Josh is an author, poet, musician, music journalist, teacher, voice actor and event manager, and a very entertaining interviewee. His CV includes being almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly dying of a collapsed lung in the Nepalese Himalayas, and once fending off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India. He has an unnatural fondness for scrabble and an irrational dislike of frangipanis.
Naturally enough, Josh’s answers to my questions are particularly amazing, and this interview reflects his clever sense of the absurd and the precious. Josh is a wordsmith worth noting, because you will never look at the printed page in quite the same way.
You probably won’t be able to, because there’s every chance it will self-detonate before your very eyes. Either that or turn into a not-very-helpful imp.
Great to meet you, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of 19½ Spells. And thanks for reading some of them on your website here – that’s great! Can you tell me why is writing important to you?
Josh:Ani DiFranco once said “I was a terrible waitress, so I started to write songs.” I think I feel the same way, except I write stories instead of songs and instead of being bad at hospitality I was bad at (insert many different jobs here).
Ah, that means you really are a writer. Great. What was your favourite book as a child?
In a language that only you can speak, no doubt. That one had me reaching for Wikipedia: ‘an illustrated codex written in an unknown writing system’! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Yes, if you read everything I’ve ever written you’ll find I’ve encoded the secret to eternal life using a secret cypher that can only be understood once you’ve posted really nice reviews on goodreads and recommended my books to all your friends.
That sounds like a good plan! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
“This is the best book I’ve ever read, but it should have had Dr Who in it.”
That’s the way I feel about most books, truly. Why are you the perfect person to write your books?
Because everyone else who has tried has descended into madness and now spends their days rocking back and forth, murmuring about eldritch horrors and the heinous price of printer refill cartridges.
Or the scarcity of flour and toilet rolls, possibly. What would be a dream come true for you?
Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girlwon the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girltells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.
Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.
My review of Stone Girlis forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!
Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?
Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.
Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.
I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.
Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?
I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.
Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?
I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.
Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.
Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.
Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.
Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.
That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.
Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.
However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.
Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.
Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.
And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.
Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.
Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂
Christine Bell’s historical novel No Small Shame has just been released, making hers the first fully online book launch of my experience. Christine has 35 short fiction books published for children including picture story, chapter book and YA titles. Her short stories have won national writing competitions and been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame tells the story of immigrant Mary O’Donnell who arrives in Australia on the brink of WWI. Meticulously researched though it is, the story’s strongest points are its engaging and relatable characters.
Welcome, Christine, and congratulations on the excellent reception of No Small Shame. Thank you for sharing some words with me today. Let’s see what set you off on your writing journey. What was your favourite book as a child?
Christine: When I was in grade four, our teacher Miss Yule possessed the most beautiful illustrated story book I’d ever seen. It was a large, full colour book called Best Scandinavian Fairy Tales. Every couple of days she would read from our current story and hold up the divine full-page illustrations. Once a week, a child was allowed the very special privilege of taking the precious book home overnight to read. It seemed an interminable wait until it was my turn. I could barely breathe for excitement that evening while I turned the pages and read as much as I could. Later, I read surreptitiously by torchlight, carefully turning the pages under the sheet. It broke my heart when at the end of the term, Miss Yule left our class to get married, taking her beautiful story book with her and depriving me of a second overnight read. I’ve never forgotten that book.
And never forgiven Miss Yule, no doubt. Or those conventions that made marriage and teaching incompatible! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
There are no secrets as such, but there are always guns on the wall. Small moments that may not mean much at the time of writing, but must inevitably have a purpose. I have a scene in No Small Shame, aboard ship, where Mary is forced to have her hair cut off due to a plague of nits. The scene shows the conflict with her mother, but Mary’s hair also comes to have a deep symbolism throughout the novel. When I first wrote the scene, it was more to show shipboard life and I was concerned in the early drafts if it was earning its place. But as the novel progressed, Mary’s hair became a metaphor that echoes right to the final scene.
