Tag Archives: George Orwell

The Intel: Andrew Shantos

Andrew ShantosAndrew Shantos has turned to some of the biggest names in show business, Elvis, Jimi, Marilyn, that fellow from The Doors, to populate his debut novel – but wait, you cry, surely they’re, you know, deceased.

Turns out they’re not. In Dead Star Island, they’re living in blissful anonymity on a remote island and still partying like there’s no tomorrow. That is, until someone starts killing them off for real. Greece’s former top cop Mario Gunzabo is called in to solve the mystery of the Déjà vu Killer. But can the part-time tennis coach and full time alcoholic stop the killer in time to save the rest of the superstars?

Andrew’s comic thriller is a high-concept romp and a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster which combines his love of music, dead rock stars and ferrets.

In the the latest stop of his Blog Tour, Andrew gives us the intel on his one-armed detective, which music icon he’d love to perform on stage with – and he earns some extra Intel brownie points by mentioning the undisputed king of high-concept, Ira Levin…

Tell us about Dead Star Island…

It’s a spoof murder mystery. Dead Star Island is home to sixteen superstars the world thinks are dead, but who faked their deaths to live in tranquil anonymity on a secret island paradise. Until now, that is, because there’s a killer on the loose, taking them out one by one in repeats of the deaths they staged to leave the real world.

Your alcoholic, one-armed detective Mario Gunzabo comes with a ferret up his sleeve – tell us about him!

Gunzabo came about from a silly game on holiday in Cyprus. My wife and I were trying to outdo each other with ideas for outlandish detectives. I suggested a one-armed detective called Mario Gunzabo. And she immediately said, with a ferret up his sleeve.

So that was the starting point, but Gunzabo evolved into a fully formed character over many drafts and rewrites, and in him is a mixture of many relatives in Cyprus, long dead, that I remember vividly from my childhood. An important part of the backstory is how he lost his arm, why Didi exists (or not), and how this continues to affect his life and the investigation.

Dead Star Island is a fascinating idea – where did you get the inspiration?

About five years ago, I was listening to LA Woman by The Doors, feeling a bit sad and thinking, “Oh, I wish Jim Morrison wasn’t dead.” Then I thought, “Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s hanging out with Elvis on a desert island somewhere… Of course, Jimi would be there. Marilyn too…” And I found I couldn’t stop thinking of people who’d be there with them – basically anyone who was on my bedroom wall as a teenager.

So that’s how the idea came to me. But I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, in particular about why I had the idea, which I’ve written about in more depth on another leg of my Blog Tour, in a piece called ‘The Psychology of an idea’.

Dead Star IslandOn your website, there’s a quiz you can do about the island, a music playlist, a map and even a graph on which details how many hours you spent writing the novel – how important is it for authors to provide extra content for readers?

To begin with I just had the idea to put an application form on my website, so that people could apply to go and live on the island. It was just a bit of fun, but it made me laugh doing it and I kept on adding new pages, like the quiz to try and guess who the residents are, based on the crazy caricatures my mate Joel did (it’s a tough quiz, no one’s managed full marks yet, not even anyone at my publisher).

But yes, there is an ulterior motive: I want to find and engage new readers, so my hope is that when people see the website, they’ll want to come back, and they’ll tell their friends that they’ve found something worth reading – hopefully much like the book itself.

Mostly though, I just really like the idea of a book living outside the confines of its pages. So that what you’re reading is an excerpt, a particularly interesting episode in the universe someone has created.

You’ve played the Hammond organ in lots of bands – which deceased musical icon do you wish you could have played alongside?

Jim Morrison, every time! The keyboard player I look up to the most is Ray Manzarek of The Doors, so I guess the ultimate would to have been in his piano stool, shaking my head in a stoned trance while playing a ten minute solo during Light My Fire at the Hollywood Bowl, Jim shrieking and doing some kind of crazy tribal dance in front of me. At the after party we’d hang out with Jimi, probably get drunk (definitely get drunk), sing a few sea shanties, and talk pseudo-philosophical nonsense. This would last several days until one of us got taken to hospital.

