On Writing Monsters, Action And Horror With Jeremy Robinson

If you like fast-paced action/adventure you’ll enjoy the Jack Sigler series. If you like monsters, check out Island 731, and if you like horror, check out Jeremy Bishop’s books!

Today I interview bestselling author of over 30 books, Jeremy Robinson, who also writes as Jeremy Bishop. You can watch the video below or here on YouTube.

In the interview, we discuss:

  • How Jeremy started out at art school and went into comic book illustration, and then into comic book writing, then screen-writing. After being inspired by a James Rollins novel, he moved into writing novels.
  • Monsters are a recurring theme in Jeremy’s books, including his recent book Island 731. He talks about his TV and film influences and why monsters have been part of his inspiration. ‘Island 731’ is about a crew stranded on an island that had been used for human experimentation during WWII.
  • Jeremy writes horror under Jeremy Bishop, the first book was ‘Torment’ which is a very dark book based on a nightmare he had. The Raven is the next book in the Jane Harper series, coming soon, where Jane has to deal with parasitical zombies that can zombify anything mammal, whilst out on the high seas. Ridiculous fun!
  • We talk about ‘I am Cowboy’, which is not a Western! Cowboy is the main character who first appeared in SecondWorld (about Nazis returning to take over the world). Cowboy is a conspiracy theorist obsessed with cowboy movies. He’s from the Czech Republic and he has a line ‘I am cowboy, I am gunslinger’.
  • How much of Jeremy is in his characters? It depends on the characters – some of them are very similar. In the YA series, the Last Hunter, Solomon is based on 50% Jeremy and 50% on his son. But many of the characters are nothing like Jeremy –  the books are nJeremy Robinson Booksot autobiographical!
  • Is Jeremy as exciting as the protagonists of his kick-ass, fast-paced books?
  • Jeremy talks about his writing space and you can see some of his Japanese movie monsters behind him in the video. He has a big office which is packed with pop culture objects, posters etc. It inspires him, and he does a lot of video as well as writing. He also paints and his kids play in the room.
  • Jeremy makes video trailers for all his books as well as ‘viral video’ campaigns, which are usually ridiculous. You can check out Jeremy’s YouTube channel here.

You can find everything at his sites: JeremyRobinsonOnline.com and JeremyBishopOnline.com

This interview was originally posted on Killer-Thrillers.

Explosions And Action Thrillers With Simon Kernick

Simon KernickI love fast-paced action adventure books and Simon Kernick is a master of the genre, with non-stop books that keep moving until the last page!

I dare you to read Ultimatum and put the book down mid-way through!

I interviewed Simon about his books recently. You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, or read the transcript below.

Simon Kernick is one of Britain’s most popular thriller authors with his fast paced novels topping the Sunday Times bestseller list.

His latest book, Ultimatum, is just out in the US. It opens with an explosion in a central London cafe and a threat from a terror group that promises escalation of the violence. Can Detective Inspector Mike Bolt and Deputy Commissioner Tina Boyd stop the atrocity before it’s too late?

So, Simon, just tell us a bit about your life before writing bestselling thrillers.

I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little kid, and so I was always writing stories of some description. But to pay the bills, I’ve done a number of different jobs, from bar work to road-building, laboring and Christmas tree uprooting, obviously very seasonal work.

And eventually I had a career for some years as an IT software salesman, which never gets a second question, so I’m going to move swiftly on! I did that for about a decade, and while I did that, I was trying to get published, and eventually, I was lucky enough to get a publishing deal. And the minute I got one—which is pretty much almost thirteen years ago today—I went full time. And I’ve been full-time writing ever since, and I don’t want to go back to work anymore!

Your books feature a lot of famous British landmarks, so I wondered if you could talk about a couple of places in Britain that are particularly special to you, and how they feature in your books.

Well, London is the main location for the vast majority of the books. They do move out into the UK a little bit more, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s London. My latest book, ULTIMATUM, features a very new and very famous London landmark now, the Shard. It’s an amazing looking tower.

Ultimatum KernickI love London to walk around, to see how the old and the new can just live together, and the rich and the poor merge together; it’s such an amazingly cosmopolitan city. But when you get on the South Bank of the Thames, and you see the Shard stretching up like a piece of glass into the sky, it’s an absolutely incredible scene, and pretty much the moment I saw it, I wanted it to feature it somewhere in a book.

And then to move completely away from London, to the other end of the country, my book Stay Alive, which I think comes out in the States next year, and which just came out in the UK this year, is all about a kayaking trip that goes wrong in the wilderness of Scotland. I spent a few days up in a place called Glen Affric, a huge glen about twenty miles south-east of Inverness, and it’s right in the middle of nowhere.

You can’t believe that in a country as heavily populated and as small as the UK you can have such amazing wilderness, but it contains an a magnificent ancient pine forest, beautiful waters and mountains, and it was a fantastic backdrop for the book and obviously a fantastic place to go and do some research.

You write a lot of action scenes and thriller readers love explosions! Have you got like a hit list of things you want to blow up in your books?

Do you know, I’ve never thought about that. I do quite like a big explosion but I don’t think I’d like to explode any landmarks in London, because I quite like them, and I don’t really want to lay waste to the city—I think it’s much better on the page, to be honest.

I would like one time to actually blow something up myself, something that was ready for demolition, like one of those big tower blocks they have. I’d like to push down the detonation thing, whatever it’s called, and set one of those bombs off, but I have never done it.

I have been, though, to the Army Bomb Disposal School in the UK where they told me how to make a bomb, pretty much from household components, which was research for a book, and I’ve actually handled various plastic explosives that they let me mess around with up there, but I’ve not actually blown anything up as yet. And that’s probably no bad thing!

What are the other thrilling things youve done in terms of your research expeditions?

Well, two of my books were set, at least partly, in the Philippines: A Good Day to Die and, The Payback. I spent some time there moving around the islands and checking out and exploring Manila, which is probably one of the most ugly cities in the world, because it was the second-most bombed city in the Second World War, after Dresden. It was bombed by both the Japanese and the Americans trying to get it back and so it was completely flattened. It’s pretty much made up of low, two-story, three-story breeze-block buildings all over the place. It’s an incredibly ugly place, but very exciting and interesting.