Guns on the wall! Eek! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Just before No Small Shamewas officially released, a writer friend emailed me from the bookshop carpark after getting caught up reading it. She emailed again, a day later, half-way through, to say how much she was loving it, and that I’d painted such a picture with words and drawn the characters so well that she felt she knew them. The next day she contacted me to say that she’d cried through the final five chapters, loved the book, and how could we get it made into a movie. It’s an author’s dream to have a reader connect so emotionally to your story and to have it come alive in their mind.
That’s wonderful feedback. Do you write full time?
I write virtually full time. My children have all grown up and left home, and I’m most fortunate to have the financial support of a partner. Royalties from my many children’s short fiction titles, together with my annual PLR and ELR payments* help financially too, even all these years after the titles were published. I work in our business part-time too, but the majority of days I can be found at my writing desk.
*Note: public and electronic lending rights, from when books are borrowed from libraries. Note 2: Support authors! Borrow books from libraries!
Excellent! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet many fellow writers through writing groups, events, conferences, masterclasses and workshops. I’ve also completed two tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Creative Writing, where I met writers who’ve become good friends. I also served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Vic (SCBWI) for five years where I made a lot of friends and connections in the kid-lit community. I’ve connected with lots of writers through Facebook and Twitter. My social media is predominantly all about writing, publishing, books, and related topics, and I’ve always found the online writing community incredibly supportive and friendly.
I agree, the #WritingCommunity is great. Where do you write?
My office looks over our rather lovely, tranquil back garden where I can hear the birds, see them playing in the bird bath, and watch the change of seasons. A couple of years ago, after a spinal surgery, I purchased an electric standing desk and combined with another long desk, it forms a fabulous L-shaped workspace. One full wall is floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, and, adding a red filing cabinet and splashes of red on the bookshelves and desk, I have a bit of a colour theme going. The wall opposite features a huge framed map of the Somme, the setting of my current work-in-progress; plus a large original illustration from my children’s book, Snozza; a messy corkboard of memorabilia and treasured mementoes; as well as various artefacts related to my current work . It’s a lovely space that I had such fun decorating to truly inspire and reflect what I’m writing.
Do you have launch parties for your books?
I never had a launch party for my children’s books, so I was very excited to plan an instore event at Readings Hawthorn to release No Small Shame. It was rather a large shame that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but I quickly became aware of the possibility of launching the book online, via Facebook. I was still very keen for acclaimed author and writing buddy Alison Goodman to launch the book. This was a little problematic since we were to be in separate houses due to this time of isolation. We decided that a pre-recorded launch was probably the only way to go. I really wanted a live, spontaneous component though. But even as I advertised it, I wondered if the live stream would work. Short story, with a little tech advice and after a practice mock event, it worked very well and No Small Shame was launched on the 2nd April. I was really thrilled that I was able to see so many friends, family and fellows present in the event comments, questions and congratulations. For anyone who’d like to view the launch, I’ll include the Youtube links: Book launch https://youtu.be/LHXC4OJvKTI. Live stream https://youtu.be/c4sJ9vamIzI.
Ooh, and readers can have a little look at your writing office on the YouTube link! Thanks, Christine; I’m very much looking forward to reading No Small Shame, and to your next book, which is also set around the time of the First World War.
I first met Meg Mundell during last summer’s Australian bushfire crisis – a virtual meeting as we looked around at the devastation of the land, livelihoods, homes, habitat and wildlife, and the deaths. We engaged in a group called Writing for the Environment. Now I’m speaking with Meg again, in the early stages of another unprecedented, life-changing event, this one the global Covid19 pandemic, now so close to everyone’s home.
Meg Mundell is a writer and academic. Born and raised in New Zealand, she lives in Melbourne with her partner and young son. Her second novel, The Trespassers was named Readings ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ for July 2019, and has been optioned for a TV series. Her first novel is the critically acclaimed Black Glass (2011), and Things I Did for Money (2013) is her debut short story collection.
Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Meg. Can you tell me why writing is important to you?