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

Probably what I talk about in my blog post “How many hours does it take to write a novel.” I remember finishing my first draft (written at night in the odd hour when our newborn baby actually decided to sleep), and giving it to carefully selected friends and family, naively thinking that the concept alone would be enough to wow everyone. That most definitely was not the case, and slowly, realisation dawned: I had only just started. I suddenly knew how much work was ahead of me, and I nearly didn’t carry on.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are loads; it’s tough to pick out any in particular, like it’s tough to pick your favourite bands. In general I’d say the authors I admire most are those who write with economy and clarity, but also with flair and imagination. I’m never that bothered about genre, I’ll read anything by anyone, so long as they meet these criteria.

As for names, well of the old favourites, I like Hemingway and Orwell best. They’re the literary equivalent of The Stones and The Beatles for me. I’m gradually working my way through Elmore Leonard’s work (I finished Freaky Deaky last week, which I loved and recommend to any crime lover).

Someone who is slightly forgotten these days is Ira Levin, who was massive in the fifties and sixties. Pretty much every one of his novels has been made into a film, some of them several times over. Most are absolute classics: A Kiss Before Dying, The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby. They often have a crime element, all are amazing ideas, full of tension and suspense, and inevitably you find yourself devouring them in a single sitting.

Give me some advice about writing.

Work hard and be open to criticism. These two things make you a better writer.

Writing is one of the few crafts people expect to be good at immediately. There’s the old joke about asking an Australian if they can play the violin, and the Australian replying, “I dunno, I’ve never tried.” But really, you have to practise, practise, practise, and you have to actively seek criticism. Plus you have to read lots too. I often forget that, and have to remind myself: read, read, read!

Mostly we’re blind to our own faults, but see them more easily in others. It’s like anything: if you want to be good at it, you have to work hard. Above all though, have fun. Enjoy it. Otherwise what’s the point?

What’s next for you?

I’ve got lots of ideas. If anything too many. It’s a nice problem to have though, so I’m going to use a few of them in a collection of short stories, which will have the additional benefit of being good practice for the next novel.

I do have three or four ideas for full-length novels, but knowing now how much work it is, I’m taking my time and want to let them stew away in my head for a few months. I read a fascinating piece in the Guardian the other day, where author William Boyd talks about his writing process. He spends about three years writing each of his books, the first two years of which is research and planning.

That’s a long time, and I hope I’ll be quicker, but then again Dead Star Island took three years… can I book a slot in autumn 2018 for my next blog tour?


Dead Star Island, published by APP, can be ordered through Amazon priced £4.99 for Kindle and £8.99 paperback right here.

To get in touch visit Andrew at his website andrewshantos.com or on Twitter @andrewshantos

The Intel: Jessica Cornwell

Jessica Cornwell

Photo Credit: Diana Patient

Jessica Cornwell’s mystical  Anna Verco thriller The Serpent Papers has been described as a literary Da Vinci Code. It follows her academic book thief’s investigation into three ritual murders in Barcelona. Teaming up with a Spanish Inspector, the trail leads to a mysterious book, a medieval revelation written in the language of witches and alchemists, called The Serpent Papers.

Jessica was raised in Southern California. After graduating from the University of Barcelona, she participated in research and grant projects in Oxford, India and Spain. In 2010 she moved to London to work in film. She’s now writing full-time on the next in the Anna Verco trilogy. And Jessica’s got a hell of a literary pedigree – her grandfather is John Le Carre.

The Serpent Papers is available right now in hardcover, paperback or you can download it to your device. To wet your appetite, we’ve got an absolutely terrific interview with Jessica. She gives us the intel on Anna Verco, medieval torture devices, the dark magic of Barcelona, conspiracies — and, of course, her writing regime…

Tell us about Anna Verco…

Anna is a twenty-seven year old, American researcher determined to find a palimpsest called The Serpent Papers. She works for Picatrix, an academic body funded by a wealthy individual shrouded in mystery. Anna is an unreliable narrator, obsessive and single-minded in her focus. Her quest for the missing pages of a magical book suddenly becomes a hunt for a serial killer, taking her deep into the dangerous world of Barcelona’s gothic quarter.

Anna arrived three years ago, when I took refuge in a monastery on Majorca, pulling over in the pouring rain. The monastery was closed, but when I knocked on the door a stranger welcomed me inside. The stranger took me into an exquisite library and showed me a medieval manuscript in the monastery’s archive. Anna was born out of my first encounter these ancient books – I saw a young, psychic woman who reflected the vulnerability and strength of the material she handled, who kept her own history secret and spoke a magical, hallucinatory language.

