Category Archives: The Intel Interviews

The Intel: Wendy Walker

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Photo: Bill Miles

Crime novelists have long been fascinated by memory and amnesia, and in recent years gripping psychological thrillers in which heroes and heroines struggle to remember terrible crimes have become a staple of the bestseller lists.

Now, in her thriller All Is Not Forgotten, Wendy Walker has come up with a terrific high-concept idea that turns the genre completely on its head. Her debut novel has been getting rave reviews and the movie rights has already been snapped up by Hollywood star Reece Witherspoon.

In Wendy’s crime debut, Jenny’s parents will do anything to protect their 15-year-old daughter when she’s the victim of a brutal attack. Using experimental treatment, Jenny’s memories have been wiped so she is freed from trauma and able to move on with her life.

Except now Jenny lives with an unknown fear, a scar on her back that she cannot stop touching, and the knowledge of a violation that she cannot get justice for. Not to mention the fact that her father is obsessed with finding her attacker and her mother is in toxic denial.

With the help of a puppet-master psychiatrist – whose motives may not be benign – the only way Jenny can move on and identify her attacker is to go back into those memories. But even if it can be done, pulling at the threads of her suppressed experience threaten to destroy much more than the truth about her attack.

A novel about the painful choice of forgetting a destructive experience or seeking justice, Wendy came up with the idea when she read about an experimental PTSD treatment. She  carried out extensive research into the latest studies in memory science and worked with a practising therapist to present Jenny’s traumatic journey.

In this fascinating intel, Wendy – a generous and engaging interviewee – discusses the article that launched her thriller, trauma therapy, our fascination with memory – and the way all our experiences shape us. And she talks about the leap of faith that led her to write the novel…

Tell us about Jenny…

Jenny Kramer is a bright, athletic teenage girl whose idyllic life takes an abrupt turn after she is assaulted at a local high school party. With little time to decide, her parents choose to give her a course of drugs that erase her memory of the attack. She awakes with no memory of the factual events, but this does not mitigate the emotional impact of this horrific crime. As time passes, she is tormented by the emotional memory that lives inside of her, and the knowledge that she has been violated by someone who could very well live among them in their small town. Her journey drives the plot of the novel.

All Is Not Forgotten is a terrific high-concept idea – how did you come up with it?

I read an article back in 2010 in the New York Times about memory science and the treatment of trauma to reduce PTSD. I thought that this type of treatment, if applied to survivors of crime, could create some incredibly difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. When I started to write the novel years later, the research into memory had exploded and scientists were marching toward the possibility of being able to target and alter (or even erase) factual memory, not just the emotional component. I decided to take the concept to this end – to go to the time and place when this possibility had been realized – and explore what that would mean for the survivor of a horrific crime. I think it raises some incredibly interesting issues.

What is it about suppressed memories, about forgotten horrors, that so fascinates us as readers?

Most of us have had the experience of someone from our past remembering a shared event differently, and insisting that her or she is right and we are wrong. It is very unsettling to consider the possibility that our memories are not static – that they are constantly being altered and are therefore less reliable than we thought. So much of who we are is about our past experiences and those experiences are held by these memories that we now know may not be as true as we believed. It raises questions that go to our very identity as individuals.

Additionally, the thought of being able to target and erase a memory is a fascinating question to ponder. What memories would you choose to erase? What would be lost if you did? This issue, I believe, goes to our very humanity. Are we just a sum total of the factual memories we carry in our minds? And if we can erase what we don’t like, what would the world be like? These questions, for me, are deeply profound.

AINF jacket finishedYou worked with a therapist to present the journey that many victims of violence go through – what did you learn about the way we cope with terrible trauma?

Traditionally, trauma therapy has involved talking about the event in a controlled, safe setting with a therapist many, many times until the event loses its power. In a sense, this is not much different from the therapies that are happening now which are based on an understanding of memory science – how memories are recalled and “refilled.” Patients are now given sedatives and other drugs when they recall the event so that when the recalled memory is refilled, the emotional component has been altered to be less traumatic. This is not much different from traditional talk therapy, though some therapists believe it is far more effective.

For traumas resulting from crime, treatment is more complicated. Added to the emotional reaction that took place during the event, survivors of crime also confront the knowledge of being violated, the loss of their bodily integrity and safety, trust, faith in humanity – the list goes on. These factors arise from far more than a factual recollection of an event, and we know from real world events that they exist even in survivors who cannot remember the crime occurring. We also know that participating in the justice process can be very healing for these survivors and this is yet another important consideration when considering memory altering therapies.

Your debut novel has already been snapped by movie-makers and has received amazing reviews – do you feel a pressure now to deliver an even better second book?

Of course! I have been writing for many years, juggling a household of kids, my job as an attorney, and this crazy dream of becoming a successful writer. It has been a long journey and I feel grateful to have the opportunity to have my work out in the world, being read by so many people. I take nothing for granted and intend to honor this opportunity by working as hard as I can to create a really great book worthy of people’s time.

How did you start writing?

