Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



An Interview with ANTONIN VARENNE

image003 (1) Name: ANTONIN VARENNE

Author of: BED OF NAILS (2012)
                      LOSER’S CORNER (2014)
                      RETRIBUTION ROAD (2017)

Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.

Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.

The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?

Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.

And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?

The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.

One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?

It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.

What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?

Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?

A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!

If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?

Thank you once again, Antonin, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with ANGELA SLATTER

angela slatter Name: ANGELA SLATTER

Author of: VIGIL (2016)

On the web:

On Twitter: @AngelaSlatter

Angela Slatter is an award-winning short story writer with the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards to her name. Vigil is her first novel, introducing the world to Verity Fassbinder and the weird (and, indeed, Weyrd) happenings in Brisbane.

Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me on the blog! 🙂

When Vigil opens, we find ourselves introduced to the central character, Verity Fassbinder, as if in passing. There is a sense of a huge and storied history here, only some of which is revealed as the plot proceeds. She is an intriguing character and the reader comes away with the impression that this is not the first of her adventures that she has recounted. Has Verity appeared in your fiction before, or will you be revisiting earlier adventures as the series progresses?

Verity started out in a short story called “Brisneyland by Night”. There’s also a story called “Here Today” that I wrote for a project called The 24-Hour Book for if:book Australia. When I wrote Vigil I incorporated a lot of that first short story into the plot. I feel like there’s still a lot of iceberg underneath as far as her back story is concerned and I hope to get the opportunity to plumb it at some stage! Some more of her family history will come out in Corpselight and Restoration.

With the exception of a kind of super-strength inherited from her Weyrd father, Verity seems relatively normal (or Normal). At heart, the book feels like a hard-boiled detective novel, with Verity playing the role of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. How easy was it to find her voice, and did you set out to write urban fantasy with a hint of crime, or crime with a hint of urban fantasy?

I set out to write a short story that was inflected by that hard-boiled/noirish tone … I was at Clarion South and wrote “Brisneyland by Night”, which eventually became the novel Vigil. But I was aware that hard-boiled is done a lot. I mean, a lot. And I wanted to add differences to the story, so what makes the crime different? Add the urban fantasy element, make your antagonists mythical/biblical/fairy-tale, etc. And make your protagonist not someone with nothing in her life, no bitter divorce, hard-drinking, hard-smoking PI, but a fairly practical woman just trying to get on with life and her job. Just trying to balance a normal life with a Weyrd job.

One of the central characters in the novel is the city of Brisbane itself. To most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s little more than a dot on a map. How did you go about bringing the city to life, and infusing it with the sense of strange that seems to define it within Vigil?

I suppose it’s about thinking on all of the stuff that’s struck me a wonderful or strange or annoying about the city over the years and framing that for someone who doesn’t know the place. Rolling it into a joke (like the stuff about the restaurants closing early − alas, not actually a joke) and presenting it so someone understands what you’re saying, making it relatable. Also, lying! Making things up − like the tunnels under the city. There are some old sewer tunnels around, one of them is in fact preserved in the King George Square Bus Station (the Wheat Creek Culvert), but it’s about imagining more and making your lies convincing and interesting. About presenting the city as a slightly different thing to what it is, showing it the way it might be if all the “what if?” questions were answered!

Blog tour posterThe Weyrd is a mish-mash of different mythologies and legends, but you’ve eschewed the more obvious faeries and goblins for more obscure creatures: sirens with feathers rather than scales, angels and various other creatures of a hundred different underworlds. How much research was involved in the creation of the world and its inhabitants and how did you make sure you kept everything grounded in something resembling reality?

I have always been a huge reader and researcher of mythology and fables, legends, fairy and folk tales, and general weird stuff and I wanted the Weyrd to be a catch-all for that. There’s a lot of information floating around in my head that’s been stashed there for years, and it’s just waiting to be used. I want the Verity stories to have that sense of there is no reigning or privileged mythology, that we are all in this world and we’ve all got our beliefs, but no one path is right or exclusive, that there are all of these mythical creatures pushing up against each other, that the worlds bleed into each other; that we’re all in a crowded elevator together, hoping the cables don’t break.

But I really do need to start my own Weyrd Bestiary to keep things straight in my head. Kathleen Jennings should illustrate it!

You’re currently working on the second book in the series, Corpselight. Can you tell us anything about it, and what we should expect, given the game-changer that closes Vigil?

Hmmmm, difficult to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that Verity’s got a couple more challenges on the way and a lot of dark secrets from her family’s past − mostly her father’s side − coming back to haunt her. I sort of like having her trying to manage an ordinary life alongside all of these things she just can’t control … a metaphor for existence, I guess.

And do you have a longer-term view of where the story is going, with a definite end-point, or is the plan to take it one book at a time?

I know where the first trilogy arc is going, so yes, that’s all planned. I have a second trilogy very vaguely plotted, but whether that sees the light of day will depend on the success of Vigil, Corpselight and Restoration.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, John Connolly, M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Nancy Kress, J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Hambly … I should stop now.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Not really. That’s kind of a non-question for me − I love those books because they’re uniquely someone else’s voice, so if I’d written them they wouldn’t be someone else’s … that’s the appeal of another writer’s fiction, that it is so different from your own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Angela Slatter look like?

I work from home, so it’s easy to get to the office, and because I work from home I need to be very aware of behaving as if I’m in an office. So I start at 8.30am have lunch between 1-2pm, finish work at 5.30pm. Anything after that is a bonus − as my main publishers are in either the US or the UK I tend to deal with their email correspondence late at night.

I check my emails first, prioritise them, then I check over my to-do list and make sure there are no deadlines hurtling towards me … or rather, I check which deadlines are hurtling towards me, and then I prioritise tasks for the day. At the moment, I’m doing the edits on the sequel to Vigil, Corpselight, and finishing up the plotting framework for the third book in the series, Restoration; I’ve got two short stories due by the end of July; the Vigil launch is happening on 19 July so preparing for that; waiting on proofs of a new UK collection; editing the third and final Sourdough book; plotting a series of three novellas to pitch somewhere … those are the top priorities. I’m heading to the UK in August for Nine Worlds, a gig in Newcastle at Novocastria Macabre with Robert Shearman, and the inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival, so I need to get a lot of things out of the way before travelling.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My standard reply to that is:

· Keep writing.

· Learn your craft and never, ever think you know it all.

· Develop a thick skin, but realise that story criticism is aimed at making the story better, not at making you feel bad about yourself. Find people whose opinions you respect and trust.

· Remember: it’s always better to have someone find problems with a story before you send it out into the world.

· Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships with other writers and publishers, not just about you getting what you can.

