Monday, 17 September 2012

Story Fridays, A Word in Your Ear

Very happily, I'll be reading at this event in Bath this Friday, 21 September. They've chosen The Catwalk is a Landing Strip, a flash I wrote a few years back, inspired by a strange dream. I know, I know, such a writerly thing to say...
But, I'd love for you to come along to Bath on Friday and hear me read. If you miss this one, I'll be up again on Saturday 20 October, at the Hooper House in Bristol, as part of Unputdownable.
And I have some lovely news about MShed's new exhibition, Real and Imagined Lives, which opens at around the same time. A little story of mine will be accompanying one of their portraits of a celebrity with a Bristol connection...
Watch this space (that's not an annoying teaser, it's the title of the story).

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

If you've ever bemoaned the tendency of the publishing industry to leap on bandwagons just as they're bowling out of town, or yawned over serial formulas and longed for more complex plots with more compelling characters and more compassion damn it, from the author, then stand by your beds. Alex Marwood has delivered a book that packs a genuinely surprising punch.
One fateful summer morning in 1986, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and by the end of the day are charged with murder. Twenty-five years later, journalist Kirsty Lindsay is reporting on a series of sickening attacks on young female tourists in a seaside town when her investigation leads her to interview funfair cleaner Amber Gordon. For Kirsty and Amber, it's the first time they've seen each other since that dark day when they were just children. But with new lives - and families - to protect, will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?
This blurb, for a cracking first crime novel, hardly does justice to the content, which is political, unsettling and multi-layered. The girls of the title are glimpsed at intervals, barely recognisable now as Amber and Kirsty, the grown women at the centre of the story. On the flip of a judicial coin, the eleven year olds are sent to very different juvenile detention units. One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is recognising how their experiences altered them, and what (if anything) remains of the children they once were.
This is a crime novel in which the crime takes a backseat to the characters. That won't satifsy every reader. But if I tell you that the concept of crime is explored here - what part society plays, the price of forgiveness, the tenuous mercy of the tabloid press through whose lens the majority of us experience and judge crimes - you'll know to expect a richly rewarding read.
Marwood, herself a journalist, writes with authority: clear, fearless prose that refuses to march to the tune of so much commercial crime fiction. She won't deliver us to a point of reassurance, nor will she sugar the pill of ambiguity, which for me is the best reason to love this book, the ending of which is perfectly - painfully - suspended for our judgement, and our mercy.
If all that makes this sound like heavy work for a reader, it's not. The story rattles at a great pace, peopled by likeable and unlikeable characters, dollops of plot twists and surprises along the way. But there are lots of great plotters out there. What's rare is to find a writer that makes us really think and ask questions, of ourselves and our society. This story will disturb your sleep, not because of the monsters it introduces to us, but because of the monsters we already know. 
The Wicked Girls. £6.99. Sphere 2012.

Cultural writing and inspiration: Pangea blog tour

Pangea is writing 'for all worlds', with 25 authors across 13 countries, giving a rich flavour of what's influencing and inspiring today's short story writers. I asked two Pangea authors, one with links to South Africa (Liesl Jobson) and the other to India (Fehmida Zakeer), how important their roots were in their writing. Did they feel they'd have written differently – or about another subject – if they'd been born or were rasied or lived elsewhere?

Fehmida: I was thrilled when my story was chosen by Rebecca and Indira for the anthology especially because when I was writing it I never thought it would appeal to readers who are not familiar with the cultural background of the story.  It was a pleasant surprise when fellow members of the short story group appreciated it and an even more surprise when it was chosen. The story though set in India, is set in a small geographical area where practices differ greatly from the mainstream, so I was doubtful whether the finer details would strike a chord, but happily I was wrong. My cultural roots makeup the background for this story ― so yes, I think I would have written this story just as it is at some point even if I were living somewhere else.