That’s probably my favorite location for research, because it’s a little bit like the Wild West in the Philippines. It’s nothing like anywhere else in South-East Asia. They’re a bit more violent, there are a lot more guns about, and there are a lot more soldiers and police, and there’s always kind of something going on in the background, so it was an amazing location for the books.

Theres a lot of political upheaval going on in the world with ISIS in Iraq and other things happening. Do you get any ideas from that bigger political scene?

Yes, I do. I’ve written books, such as Siege, and Ultimatum, where they take on board things that are happening in the world currently, particularly on the terrorism front, on the Islamic fundamentalism front, and the rise of separatism. You always have to put your own slant on things, because I don’t want to write a book that’s very specifically current affairs. I just think it’s good to have a story which has some level of escapism from the horrible parts of the world that we keep hearing about, but at the same time, where it’s quite obvious from the plot that those events are impinging a little bit.

So I mix and match, really. It’s good to put the current affairs in, but my books are escapism: they’re there for excitement, action, twists and turns, and ultimately, I want someone to finish a book and think, “Ah, I really enjoyed that and I want to read another of his,” not, “Oh, my god, that’s so depressing, the world is collapsing all around us.”

Your books are set at breakneck speed, a non-stop pace. Is that how you live your life, or what do you do to relax?

Well, it’s a good question, actually. I do quite a lot of exercise. I do a fair amount of kayaking, although I’ve never ended up on the kind of trip where people are trying to kill me, as they do in Stay Alive. I do quite a lot of outdoor and fairly exciting activities, but at the same time, I lead quite a nice life, as well. When I’ve finished writing for the day, I relax. If I’m really knackered, I take a nice long walk down by the River Thames where I live, and then come back, cook some dinner, and just slob out in front of the TV, watching usually American box sets and comedies. And that, to me, is a nice way of relaxing.

But, funny enough, I am quite an impatient person, and I have a fairly short attention span a lot of the time. I can be talking about one thing and suddenly I move very quickly to another, and then quickly to another, and quickly to another. A lot of people have described me as fairly manic, so I think maybe that’s influencing the books as well. I couldn’t write a slow one, I don’t think.

Joanna: No, I guessed that. No literary fiction in your department!

Simon: No, it’s too slow: I like things to move fast. But that’s how I like to read them, as well. A book has to engage me from the first page, or I don’t really give it too much of a chance anymore. I think a good book is always engaging in the first page, even if it’s a fairly slow plot, so that’s what I try to do with my books, and then just keep people reading, yanked in right until the very end.

What are the themes that obsess you, that you keep coming back to in your writing?

I think the fear that the criminals are winning. There is always a fear in my books that the police, the law, doesn’t protect the victims as much as it protects the criminals, and that this isn’t a good thing. So, the fear that the police are often battling as much against their superiors and the establishment and the legal system as they are against the criminals is a recurring theme.

And the need by almost all my protagonists, both police or not, to break the rules, because the rules themselves are too much of a straitjacket. So there’s this thing about how far do you go to break the rules, and how far can you go without becoming a criminal yourself and losing the sympathy that you’re trying to get. How far can you corrupt the sense of the search for justice?

So that’s the recurring theme that I think has run through every one of my books, and is very much in the latest book, as well. That’s what always interests me.

I’ve noticed that threat to family is also a common theme. Would that be true?

Yes, because a lot of my protagonists are just an ordinary man or woman that suddenly get themselves flung into a situation over which they have no control, and to which they don’t know how to react. And I think that’s hugely important to me, but often, when it’s an ordinary person, they have a family as well, and often they’re trying to protect their family. And family to me is very, very, important.

I have two children and I’m massively protective over them, and I suppose when I’m dealing in the books with threat to family, I think of my own kids and how I would feel if they came under threat, and so that adds an intensity to the writing.

It’s the fear that I have as a parent for my children going out in the world and protecting them against all the dangers that are out there. That’s a recurring fear for me, and I think a lot of parents probably can sympathize with that.

That speaks to the father side of you, but how much of other sides of your life are in the characters that you write?

Well, I think a lot of me is in my characters, and I think that’s the case pretty much with any writer. If you’re writing a book, it’s your passions, your thoughts, your fears that go into the characters. Obviously, the characters are all fictional, and in many cases in my ones, they’re a lot braver than I would be in a lot of circumstances, but they have my sense of fear about the world; they have my sense of enjoyment when things go right, my sense of always desiring some form of natural justice as well.

I have a great thing about natural justice: I like to see the good rewarded and the bad punished, and that is a huge theme in my books: whether they’re the ordinary person in trouble or whether they’re the police officer trying to find a murderer, they all have that need for natural justice. That comes straight from me.

In talking about fear, I heard you speak at a literary festival about being abducted as young man. Would you mind telling that story?

I was hitchhiking with a couple of friends, aged 16, when we were picked up by three older guys in a very small car, and they basically drove us into my home town, late at night, and rather than actually drop us off, they drove back out of town with us in the car, and made us take our clothes off. It was a really horrible incident where we thought we were going to die.

We were eventually naked and lined up outside the car in the middle of some woods and beaten very badly, and then threatened. I think one of them said to another, “Get the shotgun out,” and I don’t know how much of it was trying to scare us and humiliate us, or how much of it was real. One of my friends actually broke free and escaped, and that’s when they let myself and my other friend go.

But it was a really, really terrifying, ordeal. It was made worse, I think, if we’re talking about natural justice, by the fact that the police knew very quickly who they were, but none of them admitted anything under detailed and lengthy questioning. They never discovered the stolen car that they were in, and the police waited weeks and weeks before they came round with a book containing photographs which may or may not have contained these guys. We couldn’t pick out the guys so they were never brought to justice. That was quite a difficult thing.

The fear that I remember from that night is a kind of fear that you never, ever forget, because for about half an hour, I really did think I was going to die. I was 16 and had never experienced anything like that before. I come from a comparatively sheltered background and lived in a small town, so it was a pretty traumatic experience. When I’m writing from the point of view of ordinary individuals in trouble, who are faced with a really terrifying situation, where they think they’re going to die, I draw upon my own experiences of that and try to infuse that in the page through their eyes.

