BritCrime Authors Report From ThrillerFest In New York

This article was first published here on the Britcrime website.

While the BritCrime online festival rocked the UK during the weekend of 11/12 July, several of the participating authors joined the International Thriller Writers’ (ITW) ThrillerFest in New York.

Peter James Simon Toyne J.F. Penn
Simon Toyne, J.F.Penn and Peter James in New York #britcrime

Simon Toyne, SJI Holliday and J.F.Penn attended panels, cocktail parties and seminars with some of the biggest names in thriller and crime who have sold hundreds of millions of books between them.

Here are some interesting tidbits from behind the scenes …

Karin Slaughter interviewed Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse series which became the TV series True Blood. It was a hilarious session as Charlaine has an infectious giggle and Karin has a sharp wit.

Charlaine used to do a form of karate as well as weightlifting to help improve her strength. The practice made her feel stronger inside and out and that personal change is something she brings to her books. People can change, but it’s often at great cost.

Kathy Reichs Karin Slaughter
Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter #BritCrime

Charlaine doesn’t allow people behind her at book signings, because of a number of weird experiences with fans. Both Karin and Charlaine said that they won’t eat anything fans bake for them. They appreciate the thought but they also have haters who might try to poison them!

When asked what scares her, Charlaine said that the paranormal isn’t a problem at all. Humans are the real monsters because they look normal until you’re alone with them … she did say that those blow up men outside auto retailers really do creep her out though!

Simon Toyne Mark Billingham J.F.Penn
Simon Toyne, Mark Billingham and J.F.Penn #britcrime

Mark Billingham noted in one panel that crime and thriller writers are the “smokers of the literary world.” There’s a kind of gang mentality, we protect each other and we are supportive. We’re also considered by many in the literary community as somehow less important, but Karin Slaughter pointed out that we’re the ones hitting the bestseller lists!

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Lee Child with Mark Billingham

Lee Child interviewed Mark in a spotlight session and the two Brits had the crowd in stitches with tales of their respective Birmingham history. Mark talked about his former acting career with an enjoyable stint running around in forests for Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, as well as being the first human actor on Spitting Image. He also revealed a personal story about being a victim of crime and how his own visceral fear is used in his books.

In talking about London as a setting, Mark asked the mainly American audience whether they really wanted to keep London as ‘heritage’ rather than gritty. He explained that it’s a Jekyll and Hyde city with both beauty and darkness. His Tom Thorne crime thrillers explore both sides, always with an edge of humour. Mark also recommended BritCrime author Clare Mackintosh’s new book, I Let You Go, as an example of a fantastic twisted plot.

david morrell britcrime
David Morrell, author of historical crime novel, Inspector of the Dead … and creator of Rambo!

Peter James and Greg Iles talked about how covers rejected by bigger name authors often get handed down to the lesser known. It’s apparently common in the publishing industry. Peter James has hens named after the characters in his Roy Grace novels at his home in the Sussex countryside.

CJ Lyons won the Best eBook Original award for Hard Fall, a Lucy Guardino FBI crime thriller. CJ is a former pediatric ER doctor whose life of crime fiction writing was inspired by meeting a serial killer. Lucy Guardino’s character was inspired by a real life FBI Supervisory Special Agent whose favorite photo of herself was taken when she was eight months pregnant and shooting a Remington pump action shotgun during firearms re-qualifications.

holliday penn cussler
SJI Holliday at the Debut Author breakfast. J.F.Penn with Clive Cussler

Simon Toyne signed advanced reader copies of his upcoming novel, The Searcher at Thrillerfest, as well as taking charge of filming top authors on their writing tips. That video will be out in the next few months so keep an eye out! Simon loves to write at his place in France, an old presbyter, a French priest’s house located on the outskirts of a 13th century bastide, or fortified town. Simon also loves movies. His favorite film is Jaws and in his previous occupation in TV production, he once interviewed Stephen Spielberg. You can watch a video interview with Simon Toyne here on YouTube.

To add to the excitement, SJI Holliday was featured at the Debut Author breakfast and J.F.Penn fulfilled a dream of meeting Clive Cussler!

All in all, it was a fantastic Thrillerfest and today the BritCrime authors return home just a little worse for wear after the celebratory Gala Dinner last night … See you next year!