· Don’t send Facebook friend requests to other writers and then ask them to like your page and buy your book: (a) it’s just rude, and (b) other writers are not generally your audience. That’s my personal bugbear!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading Stephen Gallagher’s Kingdom of Bones, Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt The Night (again, it’s a frequent comfort re-read), Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, and in the queue I’ve got China Miéville’s The Census Taker, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Rjurick Davidson’s The Stars Askew, and Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell.

If Vigil, or indeed, the Verity Fassbinder series as a whole, should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

There are a lot of these questions about, and I suppose in today’s world it’s a natural kind of correlation − once it was just a dream you kept to yourself, nowadays it’s an actual slim possibility. I still don’t know about Verity and have been wracking my brain on that one. You need a mostly Australian cast to make it work properly. For my sirens, I’d love Elizabeth Debicki as Serena, Cate Blanchett as Eurycleia, Robyn Nevin as Ligeia. Chris Hemsworth might well work for Tobit (must have hair dyed), Stellan Skarsgård as Ziggi, and I’m still tossing up between Michael Fassbender or Eric Bana for Bela. Oh, and the Norns … must think about that …

Actually, wait, wait. The hivemind has suggested Sarah Snook as Verity. She’s a very good candidate!

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Haha! Angela Carter. I think she would probably drink tea. I would go for coffee. We might look at each other with vague disapproval until we realised we should probably just have a whiskey and all would be well.

Thank you once again, Angela, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

You’re more than welcome!

An Interview with MATTHEW BLAKSTAD


Author of: SOCKPUPPET (2016)

On the web:

On Twitter: @mattblak

Matthew Blakstad’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and a member of the Crime Writers Association and The Prime Writers.

Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure!

The central storyline of Sockpuppet might have been ripped from the headlines: the theft of personal data; incompetence and cover-your-ass mentality of government organisations. Let’s talk about the book’s origins – what was the seed, and did the finished product in any way resemble your original vision?

It’s true – life has been showing a worrying tendency to replicate events from my book. Microsoft’s chatbots going rogue, the government launching its digital ID service – even a political scandal called #piggate! Of course a lot of that is just fluke but I think it also reflects the fact that Sockpuppet is based on a lot of research. The scandal that engulfs my government minister, Bethany Lehrer, is based on any number of recent examples.

But the roots of the book go a lot further back for me. Its earliest incarnation came in 2001, when I tried to write a novel about the dot com crash. But like many newbie writers, I was trying too hard to put across all my (I thought) brilliant ideas. Good novels don‘t start that way. They begin and end with character and conflict. So that first book was pretty bad and it’s now consigned to a drawer. Still, elements of it have found their way into Sockpuppet – not least one of the central characters, maverick hacker Dani Farr.

The idea for Sockpuppet proper came some years later, when I heard about a friend of a friend who was trying to build himself a fake identity, by leaving a false data trail across websites, phone records and credit card transactions. I was fascinated by this idea of carving out a new identity from data alone; and that became the seed of the novel. The story fell into place very quickly after that. Although I’ve honed and tightened it a lot since that first draft, it was already pretty much the book it is today.

The book deals very heavily with the concept of “identity”, both on the macroscopic scale – the theft of personal data of millions of people – and on the microscopic, or more personal, level – Dani Farr’s media gauntlet and the many different versions of her that seem to exist – and also dabbles with the concept of machine intelligence, programmed “personalities” designed to beat the Turing Test. It’s a storyline based on solid fact and you’ve built a lot of detail into the narrative. Tell us about your research approach: where did you start? Did the story evolve as you found more information?

My research process is pretty simple: I read voraciously and I talk to lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. I’m a bit of a magpie, picking up information here, there and everywhere. When you’re writing about contemporary tech, you can’t only rely on books, because they’re produced on a time lag of at least a year and the information in them stales quickly; so I glean a lot from blogs and other online sources. To research the social media milieu of Sockpuppet I spent way too much time on Reddit.

While I’m fossicking around like this, I start to jot down little prose sketches – images, snatches of scenes. Gradually, characters and scenes grow out of these. When I’m ready, I sit down and hammer out an outline, including character pen portraits and a plot summary. Then I dive into a first draft.

The research process doesn’t stop there, though. I like to break a cardinal rule of fiction writing, by continuing to do research through most of the writing process. The received wisdom says you should completely finish your research, let it percolate inside you a while, and only then start to write. That doesn’t work for me. Partly this is because I’m writing about things that are in constant flux, but it also reflects my approach to writing. For me the first few drafts are a process of constant enquiry. Little pieces of a puzzle keep falling into place as I ask myself, What if this happened? How does that work? What would this character do in this situation? And these questions inevitably lead to more research.

As an extension to that: your writing, much like that of Neal Stephenson, is a combination of narrative (often filled with black humour) and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right: enough detail to satisfy readers who know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it turns into a lecture and sends the more “casual” reader to sleep?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.

My motivation is a little different. I think I’m more interested in the interior, rather than the active dimension. When I look at the world today, so much of people’s time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices. Our sense of identity and our place in the world are constructed in large part on-screen. This is something fiction should be responding to, and interpreting back to us. That’s what art is for. But I don’t always see this happening in a lot of ‘serious’ fiction. Of course that’s much less true of genre fiction, but the stuff at the front of the bookshop often ignores tech completely, apart from the occasional clumsy use of Facebook messaging. (There is of course a whole other discussion to be had about why genre fiction isn’t in the front of the bookshop, but let’s not go there now.) I think many writers see tech as an unfit subject for the creative imagination.

So to answer your question, I wanted to find a way to write engagingly, and well, about technology and techies. I tried to give Sockpuppet a language and a voice that incorporates the distinctive modes of speech and patterns of thought associated with technology. And it’s hard to write about this stuff without becoming dry and cold. You need to find ways of reflecting the rich emotional experiences people have online. The character of Dani really helped me find a way into this. Her online experience is, I hope, every bit as rich and dark and complex as that of a romantic hero striding across a moorland.

But I didn’t want the book to appeal only to people who already understand the digital world. So a lot of the story is seen through the eyes of Bethany, who is older and to a large extent turned off by tech, even though she’s the government minister responsible for it. She describes herself as not so much a digital native, more a ‘digital shipwreck’. Part of my intent in writing her character was to create a route into the world of the book for people who feel a bit like Bethany, when they see how their endlessly SnapChatting children have taken to these machines since birth.

One of the gratifying things about early responses to the book is that non-technical people have found the book as engaging and revealing as those at the nerdier end of the scale. I get a lot of people saying, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So I guess that’s a win.

Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle. Martingale herself appears only briefly in the story, in the form of flashbacks, though her book The Electronic Radical, informs much of the story’s philosophy. I’m intrigued as to how you can build a cycle of books around a character who no longer exists – are we likely to see books set in earlier time periods, or will Elyse Martingale continue to influence events from beyond the grave?

The character of Elyse Martingale was a twentieth century computer pioneer and political radical. She died in the 90s so her presence in Sockpuppet is through the long shadow she’s cast over the techies and protestors who inhabit the book. But yes, I do intend to take the Cycle back in time as well as forward – to tell stories set in Elyse’s own lifetime. I have the whole Cycle mapped out at a high level, including two Elyse stories, though no doubt the plan will evolve as I go along.

The idea is that each book will stand alone, and that they can be read in any order – but the more of them you read, the more they’ll stitch together an alternative history of technology and protest.

Looking to the future, do you have a definitive end-point for the Cycle, or are you taking it a book at a time? Are we likely to see the characters at the centre of Sockpuppet – both real and not-real – in future instalments?

Sockpuppet is book one in the Cycle, and we’ve already put out a short e-novella called Fallen Angel, which is book zero. This takes place in the dot-com boom – around the turn of the millennium – and it contains some important prehistory to Sockpuppet. I’m now working on a near-future sequel to Sockpuppet (book two) and I’ve already written most of a story set in the late 60’s, among the futurists and early hackers of that time (which will probably be book minus one). Beyond that I have one more book planned, which is set in the late 1940’s, plus a short story set in the future – but I’m keeping my options open about future titles!

Along with Elyse Martingale herself, the books share a number of recurring characters, family connections and overlapping plot elements. The tech entrepreneur Sean Perce, for instance, appears in both Sockpuppet and Fallen Angel; and a number of other characters from both books will appear in other stories. I hope the reader may find that their feelings about a character based on their appearance in one book are challenged when they re-encounter them in another.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

We’ve already touched on Neal Stephenson. Along with him, I love William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Phillip K Dick – the usual suspects! These are some of the more direct influences on my style and subject matter – but I’m a really eclectic reader, so I’ve absorbed elements from a pretty diverse pool of writers. I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I can never remember that single book or movie that’s the perfect example of something or other. I’m sure the perfect answer will pop into my brain the second this interview goes live. But I think for now I’ll say, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which is the first part of his New York Trilogy. This is the book I’ve reread most over the years; and it still blows my mind each time, in its concision, its downright weirdness, and the way it repurposes the hardboiled detective story to mind-bending effect. It’s like a Philip K Dick Novel written by Camus.

There’s also a brilliant comic book adaptation of it by David Mazzucchelli, which like all good adaptations is a distinct work of art in its own right. Both are highly recommended.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Matthew Blakstad look like?

As well as being a novelist I have a Monday-to-Thursday day job, so a lot of my writing is done in brief snatches – in cafés, on the bus to work – whenever I can grab the time. I’m lucky that I’m able to keep working on a book in the back of my mind while I’m going about my busy day-to-day existence. So time spent actually sitting at the keyboard is something of a luxury – and it’s always productive. When I sit down on a Friday or weekend morning to do a full day’s writing, I feel like the words are already waiting in my fingers, primed and ready to type. I often find the day has suddenly turned into evening, and I’m sitting with sore eyes and ever sorer shoulders, wondering where the hell the past eight hours went. I suspect if I was a full-time writer I’d struggle much more with the glare of the blank sheet of paper, but the way things are, that’s never been a problem.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write. And keep on writing. I wish there was a short cut but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, I sweated over a first failed attempt at a novel, and I’m really glad I did. It was a ladder I had to climb before throwing it away, on my way to writing a better novel. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of your system before the good writing comes. And of course I’m still learning.

Another key to becoming a good writer is to first become a good reader. Critiquing other people’s work develops your ‘ear’ for good and bad prose, and the more you do this, the easier it becomes to see the flaws in your own work. A great way to make this happen is to join a writer’s group, where everyone submits a passage of their work every few weeks and gets feedback from the others. This peer review approach is a big part of how writing courses like Faber Academy work. I did a FA course, and it was a real turning point. This was a few years back now, but seven or eight people from my class still meet every month and review each other’s work. They’re still the first people to read my stuff and I trust them implicitly because we’ve all exposed our worst and best to each other along the way. It’s invaluable.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Both! As part of my research for Martingale book 2, I’m reading The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz, the digital activist who died tragically young and was appallingly treated by the US authorities. I don’t want to myth-make about a young man who was taken too soon but the truth is, he was a brilliant mind and a terrible loss.

I’ve also just started Our Endless Numbered Days by my fellow Prime Writer [LINK:], Claire Fuller. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to read this one. It’s extraordinary – beautiful and dark, with a brilliantly twisted take on the survivalist post-apocalyptic narrative.

If Sockpuppet should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

That’s hard! I used to be a professional actor myself when I was a kid, but I’d make a terrible casting director. Still, since you ask, here’s an all-Game-of-Thrones cast list that’s for some reason just popped into my head:

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, would be amazing as the ballsy, shoot-from-the-hip Dani. Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) could carry off Bethany’s patrician manner – and lace it with just the right dose of vulnerability. To complete the set, Sean Bean could play his bullish Burnely namesake Sean Perce. (He’s a bit old but I’m sure with a slap of foundation he could pull it off.)

In terms of directors, Joe Cornish of Attack the Block fame gave the book a lovely quote for the cover, so he’d definitely have first refusal. He’d do amazing things with it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

In my experience, genre writers are definitely the most fun. Especially in the bar at two in the morning. If I had to pick just one I’d probably go for Neil Gaiman because you could talk to him about literally anything and he’d have something fascinating and unexpected take on the subject. For drinks, I imagine he’d be happy with some fine craft ale or other. I know I would. But if he insisted on drinking, I don’t know, faerie mead or some such, then I’d be game.

Thank you once again, Matthew, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web:

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

Thank you, Zen, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

If Sorcerer to the Crown should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

Thank you once again, Zen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks for the questions!

An Interview with STEVE CAVANAGH

stephen_mearns_2 Name: STEVE CAVANAGH

Author of: THE DEFENCE (2015)

On the web:

On Twitter: @SSCav

Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast, where he currently works as a practicing solicitor in the field of civil rights law. The Defence is his first novel.

Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to chat with us.

No problem, it’s my pleasure.

Modern Irish crime writers seem to take one of two routes: they write about Ireland and all the baggage that comes with it, or they take their fiction on the road. Eddie Flynn is a New York-based lawyer. Was there any sort of decision-making process around whether you should write Irish crime fiction and, if so, why did you choose the American route?