Joanna: Thank you so much for sharing that: I appreciate your vulnerability.

Simon: It’s funny, but I didn’t think about it for years and years; I really pushed it to one side and tried to forget about it, and I never spoke about it with my two friends, one of whom I still keep vaguely in touch with. It’s still never mentioned, and it’s only in recent years with the writing that it’s come out and that I’ve talked about it more. Twenty-two years ago, I think it was. A long time ago, but you never forget it.

We often write to deal with these things ourselves. Do you think people who love thrillers are reading for that vicarious experience, or why do people love reading books like yours?

I think it’s always quite nice to be sat in the warmth of your house, feeling all cozy in bed, reading a book where some horrendous things are happening to people who you can hopefully identify with, and think, “Oh, my goodness, thank goodness that’s not happening to me.” That’s quite a nice feeling, I always think.

And I think people just really, really enjoy books where there are plenty of twists and turns; where they don’t really know what’s going to happen next, and where they can actually identify with and sympathise with the characters who are their main protagonists. That’s the really important thing about using an ordinary person like I do in a number of books. I think that the reader can see these people and think, “Yeah, actually that could be me, and what would I do in those sort of situations, and what’s going to happen,” and that, I think, is the real key to why people enjoy them.

 This interview also appeared on on The Big Thrill. You can find Simon at SimonKernick.com and also on twitter @simonkernick

Religious Truth Vs Fiction. Playing Saint With Zachary Bartels

Zachary Bartels’ latest book Playing Saint opens with an exorcism and a murder scene with satanic symbols. It also features a mega-church and Vatican operatives, and in this interview, I ask Zach to talk a bit about the book and the thoughts behind it.

zachart bartelsAs an introduction, Zachary Bartels is an award-winning preacher and Bible teacher, serving as pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan, where he lives with his wife Erin and their son. He holds degrees from Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Zachary enjoys film, fine cigars, stimulating conversation, gourmet coffee, reading, writing, and cycling.

playing saintTell us about your own religious background and how you’ve incorporated that into the books.

Well, I used to be a Vatican assassin from 1999-2004, during which I dealt with a very large number of occult-related murders.

Just kidding; I’m a Baptist minister with a pretty vanilla background. I do tend to incorporate my experiences as a pastor into characters (part of my “brand,” as they say), but mostly I would imagine my religious background relates to my books much like yours does to your books—meaning that, when you spend so much time studying all sorts of fascinating beliefs, rites, traditions, etc., from East to West and from ancient times to the present, your imagination starts spinning off what-ifs, which then grow up into full-blown stories.

How do you walk the line between what some consider religious truth and fiction?

I think it works in my favor that I really do believe in the religious angle of my novels (the reality of demonic oppression, the power of Christ’s cross, etc.).

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve enjoyed many a supernatural/religious thriller (in print or film) created by people who were approaching their work as straight-up fantasy, but my readership is primarily made up of evangelical Christians who share my beliefs. For that reason, I have to tread lightly around issues of doctrine and avoid writing in a way that might come across as flippant when dealing with things sacred. I’ve already had a couple negative reviews along the lines of: how can he employ all that snarky humor when dealing with such serious topics? However, I like to think that most readers (regardless of their personal beliefs) know that picking up a novel generally means suspending disbelief and giving a little latitude for the sake of entertainment.

this present darknessMy early influences in religious fiction included ‘This Present Darkness’ by Frank Peretti.

What were some of your influences for your books? What do you read for pleasure now?  

Peretti’s work is definitely one of the strongest early influencers on me as well. I also love Stephen Lawhead’s stuff and Paul Maier’s religious thrillers.

Less predictably, I love Chuck Palahniuk’s works and the late Elmore Leonard, as well as the more out-there stuff like Duane Swierczynski. In the last couple years, I’ve also been tearing through Cliff Graham’s gritty biblical war epics.

I read your first book, 42 Months Dry, about the prophet Elijah a few years back, which covers a more historical thriller perspective.

How has your writing developed since then?

42 months dryFor starters, it’s gotten a lot tighter. 42 was my first stab at writing a novel. I took my time and gave it a number of passes, but flipping through it now, it’s a lot less polished than Playing Saint. Of course, that’s also because I did that one indie in pretty much every sense, which means no macro-edit with a project editor, no line edit, etc.

I was already listening to your podcasts while I was putting it together and I always heard you and your guests telling everyone to hire an editor, and I always thought, “Yeah, that’s a good idea…but not for me of course.” I wonder how many indie writers have that same assumption and how much better their work could be if they tossed it and let someone else inject some years of editorial experience into their work.

What are the themes that keep recurring in your writing? That obsess you?

This was totally unplanned, but I recently realized that both of my contracted novels with HarperCollins (as well as 42 Months Dry to some degree) are about the issue of identity.

By that I mean, determining who you really are underneath your titles, degrees, profession, etc. And, not surprisingly, there’s a whole lot about Jesus in there too—hopefully presented in a way that appeals broadly to readers of varying beliefs and backgrounds.

Many thriller authors are criticized for portraying violent crime and too much death in their books. How do you handle that criticism?

A couple of my early editorial reviews have mentioned the “on-screen” violence and rather bloody crime scenes, but it hasn’t been a deal-breaker. It’s a curiosity of the CBA marketplace that violence has kind of been given a pass, while a naughty word or even sidelong reference so something sexual would be shot on sight by pretty much any editor.

Personally, I think Playing Saintis PG-13 at most and I tried not to include death and violence for death and violence’s sake.

What’s next for your writing?

My next novel, The Last Con (about a reformed con man forced back into a life of crime, with some secret societies, relics, and conspiracies to boot) comes out next June. It’s in line edit now. I’m just starting to outline another book that I hope to pitch soon..

Where can people find out more on you and your books?

My website is  www.zacharybartels.com or you can follow me on Twitter @AuthorZBartels

Assassin John Milton And Kickass Beatrix Rose Thrillers With Mark Dawson

It’s always great to find books that feature strong female characters, and recently I discovered Beatrix Rose, assassin and seriously kick ass heroine in cold bloodcreated by author Mark Dawson.