A Song Of Shadows. An Interview With John Connolly.

I love John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, and its blend of crime and the supernatural was the major influence for my London Psychic trilogy. I recently met John at Crime in the Court in London (below). I’m a total fan-girl :) I also interviewed John for The Big Thrill July 2015 edition, and include the interview below.

John Connolly with JFPenn
John Connolly with J.F.Penn at Crime in the Court, London. June 2015

John Connolly is the bestselling author of the Charlie Parker mysteries, the Samuel Johnson novels for middle-grade readers, and co-author of the Chronicles of the Invaders plus other works.

His latest book, A SONG OF SHADOWS, is the thirteenth book in the Charlie Parker mystery series.

Your latest book, A SONG OF SHADOWS, weaves European history into a string of murders in Maine, all while Charlie Parker recovers from devastating injuries.

How much of the story is based on historical truth? Why did this particular aspect of Nazi history interest you?

My eye had simply been caught by the ongoing attempts of the United States to extradite an alleged former Nazi named Hans Breyer to Europe to face war crimes charges. (Breyer died last year just before he could be extradited.) I began to wonder how many of these men and women were left, and how seriously the hunt for them was being taken.

Out of that research came a lot of surprising details about just how little energy the Allies invested in bringing these people to trial, and how the British and American authorities protected them, mainly in order to milk them for intelligence about the Soviets. I found it fascinating, and just hoped that readers would find it fascinating too.

It then turned out to be very topical because just as the book came out Oskar Gröning, the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” went on trial, and I suppose that the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps also reminded people of what had taken place in them.

I suppose I was also aware that it’s really hard to find anything new to say about the Nazis and the Holocaust, so in that sense I was a bit reluctant to take on the subject. Yet those old men and women nagged at me, and their cases found a resonance in one of the recurring questions in the Parker books: are we defined only by the wrongs that we do, and are some wrongs so terrible that they cannot be forgiven?

All the Charlie Parker books have a supernatural edge, which is what keeps me as a reader coming back. Where do your ideas about the supernatural come from? How do they fit with your own beliefs?

The supernatural elements in the books drew the greatest amount of criticism early in my career, and they still make the more conservative elements in the genre uneasy. I like the fact that Americans call crime novels “mysteries,” and the roots of the word “mystery” are themselves supernatural. A mystery was a truth that could only be revealed through divine revelation.

In a similar vein, I’ve always liked William Gaddis’s quotation from the novel JR: “You get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.” But mystery fiction has always been uneasy about the difference between law and justice. It does not accept that justice should be left for the next world, and that we should be content with imperfect legal systems in this one. If you take Gaddis’s view to the extreme, it implies the existence of both a moral universe and an entity governing it that is capable of dispensing justice. If we call that entity “God,” then there may also be a “Not-God.”

So I suppose the Parker novels take this idea and run with it: notions of justice, of morality, of retribution, and of redemption. I keep coming back to that word because if, like me, you come from a Judaeo-Christian background—I’m a bad Catholic—then “redemption” comes freighted with a certain spiritual baggage.

Your “good guys,” Charlie, Louis and Angel, might be perceived as “bad” in many ways. But the bad guys are always worse. How do the notions of good and evil fit into your characters? Can even the worst of them be redeemed?

I don’t think Parker, Louis and Angel are “bad.” As is remarked in one of the novels, they’re on the side of the angels, even if the angels aren’t sure that this is an entirely positive development. They are prepared to compromise themselves morally to achieve certain ends, and Parker in particular is aware of the potential cost of such compromises, but it comes back to that earlier question: are we defined only by actions that might be perceived as negative, or how bad do such actions have to be before they define us in that way?

I don’t believe that most people are evil. Selfish, yes. Fearful. Angry. Deluded. All those may result in evil acts being committed, but very few people set out actively to do evil. As someone once said, everyone has his reasons. For me, the use of terms like “evil” or “monster” is, for the most part, the equivalent of shrugging one’s shoulders and walking away. It’s a failure, or an unwillingness, to attempt to understand, and without understanding there can be no change. But the books do suggest that very, very occasionally, we may encounter acts or individuals so depraved as to suggest a deeper, darker well is being drawn upon.

