The Writing Life: Research, Ideas, Genre And My Writing Process

I recently did a wide-ranging and fun interview on the Genretainment podcast with Marx Pyle and Julie Seaton.

marx julie joannaWe talked about how I got into writing and why I write supernatural thrillers, the challenges when first starting out, the details of my writing life and how I get ideas and research books.

You can listen to the interview on this page or download the audio mp3 here. Or you can read the transcript below.

Transcript excerpt from the interview: J.F.Penn with Marx Pyle and Julie Seaton on GenreTainment

Julie: Hi, Joanna, welcome to the show!

Joanna: Thanks for having me: it’s good to be here.

Julie: Now, you do have an interesting background, living in London, and once living in Australia and New Zealand, and you have degrees in psychology and theology. You were also an IT consultant for many years.

So what motivated you to move full-time into the world of writing?

Joanna: Wow, that’s a big roundup!

Julie: It’s sort of like exposition on parade: I feel like Giles in the Buffy episodes!

Joanna: That’s a really swift one, it compasses quite a few years! But yes, basically, I guess, taking it way back, I did this degree in theology at Oxford, and when you leave Oxford and you have a student loan, people try to recruit you into these companies. I got recruited into Accenture, which is a large consulting firm, and then essentially spent 13 years implementing IT systems into corporates, specializing in Accounts Payable. I mean, you can’t get more boring than this, right?

Julie: I’m trying to understand how psychology and theology led to that.

Joanna: They don’t! I don’t know if I’m the only person who has a degree in something that doesn’t relate at all, but essentially then I spent those 13 years when I was a consultant trying to get out of my day job. I started a scuba-diving business, and I tried property investment, and I moved around the world: as you say, I lived in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, I’ve worked in a lot of places. Each time, things were just going wrong and wrong and wrong, and eventually I decided—and I’d never written a book before, but I’m a massive reader, always read a lot—I would write a book on how to enjoy your job, because how I could I, an intelligent woman, find myself in a life where I did not enjoy my day job? It just seemed ridiculous to me.

Julie: Very easily.

Joanna: Yes—isn’t that the truth! You take a job when you’re 21 because you want to pay off your debts, and 13 years later, you find yourself still doing the same job because just year after year, the golden handcuffs, blah-blah-blah, and I had a house and a mortgage and all the things, a car. I was questioning my whole life, basically: how come this is what the world says I careerchangesmallshould do, and I’m not happy? So, writing that first book—it does exist now as a book called “Career Change,” I discovered that I really enjoyed writing books!

I started a blog, as you do, and then I started writing and discovered NaNoWriMo. Your listeners might not know: is essentially National Novel Writing Month, and the aim is to write 50,000 words in a month, and I managed 20,000. I’d never written fiction before, and I got the bug! So basically that started me off. I’d always read thrillers, and I enjoyed “The Da Vinci Code,” because of my theology degree—I’m not a believer, but I love religion and all that goes into that, and the supernatural: demons and stuff, and Stephen King.

Julie: You’re talking my language!

Joanna: Yes, right—I like lots of that. So I thought, “I’ll just write that: it’ll be great,” and I loved it. I had such a good time. So that was 2009 I started writing fiction, and that pretty much kicked me off, and I was able to leave my day job in September 2011, to be a full-time author-entrepreneur. I combine fiction, non-fiction, professional speaking and other things, really.

Julie: You’re definitely touching on things that we like. Marx actually has a degree in psychology as well.

Marx: I do!

Julie: And I’m just massively interested in theology. I am religious myself, but I’m so interested in other religions and belief systems. What I love about it is the more you study, the more you find out, like how much everyone has in common, more than not!

Joanna: Yes, and what I like about it is it resonates with so much, and as you learn. My latest book, “Gates of Hell,” is based gates of hellon Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism, and as I researched that, I just found more and more cool stuff that I wanted to learn about. They have the Golem, the monster made out of clay, and I had to have him in there. There’s some cool demonology that you don’t even hear about and a numerological system called Gematria, where all these words have numbers associated, and then other words have the same numbers. It’s all very cool. So, I love all that stuff, too.

Julie: And even besides the demons, I’ve done the Dances of Universal Peace, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. The first time I went, the first chanting and dancing we did was based on Muslim beliefs of compassion and all this stuff, and right after that, we go right into something based on the teachings of Mother Teresa, and it was just like, “OK, so these are the same ideas, it was just packaged a little differently!”

Joanna: Exactly.

Julie: And then, we ended with a Buddhist blessing, and the words were different and the tune was different, but it was the same ideas behind all of them. It was just so interesting. So, I think what’s neat is that you can use that with the psychology to make all of the themes in your books so universal.

Joanna: Yes, and what I find, coming back to the psychology, Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity I find absolutely amazing. I have on my wall this line that said, “Trust emergence,” because when I get an idea for a story and then I start researching, it’s like I find the things that will feed the story. And I assume, “This is going to happen,” and then I find things pentecostnewsmallthat really happened that support the story.

The first book, “Pentecost,” I wrote just before Carl Jung’s “Red Book” came out, which is his journal and paintings from his nervous breakdown. It’s never been published before, and it came out just as I’d already written this “Pentecost” book. In it is a painting that precisely matched one of my scenes in the book! It was just like, “Wow, that’s synchronicity.” Things that just come out of that kind of Collective Subconscious. Anyway: really exciting.

Julie: I like that idea!

Marx: So, when you started writing, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced starting out?

Julie: Besides never having done it before!

Joanna: I was going to say! Do you mean fiction or non-fiction specifically?

Julie: I’d say fiction. I mean, obviously you did a lot of writing non-fiction for papers at Oxford, I’m assuming. If I had to do it here, I’m guessing you had to do it there.

Joanna: Exactly, so I think most people could probably structure a non-fiction book: you give some information. But fiction, probably the thing that you realize first up is that what’s in your head doesn’t necessarily come out on the page like you expected! And that also, even if you’ve read thousands of books, which I have, you try and construct a story and you suddenly realize that you might not necessarily know how to structure a story.

So even basic things, the same thing as TV has a point of view or a film—I know you have a lot of directors and people on the show—a camera angle, for example, could be considered a point of view, and you see things with certain characters, it’s a scene in a certain place, something has to happen, you have to evoke emotion. For me, I love big explosion movies, Con Air is probably my favorite movie, but then you try and portray that in a book, it’s very different to portraying that in a film.

Julie: They move a little slower, don’t they!

Joanna: Yes, you can’t just say—well, you can say, “Then everything blew up,” but that’s not really good enough!

Julie: The end! It all blew up: the end!

Joanna: Yes, so you have to go a bit deeper, and that’s what I like. It’s difficult, but it’s what I like about writing novels, as well. Like we’re saying, the psychology of religion: I can go into a character’s thoughts as to what they think. I’ve got a guy in one of my books about eugenics: he believes that breeding out the ‘bad people’ in the world will make for a better humanity. Now, he believes in making humanity better, but the way he believes in doing it is not necessarily a way that you and I would agree with. So, it’s interesting putting yourself into the head of somebody like that.

I think when you start writing fiction, you realize so much that you don’t know, and then you have to learn that stuff. I learned this: I’ve done courses, I’ve read all the books, I’ve paid for a lot of professional editors and learned the craft. This is another thing I love about writing—I’m sure you guys agree: you never stop having to learn. I mean, the moment you master one thing, you move onto something else, and that’s part of the joy of it.

Julie: Yes, and I love that you’re talking about it being the way he goes about it. Because, you know, villains are always heroes in their own minds, really. They think they’ve got it all figured out: they’re not the bad guy in the black hat, twisting the handlebar mustache going “Mwahahah”! I guess they could, that might be fun!

Joanna: Except in Austin Powers, Doctor Evil.

Julie: Yes, he just knew: he was upfront about it. He was very on the nose: he’s evil.

Marx: Let’s talk a little bit about your fiction books. Now, you have your thriller ARKANE series: tell our listeners about that.

Joanna: I knew I wanted to write a series that basically I could use to investigate religious thriller mysteries around the world. The original idea stemmed when I went to Varanasi in India and saw the burning ghats where they burn the bodies on the banks of the Ganges and then sweep their ashes in, and then those people escape the cycle of life and reach nirvana. I was like, “That’s amazing, I’ve got to have that in a book,” and that’s actually the opening of one of my books.

But I thought I want to write something that’s not just a standalone, so that I can have a character go around the world doing cool stuff, so I came up with ARKANE, which is the ARKANE Agency: it’s a secret government agency that’s under Trafalgar Square in London. It’s kind of a bit Torchwood style—I was quite influenced by Torchwood—but ARKANE investigate religious mysteries, not alien ones.

My main character, Dr Morgan Sierra, just happened to do psychology and worked for the Israeli military, so she’s brought up Jewish but mixed heritage, and mixed race, and basically goes around the world, solving these mysteries and finding objects like the Devil’s Bible. Pretty much 95% of what’s in my books is based on true locations, true historical objects, real research, and then what I do is, I just twist it a little bit. So “Pentecost” is based on the Pentecost Stones, which I made up, but they are with the bodies of the Twelve Apostles, and their bodies are around the world, basically. So that’s very cool.

Julie: So basically someone can take a trip around the world and go to the tourist sites that you have in your books.

Joanna: Yes. And what I enjoy about it, I put at the end of my books an Author’s Note, and it tells people what is real and One Day In Budapestwhat I basically made up, and I love getting emails from my readers. One reader, for example, got “One Day in Budapest,” which is based in Budapest, and they actually went and did a tour of Budapest based on my novel, which was so cool.

Because all the places are there, the House of Horror from the Communist time, and there’s a labyrinth and all this different stuff. Also, it means I get to indulge my big passion, which is travelling. For example, I love Israel, I love Jerusalem, and pretty much every book I have set in Jerusalem, something’s in Israel!

Julie: That was going to be my next question: have you tried setting anything in a city or county you’ve not been in? You at least have kind of dipped your toes in the waters?

Joanna: Yes, I do both. For “Pentecost,” where I had to go to where the bodies of the Apostles are, I was looking for one in Iran, and I haven’t been to Iran. I would love to go; there’s some amazing cultural stuff in Iran, so I didn’t go there, I had to write that chapter from Wikipedia and Flickr and things like that. It’s amazing what you can find online, though. So, yes, there’s some chapters where I make stuff up. For example, in “Gates of Hell,” I have a scene scuba-diving in the Dead Sea. I am a scuba-diver, and you can scuba-dive in the Dead Sea, but I haven’t been, and I don’t want to go: it sounds blooming awful!

Julie: It sounds first of all, a little hot, a little salty.

Marx: Well, anything called “Dead Sea” I wouldn’t be keen.

Julie: You’ve got to tie weights to yourself to make yourself sink enough to scuba-dive, don’t you!

Joanna: You have to wear serious amounts of weights—but I went and researched it: you can dive, and it’s actually one of the proposed locations for the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, so I had to go there. That was really cool. That, again, is written from research. There’s a video online of diving in the Dead Sea. So I do both research. But one of the big things I love doing in my research process is I do get my ideas from trips, basically. The first thing I do is generally try and go somewhere and come up with an idea from that environment.

Julie: OK. Now, also, you have another series, the London Psychic series. Would you be able to explain that one to our readers – our listeners?

Marx: Our listeners, hope your readers!

Joanna: Basically, everything I write is supernatural in some way, and I thought, “I’m just going to write a straight crime novel: British detective, crime novel, and then what was classic is I just can’t write something that doesn’t have a supernatural edge.