I had taken time off from being an attorney to be home with my children, but it was hard not to be doing anything that would further myself professionally. I had never written before or studied writing but I always loved a good story and felt I had some to tell. So I started writing here and there and everywhere (even in the back of my minivan!) any chance I got. Eventually, I had two novels published and was retained to edit for a world-renowned series. I went back to practicing law, but still kept writing, waiting and hoping to find my voice and an audience that wanted to hear it! Last year, my agent encouraged me to switch genres so I could finally write this story, which I had been sitting on for years. I took a huge leap of faith, scaled back my workload for three months, and wrote All Is Not Forgotten.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That sometimes to be successful you have to be willing to set aside something that embodies your time, your heart and soul, even your hopes and dreams, and try something new. You have to listen to the people you have decided to trust to guide you. It was not easy for me to switch genres and write a psychological thriller. I had to close the door on a project I had worked on for two years, during every free moment I could find between my kids and my legal work. But I listened to my agent, opened my computer again, and wrote with blind passion for ten weeks until the book was done. I will never forget this experience and what it taught me about trust, perseverance, and faith.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

John Grisham because he revolutionized suspense novels and put the legal thriller permanently on the map. James Patterson for creating a new standard in the marketing of books with utter brilliance. And Dan Brown for his meticulous research and for creating a story that captivated the entire world. But, honestly, I have been meeting more and more writers, each with a different style, technique, philosophy and voice, and who stare down blank pages and somehow get beyond the self-doubt to keep going – they are my inspiration.

Give me some advice about writing…

First, keep writing. The more you write the better you will get. Don’t allow “writer’s block” to slow you down. Just get something on the page to move the plot along. You can always go back and revise. It’s so easy to get stuck, and there is no way around the self-doubt and anxiety that writers feel. The only way around is through. Second, take advice and be willing to make changes. Don’t get too attached to any character or any plot line. Sometimes other people just don’t get what’s in our heads and we have to be willing to accept that and move on. Finally, surround yourself with people you trust – to read for you and to represent you.

What’s next for you?

I am revising my second thriller about two teenage sisters who disappear one night under mysterious circumstances. Five years later, only one returns to tell the story of where they’ve been and to help the FBI and her sister. The novel is told in two narratives, one from the sister who has returned and one from the forensic psychologist who leads the search for the sister who did not make it out. It is incredibly fun because I have huge twist at the end and I can’t wait to see what readers think!

***

All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker is out now in hardback, published by HQ at £12.99.

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The Intel: John Sweeney

 

John SweeneySo you know John Sweeney. He’s the award-winning investigative reporter guy on the telly. He’s seen a lot of stuff, been to a lot of dangerous places. John’s work has taken him around the globe covering conflict – from Russia, to the Ukraine, to undercover investigations in North Korea and Chechnya.

And – guess what – he’s a hell of a writer, too. His first Joe Tiplady thriller Cold is published today by Thomas And Mercer, and it’s a corker.

Tiplady is a man with a dark past. A sardonic Irishman with a love of his dog and his whiskey, Joe has a burning desire for truth and unwavering compassion for those in need — and he’ll play by his own rules to see justice served.

In Cold, a chain of events is in motion that will make him a priceless target. A retired Soviet general hunts for his missing daughter after a series of brutal murders. A ruthless assassin loses something so precious he will do anything to get it back. And in the shadow of them all lies Zoba, strongman ruler of Russia and puppet-master of the world’s darkest operatives.

Sweeney is an engaging fellow and in this fantastic intel interview he gives us the lowdown on his mysterious protag, his romantic first novel and the Cold Road To Hell.

Tell us about Joe Tiplady…

Joe Tiplady was an IRA bomb-maker sent to a terrorist camp in North Korea to learn how to better kill the British. Once there, he realised the ordinary people were brainwashed and, in turn, he came to realise that he, too, had been brainwashed by the IRA. Joe’s based on an actual IRA man I met in Belfast, whose trip to North Korea was the start of his divorce from violent Irish republican nationalism. The name, by the way, comes from a great friend of my son’s who died at the age of 25 by a heart attack. His family said: ‘let our hero be your hero.’

 In Cold, Joe becomes the target for a dangerous assassin – what kind of murky goings-on does he get himself involved in?

That’s a tricky question without giving too much of the plot away. Suffice to say his dog Reilly vanishes, then he accidentally sees it again and it hurries back to him. But the consequences are that suddenly all hell breaks loose. Why? Well, read the book. It’s not a whodunit but a whydunnit.

Your first novel Elephant Moon was a romantic fiction – why the change of pace?

True, Elephant Moon did hit number one on amazon.co.uk’s historical romance section, hugely to my shame. I never saw myself as king of the bodice-rippers. Moon is set in Burma in 1942. There are many bleak, historically accurate scenes in it and although it has a central love story, I don’t think of Moon as romance. But I did want to write a classic spy thriller and that’s Cold. To be honest, I love telling stories. I don’t really care about the genre: the story is the pan-galactic ruler.

COLD Cover ImageA few years ago, in the post-Soviet world, critics were proclaiming that the thriller was dead, but the world seems a more dangerous place than ever – is it difficult to keep up with the ever-changing political climate?

Difficult? You’re telling me. In my head I have a Joe Tiplady trilogy, Cold Road to Hell. I’m writing the second, Road, now and it’s inspired by the war in Syria and ISIS. It’s soooooooooooo hard to keep up with the inhumanity spewing out of Raqqa. At the same time, as a journalist I can’t go to ISIS-stan because they might kidnap me and weaponise me against my own society. As a thriller writer I can go there inside my head and take the reader with me and that’s incredibly exciting.