MEG: Writing helps me to make sense of the world – the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence. I also enjoy the craft of knocking out words, with all its frustrations and small satisfactions: the feeling of making something. Putting letters on the page, wrangling with a line, breathing life into a character, hacking out a parallel universe using the beautiful tool of language…it makes me feel alive.
How wonderful – great writing images there. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, more something I just knew from very early on. There’s one vivid memory. When I was a preschooler my parents would sometimes take me to work with them, and at my dad’s workplace there was this room full of typewriters. I’d sit there for ages banging out misspelled words, just enjoying the sight of the letters slamming onto the page. One day my dad’s workmate poked his head in. “You’re very busy,” he said. “Are you going to be a secretary when you grow up?” I remember the question annoyed me. “No,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
A secretary, LOL. How much research is involved in your writing?
A lot! I love research. But it’s easy to get sucked down wormholes. Sooner or later you have to stop researching, just dive in and write the damn thing. Working on my latest novel, The Trespassers (UQP 2019), I spent hours researching sailor’s tattoos, sea monster myths, marine pollution, Irish and Scottish slang, future fuel scenarios, pandemic containment strategies, bioterrorism, the psychology of germophobia… My browser history looked so dodgy: how long does a body take to rot at sea? What drug stops hallucinations? How do you kill someone with a crowbar?
Early on in the research process, I also visited the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It’s an amazing site – beautiful, idyllic, but with this undercurrent of trauma, grief and sadness. Echoes of all the suffering this place has seen, especially in the immediate aftermath of its creation back in 1852. Visiting that site was a key moment that inspired me to write the novel.
Perfect preparation for the world we live in, too. I love your search history. What five words would best describe your style?
Great words. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Crewed a boat from New Zealand to Australia in my 20s, with zero sailing experience and a sleazy cowboy of a captain who refused to let us wear life jackets. Two friends invited me along. For the whole nine days I was seasick, and so heavily dosed up on Scopolamine that I started hallucinating: I heard mermaids singing and had long conversations with flying fish.
Each of us did an 8-hour watch, steering over these huge ocean swells, 8 or 9 metres high at times, with only a thin wire clip-line connecting us to the boat. Out on the open sea, you’re nothing. Steering up and down those waves, trying to keep the boat upright, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Sheer terror, but hugely exhilarating. That trip planted the first seeds of The Trespassers.
That sounds absolutely terrifying, but what a fantastic basis for a story. Congratulations on the TV option for The Trespassers, too. A thrilling achievement What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Figure out a plan for my next book – non-fiction, I think. Publish some academic articles, a couple of essays, maybe some long-form journalism. And like always, write some dubious poetry nobody will ever lay eyes on.
It’s great that you have something just for you. I believe writers have private voices too. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
Covers matter a lot to me: my brain really latches on to images. So far I’ve been extremely lucky to have been allowed a lot of input on this front. I love the cover we ended up with for The Trespassers: that jellyfish is so eerily gorgeous, almost otherworldly. Menacing, but delicate too. It suggests so much.
Yes, it’s absolutely perfect. Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Places: their different moods and atmospheres, the things they’ve witnessed. Human beings: their words and actions, their hidden selves, the things they come up against and how they cope. Love and compassion: the way they’re thrown into stark relief during dark times. Injustice: things that make me angry. Dreams, memories, poems, photographs, paintings. Exploring old abandoned buildings. Glimpsing other lives through a train window. Words and phrases, mysterious patterns. A certain slant of light, a strange doorway, a word carved into a tree. A funny incident. It all goes into a big compost heap in my brain. It’s a mess in there, but there’s always material if you dig around.
That’s a beautiful piece of writing in itself – a prose poem about inspiration. Thank you! Do you write in more than one genre?
Always. In my fiction I like to plunder elements from different genres – literary fiction, thriller, crime, spec fic, even historical fiction. I tend to resist rigid categories, and enjoy playing with genre conventions – using those tools to create something slightly off-kilter, something fresh and hopefully surprising.
And succeeding. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Meg, and more power to your pen.