I have a British detective, Jamie Brooke, and then her partner in solving these mysteries is actually a psychic who is an academic who works at the British Museum. He gets pulled into this mystery. Again, Desecrationthey’re all based in London: there’s two, I’m just starting the third one. The first one is “Desecration,” and it opens in the Hunterian Museum, which is amazing. Again, this stems from a visit there. It is a medical specimen museum, and when I first went there, I really viscerally felt in my stomach my reaction to the exhibits there, the stuff in jars.

Julie: It’s kind of hard not to!

Joanna: Well, it’s amazing. Then I went to the Bodies exhibition in New York, I don’t know if you know about that: the plastination of the corpses, and I just became utterly fascinated with this kind of thing, if you read the research about John Hunter, and the body-snatching and the Resurrection Men and that history.

So basically what the series is, there’s a crime that has a resonance with the past, and Jamie, who’s the detective, and Blake, the psychic, solve these murders, again, that happen now, but Blake can read the emotions of the past and what happened in the past.

For example, in “Day of the Vikings,” Blake has Day of the Vikingssome visions and goes back and sees what happens when the Vikings invaded and stuff like that.

It’s again very much I like using actual places in London. “Delirium,” the second one, is based in mental health—you’ll like the psychology—the opening murder is of a psychiatrist at the historical Bedlam, which is now the Imperial War Museum in London.

DeliriumThat’s pretty exciting, and I love living in London. It is just catnip for writers: there’s so much here, and in fact I do want to write a screenplay of “Desecration” or “Delirium,” because in terms of the budget, it would be smaller, because it’s very constrained in terms of scope, whereas my other books, I go around the world, blowing stuff up! You’ve got to do both, right? It’s fun!

Julie: Yes! You know, if you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, then no one’s going to enjoy reading it.

Marx: Do they exist in the same universe? Will there ever be a cross-over?

Joanna: Oh, well, yes. “Day of the Vikings” is actually a cross-over. Morgan Sierra from ARKANE goes to the British Museum, visits the Viking exhibition and meets Blake, so yes, they do. I don’t know why I ended up doing that. Do you know the British Museum in London at all?

Julie: We’ve not been there.

Joanna: OK. Well, there’s this massive glass roof: it’s beautiful. It’s this whole court that has a huge glass roof. I just looked up one day and thought, “How cool it would be to bring a helicopter through this roof”! And then they had this Viking exhibition, and I got my idea. So that was a lot of fun!

Julie: Movie producers love that kind of thing!

Joanna: This is the thing, and I think because I love action movies, like I said, I love Con Air, I love the John Woo kind of slow motion, the doves—he does a lot of doves in slow-mo shots—and Mr. and Mrs. Smith: I love these action movies with lots of fight scenes and explosions. Marx, aren’t you some kind of choreographer of fight scenes?

Marx: Yes, I’ve done that. I did martial arts for many years and then I do stunt work.

Joanna: See, that’s cool: that’s really cool.

Julie: It is fun. We had one time we actually had Marx and I sword fighting on screen, because we had him play a role where he would do that, because we just didn’t trust someone else. We knew we wouldn’t hurt each other. In the amount of time we had, we didn’t have enough time to really train somebody. So we were like, “We know we won’t really hurt each other, and even if we do, what are we going to do? We’re married!”

Joanna: That’s really cool. Morgan Sierra does Krav Maga, because she’s in the Israeli Defense Force, and so I thought, “I’m one of those research authors: I’m going to go do a Krav Maga class.” I went, and I seriously got my ass kicked, and I went home and I was just kind of crying, going, “That wasn’t fun, I got really hurt,” so I decided that I would just research that on YouTube!

Julie: See, we consider that fun!

Joanna: I really want to. Kind of my dream author photo is going to be me kind of in black leather, fighting like Trinity in The Matrix: that’s what I want to be!

Julie: I want to be able to just look like Trinity in the Matrix.

Joanna: That, too, would be nice!

Julie: Even if I couldn’t move in that suit, I’d be happy!

Joanna: Good point.

Marx: I’ve done some Krav Maga. It’s a cool style.

Julie: I’ve done some other styles, it’s been a while.

Marx: But there are a lot of good books on Krav Maga for research.

Joanna: I’ve got a lot of them!

Julie: There are some other reality-based martial arts that you could use, too.

Marx: So, you said that Torchwood was a little bit of an inspiration with that organization: were there any inspirations, TV or movie-wise—or a book—for London Psychic.

Joanna: Well, also for ARKANE, James Rollins, he’s one of my favorite action-adventure authors, he has a Sigma series which I really enjoyed. For the London Psychic, as I said, I really thought it was going to be a straight detective kind of series: it didn’t really turn out that way. And actually, this does come from a screenplay, because I want to write a screenplay, I looked at ARKANE, the budget is too big, and then Broadchurch came on. Have you seen Broadchurch? Yes, I think there’s an American version now.

Julie: Yes, they based Gracepoint off of it. We didn’t watch Broadchurch. We tried watching Gracepoint: I’m hoping Broadchurch is better!

Joanna: Well, the British Broadchurch, it’s murder in a small town, and it made me think. Story-wise, it’s not really a model, but it was the kind of smaller location, the fact that it was very constrained in location. I also wanted to write something in London, because I moved back here from Australia, which was a kind of cultural wilderness compared to Europe—don’t mention that to the Aussies! I moved back to London, and I was just suddenly surrounded by all this amazing stuff. And also the British people like crime books.

Julie: Yes, and crime shows a lot.

Joanna: And crime shows. So I thought, “You know, I’m going to have a detective, I want to solve just a straight murder.” And then when Blake appeared, he’s half-Swedish, half-Nigerian, kind of mixed race, psychic, and then I go into the wrath of angelspsychology of people who have these types of gift. It all became a bit more confusing. So there is no real straight model. I love the John Connolly Charlie Parker books, I don’t know if you know them.

Julie: I know of them, yes.

Joanna: Well, Charlie Parker is a human detective—it’s set in America—but he sees-

Julie: Yes, we are human! Sorry, I couldn’t resist!

Joanna: But he sees dead people and he sees there are other people in the world of these books that are not human, that are demons. So I like mixing the kind of human with the supernatural. Although I wouldn’t say I write fantasy: it’s kind of on the edge. Like Stephen King, being one of The Standmy favorite authors, and “The Stand” being probably my favorite book, they’re all kind of good versus evil, and supernatural elements, the levels of good and evil we have inside us, as humans. I mean, all of those things come into my work, really.

Marx: You said before the interview, you mentioned how you’d been playing around with genre more, and you’ve been getting more supernatural with your work. How have you been doing that approach to genre?

Do you find it a delicate balance of trying to fit a certain genre, especially since books often get, unfortunately, lumped into certain genres?

Julie: Sometimes accurately, sometimes not!

Joanna: I think it’s really difficult with books, because I count genre now as ‘Amazon categories.’ When you publish a book, you have to choose the categories where you publish. For example, if you pick Thriller, you have one other choice, so you could pick Horror, it would sit between the two. But that doesn’t really suggest what type of book it is to either audience. So I think until things get more granular, you just have to choose.

My books are set in the real world, pretty much. They’re contemporary thrillers but they have this twist that some would consider to be religious, or Christian; other people would consider to be fantasy, or dark fantasy, and that depends whether you really believe in angels or demons, or whether you think they are a fantasy element. And these things can be quite difficult.

I’ve been a bestseller in Christian Fiction; I’ve been a bestseller in Horror, which implies these things are not real. It’s very difficult. So what I tend to do—as we’re doing now—is I talk about I like Stephen King, I like James Rollins, John Connolly, Jonathan Maberry: these are all authors I like and I real, and their influence on me. If you like these type of books, or these type of films, then you might be interested in my work.

I think it is very difficult, and I know you guys, with the Genretainment—everybody’s cross-genre, aren’t they, really?

Marx: Just about, yes.

Julie: And genre is such a broad term, really. I mean, there are some things that are just set in a completely different universe, and then others that are just like ours, but a few people see some ghosts. That’s a real big spread of difference there!

Joanna: It is. And then also, like we talked about at the beginning, with religion and people of faith, if you believe that these things are real, as in, you know, the Bible says that there are angels and the Devil and that type of thing—if you believe they are real, then these books are not fantasy, and may be offensive. It is a very difficult line to walk, and I generally use quotes from the Bible or things at the front of my books, and some people have said, “You’ve crossed the line with this,” or, “This doesn’t exist,” and I’m, “Well, I do say at the beginning, it is fiction or fictionalized.”

Julie: Like, this isn’t really a how-to manual, OK!

Joanna: Yes, as far as I know, there are not really the gates of hell.

Julie: You can use your imagination: it won’t hurt you.

Marx: This is non-fiction, this is a bio, right? What’s going on?

Julie: You shouldn’t strain anything by using your imagination!

Joanna: No, or have fun along the way.

Julie: Yes, reading and writing can be fun. They need to tell that to more kids and actually prove it to them.

Joanna: Definitely.

Marx: Now, we know every different author has a different method or approach to writing. We were wondering what your writing method is.

How do you go from sparking an idea to the finished book, and what does your normal writing day look like?

Joanna: I get my ideas—this weekend, for example, we’re going to go and start, me and my husband, a little research trip. We’re going to go research-

Julie: I like how she works!

Joanna: Well, Budapest, we spent four days in Budapest. We had to go do that research, you know! But this one’s not quite so far. This is the London Psychic series, the third one’s called “Deviance,” and my idea is that it will be based on the East End of London, Whitechapel, that kind of stuff. So we’re going to go there, I’ll take my diary, we’ll have a look around, I’ll write some notes. Then what I do is I generally come up with some basic ideas.

Because this is a series, I have my characters; I have the basis structure of a murder mystery; so I have to find a setting; I have to have a murder, and then what’s behind the murder, what’s the interesting theme of the book? I tend to write a lot of notes, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. And then what I tend to do is I often have the first scene, which for me is a murder—I have a lot of body count in my books—I have the murder, so I’ll write that. I’ll get started by writing this murder scene.

I’ll probably approximately know about ten scenes in my head—some big points of the book. And then I’ll start writing. I use Scrivener, which is fantastic software. I don’t write in order, so I’ll just write scenes. After I’ve written about 20,000 words, I then actually try and restructure the whole thing, and pick out the issues and consider what the book is really about. And then I will write the rest of the scenes, essentially.

Then I print out the first draft, and I edit the first draft by hand, rewrite, and then I go through an editing process, with a professional editor. Then I have beta readers, and a copyeditor and stuff like that.

In terms of my average day, it will depend on what’s happening in a day, I’m sure like you guys. I try and write something One Day in New Yorkevery day, but I mix up fiction and non-fiction. I’ve just finished a draft of a novella which is “One Day in New York,” which is this one with the angel. That draft is finished, that’s resting, so this week I’m actually writing non-fiction.

Next week, I’ll start editing.

So, the days can sometimes be a bit different. I also record audio books; I do professional speaking; I do some other things. But generally I try to write most days on something new, but not necessarily fiction. I do do a lot of research, as I said.

Oh, and just interestingly, on the historical side, I do write a couple of days a week in the London Library: Bram Stoker wrote there, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, a whole load of really famous authors have written in the London Library. I love writing there, it’s very atmospheric.

Julie: You can kind of feel the history there, can’t you.

Joanna: Yes, you can, although I’m in the room with the laptops!

Julie: That might kill the mood a bit!

Joanna: Yes, definitely. But it’s very cool. I think just because you’re surrounded by other people who are writing. Also, when you’ve spent so many years in the corporate world, you almost need the commute, the coffee shop, the working, the lunch hour, you know.