There are a few reasons I chose to base the book in the US. One thing that stands out to me is that I’m mainly influenced by American crime writers and books set in the US. Michael Connelly is a major influence and I would’ve read mostly US based fiction – although in recent years there has been more of a balance between US, UK and Irish fiction. The other major factor was that I wanted to write a legal thriller and that creates its own difficulties if you set that book in Northern Ireland. Largely because we have a dual system of representation; if you find yourself in court you will have a solicitor and a barrister representing you. The solicitor does most of the early court appearances and prepares the case for trial and the barrister performs the role of the trial advocate. At the time I didn’t feel confident about creating two lead characters – particularly when one character, the barrister, would inevitably be the one doing all the cool courtroom scenes. It didn’t seem balanced to me. So I felt setting the book in the US solved that problem as attorneys in America perform both roles and I could concentrate on a single lead character to focus the story.

Your short story “The Grey” was included in the recent Belfast Noir anthology, so you obviously have no qualms about writing fiction set in your native city. Do you see yourself producing anything novel-sized in the future?

I might well do, but not at the moment. I’m very pleased to have that short story in the anthology, and it was fun to write, but I’m not sure about a full length novel set in Belfast. Part of the reason I wrote The Defence was to have a little escape from the day job of being a lawyer. I do some work in the criminal courts so murder and mayhem in Belfast is still my 9 – 5 and I didn’t particularly want to come home and write about it at night. Maybe if I ever become a full time writer I’ll consider it. I do have an idea for a Belfast based character but at the moment I’m not sure if that story would be best told in a novel or on the screen.

The Defence puts us firmly in the head of Eddie Flynn, a con-man turned lawyer, which gives him a somewhat unique perspective on how the law works. How much research did you find yourself doing to get the detail – both of setting and of American judicial procedures, etc. – right?

I can tell you there was a tonne of research done into the legal procedures and virtually none of it made it into the book. I have textbooks on US criminal procedures, I’ve been taught by American lawyers and I strive to get it right but not let it interrupt the flow of the story. In terms of the setting, I also did a lot of research into New York City, and ultimately I took the Ed McBain approach and decided that some of the locations should be fictionalised, the courthouse in particular. There was a courthouse on Chambers Street, but it’s now the department of Education’s head office. I took that courthouse and made it bigger and more grand for the book. I wanted the reader to get a sense of New York, so again a lot of research and not much made it onto the page, but I felt as though I was informed enough to write about it. The other great advantage to setting your book in New York is that the reader already has a strong mental image of that city already, even if they’ve never been there.

What’s next for Eddie? There’s always an assumption with this kind of character that they’re a series character. Is this the case with Eddie, or have you set your sights elsewhere for your second novel?

No mistake about it, I’m writing a series. Eddie is such a fascinating character, to me at least, that for the moment all I want to do is write about him. That may change down the line, of course. I’ve always loved series characters and I envisaged this as a series from the very first book. The second book in the series has the working title – The Plea. It’s a much more complex book, but it hopefully retains the key ingredients from The Defence.

When it comes to thrillers, there is always a sense that the protagonist comes out the far end somewhat the worse for wear, almost as if the authors have a sadistic streak that needs to be satiated. Eddie joins a long and prestigious line of leading men who go through a lot of pain in order to entertain the reader (between beatings and night-time jaunts around high ledges). What’s the attraction, and do you ever feel sorry for the character even as you’re twisting the knife?

I do feel sorry for Eddie, and I don’t. All the stories that I love have characters facing real adversity and eventually coming through on the other side as the victor. Everyone loves an underdog – that’s why Rocky, Ruby, John McClane etc are such beloved characters. Plus I enjoy the challenge – when I put Eddie in a terrible situation I’m often not sure how or if he’s going to get out of it. It’s fun figuring out the problems through him.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, John Grisham, John Mortimer, the poet Robert Service, Brendan Behan…quite a big list. Too many to name.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

A lot more than one – The Black Echo (Michael Connelly) Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) Every Dead Thing (John Connolly). Yeah, imagine you’ve just written the Silence of the Lambs – damn.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Steve Cavanagh look like?

Well none of it happens during the day. I’m usually up around 6.30am to help get the kids ready for school, I go to work, come home around 6.30pm, eat, see my family, and the writing day begins around 10pm. I write until I fall asleep, which can sometimes mean I get four hours of writing done or four minutes.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write the book you want to read – polish the hell out of it – send it to a handful of agents at a time and believe in yourself. If you get rejections, which you will, just move on to the next agent as a rejection often tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of your book.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m about to start CJ Sansom’s Lamentation, then I’ve got a couple of Reacher’s to catch up on.

If The Defence should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’m a big Christopher McQuarrie fan, and if he wanted to direct I’d have him in a heartbeat. As for lead actors – I have a notion that Ryan Gosling would be a good Eddie Flynn, but I don’t know why. I don’t have a solid view of any actor for Eddie, really. Any good actor would be fine, just as long as it’s not Randy Quaid I’d be quite happy.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Spike Milligan. I wouldn’t say a word, I’d just listen to him. He didn’t drink alcohol so some tea would be just fine.

Thank you once again, Steve, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

It’s been an honour.

An Interview with KARIM MISKÉ

karim-miske Name: KARIM MISKÉ

Author of: ARAB JAZZ (2015)

On the web:

On Twitter: @KarimMiske

Karim Miské is a documentary-maker, restaurateur and television script-writer who lives and works in Paris. Arab Jazz is his first novel.

Thank you, Karim, for taking the time to chat with us.

The title of your novel is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz. Are you a fan of Ellroy’s work and, if so, to what extent has he influenced the direction of your own writing?

In my opinion, James Ellroy is one of the best writers of our time, in terms of stories, style, rhythm, characters. If you want to understand something of contemporary American history, the L.A. Quartet and Underworld U.S.A. are must-reads. Ellroy’s work has inspired me because, one way or another, it’s always about race and war. That’s what I wanted to talk about too. For a long time, I didn’t really know why I was so keen to name my book Arab Jazz. Then one day I thought: “Well, Ellroy is an White American who wrote a brilliant novel named White Jazz. I’m a French Arab who wrote a hopefully brilliant novel named Arab Jazz.” And the idea made me laugh.

The English publication of Arab Jazz is very timely, following the tragic events that overtook Paris early in January. In the novel, you examine the religious tensions and present a background, of sorts, as to what could have led to those events. When you were writing the novel, was there ever a feeling that you might be hitting a little bit close to home or was there a sense of inevitability that the melting pot might produce something?

Actually the melting pot had already produced many things when I was writing Arab Jazz. In terms of terrorism, we had Khaled Kelkal in the nineties, an Algerian-born kid raised in France, who had conducted several terrorist attacks before being killed. And after him, there was the group of the Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement, the very territory of Arab Jazz. Some youngsters attracted by a self-proclaimed Imam were sent to Iraq. Most of them died there in suicide attacks or in the battle of Fallujah. I had been reading about the trial of the survivors of this jihadi group in 2008, while writing Arab Jazz, and the self-proclaimed imam of that group inspired one of the characters of the book. It was this imam who recruited one of the Kouachi brothers. When the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, I was, like everybody, horrified by the murders but also really disturbed by the way reality had re-entered my novel.

The pair of detectives at the centre of the novel – Rachel Kupferstein, an Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, a Breton from a communist family – are, to say the least, somewhat unconventional. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the characters, of the partnership, and of the challenges you faced when writing these two very different (from each other and from any of their contemporaries) individuals?

Rachel and Jean really popped up in front of my surprised eyes a few moments after Ahmed did, at the very beginning at the writing process. Suddenly they were there, teasing each other in front of a dead body, like typical cops. But the dialogue was not that classical. Jean was quoting Goebbels’ famous sentence: “The bigger the lie, the more it’ll be believed, and Rachel answered him in a way that implied she was Jewish, but a Jew who did not care that much about identity. At that moment, I knew them, I knew they were unconventional cops. I knew that Jean was attracted to his colleague but that nothing more than a kiss could happen between them. The challenge was to listen carefully to their voice, and follow them.

And can we expect to see more of Kupferstein and Hamelot in the future?

Arab Jazz is going to be a trilogy, so, yes, we’ll see more of them. And of Ahmed too. Some of the bad guys will also be there, so that we can have a really nice murder party with lots of Godzwill.

One of the central “characters” in the novel is the unique and captivating nineteenth arrondissement of Paris itself. How did you go about setting the scene and capturing the atmosphere to give the reader the sense of place required to understand the complex relationships between the different communities who share this small piece of the city?

I was living in the 19th when I began writing Arab Jazz. In a way, I just had to walk the streets, look at the people and let my imagination do the rest. One day, I was having a hair cut at a Moroccan Jewish hairdresser close to my place. While waiting for my turn, I heard him speak Arabic with the Moroccan Muslim mother of the kid whose hair he was cutting. The image and the words remained there, in my head. A few days later, I created the character of Sam, the dangerous hairdresser. Without knowing it, the real hairdresser had given birth to his literary double. He was an observant Jew, at the same time culturally Arab and politically anti-Arab. He embodied the contradictions of the nineteenth where Arabs and Jews are caught in a love-hate relationship. Upon these contradictions, I built my story.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Balzac, Brett Easton-Ellis, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Yourcenar, Hanif Kureishi, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Horace McCoy, Jean-Patrick Manchette (the guy who re-invented French noir in the seventies). George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Frantz Fanon, Marguerite Duras. So many others…

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon), 1984 (Orwell), A Harlot High and Low (Balzac), The Abyss (Yourcenar)

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Karim Miské look like?

When I’m in Paris, I cannot come to understand what happens during the day: I spend hours in front of my computer without managing to write a single word. Then, late at night, when everybody sleeps, sometimes, I finally end up writing a few paragraphs. After a few weeks like this, I freak out and decide to bury myself somewhere in the countryside. There, I write.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

I don’t really see fiction-writing as a career because most writers can’t make a living out of it. Hence my first advice: don’t leave your job if you have one. Then, read a lot, write a lot. When you think you’ve got something worth showing, find a good reader, someone you trust i.e. not your mother or your lover. Ask your reader to give you deadlines and stick to it until you have written a first version. Then re-write it from the beginning, then look for an agent and/or a publisher.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading lots of crime and scifi novels, looking for new ideas for a TV channel. The last book I read for pleasure is Savages by Don Winslow and I really enjoyed it!

If Arab Jazz should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

As I am primarily a film maker, I’d love to direct it myself, but if a director I admire wants to do it, I can reconsider my position. In terms of casts, I actually have no idea for the moment, but once it’s getting serious, I’ll be watching tons of films to find the perfect actors.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Let’s begin with the beverage. Sorry for the noir cliché, but it’s going to be a bottle of Jack Daniels, because it’s nice, from time to time, to empty one with friends, talking about live, death, love and stuff. I’d like to share it with James Baldwin. We’d talk about literature, race and gender until the bottle is emptied and the dawn is rising.

Thank you once again, Karim, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Karim will be in the UK to celebrate the launch of Arab Jazz. If you’re close to any of the events below, I’d recommend trying to catch him.

7pm, 9 February 2015 Karim Miské will be talking to Tariq Ali at Blackwell’s Oxford – tickets £3 from Blackwell’s, Broad Street, Oxford or 01865 333623/

7pm, 10 February 2015 ‘Spectrum of Radicalism – Fact and Fiction’ Karim Miské, Suzanne Moore, Kenan Malik and Ben Faccini will be discussing multiculturalism and fundamentalism at the French Institute on 10 February at 7pm. Tickets £8

7pm, 11 February 2015 Elif Shafak in conversation with Karim  Miské and Sarah Lotz, at Waterstones Piccadilly talking about ‘Colliding Faiths – religious fundamentalism in global fiction’. Tickets free, but email

An Interview with DEN PATRICK

Den Patrick Name: DEN PATRICK


On the web:

On Twitter: @Den_Patrick

Den Blog TourDen Patrick was born in Dorset in 1975 and shares a birthday with Bram Stoker. He has at various times been an editor, burlesque reviewer and Games Workshop staffer. He lives and works in London, and The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is his first novel.

Thank you, Den, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure, thanks for having me on the blog.

First off, I’d like to explore the origins of the world you have created in The Boy With the Porcelain Blade. We get a potted part-history/part-mythology during the novel, but give us some insight into Landfall and the wonderful Demesne, a castle like no other I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

The world really grew around the characters. My agent asked for more world building after she read the draft I submitted to her. I knew there were four great Houses; Contadino for the famers and teamsters, Erudito, a House of scholars and teachers, House Prospero for the artisans and merchants, and lastly House Fontein, the soldiers. I love the idea of feuding Houses, something I enjoyed in Dune. As I re-drafted the novel the secondary characters, the history and the Houses gained depth. It was quite an organic process and Landfall grows each time I sit down to write a new book.

The Orfano (of which Lucien, the book’s protagonist is one) are strange, misshapen foundlings who appear on the steps of the great houses every few years. No one knows where they come from, which causes a lot of unease. The reclusive King has set down an edict where the Orfano are protected, which only adds to the suspicion and distrust.

There’s something very familiar about this world in which we find ourselves: Italian seems to be the language of choice, and the histories seem to be our own (as evidenced by the names of the drakes, and their origins). Was this a deliberate decision, and should we read anything in to it?

I suppose I was attempting a cultural shorthand. The Italian Renaissance is packed with warring city states, vendetta and politics. By using Italian as the old tongue of Landfall I’d hoped to create that sort of atmosphere. Giving the characters Italian names just reinforced that cultural shorthand.

The histories and mythic names are shared with our own, and that’s something I may explore more deeply one day. I’ve always liked the fact you never really know if Gormenghast is set on this world or is a secondary world of it’s own.

The ceramic blades are an interesting concept. What’s the origin?

So, this is a massively geeky answer. I love Star Wars and one of the things about TIE fighters is that they are fragile (no shields) and are reliant on the Star Destroyers that carry them. They have no landing gear and can’t travel between systems like say the X-wing. A TIE fighter creates reliance by the pilot for the officers commanding him, he needs them.

So it goes with ceramic blades. You’re reliant on House Fontein to receive a new blade should you break your own. You’ll reach a fairly short end the moment you come into contact with someone wielding a steel blade should you disobey or openly rebel.

And lastly the literary metaphor, if you’re into that; Lucien is ferocious, but he’s also very young. Teenage years are a strange time when we think we’re indestructible but are often quite fragile.

There is a hugely political element to the story: the four major houses collected together in a single space; the "floating" nature of the Orfano and the adoption process that sees them enter Houses when they come of age. How much of this existed before the story, and how much developed as you progressed through the plot? Is there any pressure, given the popularity of the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series, to produce "political fantasy" to keep the readers engaged?

I’ve never read A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t tell anyone, OK? Otherwise people won’t believe I’m a proper Fantasy author. I do love the TV show though.

A lot the Houses really grew as I fleshed out the plot. I surprised myself with how political it became. I do remember watching a lot of West Wing when I wrote the first book, so maybe that bled in subconsciously.

Lord Marino. I’m offering the name without further comment, but I can’t help but think we might begin to see the world outside of Landfall as this series progresses. Can you give us some hints about what might be in the near future for Lucien and friends?

The action stays firmly focused on Demesne for the next two books. Book two has a new point of view character, but I can’t tell you who for reasons of spoileryness. Book three has two female point of view characters. I have two stand alone novels planned, and both take place in the new town of San Marino, but I’ve no idea if I’ll have the chance to write them. Lucien will pop up from time to time as a secondary character, but the new books will all have new lead characters.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I really love Jon Courtney Grimwood’s economy. He does so much with so little and the dynamics he creates between characters is fantastic. Richard Morgan has this bruising swagger to his writing, it’s so hard boiled, so spoiling for a fight, it makes his writing electric. Chris Wooding has this wonderful sense of fun and adventure, the Ketty Jay books are so good. China Miéville is obviously a master craftsman of prose and ideas. Steph Swainston has this incredible world populated with grizzled, often cynical, frequently flawed characters. And then there’s Joe Abercrombie, of course.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I don’t want to write other people’s books, I’m having way too much fun writing my own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Den Patrick look like?

Short controlled bursts, just like the Colonial Marines. I try and write 500 words, then break for a coffee, shower, bacon sandwich or whatever. Then another 500, another break, another 500 and so on. By 13:00 I’m a bit brain dead, so I’ll have lunch and watch an episode of something. In the afternoon I’ll re-read what I wrote that morning and tidy it up.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write everything. Write reviews, write articles, write comic scripts, write outside of your genre of choice. Study storytelling in all it’s forms be it novels, film, comics, television or theatre. The more you write the more you think about words and how to best communicate an idea through that medium.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise. And it’s very much for pleasure, and a lot of fun.

If The Boy With the Porcelain Blade ever makes the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’d like the score to composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I always imagined Duchess Prospero as Monica Bellucci. Gary Oldman would make an astounding Virmyre. Romola Garai for Camelia. In fact everyone who appeared in The Hour is fantastic. I struggle to think of people for the younger characters.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

My tastes are very contemporary, so I’m lucky in that I get to chat to authors I admire at conventions. I forgot to mention Scott Lynch earlier when I listed my influences. So yeah, Scott Lynch, a single malt, and as for what we’d talk about… who knows?

Thank you once again, Den, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with SETH PATRICK

seth-patrick Name: SETH PATRICK

Author of: REVIVER (2013)

On the web:

On Twitter: @SethPatrickUK

A native Northern Irishman living in England, Seth Patrick is an Oxford mathematics graduate who now works as a programmer in a games company. His first novel, Reviver, was recently published by Macmillan.

Thank you, Seth, for taking the time to chat with us.

First off, I’d like to explore the origins of the world you have created in Reviver. What was your starting point, and how much work/research was involved in making something essentially so off-the-wall seem so grounded and realistic?

A friend pointed out the Wikipedia date entries that let you see who you share your birthday with. I found I share mine with Edgar Allan Poe, which brought to mind two Poe stories: The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. In Valdemar, a terminally ill man is hypnotised at the point of death, then speaks from beyond the grave; Murders in the Rue Morgue is considered the first modern detective story. They collided in my head as an image of the detective interviewing Valdemar’s corpse, and it went from there.

Making sure it was grounded in reality was something I knew would be both crucial and damn hard to achieve, so I read up on forensic science, especially pathology. There were things in my favour, though – TV depictions of forensic science all portray a version that is sheer fantasy. Every CSI-style franchise takes such ludicrous narrative shortcuts that as soon as you see something striving to be remotely genuine, it gives it much more authority. I hoped the same thing would happen with Reviver, that nurturing an air of credibility would pay off even though the premise is outlandish.

And how close to your original vision was the end result?

For a debut novel it was a tough thing to pull off, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

You’ve left the ending wide open for a sequel, more than hinting that there is much more to come. Can we expect to see Jonah and Never again? Do you have a plan for what happens next, and have you a feel for how long it’s going to take to tell the complete story?

Absolutely! It’s a trilogy, and I’m finishing book two now. I have a broad plan for book three, but I’ll be getting started on that over the next few months.

Never Geary, a technician from Northern Ireland, plays a central role in the story. It’s an unusual enough occurrence to stand out (and something only a local would ever attempt!), and I found myself intrigued by the character. Is there any of you in Never, or were there any motives behind the choice of his nationality?

There’s a lot of me in both Jonah and Never, I think, together with plenty of what I would like to be. I’m nowhere near as principled as Jonah, or as sociable as Never, for example. When Never showed up, in the second draft of the book, his nationality emerged from the way he was speaking. It was only later that I realised Never was saying exactly what I would have said with a pint or two in me…

When the movie rights sold it occurred to me that finding a Northern Irish accent done well in a film is hen’s teeth – although maybe that’s just because being attuned to the accent makes you less forgiving. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis did a great job of it in Burke and Hare, mind you, so it can be done, but the key thing with Never would be getting the big-hearted cheeky-bastard aspect right. The nationality is secondary. I mean, they kept Noomi Rapace’s character in Prometheus as English for no discernible reason, and… Well, don’t let me get started on Prometheus.

The concept of revival is an intriguing one, and you have tried to answer a lot of the questions it might raise in the novel. One thing that does intrigue me, though, is whether you would use the service yourself if it existed, either to say goodbye to a deceased family member, or to say your own final goodbyes?

That’s the big unspoken question for the reader – would you do this? Would you go through it, from either side? That was why revival had to feel real, and accepted, so the reader could believe in people making that choice.

In the book, the journalist who first announced revival to the world, Daniel Harker, finds it impossible to go through with his own wife’s revival, leaving his daughter to face it alone. Even he wasn’t sure about it.

As for me being revived, I think saying goodbye would be such a powerful thing for those left behind, it would have to be their decision. If anything I did would make it easier for them, then the answer would have to be yes.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

My reading took off with Terrence Dicks and the bazillion Dr Who novels. It was probably Stephen King who cemented things, The Shining and The Stand were the first two massive books I read, then Clive Barker, Arthur C Clarke, Greg Bear, along with 2000AD and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m an absolute sucker for short stories – Stephen King’s Night Shift and Skeleton Crew played a huge part in my falling in love with reading, as did Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. I’d have to go with Greg Egan’s collection Axiomatic, though, as probably the time I most strongly recall being so awed and jealous simultaneously.

My other memorable so-good-I want-to-kill-them works have been Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Greg Bear’s Blood Music, and the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which is perfection. Bastard.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Seth Patrick look like?

My day job is as a games programmer on the Total War series. By the time I cycle home in the evening it’s past seven, so I grab something to eat, help get the kids to bed, then hurry down to my writing shed to play some urgent games of FreeCell and read a thousand tweets.

With all the critical stuff out of the way, it’s time to knuckle down and get on with it. Given that I’m typically knackered by then, cola and coffee come in handy. I give myself forty minutes, though – forty minutes of genuine, focused effort to get things flowing, and if it’s not happening I let myself call it a night. It’s a devious little trick, because if I’ve been genuinely trying things almost always flow.

And when things really flow, and suddenly I realise it’s two in the bloody morning but I’m still annoyed because I have to stop, well… that’s what it’s all about.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Pursue it as something you love to do for its own sake. Making a career out of writing is tough. It usually takes a while to build an audience before a long-term career becomes viable – if it’ll even happen at all. JK Rowling’s recent reveal as Robert Galbraith drew a few gasps when people discovered that her glowingly-reviewed book had only sold 500 copies in three months, but that’s the way it works for debut authors.

Most writers I’ve met still make more from their day job than from their writing. Trying to write a big hit is like filling in a really, really long lottery ticket, and it’s only the winners you’ll hear about.

But if you love to write, your aim should be to write a book that’s fit to publish, and then write another, and another, learning and getting better all the time. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, but do expect competence and improvement, and plug away at it.

Oh, and one other thing: write something you’d want to read. It may seem obvious, but it makes all the difference.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Always for pleasure! I’ve just finished the superb London Falling by Paul Cornell. Once it got into its stride, it was the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in a long time. Right now I’m half-way through Greg Egan’s Clockwork Rocket, which is what you expect from Egan – often a tough read, not for everyone by any means (and I’ve been finding myself clinging on for dear life at times) but it’s awe-inducing intellectual SF with a soul.

Reviver has already been optioned by savvy film executives. If it ever makes the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

It’s a hard question, but Alfonso Cuaron is the only director I’ve thought of so far who seems to fit. As for cast, any time someone throws out a well-known name it jars, so I’d opt for unknowns in the core roles. Just really talented future-star unknowns. How hard can that be? It’s with the Man of Steel producers, job done.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Drink choice first. This is presumably a pub we’re in? Guinness is always an option, but I tend to pick a random draft ale and see how that turns out.

I’d love to meet Greg Egan or Stephen King, but I’d either clam up or drone on and on about how amazing they are. Either way I’d come across as an idiot. A better option would be listening in to those two chatting, with a few other favourite authors thrown in for good measure. I’d be the one who keeps the drinks and salty snacks coming, mind. Priorities.

Thank you once again, Seth, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with JAMES P. BLAYLOCK

James_Blaylock Name: JAMES P. BLAYLOCK

                 HOMUNCULUS (1986)
                 LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE (1992)
                 THE AYLESFORD SKULL (2012)

On the web:

To celebrate the release of James P. Blaylock’s latest novel, The Aylesford Skull (my review will be available later this week, so do please check back), his publisher, Titan Books, are running a competition to win a Limited Edition copy of the novel. Enjoy the interview with the author, below, and check out details on how to enter the competition at the end.

One of the founding fathers of modern steampunk, James P. Blaylock is the winner of a Philip K. Dick Award and two World Fantasy Awards. Befriended and mentored by Philip K. Dick, James P. Blaylock pioneered the steampunk genre along with his contemporaries, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. He is distinguished by his unique, humorous style, enthralling characters and vivid real world settings.

I’m delighted to welcome James P. Blaylock along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, James.

You’re credited, along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, as one of the fathers of modern Steampunk. Tell us a bit about the history of the genre: what was your starting point? What were you trying to achieve?

The three of us were friends (still are) in the 1970s. After we graduated from the university, we were young enough and idle enough to have time to hang around with each other during the day. We were all new writers at the time. I had published my first short story, and Tim and K.W. had sold novels. I was enthusiastically working on an impossible novel, which I’d figure out how to write several years later as The Digging Leviathan. All of us were big on Victorian literature. K.W., who had a degree (I seem to remember) in sociology, had read Henry Mayhew’s brilliant London Labour and the London Poor, and was regaling us with wild accounts of treasures and feral pigs in the London Sewers and that sort of thing. Tim was researching and writing the novel that would become The Drawing of the Dark, and K.W. was writing Morlock Night. Much of this “research” went on at O’Hara’s Pub in downtown Orange, California, where I lived at the time and still do. (I mean I live in Orange, not at O’Hara’s Pub.) K.W. and Tim were living in a bohemian sort of neighborhood in nearby Santa Ana, where Phil Dick was living at the time. I was engaged in an effort to read all of Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G. Wodehouse, and I very badly wanted to spend some time in an earlier era, taking a shot at making slightly arcane language work and writing wacky adventures about backyard scientist/explorers. The result was my short story “The Ape-box Affair,” which was the first of our early Steampunk pieces to see print, only by virtue of its being a story rather than a novel: quicker to write and quicker to publish. None of us had the idea of writing any particular sort of thing at all. It simply seemed right and natural to set a story where the story seemed to want to be set. It was nearly a decade after “The Ape-Box Affair” and Morlock Night were published that K.W. would coin the term Steampunk. Up until then I had no idea that it formed any sort of science fiction subgenre. So I have to say that we weren’t trying to achieve anything much beyond publishing stories and novels. We might as easily have been writing pirate fantasies (which would come later) or vegetarian thrillers. We’d be Piratepunks or Vegetarianpunks now.

Steampunk is still thriving today, both on and off the page. Do you follow the genre much? If so, which authors, in your opinion, are worth following? Who are the people pushing the limits of the genre and keeping it alive?

I watch the Steampunk phenomenon with great pleasure, and I admire the trappings. I have to say, however, that I don’t follow the genre much, except by chance. I recently had the pleasure of reading Ghosts by Gaslight, an anthology of Steampunk/Gaslight stories edited by Nick Gevers and Jack Dann. They managed to pack the anthology with great stories. I wasn’t surprised to see that first rate writers like Gene Wolfe or Lucius Shepard could write first rate Steampunk or Gaslight fantasy as well as anything else they set their hand to. I’m also fond of the publications of the VanderMeers. And Tim Powers’s Hide Me Among the Graves is characteristically brilliant. It’s arguable that Steampunk culture is being kept alive by the growing number of aficionados who dress the part, play the music, talk the talk, and generally live in their version of a Steampunk world. I’m guessing they’re abetted and encouraged by writers like Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger, who create fully conceived and persuasive Steampunk worlds in their fiction. I’m all for keeping it alive.

There was a gap of 17 years between your last Langdon St. Ives novel, and the first of the novellas. The Aylesford Skull is the first full-length St. Ives novel in twenty years. How did you approach your return to the character after such a long time away? Was it difficult to find your way back into his world?

It was in fact easy to find my way back into the world. I was attracted to it in the first place because I’d long been an enthusiastic reader of 18th and 19th Century literature, starting at around 10 years old. That enthusiasm never declined. I have other enthusiasms when it comes to reading, of course, but I’ve always had one foot in the past, looking back as often as I look forward. That being said, most of my novels take place in contemporary California settings, and I wrote a string of them in the late 80s and 90s, taking a couple of years on each. About 12 years ago I developed a program in creative writing at what was then the Orange County High School of the Arts (now more accurately the Orange County School of the Arts) and I stayed on to direct the program and to teach. I was already teaching full time at Chapman University, and the result of all this teaching and directing was less writing. Along the line, however, I read James Norman Hall’s brilliant collection of stories titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, and I was reminded of how much I missed writing Steampunk, and I found myself writing “The Ebb Tide” and “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” for Subterranean Press. I also found a new agent, who leaned on me to write a longer Steampunk novel, and the result of that was The Aylesford Skull. I assume that my agent will keep leaning on me.

On a similar note, what was the driving force behind the return to the character after such a long absence?

The driving force was a complicated mixture of Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, the expectations of a new agent, the compulsion to write more, and the knowledge that if I didn’t write more I’d wake up one morning with the knowledge that I used to be a writer.

What’s next for St. Ives? Can we expect to see more adventures from the Professor in the near future?

His next appearance (as far as I know now) will be in a new publication from Subterranean Press that’s a companion volume to the previous two. Its working title is “The Pagan Goddess,” but that will probably be supplanted by something more… something. There’s also another full-length St. Ives novel in the works, just taking shape in my mind at this point.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

The writers who inclined me toward writing Victorian science fiction included Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Poe. Those writers made colourful, old-fashioned adventure novels particularly appealing to me when I was a boy. But my love of language, of writing, of setting and character can be blamed on Twain, Steinbeck, and Stevenson. Their novels and stories and essays were the driving force, so to speak, of my writing. The die was cast when I was ten years old, and my parents gave me Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as Christmas presents, just at the time that I had discovered Steinbeck in my mother’s library and read In Dubious Battle and some of the short stories in The Long Valley. I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I was entirely swept up in the flood of word pictures and strange characters, and I’m still swimming in that river. (Sorry for the wonky metaphor.)

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

If you mean someone else’s book, sure – a hundred or two of them. I wish I had the talent and the information and sensibilities and experiences of any and all of my literary heroes and could write the books they wrote. If you mean a Blaylock book that I’d like to have written, then I’ll say that I wish circumstances had conspired to compel me to write a sequel to The Disappearing Dwarf, which was a sequel to The Elfin Ship. That would have happened if my editors at Del Rey Books, Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey hadn’t passed away. So it goes, however. And if I’d written that imaginary book, then I wouldn’t have written some other book, and who knows what would have come for me. I’m happy to have written what I’ve written, and happy that people are still reading my books more than 35 years after my first story was published.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

I’d tell them not to quit their day jobs, to be ready for the long haul, to read as much as they can read, to write what makes them happy, and to remember that the stuff that goes into their books and stories is most often not the stuff that they learn in school, but the stuff they see in the world around them. Perseverance is worth as much as talent, and work is worth more than all the rest combined. Back when I was first selling stories and trying to sell novels, Tim Powers had a strict rule that he would write a thousand words a day. I bought into his rule, and it made all the difference.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Pleasure. My business is writing and teaching, and I only teach what I myself like to read. Right now I’ve got several books going: My nightstand book is Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. My desktop books are The Pickwick Papers and also The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian. (I perpetually read O’Brian.) My vacation book (my wife and I are in Carmel at the moment, looking out over a grove of cypress trees at the ocean) is John D. MacDonald’s The Lonely Silver Rain.

Would you like to see Langdon and company make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’d be deliriously happy to see the whole crowd leap onto the screen. I’ll admit, however, that I’m a little behind the times when it comes to actors and directors. I’m happily watching “Downton Abbey” and the first and only season of “Firefly.” If I could fit Gary Busey into the mix I’d do it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

This is a tough one. Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, India Pale Ale, and we’d talk about heaven knows what, but I’d start with an idea from Dickens – that “Trifles make the sum of life.” I’d ask him what trifles make up the sum of his life, and which of them made up the sum of his books. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

Thank you once again, James, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks to you and your readers, too. Cheers, Jim Blaylock.

Ayelsford Skull - BlaylockThis article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years [The Aylesford Skull, Titan Books, £7.99]. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

750 signed and numbered editions:

Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon

Signed by James P. Blaylock

Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

26 signed and lettered editions:

As above encased in a custom-made traycase

Be the first to find out when The Aylesford Skull (Limited Edition) is available, by signing up to Titan’s mailing list here:

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