Elizabeth Ducie is a full-time writer from Devon. Although she wrote prize-winning fiction at school, she went on to study science and have a career as a manufacturing consultant, technical writer and small business owner, publishing pharmaceutical text books and editing a technical journal during that time.
Elizabeth also writes and lectures on The Business of Writing, teaching business skills for writers running their own small business, and has published a set of books under that name.
Welcome, Elizabeth. You have a fascinating background for a novelist. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Elizabeth: When I wrote Counterfeit!, my sister Sheila challenged me to bring some of the characters from my previous novel into the story. And there are occasionally references to real incidents from my travelling days, although usually heavily fictionalised.
Your secrets are safe with me! How do you feel about reviews?
There are many beliefs about the impact reviews have on the algorithms of Amazon and other platforms, but I’m not convinced. There are too many exceptions out there to allow me to believe in a magic number, a threshold above which exciting things start to happen.
But, as a way of hearing what readers think, they are invaluable. I only wish more people would consider posting them. Even a negative review is better than dead silence.
Yes, the silent echo chamber is unnerving. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
There was a biology teacher who took me to one side at the start of the upper fifth year (equivalent to year 11) and told me there were girls in the year who were going to do well, but I wasn’t one of them, so I wasn’t to get my hopes up! It still rankles, more than fifty years on. I would love to send her a signed copy of each of my books to make her eat her words.
Yikes! Oh, I hope that was her way of motivating you and not her true opinion! How much research is involved in your writing?
So far, most of my fiction has been set in places I used to work (Former Soviet Union countries, Latin America, Africa) so a lot of the research was done on the hoof. However, my novels tend to have historical flashbacks, for which I do quite a bit of research. But only when I’m editing. I don’t let lack of knowledge interrupt the flow during the first draft.
Ironically, my latest book is set in South Devon where I’ve lived for the past thirteen years. I’m doing far more research for that than any of the internationally-based ones.
That’s ironic, but good to know. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
Covers are critical, especially for fiction, where they are a major signpost to the reader on what they can expect from the book. I am independently-published and therefore have absolute say over my covers. When I’m teaching, I always empasise that an indie book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published one in terms of appearance and quality of the finished product. This means having a professionally-designed cover. I use Berni Stevens for all my novels. I developed my own covers for The Business of Writing, but I used a Canvatemplate, which still means the original design is professionally produced.
I completely agree about covers – I believe most readers DO judge a book by its cover. I’m interested in your books aimed at writers, too. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
They say that writing is a solitary occupation, but I find it’s all too easy to meet other writers. There’s a huge writing community here in the South West of England, plus there are any number of online groups.
I am a member of two great writing groups: Chudleigh Writers’ Circle and Exeter Writers. They are very different in approach and I find my membership of each one invaluable. Plus I still meet up with a small group of writers from the MA we completed in 2012. I have a writing buddy with whom I work on each novel at the developmental editing stage. And this year, I’m Director of the Exeter Literary Festival. And that’s before I even think about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which are stuffed full of writers.
To be honest, it’s tempting to spend far more time ‘networking’ with other writers than I do writing. But it’s all great fun; and that’s one of the reasons I gave up the day job to write ‘full-time’.
Always. I have an event in our local parish church, the largest space in our small town, with readings, music, cake and fizz. I usually sell quite a few copies on the night, but it’s also about celebrating with my friends and family.
I’ve also been holding online launch parties since 2011. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different formats; and sometimes I don’t have one at all. Lessons I learned along the way included: don’t try running a party for 12 hours; and don’t try running an online party on the same day as the main party. Both occasions were exhausting!
But they do sound like fun. You have an MA, I see. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
It depends on the individual, their experience and their ambitions, but I’m not convinced creative writing is an academic subject. So I’m slightly skeptical about formal university courses, even though I completed one myself. I do, however, think it’s important to attend classes, webinars, conferences, anything that helps train us in our craft, keep us fresh, and build inspiration. I attend the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick every August; I go to occasional classes or workshops such as those run by Literature Works in Exeter; and I am a real sucker for a free webinar or online conference. The ones run by ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) are particularly good.