Julie: You need that structure.

Joanna: Yes. Exactly.

Julie: Otherwise, you’ll just find yourself surfing the Web for two hours.

Joanna: Yes. It means I have more of a structure, like you say. Where I’m sitting right now, at my desk, I do podcasting here, I do other marketing stuff: if I want to write just fiction, it’s sometimes easier to do that away from the desk where I do all the other stuff.

Marx: Yes. Well, it looks like we’ve got to start wrapping things up.

Julie: But before we go, we would ask that you let everyone know where they can find you and your books online.

Joanna: Yes, sure. My thrillers and my supernatural stuff are at or on e-book stores, print, audiobook, etc. If you are interested in the writing, self-publishing, marketing stuff, it’s or on Twitter @thecreativepenn, where I hang out quite a lot.

Julie: Let me just say how cool it is that you’re a professional writer and your last name is Penn.

Joanna: I know! Isn’t it funny—it’s really cool!

Julie: It’s Kismet!

Joanna: I know. But do you know how long I didn’t believe I was creative? I mean, that’s a whole nother discussion, but I had an affirmation for about four years, which was “I am creative, I am an author.” Four years, I had to say that until it actually happens.

Julie: That’s persistence!

Joanna: Yes, it’s persistence, it’s changing your brain: psychology again! We’re back to that. It’s been really lovely to talk to both of you. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Julie: Thank you.

The Gates Of Hell, Good And Evil, Life And Death With Rebecca Cantrell And J.F.Penn

One of the fun things about being an author is talking about the obsessions that drive us with other authors who have the same type of brain!

Cantrell PennI walk around Europe seeing stories, and so does the fantastic Rebecca Cantrell!

In this discussion, we talk about how we both use the Gates of Hell in our latest books and our themes of life and death, good and evil … and much more.

You can watch the video below or here on YouTube. You can also listen to the interview on Soundcloud and also read the transcript underneath the video below.

Watch the video

Listen to the audio

Read the transcription of the discussion between Rebecca Cantrell and J.F.Penn

Rebecca: Hi, I’m Rebecca Cantrell, the New York Times bestselling author of the Order of the Sanguines and Joe Tesla series. I’m here talking with J.F. Penn, New York Times bestselling author of the ARKANE thrillers.

One Day In BudapestI first came across her work when I read a novella, first, called “One Day in Budapest,” and I just fell in love with your style and the worlds that you create, where you have this intelligent historian who can also go out there and kick butt while she’s solving these mysteries and traveling around the world. And it very much reminded me of a series that I co-write with James Rollins, the Order of the Sanguines series; I think that those readers would definitely love your work as well.

gates of hellYour latest book is called “The Gates of Hell,” which is kind of funny, because the latest Sanguine book, “Blood Infernal,” wraps up at the gates of hell.

So, what drew you to take your characters straight to hell?

Joanna: Well, first of all, thanks for having me today, Becky, and I love your books, too. It’s so great to connect with you like this. It is also hilarious, don’t you think, that we’re both writing about the gates of hell, and we didn’t know, did we, until I put out my book, and you were like, “Oh, hey, our book’s about that, too,” which is kind of funny.

But for me, what’s so weird is actually just the other day, I found a diary from 2004. We’re recording this in 2015: I found this and I wasn’t even writing at the time—I was writing journals. I found a journal when I had traveled to Granada and Cordoba and these places in Spain, and I’d actually written, in those notes, the phrase, “The gates of hell,” from the Bible. So, I found this, and I didn’t have any idea that it had been that long in gestation when I found this in my diary.

“The Gates of Hell” is Book 6 in my ARKANE series, which is religious, supernatural thriller, and I started off by getting into Spanish Kabbalah, which is the Jewish mysticism. I started getting into Jewish demonology, and discovered the Devourers of God, which I love as a phrase: it’s awesome!

Rebecca: Yes, that is a wonderful concept.

Joanna: It is. And as I started to research Kabbalah and Spain, and started to use the Granada stuff, and Morgan Sierra, my character, is half Spanish Jew, half British Christian, so that kind of brings in her history. Obviously, I won’t go into the end of “The Gates of Hell,” although we have to get there, don’t we, at some point! But I think for me, I love the phrase, I think it’s a really evocative phrase, so I loved it as a title. But the book is really mainly about that Jewish mysticism, and the different places, so Safed in Israel, it opens at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which you probably know—you travel a lot, don’t you.

Rebecca: I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen pictures online; I would love to go.

Joanna: It’s stunning. I went there with my husband and it is jaw-dropping. The most amazing modern cathedral you would ever see. It’s kind of like Tolkien as well, because it’s very natural. Gaudi didn’t believe in straight lines, so it’s all different shapes inside; the pillars are like trees. I really desperately had to have my opening scene at the Sagrada Familia, so that kind of sparked the book, really.

So, what about you and James Rollins? Where did your gates of hell come from?

Rebecca: Our novel series is also set in the Catholic world, and the idea that there are vampire priests that we call Sanguinists that subsist on the blood of Christ, so we were looking a lot into Biblical history and trying to figure out where that would end up. I think we knew pretty early on, even before we were done with the first book, that eventually we were going to end up at the gates of hell; we were going to have to deal with what that meant. And so we spent over 1,000 pages kind of getting to the gates of hell. I know for some people it’s easy, right: one little sin, straight to hell! Some of us have to write 1,500 pages to get to hell!

But it was really fascinating to study the mythology and the religious beliefs that are underpinning it, and we tried to kind of tie things back to that wherever we could; to work inside that kind of ritual. You’re a theologian, right, you have an actual degree in Theology, so I’m a hell amateur, but you’re like a hell professional. Did that help? Because obviously the gates of hell were haunting you for 11 years.

Did your theological background help you during the research and help you to prepare for it, or not?

Joanna: Yes, it’s funny. I do have a Masters in Theology from Oxford, I mean, it’s actually one of the oldest degrees in the world—which sounds amazing, but it does mean that the syllabus is still about 1,000 years old, as in, I was studying the Bible in Greek, Israel before the exile and Israel after the exile, and Early Church Patristics and all this type of stuff. Amazingly, it does underpin so much of our culture, and of course, you’re in Germany, I’m in London, our architecture, symbolism—you walk around western countries and you see the stuff out of this tradition, mythology, belief, whatever you want to call it.

So I think what I find in my writing is, even though when I left theology I became a management consultant, before I moved into writing, the ideas were planted for so much of my writing back then, because I studied it because I love this history so pentecost newmuch; it’s so fascinating. So, for example, “Pentecost,” the first in the ARKANE series, is about when Jesus rose from the dead, the stone from the tomb was broken into these pendants that the Apostles wore, and then got passed down over time—obviously, I made that bit up!

Rebecca: I was just like, “Oh, that’s so cool, I want a Jesus stone necklace!”

Joanna: Exactly! But then the stones, you have to find them by going around and finding the bodies of the Apostles. So this is Early Church martyrdom and where are the bones of the Apostles, and, as you know, of course, they are around the world, in churches, so you can go visit the bones of the Apostles, so why not have stones from the tomb of Christ? So the idea of where are the Apostles’ bones is from the original Early Church Patristics that I studies, Early Church Fathers, and I visited a lot of the places—probably 90% of what I write about, I’ve visited, and I love bringing my travels into everything.

So, really, for me, it’s funny: theology is an academic study of religion, and I think I carry on that study, as you do, and then what we do is, we kind of twist it, don’t we.

For example, you use the Sanguines’ transubstantiation. Do you want to explain that, for people who might not know?

Blood InfernalRebecca: Sure. So, in the Catholic religion, there is a belief that during Mass, the wine is transubstantiated and actually becomes the actually body and blood of Christ: so what you are drinking is not wine; what you are eating is not a wafer; what you are drinking is the blood of Christ and what you are eating is the body of Christ. And this was a huge point of contention during the Reformation, because the Protestants didn’t believe that; they thought it was a metaphor. And many, many people were killed over the belief that either this is the blood of Christ or this isn’t. These were things that people were willing to kill and die for.

So, the idea from the books, the reason that was created, is because they were bringing a group of Strigoi, which is the vampires, into the Catholic Church, and the way for them to subsist would be on the blood of Christ, to let them be able to live without sinning. But, of course, it isn’t that simple: there’s a cost for that, there’s a price for that, and when they drink the blood of Christ, they’re not as strong, they don’t heal as fast, and it’s very painful for them, because they are damned creatures: their soul was taken from them when they became strigoi, and they can’t ever necessarily get that back. So there’s the idea that they have this, and they’re inside of this tradition, but it isn’t simple.

I think that one of the things that vampires have kind of moved away from, with “Twilight” and a lot of the newer vampires, is this idea that I thought, and then James thought as well, that it should have a cost. So, if you look at some vampiric traditions, it’s not all fun and games; there are real consequences to being a vampire, whereas if you look at some of the more modern ones, for example, “Twilight,” they can’t go out in the sun because they’re so beautiful, which is the opposite of they can’t go out in the sun because it burns them.

So if you look at the Cullen vampires, for example, there is no cost. They don’t have to kill people, because they can subsist on animal blood; they can go out whenever they want; and they’re eternally youthful, so there is no inherent conflict to their nature. And one of the things that we were working from was the idea of bringing that back to the foreground.

Joanna: Actually, there’s a new movie out, “Dracula Untold,” have you heard of this yet?

Rebecca: I have heard of it: it’s not coming out here for some time. But I definitely would like to see it. It’s supposed to be the background behind Dracula.

Joanna: And it’s about the cost; it’s about Vlad—we don’t want to go to the historical Vlad, because it’s quite horrible—but in the movie, in order to save his people, he must give up his life and his soul for his people. I find that—I’ve only watched the trailer, I haven’t watched it yet—but it’s like, I’m so much more compelled when there is a cost. I think for both your books with James, and with my books, and in fact with your historical series, as well, we know that there is always a cost. Both of us have body count: action scenes, fighting and a lot of dying, and I think that’s a really important part of writing thrillers.

I think one of the big things we tackle is good and evil, life and death. Would you say those are the themes of your work as well?

Rebecca: Yes, I think good and evil, life and death, light and darkness; this idea that in the real world, things are more complicated, and there is a cost to anything you do. Even if you’re doing things with the best intentions, in the best possible way you can, there’s still going to be a cost. I have the Hannah Vogel mysteries, that are set right before and during World War Two, and it’s a time where she can’t really ever win: the Nazis are going to come to power, World War Two is going to start, and she doesn’t necessarily know the future, but she knows that Germany is headed down a very dark path, and all she can do is kind of light the little bit and try to do good in the small world that she is in.

And I think that life is more like that than the pure kind of easy light ones. And those are more real to me: those are more real conflicts, where real people struggle with real problems, and have to make compromises.

Joanna: Again, both of us write particularly this action-packed, fast-paced books, certainly the Sanguines as well as my books, so you can read them at one level as the action thriller, but then you can—I hope—read them at another level and get some kind of message out of them.

Also, one of the things I love about writing is finding cool stuff to write about.

So, for example, in “Gates of Hell,” Gematria is this basically Jewish numerology and Torah letters each have a number. In Gematria, your name would in Hebrew would have a number, and then there are a whole load of other words that have the same number, so it’s really important that names and words can mean other words.

What we so brilliant in the book was, I had to find places in the world with the right Gematria to fit the clues, as I was doing it. I don’t know if you find this, too, but the synchronicity that often happens when you’re actually researching stuff-

You have an idea, you think, “I would like to write about this, but because it needs to be rooted in fact, I need to go find something real,” and then you find something real! Do you get that, too?