I caught up with Mark outside the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of England in London and asked him a few questions. You can watch the video below or here on YouTube.

We discuss:

  • How Mark got started in writing after being a lawyer in the city
  • The various series that Mark writes: serial killer with Masonic twist; assassin John Milton making amends for the sins he committed in the secret service; Beatrix Rose series – a strong willed character with serious issues, a daughter who she is sword of godtrying to protect.
  • How much of Mark is in his books, and how thrilling is he anyway! How he does his research.
  • Mark is a busy man, but he does read thrillers for pleasure – he enjoys Lee Child, Russell Blake, Barry Eisler – and also reads a lot of non-fiction for research.
  • The themes of family, revenge and settling the score are important for Mark.
  • Mark’s latest book is Sword of God in the John Milton series – influenced by Rambo and True Grit. Mark currently works in the film industry so watches a lot of films and medium is important for him.

You can find Mark and his books at MarkJDawson.com and you can start the Beatrix Rose thrillers with In Cold Blood.

On The Inspiration For Writing Crime Thriller The Skeleton Road With Val McDermid

I recently interviewed fantastic crime author, Val McDermid for The Big Thrill magazine about her latest book, The Skeleton Road.

Val McDermid photocredit Mimsy Moller jpeg

Val McDermid. Photocredit Mimsy Moller

You can listen to the interview below, or read the full transcript below.

Val McDermid is one of the UK’s most well-known crime writers, a multi-award winning and many times bestselling author. Her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series was turned into the TV series Wire in the Blood, and her 33 books span crime, literary fiction and children’s books, as well as many short stories.

Her latest book, The Skeleton Road, opens with the discovery of a body on top of a disused building in Edinburgh. As cold case Detective Karen Pirie delves into the case, she follows a trail stretching from Oxford to war-torn Dubrovnik and uncovers a hidden past in a forgotten Balkan village.

The Skeleton Road tackles the theme of geopolitics, hugely topical at the moment. Can you talk about what inspired you to write around this theme?

It’s one of those bizarre things that has turned out to be eerily in the headlines as the book comes out, because that really wasn’t what I had at the forefront of my mind when I was thinking about it. It’s one of those things where you have a story in your head for a long time, or a couple of stories in this case, and it just takes a while for them to come together. And, the starting point for this book was two pretty extraordinary women that I’ve known over the years.

The first one was someone I knew when I was at Oxford, a philosophy tutor at my old college, and we became good friends while I was an undergraduate, and stayed friends for years. She was very involved with the Underground University movement, when the Soviet Empire was still in place, and she and her colleagues would pretend to be going on holiday to a place like Czechoslovakia, but theyd secretly be conducting philosophy seminars in peoples spare bedrooms and the cellars underneath pubs. She eventually got barred from Czechoslovakia for her activities, but she transferred her attention to Yugoslavia, where she inadvertently got caught up in the Siege of Dubrovnik and became a great supporter of the city during the siege, but also afterwards; she became a great fundraiser and she ended up being honored by the state, and by the city, and she was made an honorary general in the Croatian Army, and had a square named after her in Dubrovnik.

So she told me lots of war stories about her time there. And that’s one of those things when you’re hearing about it and your friends are talking about it, and you think “There’s a book in here somewhere,” but I never had the story to go with it. And then another friend, Professor Sue Black, from Dundee University, who’s a forensic anthropologist, she was the lead anthropologist on the British investigative team into the war crimes in former Yugoslavia, for the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, and she talked to me at some length over the years of her involvement in those cases, coming along after the massacres and trying to piece together what had happened.

The two things sat in my head for a while, and the thing that crystallized them in a very strange way was reading a book called “The Night-Climbers of Cambridge,” which was about a bunch of guys in the 1930s who used to free climb the outsides of buildings in Cambridge. Somehow, all the pieces just came together: climbing the outsides of buildings, the idea of a skeleton being discovered where a skeleton shouldn’t be, and that leading back into a sort of twisted history of what happened during the Balkans in the 90s.

Talking of Professor Sue Black, you have recently helped fund a mortuary at the University of Dundee where she has a lab. Why did you want to do that? Why is the lab so important?

Read more detail about the lab in this FT article.

Well, Sue’s been a great supporter of not just me but other crime writers over the years, and like a lot of people in the forensic science community, she gives unstintingly of her time and her experience and her knowledge, and never asks for anything in return. We’ve known each other for the best part of 20 years now, and she desperately wanted to set up this mortuary with this new system of embalming, which makes it much better for teaching, but also much better for surgeons to try out new surgical techniques. Anyway, the cost of the basic facility was going to be £2 million, and the university was prepared to put up £1 million, if Sue could match-fund it.

So we were talking about if there was anything that crime writers could do to help, because, as I said, they give us a lot, but we never get the chance to really give anything back. And we came up with this crazy idea, this Million for A Morgue campaign, and the general idea was that I corralled a bunch of ten of us crime writers who all use forensics in our work, and the idea was the public could vote for their favorite amongst us, and every time you voted, it cost £1. So you could vote as often as you wanted, it was a way of donating money to a good cause, but also to, I suppose, express a preference for your crime-writing tastes.

This ran for a couple of years, and we eventually raised the money, and I was the lucky one who came out top of the poll, so I get the mortuary named after me!

It’s kind of weird. When I set out in my career as a writer of crime fiction, I didn’t imagine for a moment I’d end up with a mortuary named after me!

And will you donate your body to the mortuary?

If Sue wants it, she can have it! You know, what’s left of it after I’ve trashed it comprehensively!

I think its brilliant, and obviously readers love all the gory details, which is why they love your work. I wondered if there was a particularly weird thing that sticks in your mind that Sue shared with you that youve included in your books, whether it was The Skeleton Road or something else?

The great quality that Sue has is of rendering her information in the terms a lay person can understand so for someone like me with a very limited grasp of the physical sciences, she explains things in terms that are very easily explicable. I can remember going to her when I was researching a book called The Grave Tattoo some years ago, and I said to her, “I’m looking for information about bog bodies. What would a body look like after it had been in a peat bog for 200 years?” And she thought for a moment, and then she said, “A leather bag with a face on it”! And that was such a vivid image that that went straight into the book verbatim. It’s the perfect image, isn’t it? You can just see that in your mind’s eye.