Great to know. I love the way you approach writing as a craft that can always be honed. Lovely! Thank you for talking with me in this episode of Last Word of the Week.
You can find Elizabeth’s novels and her Business of Writing books here
Welcome, Isobel. What an impressive list of publications, which I am reading my way through (as you know, I love Clarissa’s Warning). It looks like you write in more than one genre?
I write mysteries, psychological thrillers, historical fiction, contemporary fiction and biographical fiction.
So impressive. Do you write full time?
I do. Short answer! Writing full time involves all the associated admin and promo of course. There is an awful lot of that. It is a very solitary existence, very absorbing. I am happiest when I am immersed in composing fiction with characters I am fond of, characters who make me laugh.
Yes, I think the admin takes longer than the writing – well, almost! You’re writing as a professional, then. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
This is a difficult question. Initially, I was warned away. But then again, said gainsayer mentored me for six months and showed me numerous tricks of the trade. So I did receive ample training. Also, I am a natural self-learner. I enjoy distance education. After the mentoring, I taught myself to be the writer I am by studying the works of contemporary literary fiction giants, particularly the Europeans. I chose these works as I didn’t want to risk picking up bad habits and back then, I really had no idea who I could trust, other than my beloved Iain Banks, who I also learned a lot from. Also, I love literary fiction. It has become undervalued as elitist when really, the genre that is not a genre is simply different and requires a different attitude, a different state of mind.
In my quest to turn myself into the best writer I could possibly be I regarded my selection of fictional works as text books. I filled a notebook with turns of phrase, examples of syntax, that sort of thing. I studied the architecture of a novel. I studied opening paragraphs. I pored over descriptions of characters. I worked out how to write effective dialogue.
Years later I enrolled in a free, ten-week online writing course offered by the Open University, UK. I wanted to see how they approached the delivery in terms of content and style in preparation for a ten-week writing class I was giving. The OU course was great fun and well thought through and I got to see how things were done. I still think my self-learning method is best but only because it worked for me.
You’ve devoted yourself to your craft. Why is writing important to you?
Writing is my life, both fiction and non-fiction. I communicate. I suppose I also teach. My mind bursts with thoughts, runaway ideas. I get hot under the collar about a lot of issues and writing gives me a means of expression and a platform. For me, writing, including creative writing, serves a higher purpose, at least it does when we produce works of some depth and substance, works of moral value, and not simply writing for entertainment and wish-fulfilment alone. Writing encourages reading, we hope, and reading expands the mind, we hope. Writing is for me an occupation, a distraction, a partial escape, a way of steadying my mind and forging through hard times. We live in hard times, don’t we. Anyone with any sensitivity can see that.
The first book I wrote was a memoir. Back in 2007, I started writing the story of my sustainable lifestyle project involving the building of a house with B&B and the creation of a large garden on a fifteen-acre cattle paddock on the edge of Cobargo in one of the prettiest places on earth, a place safe from the ravages of climate change, or so I thought.
The memoir was almost published and then I shelved it when my marriage failed and I moved to Melbourne.
Then, last New Year’s Eve, the unthinkable happened and I was thrust back into my old home town through the devastating bushfire. My emotions were ragged. My family had lived in the community for over forty years. We knew all the people who died. I used to sort mail at the post office and so I knew everyone by name. It was trauma at a distance and I was ragged.
In the end, it occurred to me that the best thing I could do with how I felt was to resurrect that old memoir. It would be a tribute to a very special location. Finding the manuscript in pretty good shape, I polished it up and wrote an epilogue which gave the memoir the meaning I knew it needed. It is called Voltaire’s Garden, and is in many ways an homage to philosopher Voltaire, who established his own sustainable lifestyle in exile in the late 1700s.
That one’s a very personal story. How much research is involved in your writing?