Rebecca: Yes, I’m always amazed at how, once you have idea of how something should be, and you start looking for information to back it up, it’s just there. We have the vampires, and then we also have angels, and there’s angelic forces in the second and third books, and so we wanted to start from the tradition of alchemy. We were researching alchemy and we stumbled across John Dee and Edward Kelly, and they were real historical characters that existed in medieval England, and also they traveled to Prague, which is where they were in the story.

And these were men—John Dee, in particular, was a scientist and a mathematician, and he wrote a lot of mathematical theories that are still used today in mathematics, but he was also interested in the occult, and he believed that he could talk to angels.

So, there was this guy, Edward Kelly, who—allegedly, or at least John Dee believed that Edward Kelly could talk to angels if he looked at this mirror that was made out of black obsidian and had come from the New World, and he could see the angels in there, and they spoke in a strange language called Enochian. And they transcribed this language, and it also was numerical-based, and through that then he could use his math to understand the language of the angels, and that was this man’s true goal in life.

And that was all very real, and Jim and I had talked about bringing all this stuff in, and then I just stumbled right on this real, historical character who had done every single thing that we would have needed him to do for the book, hundreds of years before we needed it! It was very strange. And that happens again and again.

Joanna: It’s funny you say that, because of course that mirror is in the British Museum, which is my research ground and in my London Psychic series, Blake works at the British Museum, in order that I can use all this stuff.

We just have the same brain, right, because my next book, “One Day in New York,” has Enochian on an artifact in the New York Met!

Rebecca: Wow! We have a bunch of Enochian passages.

Joanna: Maybe this is just the field we work in: we’re so fascinated but the same type of stuff. Anything with a religious or that arcane kind of edge, we’re immediately drawn to like little bees!

Rebecca: Although it is odd how we stumble across the same things. I think any writers do that, because there’s all this historical mystery, and then when you start looking at it, you have kind of the same brainwave: that is cool, there’s something there, that’s very, very cool, and then you go down the same kind of paths. And then you end up in different places, because you are different writers.

Joanna: Yes, we end up using the same ideas for different plots and different characters, and that’s why people like both types of books.

Rebecca: And then I think for the John Dee book, for example, when I was researching that, we wanted to open—and we do open—in an alchemy laboratory, and we had researched that online; I had found a painting of an alchemist’s lab that was painted at around the same time as the book. We wrote it with that, and I used a lot of details from that, and then I went to Prague, and there was an alchemy museum.

So, in Prague, there’s a place called the Speculum Alchemiae Museum …

and it turns out that in the 1500s, Prague was the center of alchemy for Europe, and there was an alchemists’ court by the castle, and then there was a secret tunnel that led under the river to this other small part of town, the Jewish section, and there was an alchemist’s lab underground there, that nobody knew about, but Rabbi Loew, a very famous alchemist, worked there. They blocked it up in the 1600s, nobody knew it existed, and then in 2008, there was a flood in Prague, the street collapsed, there was this giant hole, they followed the hole down, and they found this alchemy museum, completely intact. It had been there for 500 years.

And so, I got to go to Prague and tour it, and they’d cleaned out all the mud and all the river, and you could see the original big, giant flasks that they used for distilling things; you could see the room where they had tried to make the Philosopher’s Stone; you could see their furnaces

… and they actually had a glass bottle that contained the Elixir of Eternal Youth

… brewed by Rabbi Loew himself, that he had stuck in the wall behind this fresco.

Joanna: I hope you’re going to say you drank it!

Rebecca: No, they wouldn’t let me do it, but they did let me hold it! I pulled out the novelist card: “I’m a novelist, and I’m writing a book,” and they said, “You have a go,” and I went, “Oh, what if I drop it? What if I drop the 600-year-old Elixir of Eternal Youth?” And Rabbi Loew had also left, in Latin, directions for how to brew it, and you can buy it online through the museum website, and there’s a group of monks in Brno, in the Czech Republic, that brew the Elixir of Eternal Youth. And it has like 170 different herbs and they have to be collected by moonlight, at certain phases of the Moon: it’s this incredibly complex thing.

Joanna: That’s amazing. You’ll like this, then. My gates of hell has a Golem in it!

Rebecca: Ooh, how cool!

Joanna: Same guy, right, Rabbi Loew.

Rebecca: Same guy. In fact, at that museum, there was a bookcase, and the bookcase slides across and you go down the steps to the alchemy museum. We were walking down, and there’s this big iron ring in the wall. I said, “What is that for?” and I was assuming it was something like dogs, and the woman looks at me and she’s like, “That’s where Rabbi Loew used to chain up the Golem.” And then she just walks right down the stairs! My husband and my son are following: I was just standing there staring at that iron ring, completely transfixed by the idea.

So, when he was bad, apparently, Rabbi Loew would chain him at the top of the stairs, and he would have to sit there, at the top of the stairs, I guess on like Golem time out!

Joanna: And then he got a bit out of control, didn’t he, so then he had to kind of melt him down. But that’s cool. This is what’s so fun about talking to you: you don’t meet many people who get so excited about the same things that we do! We’re just like, “Hey, look at this cool place”.

I think we’re very lucky to live in Europe, too, because we could write about every square mile of where we live.

Rebecca: Yes, everything is here: there’s so much history here to write about. And yes, it’s really cool talking to people who get excited about the stuff.

Once I wrote a vampire book called, “I, Dracula,” and a friend of mine who’s a medical examiner for Manhattan wrote me an autopsy for the vampire’s victim. It was an official autopsy: all of the language, all of it, and I got it at as I was in Starbucks one day, and so I’m in line with my husband, and he’s ordering whatever, and I’m like, “Oh, my god, my autopsies are here!” Dear silence in the entire restaurant. And I’m like, “Look at that, it says the spleen is unusually pale.” And my husband’s like, “Honey! Can we talk about this outside?”

Joanna: Yes, or when we’re walking around London and I’m like, “That would make a great murder weapon!”

Rebecca: Yes, that makes people nervous!

Joanna: It does.

Rebecca: “If you were going to kill someone here, how would you do it?”

So what is the coolest kind of research that you did for “The Gates of Hell,” something that was completely unexpected?

For me, it would have been that museum in Prague. Did you stumble across something like that? Not counting the Sagrada Familia.

Joanna: Yes, I think probably—I’m a Scuba diver, I’m actually a Dive master, I’ve done a lot of Scuba diving, I love Scuba diving, and of course all thriller characters can Scuba dive, because, you know, they’re action people. For “The Gates of Hell,” again, this is one of those funny things: one of the Gematria—and I was finding the clues as I was going through, so I’m in Safed in Israel, which is the center of Kabbalah, and I was kind of stuck, I was, “How do I get from here to the gates of hell?” because if you do your research, as you have, the gates of hell are not in Safed. There are a number of places in the world where they could be, but they’re not there.

Anyway, I did some Gematria on the various things I was doing, and I don’t want to give too much away—I end up at the Dead Sea.

Rebecca: That must have been so salty: you must have had to have a lot of weight to dive.

Joanna: Well, exactly. What I wanted to do was go look for Sodom and Gomorrah-

Rebecca: As one does!

Joanna: As one does! And of course, they have done various research in there, and there are some people who say that the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah are at the bottom of the Dead Sea, and there’s actually the Hills of Sodom around that area, the Southern part of the Dead Sea. So, then I was like, “Oh, I really want to Scuba dive on the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah.” And then I found that you can actually Scuba dive in the Dead Sea. And I found a video on YouTube of diving down there.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because it’s so salty—you have to wear a full face mask, rather than just a reg and stuff—if you get that water in your throat, you immediately asphyxiate. Because it’s so salty, you will die immediately! And you have to wear massive amounts of weights, so it’s very dangerous, and only extreme sort of divers. And also it’s really not a great dive, because there’s not much down there; it’s not like the Red Sea, with loads of fish.

So, I think it was pretty amazing to find a video of Scuba diving under the Dead Sea in the salt. I mean, that’s awesome. Do you do a lot of research on YouTube?

Rebecca: I do, because there’s so much there now. For example, for the Hannah Vogel books, where you wouldn’t think hannah vogelthere would be much stuff, I was amazed to find just all kinds of people’s vacation videos from 1936 would be up on YouTube. There was a little commercial that the Germans filmed and ran in Britain which was seven minutes about why people should come to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and it was in color film, so it was the first color film I’d seen from 1936. It was fascinating, because the cars—I guess because I’ve seen so many black and white movies, I assumed that cars back in the day were black, white and grey, but in fact when you look at them, they were canary yellow and baby blue and bright red. The whole kind of world became much more vibrant. And when I saw that, then I could make the cars look like that.

And then, for the Joe Tesla series, which is set in the subways underneath New York, there are a whole bunch of urban explorers who go down in the subways under New York; they sneak in through various manholes and off of the platforms, and they film it. So they go to the deserted stations, and they go down steam tunnels, and they crawl around sewers, and all of that stuff is on YouTube, so you can go all these places. If they catch you, I imagine you get arrested or fined or something—I would not necessarily want to spend two or three hours crawling through a sewer in New York, but I’m totally happy to watch somebody do it on YouTube!

Joanna: I think we watch the same movies, because in my “One Day in New York,” I needed to get from one place to another, so I did the same thing. Go into the tunnels. Is it called Undercity? The guy who does this stuff?

Rebecca: Yes, there’s a guy who sneaks in, you can buy a tour with him, and then he’ll sneak you in to various places. Yes, that’s the same guy. So, yes, it’s amazing what’s available on YouTube, and that makes such a difference, because there are places that I won’t necessarily ever get. I will probably never crawl around a sewer under New York city, although I would love to go see the abandoned stations.

Like, City Hall station is an abandoned station: it’s a beautiful, decorated station that only ran for 40 years, and then it was closed down because the tracks have a bend in them and the trains couldn’t use them at the full speed, or something like that. But that’s unusual. I would love to run around and see that. London has a bunch of stations like that as well.

Joanna: Yes, and in fact this is another similar theme. My book, “Prophecy,” is all about catacombs, the Paris bone catacombs, the Palermo mummies, the Capuchin crypt in Palermo with all the mummies. Like you said about Prague, a lot of Prophecy J.F.Pennus tend to go underground. There’s always something scarier. Like in Paris, there’s something like 10 million bodies or something: it’s utterly crazy, and then they piled up the bones, and you walk around. It’s just not creepy at all; it’s actually not creepy, it just smells like the earth, but I love that.

I love catacombs!

Rebecca: It’s definitely true. I know when I was writing with Jim, the first book, there was so much underground stuff, crawling in the subway, going in all these tunnels and stuff, and so the second book, I decided we were going to have a new theme: “We’re going to call it the water book, and then the third book will be the air book, everybody’s going to be outside. We’re going to go outside.” He was like, “OK, we can do that.” And then as soon as I wrapped up the book, I started my own series, the Joe Tesla book, which is set entirely in the tunnels underneath New York City. And Jim has not stopped giving me grief about it ever since then! He uses every opportunity to point out that I told him we couldn’t live in the tunnels all the time, and the very next thing I did was set up a whole tunnel book.

But there is something to be said—and I’ll give him credit for that, too—for the things that are hidden underground, the things that we can’t see, and those are places where you can go and see those things. And anything could be under there.

If you dig deep enough under Paris or Berlin, or any old city in Europe, you could find amazing secrets.