I’d like to ask Liesl: though set in a different culture, in your story Boston Brown Bread, the mother's restraint and the barely contained impatience of the father was disturbingly familiar - it seemed as though some things are part of the global culture. The mother's dignity comes through in her calm replies, so too her helplessness. I loved your sensitive handling of the topic, the setting of the story, the slow and measured build up, the explosion waiting at each you plan the course of your stories beforehand or start out with an idea and see where it takes you?

Liesl: As the flattened vowels of my accent and the vloekwoorde (cuss words) that fly from my mouth affect the inflection and define the recognisability of my voice, so the manner of my observations of my place in the world informs my tales. As my pale skin that burns and turns to freckles inherited from my French Hugenot, German and Scottish ancestors is integral to how I appear visually in the world, so my interpretations of my country's dark history, and my reflections on the contemporary post-Apartheid culture are integral to the body of my writing.

In a sense one might rather ask, "How can they not be?" The primary goal of my writing is to know where I am – in my mind or out of my body – rather than to locate me in a city or continent. I want to know the precise location of my connections, the orientation of my relationships, the direction of my politics and the evolution of my religion. The journey into text is where I find my compass.

In writing about a child observing his parents’ marriage crack under pressure, I came to view the symbolic fissures that threaten the surface of my being. In writing about a middle aged woman learning to row that a bigger metaphor emerges about how I find my own balance. The stories I've written often show a whole lot to me about where I was at the time of writing that I didn't necessarily see at the time. My mother finds my old stories and says, Look! Here! Was the writing on the wall?

Writing is inevitably a way of homecoming at the most elemental level, a return to the core Self of the parts that split off in the daily business of living and get lost. My narratives are never planned. They always arrive, surprising me. The characters that appear are usually some aspect of myself, entirely symbolic, of course, but that is the medium of narrative.

This thumbnail definition of writing comes to you fresh from a recent visit to my psychotherapist, which is a rather expensive form of storytelling. Psychotherapy is a great way to become a writer, but it is frightfully slow. Probably there are faster ways of telling good stories but I haven't found them.

I’d like to ask Fehmida if she too sees writing as a kind of homecoming?

Fehmida: Exactly, writing forces me to look at things that bother me, forces me to look at things from a fresh angle. In writing about the bride looking through bits of fabric, I was trying to make sense of the bits and pieces that make up life, how circumstances change and how we adapt or are forced to adapt. It was also about dull and bright colours, fast colours that run, earthy ones that stay same...though in the final version this part is not immediately apparent.

My narratives start off as loops inside my head, and only the most persistent ones come down, the characters that refuse to go away until I write about most of the time I’m familiar with my characters, I have lived with them for some days or weeks, I know their little quirks and fears...once everything is put down, there is a sense of relief, the nag-nag in my head disappears and I feel free.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts about writing and where it takes you. Readers can explore a world of stories in Pangea, and your two stories are perfect examples of that.


Fehmida Zakeer lives in the southern city of Chennai in India where she works sometimes as a freelance journalist and other times as an Instructional Designer. Her articles have been published in various Indian and International publications including Azizah, Herbs for Health, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, Prevention, and Child. Her stories and poems have been published in various online journals. You can read an in-depth interview with her, here.
South African writer and photographer, Liesl Jobson, is the author of 100 Papers, a collection of prose poems and flash fiction, and View from an Escalator, a volume of poetry. She won the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Award for Creative Writing for her collection, 100 Papers, was shortlisted in 2010 for the Sean O'Faolain Short Story Competition for On the Night South Africa is Effectively Eliminated from the World Cup, the Thomas Pringle Short Story Award for Help, and the PEN/Studzinski Short Story Competition for It Isn't Pretty. She edits Poetry International South Africa, and is a senior correspondent for Books LIVE. Liesl shares her book news, here.
You can buy the Pangea anthology, here

Monday, 10 September 2012

Crawl Space welcomes Emlyn Rees

Emlyn Rees writes thrillers and comedies, including the Sunday Times bestseller, Come Together. If that’s not enough, he’s also the editor of Angry Robot’s crime imprint, Exhibit A, which is getting rave reviews in the publishing press. Welcome to Crawl Space, Emlyn!