As a BBC journalist you’ve reported on a number of tyrannies – where are some of the most-dangerous places you’d like to take Joe?

In Cold, Joe crosses the Atlantic – but not by flying, less the people after him find him. In Road, Joe goes to Syria. In Hell, to North Korea.

How did you start writing?

At school. I’ve never stopped.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Having faith in yourself. I’ve written seven non-fiction books but novels are harder. It took me more than a decade to write Elephant Moon. It started selling very slowly, through word of mouth, and now it’s sold more than 150,000. Writing a story, a book is like planting a tree or having a child: you plant something living in the world and that is smashing.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Raymond Chandler – crisp writing on a corrupt LA; Seamus Heaney – magical lyricism about Irish soil and humanity; and L Ron Hubbard for his pan-galactic insights. One of these replies is a joke.

Give me some advice about writing…

Try and write one thousand words a day. When a new character turns up, describe him. If you’re writing a thriller, end every chapter on a cliff edge.

What’s next for you and Joe?

Road, then Hell, and then I will have trilogy, Cold Road to Hell.

 ***

Cold by John Sweeney is out today, 1st July, published by Thomas and Mercer at £8.99.

 

The Intel: Stephen Booth

9780316743297 (532x800)A sense of place is as important in crime novels as the characters, and the extraordinary landscape of the Peak District permeates every sentence of Stephen Booth’s hugely-popular Cooper and Fry series. In the latest, Secrets Of Death, Booth writes about a bizarre string of suicides in the area.

When Roger Farrell is found dead by his own hand in a car overlooking the beautiful Heeley Bank, he is the latest in a long line of people who have come to the Peak District to die. Although DI Ben Cooper is reluctant to use the phrase ‘suicide tourism’, he is aware that the rate of suicides in the area is sharply increasing. And a number of them, like Farrell, are in possession of a business card that simply says The Secrets Of Death.

Is somebody ‘managing’ these suicides? And how would Cooper even define this crime? Unfortunately, the one survivor is refusing to cooperate with the police, and leads are thin on the ground. The answer may lie with Cooper’s prickly former colleague Diane Fry, who had been about to arrest Roger Farrell before his death. Can the two of them find whoever is coordinating the suicides before more people die?

Secrets Of Death is the 16th in this incredibly popular series of crime novels. Booth is a generous and engaging interviewee, and in this fascinating intel he tells us about the evolution of his characters, about ‘suicide tourism’ and his beloved Peak District — and something of an expert on the subject, he reveals the secret personalities of goats…

Tell us about Ben Cooper and Diane Fry…

I conceived these two characters as young and junior police detectives, in a reaction to all the middle-aged alcoholic loners I was reading about in crime fiction back in the 1990s. Ben Cooper is the local boy who grew in the Peak District and knows everyone. He’s from a farming family and has a real love for the area and its way of life. Diane is the outsider, a city girl and completely out of her element in a rural setting. She’s rather a damaged person who’s developed a protective shell because of what’s happened to her in the past. Ben is a character everyone loves because he has such humanity and compassion. The relationship between the two characters started off quite badly in the first book, ‘Black Dog’, and has become more and more complex ever since.

How have the characters changed since the series began?

Ben Cooper was very young and immature in the early books. But he made the break from his family and moved away from the farm, and we’ve watched him steadily mature over the course of the series. He’s been through a major personal trauma, and he’s also been promoted a couple of times so he’s now a detective inspector with responsibilities for his team. Diane Fry seemed like a high flier in the beginning and was very ambitious. But she was distracted from her ambitions (largely by her unpredictable sister Angie), and one day she realised Cooper was leaving her behind. To some extent, they’ve gone separate ways, but they both remain very conflicted over their relationship.

Secrets of Death tackles the subject of ‘suicide tourism’ – what is that?

Many people have a favourite location they like to spend time in. One day, I was looking at some benches installed at a Peak District viewpoint overlooking a stunning landscape. Each one had a plaque commemorating a deceased person who was said to have loved that particular spot. It occurred to me that if you’d decided to take your own life and you were planning it carefully, as some people do, you might choose to do it at your favourite spot and spend the last moments of your life looking at that spectacular view. That’s how I came up with the concept of ‘suicide tourism’. Ben Cooper and his team from Edendale CID are faced with a spate of such suicides. They don’t know where the next dead body will turn up, though it’s bound to be at a tourist hotspot. It isn’t doing the tourism industry much good! And of course there’s the question of whether one of those deaths wasn’t actually a suicide at all…

9780751559989How much does the mysterious character of the Peak District permeate your books?

I think of the Peak District as beautiful but dangerous. It was the perfect setting for the type of book I wanted to create. I was interested in writing about a rural area, but giving my books a darker feel and dealing with serious contemporary subjects. I recall a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, in which Holmes tells Dr Watson: “There is more evil in the smiling and beautiful countryside than in the vilest alleys of London”. That pretty much sums up the idea. The Peak District is full of wonderfully atmospheric locations, along with thousands of years of history and all the legends and folklore that go with it.

I was intrigued by the two distinct geological halves of the Peak District, known as the White Peak and Dark Peak, which are very different in character. The white and dark seemed to me to symbolise good and evil, right there in the landscape. This is also one of the most visited national parks in the world because of the cities all around it, creating conflict between millions of visitors and the people who actually live and work there. Sometimes the landscape plays a physical role in my books. The hills can be very dangerous, and people sometimes disappear or meet an unexplained death. In one book, Dead and Buried, the backdrop is of raging moorland fires, which is almost like a vision of Hell.