Joanna: Oh yes, and we like finding those. Of course, both of us are attracted to archeologists. Certain, for me, Morgan Sierra is kind of a female Indiana Jones slash Lara Croft kind of figure, and finding these ancient things is part of our brand, I think. Of course, you’re a historian: your Hannah Vogel books are based in a different time.

Rebecca: Yes, for those books, I didn’t go off the rails so much! The Hannah Vogel books are very historically accurate, and if I do deviate from the real historical world, then I say so in my author notes. Whereas obviously, the strigoi books are.

Joanna: This is another question I’ve been pondering about fantasy: whether the books are fantasy. Mine is the gates of hell, and there are, like I mentioned, the Golem. There’s various supernatural elements. I mean, you have the Strigoi, who are vampire priests. Are we thriller writers, and a lot of the stuff we write is based on fact, probably 90% of what I write is fact, and then I just twist it, and I think that’s the same for you and Jim.

So, do you ever call yourself a fantasy writer or dark fantasy? I’m starting to call myself dark fantasy a bit as well as thriller.

Rebecca: No, but we do call them gothic thrillers, which I think brings in the idea of this supernatural gothic world. For me, I feel like fantasy books are not at all based in reality, so those are things like “Lord of the Rings” that are based in a completely different reality than the one we have, whereas my book does have some overlap. I know we don’t have vampires and they’re not real, obviously-

Joanna: They’re not real, Becky!

Rebecca: Oh, man! But I do think that there’s more overlap, whereas the pure fantasy things, for me, are like “Lord of the Rings” or the “Chronicles of Narnia,” where you go into a world that really isn’t like the world here.

Joanna: Yes. Good.

Rebecca: But I could be completely wrong.

You also write another series that’s both more and less reality based, I would say: the London Psychic series. Do you want to tell me about those? I’ve read one: I really loved it.

Joanna: Oh, thank you. What happened was, again, doing research, or just experiencing London, I went to the Hunterian Museum, which is a medical specimen museum in the London College of Surgeons.

Rebecca: We have one of those here, too! The Charite Museum—same thing!

DesecrationJoanna: Yes, they have them all over the world. When you actually walk around it, there are babies in jars, there are bits of bodies in jars, there are diseased limbs, there are some very disturbing things in jars. The thing that disturbed me most was the early dissections boards. They actually had a wooden board, and they had dissected away everything but the veins of the person, and being a thriller writer—I’m sure this happens to you—I thought, “The person was alive.” I just thought, “What if that was a murder? We don’t know that.” This is like a 17th century teaching device. I mean, we do know that—like Burke and Hare in Edinburgh—that people were murdered to give to the early doctors, the Resurrectionists went and dug up bodies, but there’s also evidence that they killed people.

Rebecca: I mean, if there’s enough money in it, of course people have done it.

Joanna: Yes, they’ll do that. Anyway, I went to this medical specimen museum, and I was really viscerally, my stomach was clenching—I was disturbed by this place. When you get a physical reaction to a place, to me, that means I have to write about it. This has to go in a book. You have to visit this place. It’s got these massive glass cabinets, multi-shelved, all with these bottles: it’s amazing. And then, right in the middle, there’s this kind of open space. So, of course, I had to open the book with a body in the Hunterian.

Then it was a question of who is the body and what happens next?

I had originally wanted to write just a straight crime novel, but I’ve discovered that I can’t write anything that doesn’t have a supernatural element! So, what I ended up having was a character from the British Museum round the corner, Blake, who’s half-Swedish, half-Nigerian, so he’s a mixed race character, which is very common in London, and Berlin, obviously: it’s kind of mixed-race. He’s a psychic, and he reads objects. So, when he picks up an object, he can read the history. And this book, “Desecration,” then goes into the history of the anatomists and people like Mengele at Auschwitz, and kind of ties into that experimentation that we’ve done on both live bodies and dead bodies.

[You can watch a video on the research for Desecration here.]

And then I got into body modification, and the things that people are doing to themselves when they’re alive.

Rebecca: On purpose, yes.

Joanna: On purpose, like splitting tongues and implants. There’s an exhibition in New York called The Bodies Exhibition, which is plastinated corpses!

Rebecca: That’s a bit far for me!

Joanna: But it’s amazing, because they’re kind of dissected, and you can see inside, and it’s an amazing technology. All of these things came together, and it’s essentially a murder mystery series with a British detective and a psychic kind of sidekick, and a bit of romantic tension, so it’s got a standard murder mystery level, but it’s also got this kind of deeper level of all the interesting stuff that I find in London.

deliriumThe first one’s “Desecration,” which is the physical body. The second book, “Delirium,” is about madness, and it opens with a murder in the historical Bedlam, and goes into the history of madness in London. I’m just about to start the third one, which is going to be “Deviance,” which of course is the sexual history of London. That’s going to be really fascinating, I think. I’ve just started reading. Of course, London being so densely rich with interesting history, there’s just endless amounts of cool stuff to put into it, and so I’m really looking forward to doing the research on this.

Rebecca: I think the ability to find cool stuff, for me, is one of my favorite parts about being a writer. I get to pore over everything, find things that I think are cool, and then put them together with crazy voices in my head and write it down, and that’s my job! And it lets me go all these places and learn all these things that are for me absolutely fascinating, and I think that, for me, is the best part of being a writer. What about for you?

What’s your favorite part about being a writer?

Joanna: I think it’s probably the same thing. I think you and I both share this need—I think it’s a need—to actually go to places. There are writers who don’t, who do all their research on the Internet, but I love doing this. We went to Budapest when I wrote “One Day in Budapest”: we spent four days—my husband said, “This is very romantic,” when I took him to the Torture Museum, and then the mass grave at the Synagogue! But then we went shooting in a Soviet bunker, which he really enjoyed. But I love, like you, the immediacy of actually going somewhere, and you find things that you probably wouldn’t find if you were just researching. Maybe it doesn’t impact the story that much, but it adds that flavor for us, that kind of experience.

I do think there’s a color that comes from actually visiting the place; there’s the opening scene in the Sagrada Familia, I think my own reactions to the things that I saw there, the things that I picked out in the church to use as my scene: those are from my personal experiences. Plus I can share my photos with my audience, and I do a Pinterest board for every book, so people can go and look on Pinterest and see all the things that went into the book, which is really cool. I think we’re quite similar in that way: we like doing these travels.

Rebecca: It is fascinating, and there’s something about the sense of it, there’s something about actually holding the Elixir of Eternal Life in your hand, and knowing that—it was actually in a glass case, it was the glass case—still, I was this close to something that was brewed and touched by Rabbi Loew, who was a famous alchemist who created—allegedly—the Golem. And to think that I’m holding that: it’s just a wonderful, powerful connection to history, and I think that’s one of the best parts about it.

Joanna: I think maybe at some point we should organize some sort of travel trip for people who want to come with us to these cool places!

Rebecca: People who want to go and see the supernatural and be terrified! I mean, there are tours like that: there’s the Ripper Tour of London, which I didn’t go on, because I was traveling with my younger son, but I definitely think there’s an appetite for that. People did want to go on this Ripper Tour of London, where you went to the places where Jack the Ripper had been, and learned historical facts about those events. And there’s Golem tours of Prague, of course.

Joanna: It’s great. I’ve been to Israel 11 times, so a lot of that comes into my books. In the ARKANE series, I think six out of seven have some kind of Israel scene in. But it’s funny, I haven’t actually been for a while, it’s been a long time. My husband’s Jewish, and he’s never been, so I’m like, “I really need to get back to Israel and see how it’s changed.”

One of the places that I really want to write about there is Megiddo, which of course is the historical site of Armageddon.

Now they’ve done an archeological dig: it’s 13 cities that have been razed. That’s why it’s Armageddon: because it’s right in the center of the Golden Crescent, everybody came through Megiddo, so it just got destroyed, over and over again. It’s an amazing place, and I definitely want to write something there.

Rebecca: So, is that your next research trip?

Joanna: Oh, goodness. Well, actually, I’m speaking in America, in Charleston; I’m going down to Savannah in Georgia, and I feel like I will be writing something about Savannah, because I first read about it in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” years ago, 15 years maybe, that book has been out, and since then, Savannah has always had that kind of romantic image in my head, so I definitely think there’s going to be something that comes out of Savannah.

Rebecca: Good!

Joanna: And what about you? What’s your next book?

tesla legacyRebecca: My next book is Joe Tesla 2, “The Tesla Legacy,” and that’s coming out February 5th, so it’s coming out five days before “Blood Infernal,” in a serendipitous scheduling conflict thing. That one is set in the tunnels underneath New York City, and that one’s a lot of fun, because it opens up with a scene of Nikola Tesla, and so I was able to do a lot of research about him. He’s such a fascinating historical character. He’s a scientist who worked in Edison’s lab, invented a whole bunch of stuff, including alternating current, which is why we have electricity today. But he was also very, very odd. He never married, he couldn’t touch human hair, he was obsessed with the number three, so whenever he ate dinner, it had to be in multiples of three, and he had to chew a certain number of times, and he had to have 18 napkins, and all of these kind of things, and then the only creature that he was ever—according to him—romantically in love with was a pigeon.

Joanna: Oh dear.

Rebecca: And yet he was this brilliant, brilliant man who really set the stage for a lot of the modern world. So you have this interesting character. I can’t believe there’s not been a Hollywood movie about him yet.

He’s shown up in side movies, but there’s never been a real—I’ve seen documentaries, but I’ve never seen a real big Hollywood Nikola Tesla movie. He had a little bit in The Prestige.

Joanna: I was going to say, The Prestige is the one that comes to mind.

Rebecca: And the idea of ball lightning, and just being able to hold lightning in his hands—and he did; he shot lightning miles, and we still can’t do what he did. So this book opens up with the Earthquake Machine, which is a machine that—allegedly—he invented that when you set to the resonance so that it vibrates at the same frequency as an object, can destroy that object. He said that he could knock down the Empire State Building with five pounds of air pressure, and if the resonance were applied at the proper parts of Earth, he could split the Earth in the two. This was in the New York Times in the 30s, and all this other stuff. He allegedly created this device and created an earthquake in Manhattan, and the police came—and that is such a great Nikola Tesla moment. There was an earthquake in Manhattan that he’s created with his device, and the police immediately come to his lab, because if there’s some crazy thing going on, that’s where you go!

Joanna: Again, that’s really funny, because I just interviewed Scott Mariani—do you know Scott’s books? His latest book is about the Tesla Machine!

We’ve all got the same minds, haven’t we—we’re just so fascinated with similar stuff. It’s awesome!

Rebecca: I think there’s stuff that’s in the air; there’s certain moments where it comes down and everybody who’s thinking along those lines has their moment to interact with it. So that’s the next one: “The Tesla Legacy” comes out February 5th, 2015. How about you?

What’s next for you?

Joanna: Well, “Gates of Hell” only just came out, so I’m quite happy with that. “One Day in New York” will be the next book that comes out, and there’s something buried under New York, basically, that keeps New York from being destroyed, that’s the kind of hook on that one. There’s a secret underneath, so we get into that. And then the next one will be “Deviance” in the London Psychic series.

And again, I was just thinking of the underground thing, because I also want to get under Edinburgh. Have you done under Edinburgh?

Rebecca: No, I haven’t.

Joanna: Oh, there’s some serious ghost tours under Edinburgh, because of course there were places that were bricked up and people were just left to die with the Plague. There’s some really horrible stuff under Edinburgh. I’d actually really like to write something up there. I think the other thing is, we’ve got to remember to research more locally, rather than always going, “Yes, I must get to Israel and Iran.” I really would love to do a trip to Iran, because there’s some amazing stuff in Iran historically, but a little more difficult to travel there. I’m in London, but also Edinburgh’s only just up the road, so I think I’m going to try to do a bit more local stuff as well as the far-off lands!