A pleasure to be here - although it is a bit cramped...and these handcuffs do tend to chafe...

Q. Yes, they're on loan from Blackpool Dungeon... You wrote your first crime novel in your mid-20s then spent time writing comedies before you turned to thrillers. A natural circuit, or do you have a secret formula for success?

The older I get, the more I realise that you don’t get much choice in what you write. Books tend to choose you and not the other way round, depending on what your obsessions are at the time. Back in the 90’s, when I still had hair and smart phones didn’t render so many good plot strands untenable, I wrote one crime novel (The Book of Dead Authors) and one thriller (Undertow, which is being re-released by Constable & Robinson in a couple of months). My plan back then was to continue writing thrillers, which I was pretty much exclusively reading at the time, but then I met novelist Josie Lloyd. We got a tad squiffy in a bar one night and started telling each other far too much about our private lives and laughing about it. Then one of us (neither of us can remember who) came up with the idea of writing a “his/hers” view on modern relationships, which we’d tell in alternating “he said/she said” chapters. I sent Jo the first chapter a couple of weeks later and she sent one back. The book that came out of all this was Come Together. We were lucky in that it hit a chord with a lot of people and did very well, so much so that we ended up writing another six novels together - oh yeah, and getting married and having three kids too. All the time, though, I was writing thriller short stories and that’s where the character Danny Shanklin came from. It finally reached a point where he kind of demanded a full length novel of his own.

Q.  Tell us a bit about Danny Shanklin, the hero of your new thriller, Hunted. And maybe give us a sly spoiler for Wanted, your next book.

The thinking behind Danny Shanklin was always that I wanted him to be the one guy you would want on your side in a fight. But this was never going to be just about the fact that he’s very physically capable, it was also about wanting him to be morally the kind of guy you’d want on your side as well. I also wanted him to be realistic, meaning he’s not perfect and doesn’t always win in every situation he finds himself in. In fact, it’s very much the failures in his past and his desire to absolve himself that drives him. I’m in the process of tying up Wanted now and all I’ll say is this: not everyone makes it through till the end...

Q. Excellent, I love a downbeat ending. So, crime or thriller? Which rocks your boat, as a writer, reader and editor?

Ha. A tricky one. As an author, it’s got to be thriller (and I like the fact you refer to ‘crime’ and ‘thriller’ as separate sub-genres, because I really do think thrillers deserve their own spot). Writing a thriller is like driving a very fast car, with your foot pushing harder and harder down on the accelerator. It’s a buzz and one that’s highly addictive too. As a reader and editor, I consume all types of crime and thrillers. A well-constructed suspense novel can hook me in just as quickly as a chase thriller. I try to read as broadly as I can.

Q. Comedy question: I read on your blog that you mixed cocktails for Princess Anne and Sylvester Stallone. Which one had the Harvey Wallbanger? And what’s your favourite tipple?

Neither! Princess Anne does have special ice cubes, though, made out of Highland Spring Water. And why not? If one could, one would...

Q. That's posh for you... You’re the editor of Exhibit A. I can only imagine the heady power that comes with that role, given that you’re also a bestselling author. Have you ever been tempted to nobble the competition when it comes to new publishing deals?

I’d say privilege, rather than power. It’s a real kick to have been tasked with hunting out new talent for Exhibit A and there’s nothing more exciting than finding a new voice that you know plenty of other readers will be drawn to. But as far as ‘nobbling’ goes, I’m planning on steering well clear of that. The reverse is more likely, in fact, in that I’m often drawn to the kind of thrillers I write myself, whereas I want the Exhibit A list to be much broader in terms of its appeal to the crime reading community as a whole.

Q. That sounds like a good plan. In your role as editor, when was the last time you got really excited by a new manuscript – and what made it stand out from the crowd?