What are your favourite locations for your novels?

There are so many fascinating and quirky places in the Peak District. One Last Breath is set around one of the my favourite locations, the small town of Castleton. It’s in limestone country and sits on top of thirteen miles of caverns, some of which are open to the public. Frankly, there’s nothing more frightening than a deep, narrow cave in complete darkness! And there are some very creepy stories about the Peak Cavern system. I also think of the ‘plague village’ of Eyam, which features in The Kill Call. It’s become a macabre tourist attraction, with people going to look at plaques listing the names of people who died there from an outbreak of bubonic plague. They even sell souvenir plastic rats in the visitor centre!

You breed pedigree dairy goats – – what kind of personalities do goats have?

Sadly, we no longer have the goats, though we did breed them for a number of years. I always found them fascinating animals. They’re very intelligent and independent-minded (unlike sheep), and they have a wicked sense of humour. They relate to people very well, and our goats always loved being taken to shows, where they had a wonderful time showing off to the public. Remarkably, they’re also more productive than cows, size for size, and their milk is much better for people who can’t take cows’ milk. I do miss not having them any more!

How did you start writing?

I started writing stories when I was very young – pretty much as soon as I could read, I think. I went on to produce my first novel when I was 12 years old. I’m sure it was quite a short novel, and it was about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). But from the moment I finished it, I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Obviously, you can’t just leave school and become a novelist, so I figured out the way to earn a living by writing was to be a newspaper journalist. I did that for a long time, but I gave it up and I’ve made my living from writing crime novels for the past 16 years or so. So I suppose I’ve always been a writer.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Taking criticism is hard for a lot of writers. But I learned about it very early on. I’ve got an older brother, who read that first novel I wrote when I was 12 – and he was so disparaging about it that he remains the worst critic I’ve ever head! But I wasn’t discouraged by his harsh comments. And I think it was great experience for me to learn about taking criticism at such an early age. It doesn’t bother me now.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are many of them. I was a huge fan of crime fiction as a reader before I started writing the Cooper & Fry series. One of my great heroes was Ruth Rendell, who was capable of subverting the conventions of the genre. She was constantly able to come up with something new and exciting right to the end. I thought Reginald Hill was a great writer too, and I also like John Harvey, Peter Robinson – in fact anything with a really strong, believable central character.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read a lot, keep writing – and never stop!

What’s next for you?

I’m starting work on a new Cooper & Fry novel, which will be the 17th in the series. But I don’t have a title yet!

***

Secrets Of Death is out right now, published by Sphere in hardback.

The Intel: Susanna Gregory

9780099443513Susanna Gregory fans are in heaven right now. Last week saw the publication of two Matthew Bartholomew novels. A Grave Concern was published in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback. By my reckoning, that’s her 21st and 22nd books in the series.

Set in the aftermath of the Great Plague in 14th Century Cambridge — a time of great social unrest among the devastated population – her protag Matthew Bartholomew is a fictional physician. He’s the master at the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches medicine. In A Poisonous Plot, he takes on an arrogant physician as a mysterious contagion afflicts Cambridge, and in A Grave Concern, the election of a new chancellor at the college gets very nasty indeed.

A former policewoman in Leeds, Susanna pursued a career in academia which, she says, exposed her to the political manoeuvring, infighting, and eccentricity that fuelled her writing. Susanna is also the creator of the Thomas Chaloner series of mysteries set in Restoration London.

Crime Thriller Fella is delighted Susanna has agreed to give us the intel on Bartholomew, the plague and the perennial allure of medieval murder…

Tell us about Matthew Bartholomew…

Bartholomew is a physician living in Cambridge in the mid-fourteenth century. He’s also a Fellow of Michaelhouse, which was one of eight Colleges in the University at the time.

How has the character developed since you began writing about him?

That’s hard to say without re-reading the first book! However, he’s twelve years older than when he started, and I’ve tried to make him learn from his mistakes. He’s certainly more cautious about leaping into danger now he’s no longer quite so young (well, aren’t we all?). At the beginning, I had him as something of a maverick in the medical world, with wild theories about hygiene and surgery. He still holds those opinions, but is now far more cautious about expressing them, and even acknowledges that astrology may have its place in a patient’s mental wellbeing. I hope he’s older, wiser and more mature, but I really think that’s for the reader to decide.

9780751549799The series is based in the aftermath of the Great Plague – what kind of a society was it?

Crikey! Books have been written on this, so it’s hard to answer in a couple of paragraphs! But briefly, was the plague a good thing or a bad one? The jury is out, as academics have made good arguments for both sides of the debate, based on their assessments of the contemporary written evidence.

On the one hand, there had been a huge population increase just before the plague, and there were reports of famine, particularly when poor harvests failed to supply towns and cities with food. Lots of communities were being founded on scrubby land, because all the fertile areas were already taken. So the plague eliminated between a third and half the population, meaning there was more good land for the survivors. There was a shortage of manual labourers after the plague, too, which meant that peasants had their wealthy landlords over a barrel. Standards of living rose for the next twenty years — until the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 brought matters to a head, and reversed the trend.