Rebecca: See, I seem to favor that. I wrote all my Berlin books before I moved here, and now that I’m here, I haven’t written a single book sent in Berlin, so I clearly cannot do local research.

Joanna: You’re right, because of course now Joe Tesla’s in New York.

Rebecca: Joe Tesla’s in New York and I’m in Berlin, so I think I have to move to New York to write stuff set in Berlin. I wrote the first Berlin books when I was in Hawaii, so you never know. And there’s a lot of fascinating stuff there, as well.

Joanna: I think everywhere, once you actually get into it. You mention that: I want to write one in New Zealand. I was in New Zealand over Christmas, and there’s a lot of Maori gods around the volcanoes, and the Polynesian volcanic gods, and I’m thinking, well, what happens if there’s a big volcanic eruption in New Zealand and these gods emerge from the island, take their island back? I’m like, “OK, but that’s an entirely different thing.” We have so many ideas, don’t we. I mean, this is our life: it’s very exciting!

Rebecca: It is a lot of fun. So many ideas, but not quite enough time. New Zealand is so beautiful and so diverse and there’s just so much going on there.

Joanna: There is, definitely.

Rebecca: So, I have one more question, and that is—I hate this question, so don’t give it back to me, I get this almost every time I do an interview.

Who is your favorite author?

Joanna: It’s a very tough one. I would say probably my favorite book is “The Stand” by Stephen King. To me, it’s my gold standard of good versus evil, light versus dark, the kind of epic struggle, the supernatural angle. It probably is considered post-apocalyptic, because it’s after a plague, but to me, that’s not what I remember. I don’t remember it is a post-apocalyptic book; I remember it as this kind of good versus evil and this evil character. So that’s kind of my gold standard, and the book that I really come back to over and over again, and my aim is to write something that’s as memorable as “The Stand.”

I think they’re going to try and make it into a movie again, like many of King’s books they’ve not made good movies of, or have failed, but they’re going to try again with “The Stand,” which makes me think that there is this desire for more supernatural things, that both you and I write, so that’s good.

And then I’ve got to add—I think I told you this—the reason I started following you is because you co-wrote with James Rollins, who is one of my favorite authors. And probably one of the reasons I write the ARKANE series—ARKANE is a secret agency under Trafalgar Square in London, and it’s a series—and because of the Sigma series, I was like, “I want to do what James Rollins does, which is have an organization where I can have a whole series that will keep going, that I don’t have to come up with new characters, I just have to put them in a different situation.” So the Sigma series is kind of my model for ARKANE, and also I used to love—well, I still love—reading Rollins, but before I started writing, he is still—he and you, because I have the hardbacks—the only author I buy in hardback.

Rebecca: Wow.

Joanna: So I have yours and James’s book in hardback. Of course then I discovered your other books, and this is so much the world—you discover authors because of authors you already know. And then I discovered you and Joe Tesla, which is award-winning as well as bestselling! Amazing. So there you go.

And if I’m not allowed to throw that back at you, the question I’m throwing back at you is:

Show us those gloves!

Rebecca: My sister made me these. These are my Bam-Pow. So I’ve got to Bam-Pow! She knitted them for me for Christmas, because when I write in cafes in Berlin, they don’t heat them adequately, and so I’m usually there, I have on my sweatshirt and my sweater and all my stuff, and my hands get cold. These don’t have any fingers, and I can type with them, so they’re my Bam-Pow! And when I get mad, or I’m writing an action scene, I just say, “I’m gonna go Bam-Pow!” and for some reason, I find that endlessly amusing!

Joanna: Tell your sister that there is a market for those gloves.

Rebecca: The thing is, she only knits a few, and then she gets bored. So you have to catch her early on, before she’s done with them. I think I got a blue pair, and then I got one is green and one is red two Christmases ago. I’ve been begging for them, and it took her like two years to finally do these for me. I can tell her.

Joanna: Those are brilliant.

Rebecca: I know, aren’t they cool! They keep your hands warm, and they’re just wonderful. Bam-Pow! See!

Rebecca: So, where can we find you and your books online?

Joanna: My books are ebook, print book and audio book; they’re available on all the online stores, Amazon and Nook and all the usual places and also at –and you?

Rebecca: My books are also available everywhere that fine books are sold! They’re in bookstores and Amazon and Kobo and iBooks and all those places. And then my website is –and on there, I don’t sell my books, but I have information about the background of the books, I occasionally do blog posts about research trips or the story behind the story of what I’ve been working on.

Well, thank you for talking to me today: this was wonderful, I had a great time.

Joanna: Yes, it was super-fun! Thanks so much, Becky!

Writing Dark Fantasy, Martial Arts And International Travel With Alan Baxter

I love to read books that transport the reader into another world, just off the edge of this one.

Bound Alan BaxterPlus I love a good fight scene, and Alan Baxter delivers all this and more in his new Alex Caine series.

BOUND opens with Alex cage fighting in the underground scene, using his slightly supernatural skills to see what an opponent will do before he moves. But his magic draws him into a world he never knew existed – a world he wishes he’d never found.

You can watch an interview with Alan below, or read the full transcription underneath. You can find BOUND on Amazon in ebook and print here.

Transcription of interview with Alan Baxter

Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author, J.F. Penn, and today I’m here with Alan Baxter. Hi, Al!

Alan: Hi, how are you?

Joanna: I’m good. So, just as a little introduction, Alan is a best-selling and award-nominated author of dark urban fantasy novels and short stories. His latest book is “Bound,” in the Alex Caine series, which is fantastic, and we’ll be talking a bit about that today.

So, Alan, tell us a bit more about your writing journey. How did you get into being a writer?

Alan: It’s one of those questions, isn’t it! The short answer is, I’ve always been a writer, I just didn’t realize it. When I was about seven or eight years old, in school, we were sent home on a Friday, and we had to write a story for the Monday. When we came back on the Monday, most of my friends, or most of the class, had written one or two paragraphs, and I’d written about seven or eight pages about this guy who goes back in time and gets chased by dinosaurs and all sorts of stuff. And once the teacher had confirmed that it was my work, that my parents hadn’t written it or something like that, she got me to stand in front of the class and read it. People were coming up to me afterwards, my friends, classmates, going, “Oh, yeah, that was a really great story,” and that was my first realization of the power of storytelling.

And like I said, I was seven or eight years old at that point, but I didn’t really realize and take it seriously until I was in my 20s. I did a lot of role-playing games in my teens, and I used to prefer being the Games Master rather than the player, because I would get to write the campaigns and learn to tell stories that way.

Joanna: You’re not in your 20s anymore, Al! How did you get from there to now?

Alan: How can you tell! Well, the two things that I’ve always pursued are writing and martial arts, since I was a kid. And in the early, mid-90s, I got to the point where I’d quit school, and I’d got a really crappy job that was basically just 9 to 5, but it paid my training fees, which meant that my job didn’t occupy too much time, or my brain: I could go and train, I could afford my training fees. And that’s what I did for a long time. Then I started feeling like I was in a rut, and I was like, “I’ve got to shake this up a bit,” because I hated my job, that 9 to 5 bit was hell all the time.

About the same time, a friend and I decided to go and visit a mate in Australia, to help break things up, and at the same time, that friend of mine was like, “Oh, I really want to go travelling and see the world, but I don’t know if I want to go on my own,” and so she and I decided we would go together. And suddenly, one night, over a few beers, we had this whole round-the-world trip planned.

While I was on that trip and thinking about things and seeing the world and everything, I made a few decisions about what I wanted to do, and one of those decisions was, “I need to pursue writing rather than as a hobby: actually do it seriously and see if I can get published and see if I can actually be good at it.”

So that’s when I made the decision to do it, and also on that trip, I met my wife. I ended up moving to Australia, and then in the process of all that, living in Sydney and working, before I actually became an Australian citizen, I started working on “RealmShift,” which was my first published novel. So yeah, that was the big transition period, walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu [03:37 unclear], deciding to make life changes!

Joanna: I know what you mean. I left London for Australia in the year 2000. Was that a similar time?

Alan: I moved to Sydney permanently in 1999. I was first traveling in 96, I think, so a similar time.

Joanna: It’s funny, isn’t it, these traveling times often help us make life changes, that’s awesome. But let’s talk a bit about the fighting side, the martial arts side, because Alex Caine, in your latest trilogy, is a fighter.

Tell us a bit more about your own fighting experience and how much of that comes through in the books.

Alan: Well, like I said, I’ve been a martial artist forever. I was teaching before I left the UK, and then after traveling, I joined a new school when I came to Australia, and basically started again with that school and trained up again, and then started teaching with them. It’s just something that’s always been part of my life, and it’s a lifestyle. For some people, it’s a hobby, and that’s enough, once or twice a week, and they get what they get from it, but for a lot of people, it becomes a lifestyle, and it kind of informs everything that you do.

That’s very much the case with me. I used to fight a lot in competition before I left the UK, and fighting since then. I’ve long since retired from fighting – I never had a professional fight career; everything I did was at amateur level. When I decided to ease back on the fighting was about the same time as the whole big MMA and UFC mixed martial arts cage-fighting thing was really starting to take off. So I kind of missed that: my fighting was more on the open mat and in the ring, rather than the cage.

I wrote a book with Alex Caine as the protagonist, partly because all the stuff I’d written before featured a lot of fighting, and it featured a lot of people who knew martial arts and stuff: everybody told me I wrote great fight scenes, and it’s like, “Well, I’ve fought my whole life, I know fighting; that’s why I write it well.” I started running workshops for writers about how to write good fight scenes, and then when it came to time to start working on a new series, I decided I should write a character who is actually a fighter. Not a character who’s something else and can fight, but someone who is first and foremost a fighter, and that’s where this story starts.

Alex Caine seriesAlex Caine is an underground cage-fighter; he doesn’t like the big glitz of the UFC, he likes the dirty, gritty underground scene, where he makes good money. He’s brilliant at what he does, his life is sorted, he’s fixed, he’s a great fighter, and that’s that. And then everything comes along and screws up his comfortable world.

So, in terms of the character of Alex Caine, a lot of what drives him, and a lot of his philosophy and everything, is very much like my own: you know, the lifetime martial artist. In terms of his character, certainly what happens to him, and also in terms of how he responds to things, that’s the fictional element. He’s not an autobiographical character in that respect, but I was able to use a lot of my experience of living the philosophy of the martial arts, to make Alex the same in how he lives the philosophy of the martial arts, and that’s what he draws on throughout the books to get him through this horrible situation he gets into.

So, yes, I finally got to pull the threads of my life together!

Joanna: I love the books because of that. I think there is a reality, and of course there are great fight scenes, but there’s a much more human aspect, I think: you bring the thinking—the thinking man’s fight scene, perhaps, behind that.

Alan: And through the course of the books, Alex is always thinking back to his teacher, his sifu, which is the Chinese equivalent of a sensei, and the lessons that he was taught, and throughout the book, he keeps making these connections, where lessons about fighting are actually equally applicable to life and to any other kind of struggle.

He’s always drawing on this experience, all his experience fighting in the cage actually helps him deal with all this stuff outside of the cage. I explore that a lot, in all my writing, but specifically in these books, because that crossover, for me, is very true, and it’s true for anybody really: the more you do these things, the more you realize that lessons tend to be trans-dimensional in the way you can apply them.

Joanna: Just briefly, on the girl power, because I have to bring that in: your wife is also a martial artist, isn’t she, and you have plenty of female fighters in the book as well.

Alan: That’s right. I run an academy now, on the South Coast of New South Wales, where I live, and that’s our business, that’s our day job, running the Kung Fu Academy, and my wife’s my Assistant Instructor. She teaches the kids and juniors classes and helps out with the adult classes, and she kicks absolute butt! And it’s very important. It bothers me when people say, “You have strong female characters,” and I understand where it comes from; I understand the need for it, as well. But I just tend to write strong characters, and I make sure that women are well represented in my books. But there’s some weak and useless guys in the books as well.

Joanna: There’s a particularly good one I liked, one of the evil and useless horrible guys with a hard woman next to him!

Alan: Exactly. So, that’s important to me. I don’t set out to write strong, kick-ass women, but I set out to write strong characters, and I make sure women are well-represented in my writing, and so hopefully then that comes across. Not all the women are good and nice and strong; some of them are pretty messed up as well. But that’s the nature of the books; you get all kinds of people.

Joanna: Indeed! Now, you mentioned a bit about the philosophy there, and the feelings of fighting. I wondered: these two threads run through your life.

What do the martial arts and your writing have in common? They seem so different.

Alan: No, no. They’re parallel. I am actually writing a book on it: for years, I’ve been jotting things down and making notes, and one day I’m going to write a book which will essentially be a guide to the creative life based on the martial life. Just to draw a really simple analogy, if you want to be good at writing, or painting, or music, then you have to work really hard, you have to practice a lot, you have to learn your craft, and that’s exactly the same for fighting. You need the discipline to do it: if you want to be good at sport and you want to get onto an Olympic team, you have kids who are in their teens, but they get up and go to the gym for two hours before school, then they do their homework and they train in the evening, and it takes that dedication to get good. It’s the same with writing, and it’s the same if you want to be an artist.

To bring my wife into it again, she runs the Academy with me, but she’s also a painter. And that’s the same thing: she’s dedicated this focus to getting really good at her craft, and it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice to do it. So those parallels between becoming a good martial artist and living the martial life is the same as becoming a good writer—or a good farmer, or a good policeman or whatever it is that you put your soul into. If you’ve got that passion for it, then you need to apply yourself that way. So, yes, one of these days I’ll write the book!

Joanna: I’d be interested in that: it sounds fascinating. Get on with that when you have a moment!

Alan: Sure! I’ll add it to the list. When I’ve got enough notes, I’ll start the book!

Joanna: I think that sounds great. So, the books also have this supernatural, urban fantasy edge, as do some of your other books I’ve read—“RealmShift” and “MageSign,” which again are awesome.

Why are you drawn to write the supernatural side?

Alan: I think I write the supernatural and a lot of darkness and horror—a lot of what I do tends to go toward dark fantasy and edging into horror—because I think there’s a certain honesty to it. If you’re going to dive into a rabbit-hole, I want to go all the way to the end, and go right down, where it keeps getting darker and darker; keep going until you get to the end, because I don’t want to cop out on things. And so, if you’re going to have people that are in difficult situations with big threats, then if you take out the natural rules, the threats can get bigger, so you have supernatural rules that give you this fantastic scope for story-telling.

And, of course, anything in a story is an analogy for something else, and so when you’re testing characters, you can test them up to a point with human adversaries, and then you can test them even further with non-human adversaries. In many ways, the more supernatural or the more unnatural you make a story, the more you can draw out the human in your characters, because that’s the difference. The more difference you show, the more you can highlight the human aspect of your protagonist—or your antagonist or whatever.

And apart from anything else, it’s just enormous fun for story-telling to be able to play with monsters and magic and stuff like that. So you get to have this really exciting and thrilling and different and other-worldly escapism, but you also get to have that far greater reflection of human character as well, I think. And I love mythology, so I love to play with that and bend it.

Joanna: I seem to remember there’s a pretty cool supernatural / fight scene under the Coliseum, between Alex and a creature.

Can you tell us a bit about the supernatural aspects of the story?

Alan: It’s always a bit difficult without giving too much away, but, fundamentally, what I wanted to do when I started deciding about the Alex Caine series, is take the character himself who was a career martial artist who has this little edge that. He doesn’t actually realize initially he’s magical, and turns out to be, and that grows throughout the story. I also wanted to play around with existing tropes, and so in the first book, it’s sort of loosely based on the classic quest, where you have someone who gets taken out of their comfortable life and they end up going on this journey, and they have to find the thing or do the thing against adversaries. And then I mixed that with the thriller aspect of other people who also want the thing, so there’s a race to get to it, and all those kind of elements. Those were the sort of things I wanted to play up, but I wanted to do it all with that dark, supernatural horror edge to it, because I love to genre mash, so I can’t just write a horror story, I have to write a horror thriller dark fantasy mystery kind of thing.

I just really enjoy mashing that stuff up, and I get to draw so much story out of it. And it’s a lot more fun: I want people just flicking pages. The best compliment I can get is, ‘Oh, I couldn’t put it down’: it’s the best compliment. Of course, I like it when people compliment my actual writing ability or the ideas or whatever, but if someone says, ‘Oh god, I couldn’t put it down,’ that’s the best for me, because it means that they looked past all those other elements and were just totally sucked in by a story; that they just wanted to know what happened next. That’s what I’m always going for.

Joanna: They definitely have that! What are the themes that you keep coming back to in your writing, across all your books—and you have a lot of short stories, 60 published short stories, is that right?

Alan: Sixty-something now, I think, yes, that’s right.

Joanna: You have a lot of different stories going on in your world.

So, what are the themes that keep coming up? What obsesses you?

Alan: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because a lot of the time, you don’t actually notice that stuff yourself. I don’t always love reading reviews, but one of the things I do enjoy often about reading reviews is reading what people get from stories and what they think of a story. They say, “Oh, the author was clearly doing this, that and the other,” and I’m reading it: “Really? What, I didn’t actually know I was doing that, but thanks for telling me.” Because stories belong to readers. As soon as you put this stuff out, it’s not yours anymore. And so you get a lot of that kind of feedback.

Especially over a career of as many short stories as I’ve written, and half a dozen novels and other things, I’m starting to realize that a lot of what I deal with, probably more than anything else, is consequence. A lot of the time, people develop stories and things happen, but I always want to look at little bit further: what are the consequences of that happening? And it’s usually not very good. So often people are playing with things they shouldn’t, or pushing things a bit too far, or messing with things they should leave well enough alone, and the I explore the subsequent consequences of that. And then that bleeds over into a lot of other aspects like revenge and following that through. Seeing how that can turn against people, and that revenge isn’t necessarily the answer, and so on.

Again, I think a lot of it comes back to that martial philosophy. Within the martial arts, there’s this concept of Mo Duk or Wu De in Mandarin, which is, at it’s core, leading a martial life. And that means not only being able to fight, but being able not to fight, everything that goes along with the philosophy of that. And I think that underlying a lot of my stories is an exploration of that sort of theme: when to walk away, when to stand up and fight; what are the consequences of either of those actions?

Joanna: Has that theme stemmed from any particular incident in your life?

For example, my brother is also a martial artist, and that pretty much stemmed from being bullied at school and being the ginger, wimpy kid: that’s kind of what started his journey. So, have these themes, of consequences, for example, come from your life—and can you share with the audience?!

Alan: I feel like I should lie on a couch now! Yes, definitely, to some degree, a large part of why I took up martial arts was because I was the geeky, nerdy, wimpy kid and I got bullied a lot, and a lot of the darkness and sort of consequence and brutality of what I write comes from the fact that I’ve seen a lot of that in my life. My brother died when I was young, and obviously when he was young, and those are the scars that create the person you are; you are, basically, just the sum of your experience.

And so I draw on a lot of that sort of stuff. My brother died because he had a disability, so I’ve grown up with all different kinds of bullying, examples of amazing empathy and care, and examples of absolutely horrible lack of empathy. So I guess I tend to draw on those things in stories, because that’s my lived experience. That’s why writers tend to improve through their career, because they live more and have more experience, and then, if they’re not careful, they end up just writing stories about writers, because they’ve been writers for 30 years and not done anything else, so they’ve got no other experience to draw on anymore. So it’s really important to do other things than be a writer. I’m never not going to run a martial arts academy, even if I could afford not to, because, apart from the fact that it’s passing on my legacy which is part of why I did it, it also gets me out and I interact with people, and you have life outside of writing.

So it’s a constant process of drawing. You remember yourself—I’m sure you’ve been told—people don’t altogether trust you once they know you’re a writer, because they assume you’re sitting there looking at them for stories. Anything you say to me could go in a book, so just be careful what you say!

Joanna: That’s absolutely true! We talked about travel a bit at the beginning, and how that kind of started your move Down Under, and you write a lot about places around the world, and the Alex Caine books have Iceland and the UK and Italy.

So, how have your travels impacted your writing, and are there any particular places that you love?

Alan: Ah, so many. I think the two most important things you can do as a young person, and the two most important things parents can do for children, are one, to teach them how to read and to instill in them a love of reading, because that is the best journeying there is. There’s a lifetime, a journey in every single book they read, and they learn about life and about people and about all those sorts of things. And the other thing is to travel, and encourage them to travel, and show them the world.

I think everybody should, at some point before they’re 20 years old, find themselves somewhere where they’re the different one. Like, for you and I, it would be being the only white face in a crowd. For a lot of people, obviously their entire lived experience is to be the only something in a crowd, and those people tend to have enormous empathy, because they’re always in a struggle, but a lot of people have this privilege of being surrounded by comfort, and I think it’s really important to not be. You know, you don’t have to be a different color, but to be the only person in a big crowd who doesn’t speak the language and to find yourself standing there, not knowing what’s going on; or to be standing in a street looking at street signs you just can’t decipher, because they’re Cyrillic or they’re Asian, or whatever.

That experience is really powerful, and it’s very informing. It’s very important when it comes to developing empathy and to developing a broader experience of humanity, rather than just your experience of humans or your family or whatever. And so I always try to explore that with books as well. It’s important. I don’t just want to write stories about heterosexual white guys in a white society, so—like I said about making sure women are represented in my books, I always try to make sure that race is represented, sexuality is represented, and whatever, because in my life, that’s what I see. I spend an enormous amount of time in the Chinese community, because I live and teach Chinese kung fu. I live in a very multicultural country, even though nowadays I live down in the country, it’s a lot more white where I am now, but working for 10 years in Sydney, it’s very much a multicultural place. So I want my characters to have that world experience and go to different places, and I want readers, through reading my stories, to go on those journeys.

So, like you said, even in just the first book, in “Bound,” Alex starts in Sydney, he goes to London, he goes to Canada, then ends up in Italy, and then to Iceland. It’s important for me to give readers those experiences as well as I can.

As you said, the scene with the Coliseum, ended up being really good and fit the book perfectly: it actually wasn’t going to be that when I first started writing the book. But in the process of writing it, I went back to the UK to my cousin’s wedding, and then on the way home again, we stopped for a few days in Rome. I just had to include it in a book. I went to the Coliseum, and it was like, “Holy crap, that has to be here: these scenes have to be in Rome.” So I ended up taking a thousand photos, walking around, and thinking, “You’ve got to be in the Coliseum.”

Joanna: I’m glad you say that. I personally find one of the perks of being a writer is travelling for research—that’s one of the things we do. Also, I’m glad you mentioned the children thing. I know you have a son. My mum took us to Africa when I was eight, and so I went to school in Malawi when I was eight, and as you say, when you’re that age, you don’t even think it’s anything other than normal!