How did you get the inspiration for The Serpent Papers?

The primary source of inspiration emerged from the year I spent living in Barcelona when I was a MA student. During that time I worked as a director’s assistant for the experimental Catalan Theatre company La Fura dels Baus on a production of Titus Andronicus. Lavinia’s fate captivated me, a young, beautiful woman who loses her sovereignty, her hands and her tongue (and finally her life). I invented a killer who took the tongues of his victims and ritualistically carved women’s bodies with the letters of a medieval truth machine. Why? I began building the story out. What did it mean?

I discovered the scold’s bridle, a torture device used to punish talkative women, a metal mask with a blunt spike that pushed down into the tongue of its victim, and began reading about the history of European witchcraft alongside references to Ovid’s gory tale of Philomela the Nightingale. I created a mystical woman, Philomela, who lost her tongue and was rescued by an alchemist in the hills of Majorca in the thirteenth century. The ancient secret she carried became the key to the murders of four women in 2003 in Barcelona.

But there are many other sources of inspiration for The Serpent Papers… before writing the novel I also spent two years living with Rosemary, a 95 year old costume designer whose home was filled with treasures. Rosemary had a long and extraordinary career, working with the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, and the National theatre. She lined the drawers of her wardrobe with scraps of old designs, and was an exceptional engraver. There were two small portraits on the wall – the first of a young, waist-coated Victorian Englishman, the second a beautiful woman in a broad skirt, their countenances framed in gold. These two became Llewellyn Sitwell and Katherine Markham.

I realized I wanted to play with time and found documents, in an unconventional structure. Rosemary had twins, one of whom had died tragically when he was twenty-eight in a motorcycle accident. His memories filled the house, a sadness that infiltrated the story of the Catalan twins Núria and Adrià who become embroiled in the fate of the murdered actress Natalia Hernández. I wanted to write something escapist, rambunctious and darkly entertaining.

The Serpent PapersWhat is it about Spain that makes it such an evocative location for a thriller?

Spain is an evocative location for any story! Barcelona in winter has an ominous quality, a dark magic hangs in bare trees and winding streets and gothic alleyways. The history of the city is remarkably rich, and gives itself naturally to invention.

You’ve been described as a literary Dan Brown – what is it that draws us to historical conspiracies?

Fascination with secrets is a universal human phenomenon. What is behind the closed door? I want to know, don’t you? Historical conspiracies expose hidden truths that break open dominant social traditions. There’s something delicious about that kind of discovery, something compulsive and rewarding, and Dan Brown deals with that phenomenally. I actually think our work is very different. I’m not concerned with historical conspiracies, but I am concerned with secrets, and the legacy of violence and myth. I view history as a palimpsest, one erased text lying beneath another and I desperately want to peel back the layers and look inside. Some people might call my interests arcane, but I believe these arcane details unlock a secret language – a language that sleeps inside fairy tales and fuels strange dreams.

As a feminist and a writer, I felt compelled to explore the history of European witchcraft, alchemy, the Divine Feminine and violence against women. I think of Bluebeard’s wife standing alone with a key, in front of a terrible door.

You come from a family steeped in literature and movies – have you always felt compelled to write?

When I was very young I wanted to write. But I did not have the confidence to take that seriously until a close member of my family was diagnosed with rapid, unremitting Multiple Sclerosis and I found myself writing to cope with the sadness that entered my life.

You’re writing full time now — take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I’m writing, my world is very quiet. Early on I got into the habit of writing before work – up before sunrise to seize an hour before my commute. That habit continues to define my working day. On a typical day, I wake up at 6, stretch before settling into my desk with a double shot of espresso. I write between 6.30 in the morning and noon, breaking once around ten o’clock for a breather and a second coffee.

After lunch I go for a walk, check e-mails and respond to anything urgent. I eat the same meals, fashioned identically and try never to read e-mails or make any phone calls before writing in the morning, as I find it disrupts my creative process. In the late afternoons I edit and exercise for at least an hour. I like running, as it helps me get into a meditative, physical state where ideas often flow in unexpected and exciting directions.