Research forms a large component of any story. From fleshing out original ideas to embellishing the details and informing plots and characters, research is key. I research setting – environment, history, culture, society – key events and histories. I research geography, climate, weather, food, customs, all kinds of things. I am forever looking something up. Thank goodness for the Internet. I think in the past I would have needed to pitch a tent in a large reference library as I doubt I would ever have left the building.
Book 4 in my Canary Islands collection, A Prison in the Sun, had me researching newspaper reports, blog posts and a couple of doctoral theses all in Spanish. The novel concerns a little-known concentration camp for gay men that ran for twelve years in the 1950s and 60s under General Franco. I had known of the camp since the late 1980s when I lived on the islands. Back then, the story was repressed. An academic broke the story in the noughties, but only in Spanish.
Rather than set an entire novel in a labour camp, I embedded the story in a mystery featuring a millennial ghost writer grappling with his sexuality, setting up an important juxtaposition between then and now, and throwing in some mystery elements – a rucksack full of cash, a dead body – for intrigue.
I love the way you layer your stories. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I have Book 5 of my Canary Islands collection to write. I’m currently at the research stage, and actually on the islands! And I hope to finish my family history novel this year. The project stalled two-thirds in due to frustrations with the genealogy. I decided to press pause while I paid a tidy sum to a professional genealogist to see what else could be discovered. I’m still waiting for the results.
Can we get your books as audio books?
You most certainly can. The Cabin Sessions, A Matter of Latitude and Clarissa’s Warning are all available in audiobook format. A Prison in the Sun will be in audio soon too.
Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Ideas come to me. They land in my mind like pebbles plopping in a pond. If I don’t have the inspiration, there is no book project. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas, and to do that I need a sounding board, someone to listen as I talk things through, pacing the floor. I came up with my latest book project this way. The ideas arose little by little, like lots of small pebbles rather than one big splash. I needed to brainstorm as I felt I needed a Book 5 for my Canary Islands collection.
Is it easy for readers to find your books?
Readers need to find my books online. I am published overseas by a terrific independent publisher with a strong online focus.
Do you send out newsletters to readers?
I do. I have a pop-up sign-up form on my website and most subscribers find me that way.
That’s great. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Isobel. Keep those stories coming!
Although Trevor Wood has lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, he still can’t speak the language. A successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council, Trevor served in the Royal Navy for sixteen years joining, presciently, as a Writer. Trevor has an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from the University of East Anglia.
Trevor’s widely-praised first novel, The Man on the Street, is set in Newcastle, and will delight readers of mystery thrillers – if you like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, Trevor’s Jimmy Mullen series could be your next addiction.
Let’s discover a bit more about the writer behind Jimmy.
LWOTW: Welcome, Trevor, and thanks for talking to me on last Word of the Week. What was the first book you read for yourself?
TREVOR: Like most people my age I blame Enid Blyton for everything. The Secret Seven, Famous Five and the ‘Adventure’ series were undoubtedly my gateway drugs to a lifelong love of crime fiction. It’s no coincidence that my debut crime novel The Man on the Streetfeatures a dog. He’s a direct descendant of Timmy.
Once I’d put on my big boy pants it was difficult to know where to go next for something to read – YA fiction was barely a thing back in the day. The solution came to me on a terribly dull barge holiday on the Norfolk Broads with my cousin and his family. These days I’d love that kind of holiday – a glorified pub crawl on a boat being my kind of thing – but for a 14-year-old boy it was stupefyingly boring. The solution was galloping through the shelf full of books on the barge – all written by Agatha Christie. From that moment on it was crime all the way and it’s all due to Enid and Agatha (and maybe Scooby Doo).
Enid and Agatha provide a perfect pedigree, but I see you also have an MA in Creative Writing. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
I have nothing but praise for the creative writing courses I’ve done and am certain that without them I wouldn’t now be a published author. I tried a couple of short, local courses in Newcastle first. From the first I ended up joining a small group of writers who meet up every three weeks to offer each other constructive criticism on our latest work in progress. It’s been an invaluable part of my process. My second course provided me with a great friend who also happened to be a retired senior cop, who is now not only a drinking partner but a sounding board for some of my more fanciful ideas regarding the police.