The Charlie Parker books are set in the U.S., but you’re Irish and live in Dublin. How does Ireland emerge in your writing, even if it’s camouflaged?

I suspect it emerges through a fascination with folklore and the uncanny, and a comfort with letting rationalism—which is the basis of detective fiction—blend into anti-rationalism, which is the basis of supernatural fiction. I see them as complementary, rather than the antithesis of each other. I think, too, that the process of hybridization interests me, the possibility of creating or enhancing new sub-genres.

US Song of ShadowsI love classic mystery fiction, but that doesn’t mean that the genre should be set in aspic somewhere between the birth of Sherlock Holmes and the death of Poirot.

You’ve said that writers are like magpies, picking out interesting things from the world and storing them up for stories. What’s fascinating you at the moment?

Well, I’m writing the next Parker book, and I want it to have a strong folkloric element, but I may have to invent my own piece of folklore for it to work. Then again, isn’t that what folklore is about? We imagine, we create, and it becomes part of an ongoing tale. I’m always quite pleased when someone reads my books and has trouble spotting what’s real, and what’s made up. When that happens, I like to think that I’ve done my job right.

You can find A Song of Shadows and all the other Charlie Parker books on Amazon and all bookstores.

Magic And Occult Las Vegas. The Daniel Faust Series By Craig Schaefer

I recently discovered the Daniel Faust series by Craig Schaefer, fantastic books about magic and the occult set in Las Vegas long way downwhich I highly recommend. Today I interview Craig about his writing.

Where did the idea for Daniel Faust come from? Do you enjoy magic yourself?

I’ve been a lifelong fan of both horror and crime fiction, especially the works of Elmore Leonard and Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark. The Daniel Faust series grew out of an urge to blend those genres, much like chocolate and peanut butter. The results have been satisfyingly tasty so far.

I saw Harry Blackstone, Jr. perform when I was a child, and it kindled a lifelong love of the magical arts. A well-done illusion is a drama in miniature, a story with rising peaks, mystery and surprise. (I dabble in sleight-of-hand myself, but I’ve never been good enough to perform — unless that performance is in front of good friends, preferably after a few glasses of wine.)

Why Las Vegas? What is it about the city that made you want to set the books there primarily?

Because it’s a beautiful fake. The tourist parts of Vegas are a carefully, precisely engineered façade, and the average casino is a testament to the power of psychological warfare: they’re literally designed to disorient you and skew your sense of time and redemption songscale, to make it easier to part you from your money. For a series that hinges on deception, lies, and the art of the con, it’s the most natural setting in the world.

That, and the stark class divide. You can walk out of Crystals, lined with boutiques where nothing has a price tag and they bring you champagne while you browse, and pass the homeless panhandlers on the skybridge outside. Money is everywhere, money is everything, and it flows in obscene amounts or it doesn’t flow at all. In other words, the perfect stomping-grounds for Faust and his gang.

Why do you love the supernatural/occult world? What draws us as writers and readers to the darker side?

There’s a certain romance to it, isn’t there? The idea of these vast, unseen mysteries and horrors, lurking just beyond the veil of the everyday world — and with one slip, one step to the side, you could find yourself among them. There’s fear, but there’s the promise of adventure, too. It certainly makes an argument with the boss or the bill for a broken-down car seem less scary by comparison.

There’s also the implicit promise that if horrors are real, there’s also a way to beat them. Demons can be banished, curses can be broken. That’s reassuring, in a world where we’re confronted with very real evils on a daily basis and so many of them seem so insurmountable.

living endWhat are the themes that keep coming up in your writing? What obsesses you? 

According to the TVTropes page for the Faust series, the universal characteristics of my novels are dominant women and gourmet food. I’d like to think I’m a bit deeper than that, but no promises.

Devotion fascinates me. What drives a person to take up another’s banner, and give their all for a leader or a cause, even to the degree that this devotion becomes the core of who they are? I’m also enthralled with questions of power (what people do to get it, what they do with it, and how it changes them), and, in relation, themes of dominance and submission.

I’m also drawn to the concept of taboo: how some acts or boundaries can somehow both allure and frighten us at the same time. What happens to people who break taboos, and are they left stronger or weaker for it? Lastly, a great deal of my writing touches on the bonds of friendship and family (by blood, or by choice), and — embarrassing to admit, for a cynic — how anything is possible, when people put aside their differences and work together.

plain dealing villainAlso I write about food.