On the other hand, whole communities were wiped out permanently, and there was a terrible fear that it would happen again. People’s faith in God and the Church wavered, especially as the plague took plenty of priests — the Dominicans in Cambridge, who bravely tended the sick and dying, were all but wiped out. If priests weren’t safe, then who was? There can have been very few people who didn’t suffer loss of loved ones, so the aftermath must have been socially and psychologically devastating.

What can we learn from the 14th Century – are there any similarities with our own?

Thankfully, not many! Medicine has improved somewhat, and so has hygiene. Our houses have heating, drains and running water, and buying a loaf of bread from a shop is a lot easier than growing your own grain, getting it milled, making dough, then taking it to a baker to get it cooked. Then there are the little things. In the fourteenth century, when the Sun went down, it was dark. Candles were expensive (and most of them smoked horribly), so winter nights were probably long and tiresome. There were no street lights to see you home from the tavern, and the roads were treacherously uneven. People were thus very much aware of the phases of the Moon — today, not many folk notice it at all, unless it’s particularly bright or unusually coloured — and the seasons. We get strawberries all year round, but they had them in the summer. Of course, they probably tasted a lot better then …

In all, it’s a lot better to be alive now than then, and while I occasionally think I’d like to be transported back there to see it for myself, I wouldn’t go unless I was assured that I could come back again!

Can we learn anything from the fourteenth century? I’m sure we could learn lots, but the main thing for me is the pace of life. It was slower then, with less dashing about. That isn’t a bad thing.

The series is set in the College of Michaelhouse at the University of Cambridge – why is academia such a ripe territory for murder?

Perhaps because there’s nothing more deadly than an intelligent person with time on his hands and a grudge.

How did you start writing?

It was one summer in the dim and distant past, when my husband had gone to Canada on an archaeological dig. I found myself with a few relatively quiet weeks, and so just decided to put fingers to keyboard. I wrote A Plague on Both your Houses, because I was interested in medieval Cambridge, and the College that no longer exists. I enjoyed writing it so much that I wrote another two books in the same series. It was a lot of fun.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That bad reviews can be hurtful. You just have to tell yourself that they’re only the opinion of one person, and then think about the many charming, friendly and encouraging messages you’ve had through the years from readers. After all, they are the ones whose opinions really count.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are so many — all my fellow Medieval Murderers for a start. Mike Jecks, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Chris Sansom, Karen Maitland and Philip Gooden are passionate about what they do, and they are all painstaking with the details of their research. I’ve learned a lot from them.

I also love Patrick O’Brien. Someone once told me that his books were “Jane Austen at sea”. What more could a reader ask for?

Unknown.jpegGive me some advice about writing…

There’s no such thing as writers’ block. If you feel uninspired, write through it — just get something, anything, down on the screen. It may be rubbish that you later delete, but it will get you over the hump and move you on with the story.

The other thing I would say is that you should write for yourself. Write want you want to write, not what you feel the publisher, agent, reader or reviewer would like. It’s just more enjoyable that way, and a good editor will always help you to smooth out any problems afterwards.

What’s next for you?

Today? A nice cup of coffee in the garden in company with my beloved chickens. There’s something incredibly relaxing about watching Ethel and her flock going about their daily round of scratching, sunbathing, taking dust baths and hunting for worms. I often get ideas for books when I’m sitting doing nothing with them. It’s like having my batteries recharged.

***

A Grave Concern in hardback and A Poisonous Plot in paperback, are available right now, published by Sphere.

The Intel: CJ Lyons

CJLyonsbookphotoLOResCJ Lyons is the bestselling author of seven Lucy Guardino thrillers, and the latest, Last Light, sees her heroine leaving the FBI to join the Beacon Group, a firm that specializes in cold cases and brings justice to forgotten victims.

Lucy is partnered with TK O’Connor, an army veteran struggling with her transition to ordinary life and they’re soon led to rural Texas to investigate their first case: the murder of Lily Martin and her young child in 1987. The convicted killers have been behind bars for the past twenty-nine years. But who really killed Lily Martin and her infant daughter? And what price will Lucy pay to expose a truth people will kill to keep buried?

CJ is a paediatric ER doctor turned New York Times bestselling author of twenty-nine novels — her ‘Thrillers With A Heart’ have notched up with sales of over 2 million. She’s assisted police and prosecutors with cases and has worked in numerous trauma centres, on a Navajo reservation, as a crisis counsellor, victim advocate, as well as a flight physician for Life Flight and Stat Medevac.

She’s had a fascinating career, as a medic and a novelist, and in this insightful intel interview CJ discusses her indomitable heroine, our fascination with cold cases, how she picked herself up when her dream debut ended in disaster, and the piece of writing advice that Jeffery Deaver gave her…

Tell us about Lucy Guardino…

I created Lucy because I was tired of reading thrillers featuring female FBI agents who were driven by angst, fleeing demons, fighting addiction, stalked by serial killers, or with dark, forbidden secrets, etc.–all things that would never allow them to do their job effectively in the real world.

As a woman who has always worked in a male dominated field (Emergency Medicine), I wanted to create a main character I could relate to. Someone facing the same kind of struggles balancing work and family and who felt “real.”

So, I thought, why not go as real as it gets? How about a Pittsburgh soccer mom, who has a loving and supportive family? No angst, no dark past, no addictions or demons… Just the very real need to do her job the best she can while also giving her family as much love and attention as possible.