It was the third, however, that provided the major impetus to my writing career, such as it is. I was one of the guinea pigs on UEA’s inaugural Crime Writing MA, a two-year, part-time course with an end point of producing an 80,000 word crime novel. With visiting writers including Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Denise Mina, and ten other thoroughly-committed budding crime writers offering regular feedback on every 10,000 words produced, it was a total joy from start to finish. Not only did it make me a far better writer, it opened so many doors, with visits from agents, editors and several experts in their fields from pathologists to crime scene boffins, the whole thing was an inspiration. Out of the eleven students, five now have publishing deals and three more have agents with books in the pipeline.
If your ambition is to be a published crime writer then I urge you to SIGN UP NOW (I’m not on commission but maybe I should be?)
Yes, you should be! That sounds like a fabulous course. Personal question now: are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
It’s not a secret really but a small in-joke for my own amusement that no-one has ever mentioned so this is basically a WORLD-WIDE EXCLUSIVE. The main character in The Man on the Street, Jimmy, is a homeless veteran who is suffering from PTSD. He is particularly haunted by fire as a result of his experiences in the Falklands War. I have a cop in my book too, who may or may not be on Jimmy’s side, no plot spoilers here. The cop’s name is DS Burns. I did say it was a small in-joke.
But a world-wide exclusive small in-joke! LOL! Now, how do you feel about reviews?
Undoubtedly the best response I’ve had to The Man on the Street was from the ultra-talented writer Dominic Nolan, who I’m certain will soon be catapulted on to the A-list with his brilliant new book After Dark. All praise is, of course, deeply gratifying but when it comes from a master of his, and your own, craft it’s doubly so. I’ll leave this here:
Trevor has assembled a fine array of characters—each playing their part in the main narrative whilst remaining the heart of their own stories, and never once are they condescended to. The plotting is so deft—weaving the larger tapestry of social inequality and the wretchedly skewed priorities of collapsing instruments of state services with the more intimate darkness of personal crimes. It is the kind of thriller our times need and deserve.
Dominic Wood on The Man on the Street
Of course, there will always be those who don’t like your work. I really don’t mind less-than glowing reviews as long as they are constructive and often find myself agreeing with some of the criticism. If you’re going to be a writer you really have to learn to take criticism because believe me you’re going to get it. It starts from the moment you begin submitting to agents and then, if you survive that ordeal, editors come next – and it never really stops. It’s a brutal rite of passage and you need to be resilient to get through it. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that’s said about your work, far from it. But it does mean you have to be able to examine your work carefully and critically. I have a rule that if two people say the same thing then I need to have a good look at it but sometimes you have to go with your gut and stay strong if you’re convinced you’re right. There will always be people who hate your work. Note it and move on quickly. I’ve co-written around a dozen plays and my favourite bad review was “the writers set the bar really low yet still manage to limbo dance under it.” Which you have to admit is a funny line even when you’re the victim of it.
Oh dear, yes, that made me laugh out loud! Do you imagine specific actors playing your characters – which is possibly inevitable for a playwright?
I was very lucky with the audio version of The Man on the Street. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve co-written several plays (and consequently worked with a lot of great actors.) My publishers sent me a link to listen to when they thought they’d found the right actor to take the job on and I didn’t even need to open it. It was the outstanding David Nellist, who had starred in one of my co-written plays Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather but is perhaps better known for playing Mike Stamford, the character who introduces John Watson to Sherlock Holmes in the re-boot of the TV series. As always, Dave has done a fantastic job with the book, bringing a real authenticity to the characters.
That’s wonderful. And is there more Jimmy Mullen to come?
Yes there is! A second book is well underway, and there might be bigger things in store for Jimmy.
That’s so exciting! Thanks for sharing with me today, Trevor, and all the best to you and Jimmy.