And because that’s the way her mind works, she is a remarkably helpful source for me. But sometimes she comes up with images that are quite disturbing in a different sort of way. I did once ask her what a pubic scalp in formalin would look like, and she said, “Well, the hair would be quite bleached, and the meat side of it, the flesh side of it, would look like a tin of tuna.” I couldn’t look a tin of tuna in the face for months after that!

You’re proudly Scottish, and Scottish locations and characters feature prominently in your books, and Edinburgh is in THE SKELETON ROAD.

Can you talk about a couple of places in Scotland that are particularly special to you, and how they feature in your work?

I’ve always thought a sense of place is a really key element in good crime fiction. All the writers whose books stick most in my mind are the ones who really summon up a vision of a place for me. So when I’m thinking about a book, I’m always thinking about where it happens. And there are some locations that just seem to invite writing about them.

I grew up in Fife, which is across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. And the mining village where I spent a lot of time, where my grandparents lived, East Wemyss, has these caves that run along the base of the cliff, and it just seemed to me that these caves, which have been inhabited for probably more than five thousand years, I thought that would be a perfect place to put a body, so that was always in the back of my head, and eventually in A DARKER DOMAIN, I got to write about that part of Fife and its mining history, but I also got to use the caves as I’d always fancied. Probably since I was quite a young child, I’d imagined pirates and murders and all sorts of heinous goings-on in the caves!

The Skeleton RoadAnd Edinburgh itself, of course, is a fascinating backdrop for any kind of book. It’s a World Heritage Site and you’ve got the New Town with its Georgian splendor and order and elegance, and then you’ve got the Old Town with its back alleys and mysterious dark closes, and the shadow of Burke and Hare hanging over it. So there’s lots of contrast, and of course it’s the capital city, with the Parliament and the financial sector, but it’s also got areas of deprivation as well, so, again, you get these contrasts, these collisions of different places bumping into each other.

One of the other things that’s a fascinating element of having Scotland to write about is that you have a vast emptiness. The Highlands is still one of the last wildernesses, and there are lots of places in the Highlands where you can walk all day and not see another human being, and so there are possibilities there for setting scenes up in the Highlands, where you can exploit the grandeur and the wildness of the landscape. It’s quite good for dramatic chases!

Another place that often features in your books, and indeed in The Skeleton Road, is St Scholasticas College in Oxford. I wonder if you could talk about St Hildas and your relationship with Oxford, and how it continues to resonate in your work.

I went to St Hilda’s in Oxford, and St Scholastica’s isn’t really St Hilda’s, I mean it’s an amalgam of various places, and I have transplanted some aspects of North Oxford, so it’s kind of a bit of St Hilda’s but kind of transplanted to LMH (Lady Margaret Hall), you know?

But I went to St Hilda’s when I had just turned 17. I was the first person from a Scottish state school they’d ever accepted. And for me, it was a huge culture shock. Fife is quite a parochial place, for a long time it was quite cut off from the rest of Scotland, until we got the road bridges 50 years ago, and so it was quite inward looking, and to go from somewhere like that to Oxford was quite a shock. For a start, nobody could understand a word I said, because I had a very thick Fife accent, and they still use a lot of dialect words in Fife, and it’s also they talk with a fast kind of speak, a fast kind of tempo.

So first, I had to learn to speak English! Everything was strange, even the vegetables were different. There were things that I’d never seen before: aubergines and broccoli and red peppers and things like that we’d take totally for granted now were just not part of the Scottish gastronomic landscape of the 1960s and early 70s. But the important thing for me, I think, was that St Hilda’s felt like a very egalitarian place, and it still does. It didn’t feel like it was a place of snobbish cliques; it felt very much like a place where you were judged on the quality of your mind and the quality of your discourse. And I felt that I was there because I deserved to be, and I’d got there on my own merits, and I felt that these people have the keys to the kingdom, and I’m going to wrestle them from their dead hands. So, for me, it was just a time of great opportunity.

The thing about Oxford, if you actually dive into it head first and seize what it has to offer with both hands, is its a place that will nourish you for the rest of your life. St Hilda’s every summer has a Crime and Mystery Conference, and I have been most of the 20-odd years that it’s been going, and so that’s another thing that connects me back into St Hilda’s. I’ve also continued to be connected to the College, and they made me an Honorary Fellow a couple of years ago: of all the awards I’ve won, that’s probably the one I feel most proud of.

How does the architecture of Oxford and the city itself play out in your books?

It’s about giving a vivid backdrop that the reader can connect to. It’s almost a little trick that you play on the reader. Everybody knows that murders are not resolved in the way that we write about them: it’s not just one maverick inspector with a sergeant who buys the beer. It’s a lot more complex, and often a lot more dull than that. So we’re inviting our readers to come on a journey of suspension of disbelief, and anything that makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief is a bonus, really.

If you write about a real place with a sense of what it’s actually like, and you make that place come alive for the reader, and the reader knows that place, they will think, “If she’s telling me the truth about this, then she must be telling the truth about everything else.” So it’s a little bit of a narrative trick.

But also, you have to write about it in such a way that the person who’s never been there can connect it to their own experience of cities, so you try to write about these things in a way that people will go, “Oh yes, that’s just like this part of the town that I live in.” You know, it’s the student district or the working class district, or you try and find something that makes it meaningful to people who’ve never been there. But sometimes, you get cities like Edinburgh, like Oxford, where the architecture is an absolute gift and it would be kind of perverse not to take advantage of it.

What else have you had to overcome to get to where you are today, one of the UKs most famous crime writers?

For a start, I grew up a working-class community in Fife, where people like us don’t become writers. There’s nobody in my family has any connection to the creative industries at all. My generation was the first one where anybody went to university, but all my cousins are scientists or social scientists; there’s nothing at all creative like that. And so people say, “You can’t be a writer, you need to get a proper job.” So there’s a whole set of social expectations, a whole set of class politics to get past. And I started working in the 1970s in newspapers, when it was definitely still a man’s world. When I went to work in Manchester, Mirror Group Newspapers had 137 journalists: only three of them were women. So, there was stuff like that. I’ve been an out lesbian for the best part of 40 years now, and that hasn’t always been an entirely straightforward path, either. There have been a lot of times when people have gone, “You can’t do that.”

Then in practical terms, with my writing, I started off with one series, then I brought it into another series, and people said, “You can’t write different kinds of books, you just have to keep giving people what they want,” and I’ve never done that. I’ve always written the books that really mattered to me to write, that are not necessarily what people said I should be writing next. I’ve never wanted to just write one series; I’ve always written the books that I cared about, not what I was expected to write. And sometimes that leaves readers slightly wrong-footed, because they don’t quite get the book they expect, and I’m sorry if that’s sometimes a disappointment, but the plus side of that is that I think overall I write better books, because the books that I write come from the head and the heart, they’re books that matter to me.

Talking about genre, your books are said to be part of the “Tartan Noir” genre. How would you describe that for readers who may not have heard of it before?

Well, I do think it is the case that there’s a difference in sensibility between the way that Scots write and the way that English write, and it comes from a different cultural history, a different social history. Scottish crime fiction does cover a huge span of types from quite cozy-ish novels set in small towns to really dark, very noir novels set in the Central Belt mostly. But what I think we all have in common is that we’re all fascinated with the psychological. We’re all fascinated with what makes people tick, why people do the things they do. So in general, Scottish crime fiction, I think, has a very strong psychological thrust to it.

Set against that darkness is black humor, and we all have, I think, that leavening of black humor in our work. The Scots are very good at laughing at times of adversity, and frankly, we get a lot of practice. At a Scottish funeral, people will tell funny stories about the deceased; people will laugh, and that’s what we’re like. We have a strong gallows humor, and that permeates our books as well as that sort of dark night of the soul, that sort of Calvinistic closed-in–ness.

It’s a contrast that the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid characterized as ‘The Caledonian antisyzygy,’ which is the yoking together of opposing forces. So on the one hand, we have got this Calvinist history, but on the other hand, we also have the party animal, the whisky drinking, the dancing, the singing, the music side of us. So those two things are always at war within the Scottish character, and I think they appear in the so-called “Tartan noir” school of writing.

Which writers have influenced your work?

It’s always hard to say who your influences are, because it’s easier, I think, for the reader to see those influences, but in terms of writers I feel I’ve learned from, it’s quite a wide range. I’d say Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Atwood, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith and Reginald Hill, all in different ways. And, of course, Sara Paretsky, who created the first female private eye that really spoke to me, which had the urban setting, politics, and a woman with a brain and a sense of humor at the heart of the book. So all those writers in different ways have taught me something about my craft, and have helped me to become the writer I am.

Youre on the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Committee and Id say that youre the face of Harrogate Crime. For crime readers who might be coming over, what can they expect at that event, and what were some of your highlights this year?

It has a tremendously welcoming atmosphere and it’s a very democratic festival. The writers, the publishers and the readers all hang out together. It’s a manageable size, so you don’t get swamped, you don’t get lost. It features a terrific assortment of big names that everybody’s heard of and new writers or less well-known writers who have the chance to showcase their abilities, their books, their conversation, if you like, to a wider audience.

The panel that I chair every year is the New Blood Panel, and I think it’s interesting that the booksellers at the festival report that those books sell more than any others. That’s a mark of the excitement and knowledge and ability of the audience who come. It’s a real fan audience, proper, serious readers of crime fiction, people who love the genre, and they buy the New Blood because they’re read everybody else, and they’re eager to find new talent to read.

So it’s a very friendly festival, there’s something for everybody. Among the highlights this year was a panel on Broadchurch, the ground-breaking television series. And I got to interview Robert Galbraith, who is, of course, J.K. Rowling: the only event that she did for her new book was with Harrogate this year.

It’s a festival that writers really value. This year, we gave the Outstanding Contribution Award to Lynda La Plante and she did a special guest slot for us this year. It is an event that writers put in their diary well in advance, and readers, too. It’s amazing the number of people who have been coming now for years; they’ll come and discover it, and they keep coming back.

The interview transcript was included in the October edition of The Big Thrill here.

You can also find The Skeleton Road on Amazon here.

Oracle. A Jade Ihara Adventure With Sean Ellis and David Wood

If you love kick ass action adventure with strong female characters, you’re going to enjoy the new Jade Ihara series from David Wood and Sean Ellis.

OracleI interviewed them about the first book in the series, Oracle.

The Oracle of Delphi is a fantastic hook for myth and history lovers like me. Tell us a bit about the story and why the Oracle captured your imagination.

Sean: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t set out to write a book about the Oracle of Delphi. Like Jade, I just sort of ended up there. It was the “true” story of a teleporting Spanish soldier named Gil Perez that really sucked me in. I came across it in a book about Unexplained Mysteries and it immediately went into my “must write about this someday” file.  I expected Delphi to be a red herring in the book, particularly since there are already some really excellent stories that deal with it, but the more research I did, the more I realized there was still a story to tell.

In brief: Jade, our intrepid archaeologist is part of a team exploring a previously undiscovered cavity underneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan (Mexico). In that chamber, Jade finds several strange spheres that appear to be a model of the solar system, but when she touches one, she has a vision of the future which not only saves her life, but launches her on a quest to discover the source of the visions.

The trail leads to Costa Rica, where she and Professor–our very own walking Wikipedia–investigate the mysterious stone spheres that were discovered there in the early 20th century, then it’s off to Delpih (with a brief stop-over in London to find a crystal ball that once belonged to famed mystic Dr. John Dee).

I love kickass female characters! Why did you take a break from Dane Maddock and spin Jade Ihara into her own adventures?

David: The Maddock universe is expanding. We’ve already added a successful “Origins” series, and I’ve always felt Jade was more than strong enough to carry her own story, and so far, readers seem to agree! Also, I’m a fan of adventure heroines like Lara Croft and that Morgan Sierra chick, so it was fun to join the club.

Sean: I came to the Maddock universe with one of those Origins stories, but I jumped at the chance to help develop a new series with Jade and Professor because there’s a lot more freedom to take things in a slightly different direction, which is what we did with Oracle. But it’s also a chance to let some of those supporting characters shine.

One reviewer commented that she really didn’t care for Jade in the Maddock books, and David always described her as being a little “bitchy”–you know you did, buddy. It was challenging, but in a good way, to try to keep the essence of the original character, while at the same time making her believable as the lead.

It seems like more male action-adventure writers are featuring women in the lead roles these days. Do you see a renaissance in action/adventure and a widening of the scope? Do you see any gender differences between the books?

David: If my audience is any indication, more women than men read “Men’s Adventure” stories, so it only makes sense to feature protagonists with whom the reader can identify. As far as gender differences between the books is concerned, I can’t say for certain. A lot of male writers craft characters who are female in name only –  you can’t tell the difference between their male and female characters in terms of motivations and internal dialogue- and I think we did a good job of avoiding that pitfall.

On a related note, we’re working on ideas to expand the Maddock universe even farther, with Tamara “Tam” Broderick taking the lead role in a new series featuring her Myrmidon Squad. I don’t know if anyone else is writing an African-American female action hero, but she’s been popular among Maddock readers since her first appearance in Quest, and I’m excited about that series.

Sean: Funny story. I was at an author event a couple months ago with a stack of my Dodge Dalton dieselpunk adventures. A woman picked one up and then proceeded to make a disparaging comment about ‘yet another story where the men do everything.’ Something like that. I had to laugh. In addition to flood risingOracle, I just wrapped work on the second book in my Dark Trinity series, which features a kickass female character, and this week, Flood Rising, a book I wrote with Jeremy Robinson featuring…you guessed it, a strong female lead, will be hitting the stores. I didn’t set out to balance the scales gender equality-wise, with this or any other of my novels, but sometimes a story just works better with a female lead.

Your books are full of international locations, and Oracle is just as wide ranging. Tell us about some of the locations in the book and why you picked them.

Sean: It’s funny. Some of the locations started out almost as random choices, but then when I started doing research, I was astounded at what I found. A good example is the opening scene at Teotihuacan. I had already decided to have Jade discover a room full of strange spheres, but when I started doing research, I discovered that archaeologists actually did find a new chamber under one of the other pyramids at Teotihuacan, that was full of gold-colored orbs. It was too perfect.

As I mentioned earlier, Jade also goes to Costa Rica to investigate the famous stone spheres that were discovered in the western part of the country–there are hundreds of them, some as big as that boulder that rolled after Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark, and no one has been able to supply a good explanation for who made them or why. The stone spheres were another one of those story elements that I’ve been wanting to explore for a long time.

Then there’s a stop in London, some hijinks in and around Delphi, including a walking tour–well, running and fighting tour–of the ruins there. The trail eventually leads to everyone’s favorite vacation spot, the Bermuda Triangle. Because the inspiration for the story began with the mysterious case of the teleporting Gil Perez, I felt like it was only natural that the mystery would eventually lead to the so-called Devil’s Triangle. Once again, the research led me to some pretty interesting connections, including a famous disappearance that happened on dry land. I’ll save that for the readers though.

What are some of the themes that obsess you and that keep coming up in your writing?

David: For me, action-adventure novels are about solving the ancient mysteries that fascinate me, visiting the exotic locales that interest me, and putting new twists on old stories. If you finish one of my books and don’t feel like you’ve been on a thrilling, fascinating ride, I haven’t done my job.

Sean: I would second that, but I would also add heroism. I like a story that is a bit on the gritty side, but I’m not interested in writing (or reading) anti-heroes. I want to write the kind of stories that I would want to read, and I think that in addition to ancient mysteries and hidden treasures, I just like a good guy (or girl) that I can root for. They don’t have to be super-capable or larger-than-life, in fact, I prefer them to be a little more vulnerable, but they are going to try to do the right thing, and if necessary, be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good.

How much of you is in the characters and the situations within the book?

David: There’s a little bit of me in the character of Professor. He’s more studious and uptight than I, but we both enjoy learning and knowledge, and have a certain degree of impatience with people who, shall we say, don’t catch on quickly enough.

Sean: I’ve always said that I am in every character I write, even the villains. A character won’t do something unless I can rationalize it. Which I suppose means that all my characters might start to look, sound and act the same. That’s where the collaborative approach really pays off. Now, for Jade, who is clearly still conflicted about her relationship with Dane, I had to channel some of my own life experience, so there’s probably more of me in Jade than even I realize.

You co-wrote this – was the relationship like Dane & Bones? and which of you is which?

David: Sean might disagree, but I think his personality is more like that of Maddock and I’m more like Bones. Sean is more of a planner and pays more attention to details, whereas I pull a few ideas together and then just go for it. As a writer, Sean is stronger with prose, while I bring the irreverent humor that readers associate with Bones. Physically, it’s the exact opposite. Sean’s a big dude with a ponytail and I’m the short, stocky guy with blue eyes.

Sean: It’s true. I have no sense of humor.

What’s next for Jade?

Sean: In my endless search for really weird stuff, I came across something called the ‘phantom time’ hypothesis. It’s the belief that maybe there were some errors in the way we counted time through the Dark Ages, which led to accidentally adding about three centuries that never happened. And if that were true, how would it change the world we live in?

David: And that’s just the beginning!

Thanks guys!

You can find Oracle in print and ebook formats on Amazon here, as well as at other online book stores. You can also find the authors at DavidWoodWeb.com and SeanEllisThrillers.com

Talking Religious Thrillers And The Sanctus Trilogy With Simon Toyne

I love religious thrillers and I was hooked by the Sanctus trilogy a few years back, so I was thrilled to talk to author Simon Toyne about his writing influences and what’s next in his world.

simon toyneSimon Toyne is the bestselling author of the Sanctus trilogy, translated into 28 languages and published in 50 countries. Sanctus was the UK’s biggest selling debut thriller of 2011, and all three books of the trilogy were Sunday Times bestsellers in both hardback and paperback

You can watch the interview below or here on YouTube.

We discuss:

  • Simon talks about the origins of the Sanctus trilogy and what inspired him to write the books. They are fast paced thrillers but they’re also about the identity of religion in the West, and the real identity of the main character.
  • sanctusSense of place: The importance of the city of Ruin with the medieval Citadel, and the mysterious Sacrament that lies within.
  • On research and traveling for work – Simon worked for 20 years as a Director making travel shows, so a lot of that went into the books.
  • How Simon took 6 months off his TV job to write his first novel. He took his family to France to take a real break and that experience is woven into the origins of the books.
  • On walking the line on religion and spirituality. There are a lot of Christian ideas in the books, but also a lot of pagan mythology. It wasn’t intended to be religious in any way. On arriving in France, sleep-deprived after a storm, and seeing the spires of Rouen Cathedral, Simon found a quote resonating in his mind from Ralph Waldo Emerson “A man is a god in ruins.” That became the seed for the books. Simon mentions that The Name of the Rose was an influence (as it was for me!)
  • On the Tau cross (pictured on the cover) and how important it was to the myths in the book. What is the Sacrament and what does it really mean?
  • Simon’s now writing a new modern thriller series about a man who doesn’t know who he is, a story of redemption. It’s roughly based on the 10 Commandments and the first book is out in early 2015.

You can find Simon and his books at SimonToyne.com and on twitter @simontoyne.

Why Reading And Writing Dark Fiction Can Be Healing With J Thorn

I’m fascinated by aspects of life that are just beneath the surface, things that are beyond the edge of what we can see or feel physically.

J ThornToday I talk about fear of judgement, writing dark fiction and the occult with J Thorn.

J Thorn is a Top 100 Most Popular Author in Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy, with his bestselling books selling over 100,000 copies.

You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, or listen to the audio on SoundCloud.

We discuss:

  • An overview of J’s writing including the Portal Arcane series. His books have an edge of horror, thriller and some science fiction.
  • J’s About page says, “I believe reading dark fiction can be healing,” and so we talk about what lies behind this. About J’s background and betrayalhow he didn’t fit in where he lived. He used to walk in the woods there, even in the middle of the night, and these experiences shaped his writing. I talk about the difficulty of ‘stepping out of the box’ that society puts us in.
  • Dealing with fear of judgement. We discuss our respective journeys to writing what we really love.
  • Our mutual interest in occult and mysticism. How J’s research of the Salem witch trials led him into learning about this side of things, and how it appears in his books.
  • The books and films that have influenced J’s writing. How he likes stories when you never see the monster. How we both love Stephen King.
  • On sleeping well and psychological wellness :)
  • On redemption – one of J’s main themes – and how that can happen after death, if not in this lifetime. On faith and how our past influences our writing.

You can find J at JThorn.net and his latest book is the Black Fang Betrayal.



Thrillers That Mix Science And Religion With Randy Ingermanson

One of the themes I revisit in most of my books is the issue of what I really believe. For many of us, that’s the internal journey of a lifetime!

Randy IngermansonToday I talk to physicist and Christian, Randy Ingermanson, about his City of God series and how he reconciles faith and science in his books.

You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, or listen to the audio on SoundCloud.

Randy Ingermanson is a physicist and geek suspense novelist. His books include the Oxygen series, the City of God series and Double Vision, as well as books for writers.

We discuss:

  • What is geek suspense anyway? How Randy loves books by Michael Crichton, and how his writing always includes city of godgeeky, smart people who have adventures. How he became a physicist and then started writing
  • How modern physics is a story about how the Universe got here. I talk about how I did Theology at Oxford and my boyfriend was a physicist so I combined religion and science. We discuss the line between religion and science.
  • Randy was raised in a religious home as a 7th Day Adventist. This has impacted his writing, and he continues to try and explore what he believes in his books through the eyes of his characters. How physics is very good at understanding HOW the Universe works, but not WHY the Universe works. We started with hydrogen and we ended up with people.
  • About Randy’s City of God series. A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the Apostle Paul. The book has a Messianic Jew, Rivka, who ends up with a Jewish theoretical physicist and accidentally walks through a portal to 1st century Jerusalem. Now they must stop the assassination of Paul.
  • On the culture shock of using Jerusalem as a backdrop to the story. A short history of 1st century Jerusalem and what was to come in that century, including the destruction of the Temple and the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, as well as Christianity moving out of Israel to Rome.
  • How Randy visited Jerusalem in 1991 as part of his research and how Jerusalem is one of my favorite cities that keeps appearing in my books. How we were both influenced by The Source by James Michener.
  • How we have to write out of our own experience and passions – for us, it’s religion and the supernatural! Plus, Randy brings in an element of romance – he’s far more romantic than me! We both write powerful female characters.
  • On Randy’s research for the Oxygen series which features a journey to Mars.

You can find Randy at Ingermanson.com and you can get his first book in the City of God series, Transgression, for free on Amazon here.

On Writing Literary Horror, Cannibal Cults And Vampires With Martin Lastrapes

There are some books which stick in your mind, even years later.

‘Inside The Outside’ by Martin Lastrapes is one of those books, and today I talk to Martin about his inspirations for writing literary horror, and why ‘nice’ people like us love to write of the darkness.

martin lastrapesMartin Lastrapes‘ brilliant debut novel, “Inside the Outside,” won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Paris Book Festival. He also writes short stories, is an English professor, and a podcaster, and is currently working on a vampire series.

You can watch the video below or here on YouTube. You can also listen here on Soundcloud.

In the interview, we discuss:

  • inside the outside

    It’s not an alien novel!

    Martin’s writing background. He had a late start after discovering literature at college, and was drawn to the darker side of fiction. He was into comic books earlier in life.

  • The inspiration behind the award-winning ‘Inside the Outside,’ which is about a girl who’s part of a cannibal cult in rural America. Martin’s own reasons for going vegetarian plus serial killers who are seem to be really nice people.
  • On ‘literary’ vs ‘horror’ in terms of genre and why Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis changed Martin’s life. About Martin’s next Vampire series.
  • On self-censorship.
  • Being a ‘nice person’ and writing horror. How really happy people write dark things.

You can find Martin and his books and podcast at MartinLastrapes.com. You can find ‘Inside the Outside‘ on Amazon here.

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