Of course, I can’t go too easy on her, so during her early adventures with the FBI, I give her the worst possible job, tracking pedophiles and sex offenders. The fact that she happens to be good at it only makes her life more complicated because she fights a constant battle of protecting her family from her work.

How has Lucy changed over the course of your novels about her…

One of the comments I hear frequently from readers is that they love Lucy because she is so very human in the way she’s grown over the course of the series. Snake Skin, her first adventure, focused on the almost universal tension that adults face, juggling family and work. And when your work is saving lives and chasing down the worst of the worst, how can you say no?

Each novel is different, from dark psychological suspense in Blood Stained, to action-adventure in Kill Zone, to a set-in-real-time fight for her life in After Shock, and the consequences of that fight in Hard Fall. With each challenge she faces, each mistake as well as each triumph, Lucy has paid a price, and come away with a better understanding of herself.

I think the novel that best reveals this is Hard Fall, which won the International Thriller Writers’ 2015 Thriller Award. It was by far the most difficult book I’ve ever tackled, featuring a survivor of childhood sexual abuse without ever showing any of the violence she suffered on the page—instead, I focused on the psychological ramifications that impacted her life. Parallel to her story is Lucy’s own struggle with the trauma she’s suffered and the choices she faces about her own future, not just her career but her physical and mental well-being along with her family’s needs.

Last Light sees Lucy starting a new life with an organization which investigates Cold Cases – why are we as readers so obsessed with unsolved historical murders?

I think readers enjoy reading about cold cases because as humans we hate it when chaos wins out over justice. And, at least here in the US, unsolved murders remind us that there are places where killers can get away with murder — not because law enforcement is incompetent in any way, but simply because they are overworked and underfunded with huge swathes of land to cover with minimal manpower. We sleep better at night believing justice is served.

Last_Light-crop-smallYou’ve described your novels as Thrillers With Heart – what do you mean by that?

I never enjoyed the thriller novels that treated characters like they were just along for the ride or that featured gratuitous sex and violence without any emotional honesty to give them real impact. Like many authors, I’m more interested in the grey spaces between the black and white of good and evil than I am the car chases and explosions, so I created the term “Thrillers with Heart” to describe my particular brand of crime fiction. They combine the fast-paced adrenaline rush expected from a thriller with an exploration of the emotions that come from exposure to violence.

Your first publishing deal ended in disaster – tell us what happened…

My first medical thriller, Nerves Of Steel, was bought by a major US publisher in a pre-empt and seemed to be destined to be my dream debut: hardcover, endorsements from a dozen NYT Bestsellers, great pre-sales…until, due to factors totally beyond my control (cover art issues), it was cancelled a few weeks prior to its scheduled release.

Pfft, no more dream debut, no more contracts…In fact, I would have to fight to get my rights back after my original agent left me high and dry.

Plus, when my debut was cancelled, I’d already left my medical practice and so was unemployed for the first time since I was 15. But after a few days feeling sorry for myself, I realized that the best thing I could do if I wanted to make my dream of becoming a published author come true was to keep writing.

While I worked on a new book, I fought to get my rights back from that first publisher. (In fact, I went on to self-publish Nerves Of Steel, which became a bestseller, and due to reader demand has led to three sequels, Sleight Of Hand, Face To Face, and Eye Of The Storm.) It was rough going, but I kept writing.

Two weeks after I won that battle and received my rights back, a publisher with Penguin/Putnam called and asked if I’d like to create a new medical suspense series targeting women readers, along the lines of Grey’s Anatomy meets ER. Of course I said yes and sat down to write Lifelines, my first bestseller.

Oh, and just to show that karma has a sense of humor, the book I wrote after being ditched by my first publisher? Blind Faith, which debuted at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list…

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

The hardest lesson for me came after that first disaster of losing my dream debut to forces beyond my control. I learned that no one — not my publisher, editor, or agent — was more invested than the success of my novels than I was. So I had to learn how to become my own champion, which meant learning the business.

As a pediatrician, I’ve never run a business, so I threw myself into learning everything I could about marketing, branding, copy writing, audience demographics, profit/loss statements, contracts, etc. Soon I knew more about my audience than my publishers!

I realized that if you want to become a career novelist, you need to take control of the business side of things because you are actually CEO of a Global Media Empire. Your publishers (I’ve worked with most of the major US publishers as well as almost two dozen more around the globe) are your partners, not your patrons. You need to be clear about what you bring to that partnership and what they have to offer and be ready to walk away from any contract that isn’t serving your readers.

When it comes to business, my mantra is: “good” isn’t good enough for my readers, they deserve “great!”

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Ray Bradbury had the greatest influence on me as a child. He was the first author who taught me that the words themselves can be as beautiful as the pictures they create and worlds they build. I love the way he can evoke emotion on a very subliminal level. I also adore Mark Helprin, Alice Hoffman, and Tana French among others.

Give me some advice about writing…

The best piece of advice for either my writing or my business came from Jeffery Deaver. We were sitting together at an awards banquet (we both won, which was fun) and I asked him what his best words of wisdom were. He told me: Never forget, the reader is god.

In other words, think about the reader with every decision.

Unsure about a plot twist? Will your readers love it?