Linathi Makanda is a young South African poet and author whose first book of brilliantly-realised love poetry was published last month. I reviewed When No One is Watching recently, full of enthusiasm for a new voice that so perfectly captures the heart of feeling, from first delight through to lonely despair. I consider that poetry is the perfect vehicle for emotion, and I haven’t felt so close to heartache-in-words since I first read Sappho’s fragments as a teenager.
I’m thrilled that Linathi has joined Odyssey Books, the wonderful publishing house that has done so much for me, and I’m very grateful that she has agreed to be first up in 2020’s Last Word of the Week series.
Welcome, Linathi! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer? Linathi: I started feeling like I was a writer when I started producing work that I felt like was authentically me, when it came naturally to me. I’ve always known that I wanted to write but struggled a lot when it came to finding my voice. So I internally identified as a “writer” when I was ultimately happy with the work I was producing.
When you writing spoke as you, that’s a good measure. What would readers never guess about you? The fact that I’m very fearful of a lot of things. As an expressive, people often view you as bold. People would be really shocked to know how often I get anxious or nervous, especially when it comes to my writing.
You’re right, your nervousness doesn’t show. Your poetry has a beautiful, confident, authentic voice. Why is writing important to you?
Expression, in general, is important to me. I think it’s important for each generation to show how their forms of expression have evolved from the last. Books, writing and art in general have so much continuity and apart from us wanting to indulge in these crafts and enjoying them, it’s also equally important to make sure that we leave traces of ourselves for the next generations and I guess writing is my contribution to that bigger picture.
What five words would best describe your style?
Relatable – Emotive – Simple – Raw – Captivating / Gripping
I like the way you snuck in an extra word! What do you think about creative writing courses? Are they valuable?
They definitely are, especially for readers and writers of younger ages. As a young writer myself, it has become important to me that young children and writers are given the opportunity to explore themselves in creative spaces. Too often, reading and writing is boxed in in academia. It’s therefore important to show people that writing and reading can and does exist for purposes other than just for academics.
Well said. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing? Funny thing is, I think everyone I’ve encountered would and is probably surprised about my writing. I’ve never really let people in on the fact that I write. It’s been a strange transition going from people not knowing that I write, to being a published author.
Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
My big break in writing has definitely been my book deal with Odyssey Books. As a writer, you dream of such things happening but they still seem very out of reach. Being the first South African author at an international publishing house means a lot to me as a writer and as an individual and I’m eternally grateful to my publisher, Michelle Lovi, for that opportunity.
Michelle is very special, and I find her very enabling. Congratulations on being published! What kind of reader would like your book?
I’d like to think my work is quite relatable and accessible to a range of people but more specifically, people who are highly in tune with their emotions, the lovers, the dreamers, the expressive and the people who aren’t scared to face their demons head on.
The lovers and the dreamers – I think I know a few! What would be a dream come true for you? I’ve had a lot of my dreams come true at the end of 2019. My pictures were published on Vogue Italia and that really meant a lot for me as a self-taught photographer, I also got the book deal etc. But another one of my dreams would definitely be to see my poetry collection, When No One Is Watching, reach greater heights and to possibly venture into writing another book. Every writer definitely would like their bodies of work to gain traction and even though I didn’t necessarily write for recognition, the book itself doing well is something that I would really love to see happen.
Is it easy for readers to find your book/s? Yes, definitely. When No One Is Watching is currently available on a wide range of platforms, namely Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Odyssey Books website as well as on Goodreads.
And it comes highly recommended by me! If you could write a note to someone about to read your book, what would you say? Well, I’ve already snuck a little note in there for my readers (wink), but more than anything, I’d want to say “breathe in and be ready to fully experience all forms of yourself.”
That’s perfect! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Linathi, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in words and pictures.
The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.
In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.
Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Wintertrilogy is right on topic.
Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.
Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.
I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?
I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:
Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.
This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.
I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.
Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’
As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.
Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”
This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.
“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.
Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.
Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.
It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”
These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.
As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
So very many books…
I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.
My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.
By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.
I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.
There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing.
What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:
Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.
My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses.
Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).
The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.
The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.
How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.
This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.
That sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.
I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.