncomfortable subjects that are often, conveniently, brushed under the carpet, meaning those who experience them are ignored. Readers look for characters they can empathise with. I wanted to include characters that people I’ve known might be able to relate to.

DS: The relationship between Wanda and Suni are some of my favourite scenes in Return of the Mantra. They are written so beautifully. How much of the relationship did you have to plan out before you wrote it down, and how much grew organically as you went deeper into your fantasy world?

SW: In South Africa, I met a number of young children who were sadly orphaned. In a way, Wanda’s character came to represent these children. Although Wanda is not the main character in Return of the Mantra, his character was one I came to know first. He’s an orphan, yet I wanted his story to be positive; I wanted him to find people he would look upon as family. Suni’s role in caring for Wanda was established in the planning stages. From the first, this relationship was central to the overall storyline. As the story developed, their relationship strengthened, as well as their own roles developing independent of each other.

DS: Please can you tell us about your journey to being published and what made you decide to go with Stairwell Books?

SW: After a number of drafts, painstakingly combing through edits, striving to make the story as good as it could be, I began to realise that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Then came the doubts. Am I good enough? Can I write? Should I get a proper job? After scouring through a writer’s magazine I came across the writer and editor, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, offering a professional critiquing service. I dared to hit send, offering up my beloved manuscript for some objective feedback. I found this support invaluable and would definitely recommend writers to get their work critiqued professionally before sending it out. Then, with a tightened manuscript ready, I searched the Writers and Artists Handbook and came up with a list of potential publishers. The rejections came thick and fast, until I began researching companies more thoroughly and narrowing down the list of publishers. Looking into Stairwell Books, I came across a U-tube clip of Rose Drew. As well as writing and publishing, among other things, she is also a performance poet. Seeing her perform one of her poems in the clip, listening to the content, it struck me that she might like my book. And she did. Seeing Return of the Mantra with the others titles of Stairwell Books feels right. Among their selection they look for work that offers good representation and diversity, and stories that make you think.

DS: Return of the Mantra is book one of a planned trilogy is that correct? If so, what can we except in the next two books, and when are they scheduled for release?

SW: Yes, so far it’s a trilogy, but never say never to more… In books 2 and 3 expect new worlds and cultures, and storylines exploring how lands are connected. In book 2 I’m excited to see the development of Wanda’s character, in particular the impact of his past. Written as a split first person narrative, the story is predominantly told through Suni and Wanda’s differing perspectives. As for release dates, with life as in stories, the unexpected happens, and due to a recent illness there has been a delay in the writing. But progress is being made and book 2 is safely in the editing process, so I will keep you posted.

DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

SW: I have a collection of Ursula Le Guin’s works which I’ve read and reread countless times. One of my favourites is the Tombs of Atuan from the Earthsea Quartet. The young priestess, Tenar, is born into servitude to the Nameless Ones, destined to live out her days in a dark underground world. When she first meets the wizard, Ged, she thinks he’s a thief. But instead of leaving him to die as she’s supposed to do, she begins to consider the world outside, and dares to question everything she’s been brought up believing. The truth turns her world upside down, forcing her to realise how she was controlled. The fact that she stepped outside, leaving everything familiar to venture into the unknown, is something that stuck with me. She was a heroine, not for brandishing swords and fighting wars, but for her strength in reclaiming her identity. Female characters that break stereotypes, unconventional heroines and heroes, are certainly motivators for my own writing.

DS: You tackle some complex themes in Return of The Mantra. Which ones were the most difficult to write, which were the easiest and why?

SW: The art of fiction is writing believable stories, characters and worlds, and fantasy is no exception. Writing scenes which portray the physical and sexual oppression of young women were the easiest in terms of believability, since I have significant work experience in this area. At the same time, they were the hardest scenes to write, since, like all character writing, they involved getting into character, seeing the experience through their perspective. This was an uncomfortable process.

DS: LGBT relationships feature heavily within the story which I adored. Why did you feel it was important to include this topic in your work?

SW: Readers look for characters they can empathise with. As a gay woman, I am no exception. LGBT people exist in all walks of life, therefore if a story with a cast of characters is to be representative of society, LGBT cannot be ignored. Over time I hope to see more LGBT in stories, in such a way that it isn’t defined as LGBT but rather as mainstream. This goes for all aspects of diversity. In the end, the more people who write, hopefully the more diversity we’ll see.

This interview was done over email. Thanks again to Susie for agreeing to do it, giving some amazing answers.

Mantra-Cover-Front-V5-P2b

Interview With Fantasy Author Shona Kinsella – A new female fantasy voice you should be reading. Interview carried by Dan Stubbings

Shona Kinsella is the author of Ashael Rising, Petra Macdonald and the Queen of the Fae. As well as monthly fantasy serial illustrated Joe Slucher. This interview was done over email. She is the first author I had the privilege of interviewing. I am honoured to have her on my blog introducing you all to her work. 

Ashael Rising Cover

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer or your works would you mind telling us a little about both please? As well as how we support your work?

SK: Hi, I’m Shona Kinsella and I’m a fantasy author. I have a few very different projects that you can read and support. I have a dark, Scottish fantasy novella out with Fox Spirit Books called Petra MacDonald and the Queen of the Fae. It doesn’t easily fit into a category of fantasy. It’s set on a small Scottish island in the modern day, but it involves travel to the realm of the Fae and uses a lot of Scottish folklore.

I also write an epic fantasy serial which is illustrated by the very talented artist Joe Slucher. Each month we release a chapter and an accompanying illustration. It tells the story of a young woman who sells her soul to a god in exchange for him saving her people but there’s a lot more to the bargain than she expected and the people around her are less than grateful for her help. You can check that out and support it at www.patreon.com/Miranyasoath

And finally (for the moment) my main work is an epic fantasy trilogy called The Vessel of KalaDene. The first novel, Ashael Rising, was published by Unbound in 2017. It’s about a stone age medicine woman who has to protect her people from soul-sucking invaders from another world. It’s about hope, and our relationships with each other and with the land we live in. It’s about doing the right thing, whatever the cost. You can buy that from Unbound or from most bookshops. The second in the series, Ashael Falling, is crowdfunding now and you can read an excerpt and pledge your support at http://www.unbound.com/books/ashael-falling

DS: Tell us about your writing process? Are you a plotter or are you a discovery writer?

SK: I am a discovery writer all the way. When I sat down to write Ashael Rising, I had one character and an image in my head and the entire trilogy rolled out from that. That’s often how it works for me, I start with a character and then I figure out what sort of world made that person and what sort of story fits them. The closest I’ve ever come to an outline is a page of bullet-points covering the main beats I want to hit with the story.

 

Petra e-cover

DS: What made you decide to go with Unbound? What freedoms has this allowed and what are some of the drawbacks?

SK: Unbound was set up by three guys who had worked in various aspects of publishing, and who felt that the industry was becoming more closed, harder for new voices to break into, harder to get published if you were trying to write something outside of the norm. They’re a publishing company and of course they want to make money, but first and foremost they want to publish books that they love. And they believe that readers should get a say in what books are made available.

I went to Unbound because I really respected their ethos. Crowdfunding with them serves two purposes – it removes a lot of the financial risk from them, allowing them to publish things which they believe are important, but which might not be a commercial success and it lets the author find their audience before the book is published. It lets reader and author connect in a way that’s really unusual and in some cases, it lets the reader play a part in the actual shaping of the book. I love that connection and think it’s really valuable to have.

Being published by Unbound let me keep a lot of creative freedom that I may not have had with a bigger publisher.

There aren’t many drawbacks, in my experience. Crowdfunding is hard but is very rewarding. I think for me the main drawback is that, as a smaller press, there’s really not much of a marketing budget, meaning that I have to do all of that myself and it’s not something I’m very good at. I do think it’s a valuable skill for me to learn though and I believe it will serve me well in the long run.

DS: What do you think makes a perfect fantasy novel and why?

SK: Characters. They don’t have to be perfect or even likeable, necessarily, but they do have to be engaging and well-rounded. I think that sometimes fantasy authors get so caught up in building a world that they forget what readers really care about is people. I want to read about interesting characters doing interesting things and no matter how brilliant the world building is, if I can’t connect with the characters, I’m not likely to enjoy the book.

DS: The world in which Ashael Rising happens is extremely vivid. Where did the idea for the world come from and can we except to see more in later novels?

SK: About eleven years ago, I had a dream in which I was a warrior fairy, warring against evil magicians and all these years later, I can still remember the final image from the dream. That image was the seed of Ashael Rising. Now, there are no warrior fairies in the book and almost nothing actually bears any resemblance to the dream but that was the start. So, I had that image and Ashael when I started writing the book. I have an interest in Palaeolithic human life and I’ve read a fair amount about that time period so that’s why Ashael’s people are stone age hunter gatherers.

You can definitely expect to see more of the world – and its peoples – throughout the second and third books as Ashael’s story expands to include the rest of KalaDene. I also have some vague ideas of maybe a later stand-alone book set on KalaDene many generations later.

DS: Your book moves away from the traditional fantasy hooks of parents and loved ones dying which is something I adored about this world. What made you decide that you wanted strong and caring guardian characters for Ashael?

SK: Technically, Ashael is an orphan so I guess it kind of falls into that trope, but she does have a mother-figure in Bhearra, and she has close ties to her friends and community. I wanted to tell a story about our connections to people and places and how those connections shape us. I think that in modern life, many people feel disconnected, unrooted, and I wanted to look at a life that offered something different from that narrative. Ashael may be the chosen one, but she can’t do anything to save her people alone. All of her strength comes from knowing who she is, understanding her place in the world and being lifted up by her relationships.

DS: Mythology and religion are deeply rooted within the world. The winged ones being a favourite of mine. How much of your mythology was influenced by world mythology, and how much research did you carry out?

SK: I have always had an interest in myth and folklore and I’ve been reading versions of it for as long as I can remember so I didn’t have to carry out a great deal of research since it’s all kind of seeped into my brain over the years. So, I would say that most of KalaDene’s mythology and religion is influenced by our world but in a more subconscious way.

It was important to me that the religion be deeply rooted. I think in many fantasy books the religion that’s worked out as part of the world building is what I think of as the orthodoxy – what the church or temple, or authorities of the world have ordained. I wanted to write about the orthopraxy – the religion that people live with, the daily rituals and mutterings to the gods and the way it actually touches their lives.

DS: Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy, is that correct? Without giving to much away book one ended on abit of a cliff hanger. So, what can we except in book two? No spoilers please?

SK: Yes, Ashael Rising is book one of a planned trilogy. I plan to start writing book three in April and will hopefully have it finished by the end of the year. Ashael Falling, which is book two, sees Ashael settle into her new role and begin to come up with a plan to end the threat of the Zanthar on a more permanent basis. There’s a lot of travel in book two, opening up some more of KalaDene and getting to know some of the non-human peoples a bit more. Ashael faces a lot of hard times and book two is a bit darker than the first book. We also see a bit more of Zan and learn more about the culture of the Zanthar and the stakes for them.

DS: Which authors would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?

SK: Oh, that’s really tough to answer. It always feels arrogant for me to ever compare myself to other authors. My editor compared me to Raymond E Feist and Trudy Canavan in my editorial report for book one and that was a huge compliment. I feel that I’ve been influenced by Raymond E Feist as one of the earliest adult fantasy authors I read and one of my favourites over the years. Janny Wurts and LE Modesitt Jr have also influenced me. Probably many others in a less conscious way. I always look to Stephen King for how to write brilliant characters and Terry Pratchett for writing with multiple layers and George RR Martin for politics and political maneuvering.

DS: There has been an increase in female fantasy writers, and female protagonists’ novels produced in the last year. Some have been well received, and others have faced in my opinion unwarranted criticism. What do you feel has caused this increase and what more could be done to make women’s voices heard?

SK: I’m not sure if there’s been an increase in the novels published or if it’s been more of an increase in visibility. I think that there has been a huge amount of effort made by women in publishing to raise and support other female voices.

What more could be done? I don’t think that’s an easy question and I think it’s probably something that needs to be addressed at multiple levels. I think publishers need to look at their list and make sure that they’re including diverse voices – in every way, not just more female voices. We also need to hear more LGBTQ+ voices, more PoC voices, more non-western voices. But those books don’t just have to be published, they have to be marketed in such a way that the public will notice them.

I think booksellers have to look at where and how books are placed in the shops. I think readers need to push themselves to read outside their comfort zones (and I include myself as a reader in this). I think that men need to raise women’s voices and recommend books by diverse authors and about diverse protagonists. And I think we all need to be a bit less lazy when we make recommendations to others. I think we can generally assume that authors like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin have many ways of finding readers – we should be looking to recommend authors that get less press instead of falling back on the same five names over and over again.

DS: Inclusion and representation is a much-discussed topic at the moment in the arts. Do you as a writer feel pressurised to write diverse characters or do you see it as an opportunity to improve your understanding of a culture?

SK: I don’t feel pressurised at all to write diverse characters, but it is something I challenge myself to do. I believe that we, as a species, learn empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and I want to do that as much as possible in my writing. I believe that everyone should get an opportunity to see themselves in stories, and not just as a side character.

It’s not so much that I see it as an opportunity to better understand a culture since, so far, I haven’t written anything based on a real-world culture. It’s more that I see including a variety of diverse characters in my work as an opportunity to improve my writing. I don’t want to find myself telling the same stories over and over again, which is what would happen if I didn’t write about diverse characters.

Thanks to Shona for doing the interview. It was a pleasure to have you on my blog. Why not check her out on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shona_kinsella and buy her books they are awesome.