In the evening I make dinner, and read nonfiction – generally thick academic books around the character or environment I’m developing. I’m very method, and immerse myself in my fictional reality. I lucidly dream about the book in the night, and wake up with fresh ideas. At specific points in the process, I try to shake myself up a bit by travelling to the physical location I’m writing about – recently this has meant Barcelona and Mallorca. I make copious notes as I go, and draw pictures of the things I encounter.

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

That it is alive and can’t be forced. I’m confronted with my own weaknesses every day.

How do you deal with feedback?

Constructively. I’m extremely interested to know how people respond to my writing and always take criticism seriously. I’d rather know about what’s not working in the text than what is – and I want to be challenged. I want to be asked: Why? Why have you done this? How can it be pushed further? What isn’t working?

I like to frame issues in optimistic terms: how can a literary device or shift in plot add to the world I’m building, or fix an energy drop in the story? I want to build a dynamic experience for the reader – like a director bringing a performance to life – and that requires an active consideration of the audience’s perspective, even if I disagree.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I admire so many authors…each for individual reasons. Currently I’m deeply inspired by the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. This winter I have been returning to Federico García Lorca and Rubén Darío, and the short fictions of Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls has exerted the greatest influence of any novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, while George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (a book I devoured when I was thirteen) lead me to Spain. Yesterday I started Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, and I have already fallen completely in love … This weekend I also read The Prose Eddas by Snorri Sturluson – an icy Norse mythology that contrasted beautifully with Pamuk’s Istanbul.

Give me some advice about writing…

Every writer has her own patterns, her own sensibility. This makes offering advice complicated. My own sense is that once you find a daily rhythm, stick to this monastic routine with absolute certainty. Listen to how your body moves through thoughts during the day and to try to cultivate a pattern of work that is unique to you… Go to the place you like to write at the same time every day and a habit will form. It doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but I’ve found that the most important thing has been to build consistent rituals of creativity.

What’s next for Anna Verco?

Many mystical things. I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep her destiny hidden for now.

The Intel: Karim Miské

Karim MiskéLast week we reviewed Karim Miské’s freewheeling novel Arab Jazz, which won France’s top crime fiction award in 2012, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Since then his thriller — about the murder of a young woman amid the simmering tensions between faiths in the multicultural 19th arrondissement of Paris — has gained a shocking new aspect in the light of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket in Paris. In this absolutely fascinating interview, writer, documentary film-maker and journalist Miské discusses radicalisation, identity, Marcel Proust and the extraordinary success of his debut novel.

Arab Jazz takes its name from the James Ellroy novel ‘White Jazz’ — and despite its obvious lyricism it’s very much a crime novel… have you always wanted to write in the genre?

I’ve always wanted to write. When I was thirteen, I knew that I’d write a book, one day. What kind of book? I didn’t have a clue. Then, in college, I played for some time with the idea of becoming a genre writer. My model was Jean-Patrick Manchette, the best French crime novelist of the 20th century in my opinion. But in my thirties, I read La Recherche and became more or less obsessed with the idea of becoming the new Marcel Proust. After all, he was half Jewish in a strongly antisemitic society, I was half Arab in a very racist society. Like him, I felt like an undercover alien. Then I came to understand that it was a dead end. Marcel Proust was perfect; there was no need for a new one.

It’s not until I turned 41 (I wish it had been 42, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, but no, it was 41) that I began writing a paragraph about a strange guy named Ahmed. For a very long time, I totally refused to admit that I was writing a crime novel, which is quite strange because this Ahmed guy, the main character of the story, was living a studio flat of which the walls had disappeared behind four layers of detective novels piled up in stacks. As if it was not enough, his neighbour had been assassinated and he was the main suspect! But, no no, I was not writing a Noir. I guess I needed to be in denial to be able to make a very personal use of the genre instead of being absorbed by it.

Tell us about your protagonist Ahmed Taroudant…

Ahmed could be seen as a social misfit. He doesn’t talk to anyone, lives on state subsidies because his depression is so deep that the doctors consider him disabled. He is a day dreamer; literally, his dreams are powerful enough to send him hundreds and thousands of miles away, right in the middle of the desert where his ancestors come from. His memories are so horrific and painful that he needs to replace them with invented horrible stories, that’s why he reads and reads and reads all these thrillers.