Should you spend your time tweeting or writing the next book? Write the next book, of course—that’s what your readers want.

What will make your readers excited, delighted, and ready to tell their friends about your books?

Once you keep that vision in mind, your path becomes so much easier, profitable, and much more fun!

What’s next for you?

I’m currently putting the final polish on Lucy’s next adventure, Devil Smoke. It deals with obsession, grief, and denial, featuring a woman who has lost her life to amnesia and Lucy’s team’s efforts to help her. Of course, the twists and turns lead back to a cold case that hits much too close to home. It’s due out July 25, 2016.

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Last Light by CJ Lyons is published by Canelo, priced £3.99 in eBook.

 

The Intel: Michael Kurland

Kurland-210You’re way too young to remember the Thirties — I mean, look how young and vibrant you are — but you probably know it was a hell of a time for crime fiction in the US. Think Chandler and Hammett, and Cornell Woolwich and James M. Cain. But it was also a time of glamour, of Broadway chorus girls and Jazz Clubs and the Algonquin set.

In his second Alexander Brass novel, The Girls In The High-Heeled Shoes, Michael Kurland’s newspaper columnist protag Alexander Brass and sidekick Morgan Dewitt investigate a series of disappearances in 1930s New York City.

Two-Headed Mary, the philanthropic panhandler is missing. So is Billie Trask, who disappeared from the cashier’s office of hit show Lucky Lady with the weekend take. Could either of them have followed a third Broadway babe, chorus girl Lydia Laurent — whose dead body has been found in Central Park?

Kurland is the author of more than thirty novels, but is best known for his Edgar-nominated mystery series featuring Professor Moriarty, including The Infernal Device and The Great Game. He has also edited several Sherlock Holmes anthologies and written non-fiction titles such as How to Solve a Murder: The Forensic Handbook. He lives in Petaluma, California.

In this intel interview, Kurland discusses the writers who influenced him to write a series set in the Thirties and the hardest lesson he learned about writing…

The Girl In The High-Heeled Shoes sounds like it would make a great Broadway show – what was the inspiration for it?

Well, Alexander Brass was already an established character with the first book, Too Soon Dead, and I liked him, so I wanted to see what other adventures he would share with me. The character Two-Headed Mary is based on a real con-woman of the same name. As for the title, it comes from a 1930s toast my mother told me:

‘Here’s to the girls in the high-helped shoes
Who eat our dinners and drink our booze
And hug and kiss us until we smother –
And then go home to sleep with mother!’

What made you want to write a series set in the 1930s?

The period always seemed both glamorous and innocent to me. And it was full of the most amazing people.

It was a turbulent time, full of glamour and gangsters – how influenced were you by the classic movies and novels of the period?

I think my image of the 30s was developed by the mystery novels of Sayers, Stout, Hammett and Chandler certainly, along with Tiffany Thayer, Robert Benchley, Leslie Charteris, and a lot of early science fiction. As for movies, perhaps the Marx Brothers movies and such films as Boy Meets Girl, My Man Godfrey, Casablanca, M, The Thin Man and its sequels, The 39 Steps, and anything Fred Astaire did.

HighHeelIf you could meet one iconic figure from the 1930s who would it be?

Just one? I would have to roll the dice to pick among George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, James Thurber, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Gypsy Rose Lee, Rex Stout, and Eleanor Roosevelt. With three dice I could extend the list. Certainly Eleanor’s husband would be fun to chat with.

You’ve written more than thirty novels, including your acclaimed Professor Moriarty series, and you teach mystery writing – what’s the one piece of advice to anybody who wants to write?

Set aside a time to write each day, sit down and don’t do anything else for that period of time, even if the writing doesn’t come. And read my book, “It’s a Mystery to Me” (plug).

How did you start writing?

When I was 12 years old I told my mother I was going to be a writer. I think I was reading Benchley at the time, along with Alexandre Dumas. Then when I got out of the Army I moved to Greenwich Village and fell in with a bad lot – Don Westlake, Randall Garrett, Harlan Ellison, Phil Klass (William Tenn), Terry Southern, full-time writers all. And they made it seem, if not easy, at least possible.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That it never gets any easier. When someone asked Raymond Chandler how he wrote, he said he rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter and stared at it until the blood formed on his forehead. Well, now I use a computer but aside from that I agree.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I’ll stick to defunct ones, so I don’t insult any friends. Mark Twain, because he was brilliant, wrote without clutter, fought the prejudices of his day, and, most difficult of all, was funny. Alexandre Dumas, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers and Don Westlake for creating characters I would like to meet. Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, for creating worlds I would like to visit. Philip MacDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett for telling wonderful stories. Phil Klass, Joe Gores, and Richard Condon for making the most difficult job I know look so easy.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a pre-WWII political spy novel tentatively called The Bells Of Hell, as as getting started on the third Alexander Brass: Death Of A Dancer.

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The Alexander Brass Mystery The Girls In The High-Heeled Shows is available in paperback and ebook, published by Titan Books.

The Intel: Chet Williamson

Author headshotYou may have heard of a novel called Psycho. Some fellow made a movie of Robert Bloch’s novel which, arguably, changed the course of movies and horror fiction forever. Without Norman Bates there wouldn’t have been a whole slew of slasher movies, or sly, charming killers such as Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan.