There’s not been a week gone by this year when I haven’t seen at least one exciting new novel. There are a lot of great UK writers out there looking to find a home at the moment. But Exhibit A is going to be publishing simultaneously in paperback as well as digital in the UK and US from next May, meaning that I get a lot of great US crime submissions too. My biggest problem is not finding books then, but choosing which ones to champion, because we’ll only be publishing fourteen books a year. We’re a commercial crime fiction imprint, focused on big ideas, big characters and, above all, big stories. And so whenever I spot something that ticks these boxes and, even better, is something I’ve never seen before, that’s when I really start to buzz.

Q. I'm envious of your job! Okay. Jason Bourne, James Bond and Danny Shanklin in a tube train loaded with Semtex. Who’d come out alive, and why?

Danny. No doubt about it. He’s a big boy scout at heart. Meaning he’s always prepared and would have already secretly snipped the bomb fuse before climbing aboard, and would only be using the continued threat of the train’s imminent explosion to sweat the other two into confessing which of them is a double agent...

Danny's my kind of guy. Thanks, Emlyn. See you in the bar at Bristol, or Harrogate.

Thanks. Make mine a scotch. And don’t skimp on the Highland Spring Water ice cubes.

Emlyn Rees’ Hunted is out in paperback now. Find out more at his website, here. Exhibit A publishes commercial crime novels. Check them out, here.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Ngaio Marsh Award 2012: Best Crime Novel

Huge congratulations to Neil Cross for winning this award, deservedly, for his cracking crime novel, Luther: The Calling. You can read about the award and the judging process, here. And here's my review of the winning novel, which originally appeared in Eurocrime (and on Neil Cross' website). I'll be interviewing Neil Cross here soon.
This is much more than a TV tie-in. It's a novel written by the creator and sole writer of hit BBC drama, Luther. Written as a prequel to the first series, it shows us how Luther became the man we met on television.
DCI John Luther is a man in crisis. His marriage is falling apart. He hasn't slept in weeks, maybe months. His work is nearly killing him. "His heart is a furnace", Cross tells us - and shows us, again and again. Luther will beat up suspects, set fire to their cars, dangle their pets over balconies; whatever it takes to get results.

With his hero liable to cross the line twice before breakfast, Cross is obliged to serve up a cast of villains so dark and twisted they make Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill look like boy scouts. His psychopath Henry is one of the scariest people to crawl off the page in years. The passages told through Henry's point of view are starkly edited and incredibly powerful. That we never quite learn the reasons behind his actions, is probably a good thing.

Fans of the TV show will know how it ends for Henry, but Cross serves up some truly sickening twists and surprises along the way. There are a couple of instances where the narrative threatens to stray into farce, by virtue of being so unforgivingly gruesome, but Cross keeps a tight rein on his words and denies us the light relief of being able to laugh at his monster.

Cross is candid in crediting Idris Elba, the actor who plays Luther, with much of the physical sense of his hero and, on the page, this story shares the editing technique and visual power of the screen version. But, more than anything, it's an astounding book in its own right.

Unapologetic, brutal and stunning - in the very real sense of that word - this is a novel that takes the extreme premise of the TV drama further than it would be allowed to go on-screen. In doing this, Cross makes the best possible use of the print medium. Novels shock in different ways to television. The shock feels more personal. The images summoned by his words stay in your head in a way that the on-screen images do not.

This is the point at which most reviews would say 'Not for the faint-hearted', but that cliche is redundant in this context. If you weren't faint-hearted when you started reading, you'll feel it by the end. Whole passages are carried on an adrenaline wave that leaves the reader shaking and in fear of what comes next. If you don't suffer nightmares after finishing this book, you're a stronger reader than me.

No doubt about it, Cross is an amazing writer, capable of lyricism and pathos as well as some of the most traumatising scenes you're ever likely to experience in a mainstream crime novel.