He is definitely not adapted to the time and place he lives in: although most of the people surrounding him think of them as Jews or Muslims, as Blacks, Arabs or Berbers, Ahmed doesn’t care. Identity or religion are of no importance to him. Once he wakes up from his long nightmare, he’ll understand, at last, that love is what he is looking for.

Arab Jazz addresses the rise of fundamentalism among alienated young men in Paris – do you think the book would be very different if you had written it after the recent terrible events in the city?

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket where indeed a shock but not really a surprise. After Mohamed Merah murdered French servicemen and Jewish kids in cold blood three years ago, everybody knew that something of the kind would happen again. I think that I would invent the same type of story, were I to write it today. And actually that’s what I did at the time: I got the inspiration for the small Salafist cell in Arab Jazz from the Buttes-Chaumont Jihadi network (the one to which the Kouachi brothers belonged), because it happened in the 19th arrondissement and I read articles about the trial while writing the book. But instead of a Jihadi story, I decided to invent something more personal.

Arab JazzHow have readers reacted to the book in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

Some readers have been writing to me through Facebook after the attacks. Here’s what two of them said. (Both of North-African descent):

  • “I plunged back into Arab Jazz … so prescient … Their war is underway. When I see the faces of the Kouachi brother I see exactly the characters in your book.”
  • “In connection with the sad events of yesterday, were you inspired by the “Buttes Chaumont cell?”
  • Yes, indeed! I wrote the book at that time.
  • “In order to explain to my mother, how youngsters are being radicalized, I took the example of the memories that I had of your novel.”

Ahmed is very much a young man who is striving to reconnect with society – do you think that’s a challenge that will very much preoccupy France and Europe in the coming years?

I like to think of Ahmed as a very unique character but, yes, this challenge will preoccupy all of us for some time. Because it’s becoming more and more difficult to develop the feeling of belonging to a society which think of you as a 5th column, an interior enemy. Today, at a newsstand I saw an ad for L’Express, a French news magazine. The title was: “The Republic facing Islam”. Imagine that you are a young French Muslim walking the streets of Paris or Marseille on a sunny afternoon, happy because you’re going to have a coffee with friends, and you suddenly see this poster. How are you supposed to react to that? How can you imagine that there is a future for you in this society?

There’s a playlist of songs mentioned in the narrative in the back of the book – do you listen to music as you write?

It depends. If I’m in a café like today, I put on my headphones and launch my favourite playlist with 24 hours of music. Sometimes, I take a break, add new songs, delete old ones. But if I’m home, it depends on the state of mind I’m in, and it can evolve very quickly. Sometimes, I listen to half a song and stop it, because I just need silence. Sometimes, I can listen to my playlist for hours.

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

I had to write Arab Jazz two times. The first time I finished the book, I knew that something was wrong. The story was simply not working. So I had to write it again, from the beginning. I guess I had learnt a good lesson: don’t go too quickly. Don’t be over-satisfied.

How do you deal with feedback?

It’s always interesting. At the beginning, some reactions can be hard to swallow, but it’s very important to accept to seen by others. It’s necessary if one wants to progress.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

They are so many. Jean-Patrick Manchette, Honoré de Balzac, James Ellroy, Marguerite Yourcenar, Salman Rushdie, Brett Easton-Ellis, Frantz Fanon, George Orwell, Philip Roth… I’m not going to write all their names down, it would be too long. All the writers I admire expose themselves to what Michel Leiris called “The horn of the bull”. Because literature is a dangerous place, not a comfortable one. Writing can give you a lot of pleasure, of course, but no security.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read a lot. Choose what you read carefully because it will influence your writing. Be patient, you can’t hurry inspiration. Find a good reader. Don’t expect to earn a living with this activity. If it happens it will be a wonderful surprise, but it seldom happens. And when you’re ready, descend into the arena. Face your inner bull.

How do you follow a book that has already won France’s top crime fiction award?

That is the question. It was really cool to receive this award of course, but very intimidating at the same time. Now, everybody is asking me when the next book is going to be published and I have not yet begun writing it. Well, to be honest, I have almost finished writing an essay on identity (how surprising), so, the next book should actually be published by the end of the year in France. Maybe that’s my way of undermining the challenge: writing an essay instead of a novel. But the novel will be written. I’m beginning to know the story, and it feels good.