Alan: Exactly, and you take that through your life with you. You take that mix of culture as being completely normal through your life. You’re not suddenly exposed to different cultures in your 20s or something, when you’ve already formed such fixed ideas about what the world is, because that’s not what the world is.

Joanna: It’s true. It does sometimes result in what my husband calls “itchy foot syndrome”!

Alan: Yes, it’s a problem!

Joanna: It’s a problem when you have a young child like you do!

Alan: When you’re a poor writer, you run your own business and you have a young child, and all you want to do is walk the earth: yes, it’s a problem!

Joanna: But that’s why your characters do: that’s why you’re writing these walking people! I wanted to ask you a couple more questions before we wind up, if that’s alright.

Alan: Sure.

Joanna: First of all, we mentioned the short fiction. And short stories are quite different to novels. Each one is a story in itself, as such, and very different.

What do you love about writing short work, and how does that differ from your novels?

Alan: At a fundamental level, a short story of 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 words has to be the same as a novel of 80,000, 90,000 or 100,000 words, to a degree. It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have a point. You have to have characters who encounter conflict, and there’s some resolution to that conflict, whether it be good, bad or ambiguous. So, short stories and novels, in those terms, have to be the same. You can write almost vignette-style short stories, but that’s more an exercise in writing than in actual story-telling, and really, I’m about story-telling. I want to tell whole stories.

I’ve always loved short stories. I remember when I was a kid, reading the short stories of Roald Dahl – they got televised in Britain as “Tales of the Unexpected” – and stuff like that as well—they were amazing.

Joanna: “The Leg of Lamb”: that’s my favorite! Do you remember that?

Alan: I do! My favorite was the one about the tress, when he made the device that could hear the plants screaming, he could hear the roses being cut and all that. Those things, I read those before I saw that show, and they blew me away. And the Conan stories, and H.P. Lovecraft and all those sorts of things. I just loved the form of short story.

It’s a difficult skill. I messed around with short stories, but then I moved to novels, and I’d written “RealmShift” and “MageSign” before I went back to short fiction and decided to take it really seriously. Kind of through a lot of trial and error, and help from people who were writers who I knew, I kind of taught myself the craft. It has actually improved my novel-writing as well, because it really teaches you a brevity and a control of language, and the idea of story and sub-plot.

I just love the exercise of exploring themes. With 60-something short stories now, I’ve got to explore so many more ideas than I would have if I only wrote novels, because if any of those given short story ideas, if I drew them out to novel size—because any of them could be, to some degree, you could develop the stories, build up the characters and everything else—I get to explore all those different themes and those different places and different characters and whatever else, and different genres, because I’ve written historically and ghost stories and science fiction and mystery and crime and all that sort of stuff in my short fiction as well.

Yes, it’s basically just another excuse for great exploration in story-telling!

Joanna: Which is fantastic. Also, I wanted to ask you about the gaming side, because you said, when you were young, you would do the role-playing and I know you’re still a gamer. What I love about gaming is—literary purists might argue that writers shouldn’t be gaming, and that people who read serious stuff should not game—but what we find is, it’s story, right?

Mostly, people are gaming because they want to be actually in a story, which is cool. Tell us about your thoughts on gaming.

Alan: Some of the best story-telling in the world at the moment is happening in games. You have epic stories, like the Mass Effect games, or the Halo games; you have just heart-wrenching stories like The Last of Us, that happened recently; you have just hilarious, clever story-telling, like with Portal. As you say, you get to be a part of the story; you don’t get on with the narrative just by turning a page, but you have to interact, you have to solve mysteries or solve puzzles or whatever, and then with role-play and video games, as well, you make dialogue choices that can affect the outcome of the story, which means that you can go back and play that game again and get told a different story, the same characters, the same set-up and everything else, but a different result.

As soon as anybody says, “Oh, but serious story-telling”— I’m not interested. Because story is powerful: story started with people sitting around a fire, a) entertaining each other, and b) learning and passing on knowledge and passing on important stuff through stories that had to be remembered and told again. And so as far as I’m concerned, there is no medium that has the grip on story-telling. Books, novels, tend to be the deepest form, inasmuch as you can get the most information and you can get the most insight into characters, because through reading you get internal monologue and all that. But you can have stories in short stories, or in games, or in anything else, that are equally powerful.

Comic books and movies are massive influences on me, partly because I love the visual medium involved, but also because some of the best stories are told that way. I was massively influenced in my mid to late teens by Garth Ennis’ “Hellblazer” comic books and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” cycle and “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore, people like that. Those kind of writers really influenced me in terms of writing and story-telling. And that was comic books, and there are people who would say, “Oh, comic books, that’s not serious, that’s not real story-telling,” and there are some amazing, and adult, and deep, and heart-breaking stories told in comics, just the same as games, just the same as movies. And of course there’s a lot of pulp out there as well, but that applies to books, as well as movies, as well as games, as well as comics.

Joanna: So, you don’t see a competition between gaming and books; you see them just serving different needs. For people like yourself, who is both a gamer, a reader and a writer, you don’t see any issue with these.

Alan: There is some competition, inasmuch as if we want young people to grow up and love books as much as we do, we have to show them what there is to be experienced from reading a book, because it’s much easier to sit with an iPad or to sit with an Xbox and play a video game and interact that way. Especially in this day and age, kids are digital natives: they grow up with gaming, and computer gaming is used in the classroom now. GBL—Game-Based Learning—is a massive factor. I’ve actually written for the New South Wales Department of Education and worked on a video game purely to teach teachers how to use video games in their classrooms with students. My job in that was to bring narrative to the game, to make sure the teachers didn’t get bored, and so they had a narrative, an emotional connection to continue playing.

This stuff is just an omelet now: you can’t unscramble it. But what’s important—I don’t see it as being in competition as such, because they said television was going to kill this, and radio was going to kill that: nothing does. What you do is you just make room for this thing as well, and that thing as well, same as we always do as people. If you take someone from the days before radio, and they saw what we had now, their brains would melt, that we consume media in the telly and the radio and the books and video games and all this stuff: they wouldn’t be able to handle it. They hopefully would adapt without literally brain-melting, but the leaps that we make don’t happen instantly: they’re just this constant slow process of integration.

So, I don’t see it as competition, but I do think it’s very important that we make sure kids understand that to go and sit quietly and read a book and have that totally immersed experience is important, as well as playing a video game or watching a movie or anything else.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, we’ve had a really great, wide-ranging conversation today!

So where can they find the Alex Caine books, and all your other works, online.

Alan: The Caine series is available everywhere in e-book now, so wherever you shop for e-books, go there. There has been a little bit of a problem with, so if you do have any problem finding any of my stuff, you can just go to – that’s my website—and anywhere you see a book cover, click on it, and it’ll take you to a page that will tell you all about the book, and it will have links to where you can pick it up and all that sort of stuff. Or just find me @alanbaxter on Twitter, and just go, “Oi, I need this,” and I’ll happily point you in the right direction.

Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Alan, that was great!

Alan: No worries: thanks very much for having me.

Action Thriller Author Scott Mariani On The Ben Hope Series

Scott Mariani is the author of the worldwide-acclaimed action-adventure thriller series featuring ex-SAS hero Ben Hope. Scott’s novels have topped the Scott Marianibestseller charts in his native Britain and are translated into over twenty languages worldwide.

His next book released in the US is The Nemesis Program, available Feb 15, 2015.

I interviewed Scott for The Big Thrill magazine – free for thriller readers. The full edited transcript will be available there in Jan 2015. Below is an excerpt as well as the audio interview.

 What are the themes that you return to in your books?

There is always a historical element. I’m very interested in history, but also the Ben Hope books belong to a certain genre which grew up out of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code.

In that genre, there’s always some kind of historical theme running through each book. Ben’s not a historian; he’s not even interested in history, but it’s interesting from my point of view, having to find something that’s going to happen, some intrigue that involves history but has a relevance today, that somehow manages to involve Ben. There’s always a different way in which Ben manages to get embroiled in these historical things.

With regard to the modern-day element, there’s very often a conspiracy involved, sometimes on a huge, epic scale, sometimes involving massive global forces, other times involving more private conspiracies, and more low-key things involving maybe just one individual or a few individuals. I’ll very often find a character with suicide not really being suicide, with people being bumped off because they know too much or they’ve discovered something or found out something and they become dangerous or a threat, and somebody’s out to get them. Of course then Ben Hope has to come in at a certain point and sort things out. But the conspiracy element is something I quite enjoy. And some of them one could believe in, I think.

nemesis programI wouldn’t say that I was a huge conspiracy buff, but I definitely have dark opinions about a lot of things that go on in the world, to the point where I couldn’t really discuss them too openly, because I’d probably get assassinated or something. But yes, there are a lot of very terrible things happening in this world, and we are not told the truth about very many of them, which of course forms a wonderful resource for people like me who can conjecture from that.

Theres also a lot of action and shooting and driving and cool chase scenes in your books. How do you do the research, and do you do some of those thrilling things yourself?

The driving part is all imaginary, because I’m a very, very timorous, slow, unadventurous driver! I drive an old Landrover, which physically can’t do more than about 45 miles an hour, so all this sort of high-speed stuff is just my imagination. I have done a lot of shooting and things in the past. I was, back in the day, a pistol shooter, before they banned it in Britain.

I still shoot; I do a lot of target shooting but I don’t kill things: I don’t go out and murder God’s little creatures, honest! But I do a lot of target shooting, so I’ve murdered enough little paper targets in my time, and I still do a lot of that. I love it: it’s just something I’m very passionate about. It’s not terribly exciting or thrilling. I also do a lot of practical shotgun, which involves a lot of running around and shooting at make-believe bad guys, knocking over steel plates and things, which is great fun, and it’s probably the most action-orientated shooting discipline still available to people in the UK, and that is enormous fun.

Joanna: I want to do that now!

Scott: It’s great, honestly: you’d love it. It’s like paintball shooting and things. I like that we all go out in the woods and kill each other! With paintballs!

It’s great fun, as long as you’re safe. Safety is obviously the most important thing. But once you know what you’re doing and you’re safe with it, it’s enormous fun.

Joanna: And you’re an archer as well, I think?

Scott: Yes! The good thing about archery is that you don’t deafen yourself; it’s lovely and quiet. I’ve got a little archery range in my back garden, and I can go out there any time I like and shoot all day long without bothering the neighbors, although we’re quite remote here: nobody would really hear, I think, even if you were to let off a cannon! But yes, archery is a wonderful sport, and again, it’s something that I’ve always done. Even when I was a kid, I used to make my own bows and arrows out of branches from trees and do all sorts of irresponsible things, shooting arrows where I shouldn’t have been shooting them. But that is also a great sport. You should take it up: you’d love it!

Joanna: I’ve done a bit of archery, actually. Do you find it like a meditation?

Scott: Well, there is a sort of martial arts background. You have the whole Zen thing with archery. You step up to the target, and you have to get yourself into this meditative kind of state. But this is also true of shooting, as well. When you get in the zone, when you’re target shooting and you’re hunkered down behind a rifle on a firing point, completely still, and you have to lower your heartbeat, and your breathing is very controlled, and it’s possible to get into a really almost Zen-like state. Ben Hope is very good at getting into that state. He’s much better at it than I am. But he’s got sniper training and all that. Anything I can do, he can do ten times better!

It’s very cathartic and restful, until you pull the trigger and it goes Bong! That’s not so restful. But with archery, it’s a lovely thing to get into. I definitely would urge anyone who hasn’t tried it to try it.

You can find Scott at and his books on all online stores.

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: and

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 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 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 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 and