The books have some great fight scenes and explosions, definitely a thriller element. What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done? 

Non-research-related, probably scuba diving in Key West and the Cayman Islands. It helped that my instructor was a former Navy SEAL who regularly ensured I was ready for emergencies by, among other things, cutting off my air supply without warning. By the time he was done with me, I felt ready for anything. Book-research-related, I’d say it was the Haitian Vodou ritual a friendly mambo invited me to; it wasn’t quite as dramatic as the magic in my books — no ghostly apparitions or walls of fire — but it was an experience that stayed with me for some time.

craig schaeferWhat does your writing room/setup look like?

I’m actually between writing rooms right now, staying with a friend while my new house is under construction, so mostly I work at the cluttered end of a dining-room table. I’m in Joliet, a Chicago suburb most famous for being the setting for the classic movie “The Blues Brothers” (in fact, I’m a stone’s throw from the walls of the Joliet Correctional Center, which today is largely used for television and movie shoots).

Once I can move into my new place, I’ll have a dedicated writing-room with space for my reference shelves, assorted inspirational curiosities, and virtual-reality gear (because every writer has to take a break sometime…)

Where can people find you and your books online?

My home on the web is www.craigschaeferbooks.com.

Writing The Darkness With Michaelbrent Collings

Here’s a short interview I did with horror author Michaelbrent Collings about the themes in his fiction and why readers are so fascinated with darkness. Watch the video below or here on YouTube. There’s also a transcript below the video.

Transcript of interview

J.F. Penn: Hi everyone I am thriller author JF Penn and today I am here with Michaelbrent Collings. Hi Michaelbrent.

Michaelbrent Collings: Hi how are you?

J.F. Penn: I’m super, so I wondered about your fiction. What are the themes? Because you have got so many books.

What are the themes that keep coming up in your work? The things that obsess you and keep coming up in your work?

Michaelbrent Collings: I write a lot about families and I write a lot about loss.

I’ve experienced losses in my own family, so it’s stuff I think about a lot. And I also write a lot about grace and I’m not talking necessarily about a specific liturgical religious grace but just the sense that, although it can be that but just the sense that there is something greater than us and if we allow it, can lift us up you know?

And sometimes that thing is another human being, sometimes that thing is just our sense of self worth that finally shows up at an opportune time. I’m just fascinated by the concept of becoming more than we have been and that’s part of the reason I write horror because it takes away everything that we were and leaves only what we truly are.

It allows that thing to grow or to fade depending on if we are worthy to the parameters of the story. I like this idea that people when they are beaten down, when they are horribly mutilated physically, mentally, emotionally, they can find it within themselves to rise again. That’s definitely a theme that comes up over and over in my books

J.F. Penn: Why do you think people read horror? Why are people so fascinated with the darkness?

Michaelbrent Collings: Well because its awesome! It’s fun.

There is silly horror which is again the two teens that go canoodle in the forest and a man comes after them with the lawn equipment. That’s just kind of silly and you can go in there and count limbs flying off or whatever. That’s for twelve-year-olds who are still obsessed with boobs and blood.

And then there is the greater stuff that I think we really reach out to because horror is a metaphor for larger realities. It can talk about capital G good, and capital E evil and we’ve all met that person who is just an A-hole at the bank and won’t help us and that’s just a wanker. That’s somebody who is a twit, you know?

But then there are people out there you know Adolf Hitler, big old E…Evil and those people determine the fates of millions and billions of people. When we are looking at horror we are looking at these bigger pictures that allow us to say not only is there a huge a thing out there that’s of interest and of import because it hits me, but as small as I am, I can still change the course of some of that for good.

Horror is populated by people. Just normal people who come up against just an extraordinary power for ill and they face it. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t but it gives each of us, it’s like a dark superhero movie, where we can stand up and deliver our best shot against the forces of evil vicariously through the characters. And in doing, so I think that is very cathartic for a lot of us who have crappy days from time to time.

J.F. Penn: You have faith and you have supernatural elements in your books. How do you walk the line between being overtly religious and keeping a story going?

Michaelbrent Collings: I recognize the fact that most people in the United States and across the world are religious people.

I think that a lot of writers write secularized books about metaphysical themes and that’s very hard to reconcile those two things. Whereas a lot of my people are religious and it’s not that they’re standing up there preaching but they are Lutheran and that is part of there day to day life, you know they are Methodist and it’s part of who they are.

And in doing that I can layer in supernatural elements affecting people of faith without ever once standing up and going “Here my missionary pamphlet for the Methodist Church on First Street” because that is not my goal. That is a whole different kind of literature for good or for ill. And that is not what I am doing.

But what I am doing is saying that most people are spiritual, that is what they will use to describe themselves. They have a sense that there is something beyond what we can see and when you tap into that you can very easily have a bad guy that represents real ills in the world.

And you can either say, “Here is how you defeat the bad guy on a mundane mortal level” or “He can’t be defeated, but here is how we don’t let him creep into us.” And both of those are valuable for people and they’re not. You can sit there and say “Here is what I want to preach with this book. Then you’ve written a crappy, crappy horror novel, or you can say, “Here is a really bitchin’ story and here are the themes that allow entry into that”

So my book Strangers is about this family locked in their house and they can’t get out, and there’s a killer that wants to have some ‘alone time’ with them and on one level, that’s it. That’s fun – but it’s also about the secrets we keep from people. It’s also about the fact that we have got this fragmented society with social media where we reach out to people in Denmark or Great Britain but what’s my neighbor’s name? Beats the heck out of me, you know? So you can have these really interesting themes come in but I think they should serve the story instead of the other way around.

J.F. Penn: No, I definitely agree. Now I wondered who do you read for fun? Who are your influences as well in the genre?

Michaelbrent Collings: Well my influences were Stephen King and Dean Koontz.

My father was a world renown critic of both of those guys and I, of course, find periodically with Dean Koontz he is one of the nicest people ever in the human race. So he is just a great person as well as a great writer. Then aside from those two, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony. I mean a whole list of people.

Some are very pulp writers and some are very literary and I’m always writing, reading five or six books at a time. It’s just kind of limited by the amount of tank space on my toilets because that’s where I read these days, because I have kids and they think that everything is a team sport, so that is my little tiny office now.

“What are you doing dad?”
“I’m going the bathroom.”
“Been in the for an hour and half.”
“I’m going to the bathroom. Leave me alone.”

But I read a lot of history. I love reading about Abraham Lincoln. I love reading about World War II because it was such a turning point in human history. I think it was the last war where there was a 100% bad guy and a 100% good guy. The two groups kind of lined up along those really black and white lines and it’s such an interesting period to read for that reason. I am one of the most schizophrenic readers in the entire universe and if you looked at my bookshelf or pulled up the queue on my Kindle or my Nook, you would go, “This guy has mental health problems.”

J.F. Penn: Do you have any recommendations for female horror writers?

Michaelbrent Collings: I do, Mercedes Yardly is really good. She has got, they hard to explain. They are kind of haunting, is the best way I would explain it. She is also somebody who is very spiritual in her life. It bleeds into her writing and again there is nothing that, stands up and says “And now you have to believe like this.” But it just gives it sort of that deeper sense that there is not only the smaller play being run out of the page but there is this larger scheme that is happening as well. I think that makes it more interesting. She is somebody that I would recommend.

Rena Mason, just won the Stoker Award this last weekend for a short story and she is very good. She has written some really fun stuff and now I am about to embarrassed because one of the huge problems I have is remembering current names. If it is an author who died or who is about to die I am much better remembering them.

J.F. Penn: Well that is a good start that’s brilliant.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Michaelbrent Collings: My website is Michaelbrentcollings.com but I am really easy to find just type my name. Although there is an underwear model whose name is Michael space Brent. So if you type it in and you get this devastating dude with no clothes, that is not me, but Michaelbrentcollings.com or just type Michaelbrent on your Amazon browser or Barnes & Noble or wherever

J.F. Penn: Fantastic, thanks so much for your time. That was brilliant.

Michaelbrent Collings: Thank you

If you enjoyed this interview and would like more of Michaelbrent, there’s a longer interview focused on the writing side of things here.

this darkness lightHere’s my review of Michaelbrent’s This Darkness Light on Goodreads:

This starts off like a fast paced thriller. John wakes up in a hospital with no memory and people are trying to kill him. A nurse, Serafina, helps him and they go on the run from government agents who will stop at nothing to destroy those in the way. Cue high body count and fight scenes … awesome :)

But then the dead start to morph into monsters and a thick fog begins to roll over the country, governments go silent as millions die from a horrific disease spread by the carriers … will John and Serafina be able to stop the end from coming? Will Isaiah, the haunted priest who hunts them, reconcile to his own demons?
A super fast-paced book that spirals from thriller into post-apocalyptic horror. Great fun!

Traveling For Research, Love Of Snow And Writing Thrillers With Tom Harper

I interviewed fantastic thriller author Tom Harper for The Big Thrill magazine. There’s a transcript below and you can also watch the video below or on YouTube.

Tom Harper is the international bestselling author of 11 historical thrillers, including his latest, Zodiac Station, which is published in paperback in the US in May 2015.

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing

Tom HarperIt’s something I’d always wanted to do. I remember being eight years old and telling my teacher that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. By the time I finished university, I hadn’t shaken that idea and I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that it was incredibly unlikely.

So I went to work for an actuarial consultancy for a while, which was a really boring job, but at an interesting company. Then I decided to have a crack at writing seriously. I saw an advert for a crime writing competition, the Debut Dagger Competition, run by the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK. It was one of those moments that changed my life.

It was just an advert in the Sunday Times one weekend. If I hadn’t bought the paper or if I’d not read that section, or it had gone into the recycling, I shudder to think how my life would be different. They wanted a first chapter and synopsis of a crime novel, and the deadline was several weeks away. I sent mine off to the competition, trying to think no more of it, but it turned out that I had come runner-up, which was amazing and then I started getting contacted by the judges who were editors and agents.

I took a sabbatical from work and blasted out that book as fast as I possibly could, signing up with an agent who judged the competition. She was able to sell the book very quickly once I’d actually finished it. So it was all very fast and it’s one of the real good luck stories in publishing.

Zodiac StationTell us a bit about Zodiac Station and who might enjoy the story.

All my other books have had some kind of an historical angle to them but Zodiac Station is a bit different. It’s a contemporary thriller set in the Arctic on the fictional island of Utgard. If you go to Svalbard and then up and right a bit, that’s where it would be if it existed. It’s a completely deserted island in the high Arctic and the only population there is a research base with a dozen scientists in it.

It’s the story of a guy in his early 30s who has had a scientific career, and then lost it in a scandal. He gets a second chance when his old PhD supervisor calls him up and invites him to Zodiac Station. He goes up there, and the day he arrives, his PhD supervisor has gone missing and is subsequently discovered dead at the bottom of a crevasse. So it’s his story of trying to discover what happened to his PhD supervisor because the top brass at the base want to explain it away as an accident. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that.

There’s a whole genre of Arctic thrillers actually. There are people, and I’m one of them, who just love ice and snow and cold and these really wild places.

There is a line in Zodiac Station: For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of the north.” Its in the voice of your main character but how much of that is from you?

That is exactly from me. It’s straight from the heart, because as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved snow. I love ice, I love winter. I think it’s because these places are so otherworldly. It’s as far as you can get off the planet while still being on the planet, if that makes sense. As a writer, I think you’re naturally drawn to these places. For me, the joy of writing and reading these sort of books is being taken away from normal life. And I’d say the Arctic is about as far from normal life as you can get while still remaining on planet Earth.

Tell us about the research for the book. You went to the ice, didnt you?

For every book, I visit the places I’m writing about. I find it very difficult to write about a place I haven’t been to. So obviously when I started doing Zodiac Station, I knew I was going to have to go and visit the Arctic, which was absolutely fine with me!

I went to Svalbard, which is an archipelago belonging to Norway. It’s about 800km north of continental Norway and on the same latitude as northern Greenland. It’s about as close as you can get to the North Pole without actually having to put on skis. It’s this amazing set of islands with a land mass that’s the area of Ireland but with very few people. I think their slogan is, 2,500 people, 3,000 polar bears. There’s one main town there, originally a coal mining town, and now turning to tourism.

I based myself there and took various snowmobile and snowshoeing trips, going up glaciers. I went into a glacier cave which was incredible. You’re on your belly with a tiny space between your back and the roof. And the roof is 30 meters of solid ice except a glacier is not actually solid, it’s more like a river of ice and is always moving. I was hoping not to be under it when it started to move. That was pretty cool.

We went on these long snowmobile drives across sea ice, and we got lost in a white out once, which was pretty scary. You cannot even see your hand in front of your face. It’s just cloud, and snow, and more snow, and ice. All those experiences went straight into the book.

What are the other thrilling and exciting things you’ve done for research for your books?

It’s one of these paradoxical things, that in order to write a thrilling book, you have to lead a very un-thrilling life most of the time. But in between, there are these bits that are just brilliant and thrilling.

The next book, Black River, which comes out in the U.K. in September, is about a group of treasure hunters going up an uncharted tributary of the Amazon looking for a lost city. And so obviously I had to go up the Amazon! I was looking for these petroglyphs, rock carvings that are on this ginormous lump of rock in the middle of the Peruvian jungle.

No one knows who put them there or what they mean, and it takes about four days just to get there. You’re wading through swamps and portaging your boat up the river, and cutting your path through the jungle and stuff. It’s just incredible. It was one of those moments where every so often you just had to stop and look around and think, “Yes, I am really doing this. This is me and I’m here.”

Certainly for me, the excitement of being a writer comes from finding out new stuff. Some of that’s historical, but a lot of it is geographical and new places, the cultures and the people, the landscapes. I find it incredibly exciting to learn that stuff, and it’s that excitement that I’m trying to put into the book. If it’s exciting for me, then it’s going to be exciting for the reader. And that’s really what fires me up.

I wonder if you ever get the experience of synchronicity, as I often do in research. When you think youre writing fiction and then you discover theres something real behind it. A coincidence of research, perhaps.

Yes, it does happen. In fact, it happened on the Peru book. I’d read a lot of stuff about different expeditions into various jungles and researched the huge area of the Amazon which is many billions of square miles of forest covering 11 countries or something. I couldn’t decide where my lost city was going to be. So eventually I had to get a big map of South America. I plotted where all the different expeditions that I’d read about had gone. Then I thought about what my lost city would have to be like.

The real lowland, central Brazilian rainforest is out because there weren’t any particularly advanced civilizations there that we know of. It would have to be built out of stone because obviously it’s got to survive. That means that you basically have to put it up against the Andes, and it’s going to be some kind of Inca or proto-Inca civilization. Almost the moment I made those decisions, I discovered that there is indeed a legend of a particular lost city called Paititi, which I’d never ever heard of before, which is supposed to be in exactly the place that I’d decided it should be. Amazing!

You’ve written widely in the conspiracy and historical thriller genre. What are the themes that keep coming up over and over again in your work?

Travel is in most of my books. Zodiac Station is quite unusual in that it’s quite claustrophobic. It all takes place on this one island and you can’t get on or off. It’s almost a locked room mystery in that respect. All my other books have a chase element where people move quickly from place to place, often internationally. I like moving. I like keeping things in motion. I have a restless imagination.

Another thing that I realized after I’d written about eight or nine books, was that a lot of the people I write about are involved in the quest for perfection. It’s about the gap between what they’re trying to achieve and what they actually achieve.

So I wrote about the emperor Constantine, who was trying to achieve this perfect empire. I wrote about Johannes Gutenberg, who was trying to create the perfect book that can be replicated perfectly without any scribes messing it up and making mistakes.

As a writer, when you start writing a book, you have this vision in your head about how perfect this book is going to be. As you write it, it’s a series of compromises, and inevitably it’s never quite as good as that initial, pure dream you had. But you do the best you can and then you try again. You try to make it more perfect the next time. And I think a lot of the people that I write about are doing the same thing in their different fields.

Youve lived in a number of places around the world, but now youre based in York in England. What is so awesome about York from a historian and thriller writers perspective?

It is an amazing town going back to Roman times. It’s still got its city walls intact, surrounding almost the entire city, built on the foundation of the Roman walls. There’s a beautiful city center that’s a mix of medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and more recent architecture. Then there’s this incredible 15th century Minster, a huge gothic cathedral right in the center of town. York is quite a small town and then you’ve got this massive cathedral in it. The first time I saw it, it was like an alien spaceship that landed in the middle of the square. You saw it almost as the medieval people must have seen it, as this very otherworldly thing that is just beyond scale or comprehension.

You can tour the Undercroft, which is basically a basement. The 15th-century church stands on top of the Norman church, which in turn stands on top of a Saxon church, which in turn stands on top of the headquarters of the original Roman fortress. And you can see the different layers of stone, one built on top of the other, as you go down.

To me, that’s just like this beautiful, perfect metaphor for history itself. It’s not that one era finishes and then you’re done with it and then you move on. Everything is actually built on top of the last, seamlessly integrating. It’s also a great metaphor for York, because everything is built on the past. You can do a 360 degree turn on a York street, and you can see buildings built in every century from the 1500s through to the 21st Century. And all still are in use. That’s what’s amazing.

Moving away from the serious topics now. You made a very cool Lego trailer for Zodiac Station. Tell us about that.

It was just too much fun not to do! I love film, I love movies. Like most writers, I would love to see my books turned into films. I had a really vivid, visual idea of how Zodiac Station would look as a film. And of course, I would’ve loved to do a full-on cinematic trailer for the book. But unfortunately, that would involve helicopters, and ships, and being in the Arctic and probably would cost millions of pounds.

I’ve got two boys, who are 7 and 4, so I’m quite up on what’s happening in the world of Lego. The story opens with a coast guard icebreaker battering through the sea, and last year Lego released a coast guard ship set which my son wanted for Christmas. Then six months later, they released a whole set of Arctic Lego.

So I bought a couple of those sets and re-purposed them slightly. I’ve got this friend who works for a big visual effects company in London. So he came up, and between us, we built these models and animated them and made a film. It was just an absolute blast.

Who are the authors that you read for pleasure, whether in the thriller genre or more widely?

I’m a big fan of John le Carré as a classic in spy thriller. I love his ‘Smiley’ books. He tells you very little, and has these really obscure and oblique scenes. You really have no idea what’s going on and yet, you’re completely hooked and you have to know what happens next.

Neal Stephenson is really interesting. He started out as a science fiction writer, and then he turned to historical fiction. He did a big book called Cryptonomicon, and then an even bigger trilogy called “The Baroque Cycle,” set in the 17th century. He writes historical fiction unlike anyone else I know. Coming from a science fiction background, he’s just got this really anarchic, freewheeling, swashbuckling way of writing about history. He’s writing about the very early roots of computing and some of the really interesting stuff that was going on in the 17th century with Isaac Newton and Leibniz. It’s just got this tremendous energy about it. So I love Neal Stephenson.

I love Dan Simmons on the Arctic theme. He wrote a book called The Terror, which reimagines the last days of the Sir John Franklin expedition where they get stuck in the ice for two-and-a-half years and were never seen again. I thought that was an amazing book.

Robert Harris. l like both his contemporary thrillers and the historical stuff he’s done, particularly with Cicero. And in the more contemporary vein, I like Chris Ewan, who writes these really nicely put together, beautifully written thrillers that I just can’t get enough of.

So where can people find you and your books online?

The books are available at all the usual places online. My website is Tom-Harper.co.uk and I’m on Facebook/TomHarperAuthor and Twitter/TomHarperAuthor.

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time, Tom. That was great.

Tom: Thank you, Joanna.

Pursuit Of Justice And A Love For London: The Ingrid Skyberg FBI Thrillers

One of the amazing things about being a writer is that our words can live on after we die.

An author friend of mine, Eva Hudson, died from cancer earlier this year but her amazing thrillers continue to please readers. Fresh Doubt, Ingrid Skyberg #1 currently has 673 reviews on Amazon.com with 4 star average as well as being #1 in Crime Noir and #2 in Conspiracy Thriller. It’s also available for free so you can check out the adventure here!

eva hudson booksEva’s partner, Jo, is also a writer and now continues to write the series, so I asked her some questions about the books.

Tell us a bit about the Ingrid Skyberg books and why Eva chose to write a kick ass female FBI agent.

[Read more…]