In the years since Hitchcock’s movie, Bates, the nerdy fellow with the Mummy issues, has been reinvented several times — sequels followed, and a TV series. But Bloch’s original novel has remained somewhat under the radar. Now Chet Williamson has taken Bates back to his gritty midwestern roots. He’s written an authorised sequel to Bloch’s book, called Psycho: Sanitarium.

In this terrific interview, Williamson talks about what is like to get his hands on one of the most famous characters in fiction, about how Hitchcock’s Bates swerved from Bloch’s original vision — and how, if you want to be a successful writer, it’s perhaps best to stay pessimistic…

How does it feel to have got your hands on one the most iconic characters in crime fiction – Norman Bates? 

It feels fantastic! The film of Psycho terrified me when I saw it as a kid, and I immediately bought the Robert Bloch book and have been a Bloch fan my whole life. To be offered a character that is such an icon of suspense and horror fiction was a dream come true. Having done some licensed characters in the past, I’d determined never to do so again, but to have the opportunity to create a novel with Norman Bates?

There was no way I could say no, especially since it was an immediate sequel to Bloch’s original novel, and I could tell the story of what happens after we leave Norman (and Mother) in his little cell after his arrest. I’d always loved the character, who is as sympathetic and empathetic as he is frightening.

We’re familiar with Hitchcock’s adaptation, but maybe not so much with Robert Bloch’s source novel – how does it differ from the movie?

For one thing, Norman isn’t nearly as physically attractive as Anthony Perkins. He’s in his forties rather than his twenties, and he’s somewhat overweight, which makes his discomfort with the opposite sex more believable. Also, the original isn’t set in California. Bloch never names a state, but internal evidence suggests somewhere in the Kansas/Missouri/Oklahoma/Arkansas area.

How has Norman changed since we last met him?

Not much, really. Only a few months have passed since his arrest and confinement, and he’s remained almost completely incommunicative. He’s trying to break out of his shell, but Mother’s having none of it.

Cover imageWhat do you think you have brought to the character that wasn’t in Bloch’s original vision?

I may be a bit more sympathetic toward Norman than Robert Bloch was. While Bloch makes you feel sympathetic toward him in the original novel, when he wrote Psycho II, which is set over twenty years later (and which has nothing to do with the Psycho 2 film), he makes Norman quite monstrous, and his initial acts of violence, which are perpetrated by Norman himself rather than Mother, are shocking in the extreme. I’ve tried to elicit in the reader a greater empathy toward and understanding of Norman, the same feelings that Bloch elicited in the original Psycho back in 1959.

Norman’s in a Hospital For The Criminally Insane, which is fertile ground for crime and horror writers – did you have any other favourite authors or movies you returned to for inspiration? 

Nothing fictional, really, though I did turn, for both research and inspiration, to the 1967 Frederick Wiseman documentary, Titicut Follies, set in Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. If you think fictional films about early psychiatric care are shocking, the real thing as seen in this film is utterly horrifying.

If you could get your hands on another iconic crime fiction character, who would it be?

Well, I do love villains. I’ve always wanted to do something with a super-criminal along the lines of Fantomas or Dr. Mabuse, which I think would be fascinating in these times when he who controls the Internet controls the world.

How did you start writing?

A: I came to it through acting. It’s a long story, but as an actor, which I did professionally for a time, it wasn’t long before I realized that the true creators were the writers. I started writing for theatre, and then turned to fiction. I still keep my hand in as an actor by narrating audiobooks — in fact, I’ve just completed the audiobook of Psycho: Sanitarium. It’s always a delight for me to record my own work, since I know the characters will sound as I intended them to sound.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

A: Not to give up, and never to expect too much. Stay pessimistic and you’ll never be too disappointed to continue. Write for yourself and for those readers who relate to your work.  It’s a rough way to make a living, even more so now with all the competition from self-published writers on the Internet. Fortunately I’ve had a supportive wife all these years. It’s very tough to survive on your own.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Of the old masters, Joseph Conrad, for his ability to make readers see,  P. G. Wodehouse, for never failing to make me laugh, M. R. James, for his truly terrifying ghost stories, and H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most alien writers and human beings imaginable. From my childhood, Robert Bloch, whose clean style I’ve always admired and tried to emulate, and Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, for their unfettered imaginations. Contemporary writers include Joe R. Lansdale, pound for pound the best writer in America today, and the UK’s Ramsey Campbell, a superb stylist and storyteller.

Give me some advice about writing… 

My advice is to not ever take any advice on writing. Seriously. Everyone works in different ways. Be true to your own method of working. If outlining works for you, then outline. If you’re happier just forging ahead without an idea of where you’re going and can fix things during revision, then do it.

The only books on writing I’ve ever read that were worth a damn were the American John Gardner’s trilogy, On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, and Oscar Lee Brownstein’s Strategies of Drama, which is primarily for playwrights but equally valuable for fiction writers. Whatever you do, avoid books that say, “This is what you must do.” No, you mustn’t.

What’s next for you?

It’s been a full year, with the Psycho book and two collections having come out (The Night Listener and Others from England’s PS Publishing and A Little Blue Book of Bibliomancy from Borderlands Press). So after Psycho: Sanitarium is safely launched, I’m planning on doing some reading and research in preparation for a new novel. I have a thematic idea, but little else, and being that I’m an outliner, there’s work to be done!

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Psycho: Sanitarium is published by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook.