Author Interview: Benjamin Myers

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Ben Myers, author of The Gallows Pole.

Unlike previous interviews where I submitted questions and received written answers, this one was carried out over the phone – a new experience for me and one I hope I have risen to. What follows is therefore a summary of an interesting conversation.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m from the North-East of England. I grew up on a housing estate on the edge of Durham. I wanted to be a writer from around the age of ten. Before that I wanted to be a boxer but I’m small and quite soft so that wasn’t going to work out. I became a journalist partly as a way to make money through writing but also to buy me time to write books.

I did a degree in English Literature although I failed my A levels and had to ring over a hundred universities before Luton agreed to take me. I spent a lot of time in the library there reading books that weren’t on the syllabus and which ended up shaping my literary tastes.

By this time I was writing for music magazines in London. I would find a way to get into gigs, interview the bands, and sell the pieces I wrote to magazines such as Melody Maker. The week I was due to graduate I got offered a job as staff writer there so moved to London where I lived in a squat for four years. I was living a very odd dual life where one day I would be sent to Beverly Hills or Hollywood to interview some rock star and then the next I’d be flying back to a room with holes in the walls, mice, and a bathtub on a pile of bricks in the kitchen. All of this felt like good training for being a writer.

I had a few years of working all hours, travelling to Europe and America, interviewing bands mainly but also some writers, yet I knew I didn’t want to be solely a journalist. Literature and poetry have always been my first love. I’ve been self-employed since the age of twenty-four, working in journalism and writing novels. I still do some work with the music industry.

My first fiction was published in 2004 but it was a small, underground thing. My first novel, Richard – about the disappearance of the guitarist ‘Richey’ Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers – was published in 2010. By this time I had left London and moved north to Hebden Bridge, Calderdale. I now live there on the edge of a small town and spend all my time writing.

2. The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Calder Vale Coiners. Why did you decide to write about them?

It is all based on facts and I became aware of the story when I moved here eight years ago from looking in the local history sections of the libraries. It is very much rooted in place with the people here knowing all about it but a few miles in either direction and people are unaware. I thought it was as significant as, maybe, Robin Hood.

The coiners created the biggest forging operation ever at the time in Britain. What grabbed me was that the men responsible were poor, illiterate weavers and hill farmers who embarked on this enterprise that had repercussions right across the country. They capsized the local economy and word of them reached Westminster. It was a very big deal at the time yet it’s not part of national history. There was no police force at the time of course and the location enabled the men to evade the law such as it was.

Several of the houses in the story are still here today.

3. When you’re writing do you plan everything or do you start and see what happens?

Everything else I’ve published I just embark on it. I have maybe a plot that could be described in few sentences, maybe a location, and I just start writing.

This novel is based on facts so I constructed a timeline, did several months of research. I didn’t know for example what people wore or ate in the 1770s in a little corner of West Yorkshire and I wanted it to be credible. I did a lot of reading and spoke to a lot of people. I had to simplify it a bit to make it fit into the shape of a novel and I had to take quite a bit of artistic licence. A lot of the documented facts are in legal documents from the time but these include little on personality or emotion. It is the first novel I’ve written where I knew how it was going to end.

I wrote a list of maybe fifty key things that I knew had to be included and the order they happened. This list became the spine of the novel. I didn’t write the book in a linear way. I rarely do. I knew where I was going with it though, unlike with other books I’ve written. I do a lot of my writing and research by walking and wandering about. I would visit locations and take notes. The weather where I live is terrible.

4. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Being able to be an architect of your own kingdom. In a really indulgent way you are able to play god, do what you want, kill people if you like. You can do what you want, at least until editors tell you you can’t say that.

5. And your least favourite?

The money I suppose. I don’t think anyone goes into writing to make money. It’s frustrating that literature doesn’t play more of a part in contemporary culture.

I’m also a reluctant public speaker so find readings aren’t the most pleasurable part although I’ve done a lot more of that this year. If you leave your comfort zone it’s not as comfortable as being in your comfort zone. People say you should leave your comfort zone and I think, why? I’m comfortable.

I love writing though, it doesn’t feel like a job.

6. Do you enjoy using social media?

I’m hopelessly addicted to it. It’s great for writers who are with independent publishers who do a lot of marketing for themselves. With Twitter I’ve come to realise that what you put out you get back. If you put out a lot of negativity it comes back twofold and that can be stressful. I try to avoid that.

I’ve made a lot of connections and then you go out in real life and talk to readers and bookshops who have seen the book being discussed on Twitter. I find Facebook a little bit irritating, people getting into arguments over nothing.

It helps, you just have to be a little bit careful. My wife was saying the other day that she has 4000 followers. Imagine walking into a theatre filled with 4000 people, would you say what you are about to say in front of that many people? You have to slightly moderate what you put out.

7. Has The Republic of Consciousness Prize longlisting had an impact?

It’s very pleasing. I didn’t expect it. Some writers say they don’t care about prizes. They’re not the be all and end all but it’s a nice validation, to know you are on people’s radars. It’s an interesting prize. I like the fact that it was set up in opposition to the mainstream prizes. It’s very hard for independent publishers and their writers to sit alongside those who have big marketing and publicity budgets. The book world needs prizes like this one.

I was in Waterstones in London and I went round buying some of the other books on the list so in that respect it must have an impact. If other readers are doing the same thing it is helping sales.

8. What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
  • All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook
  • The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
  • Attrib. by Eley Williams
  • Getting Carter by Nick Triplow
  • The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson

I’m also reading several from the publisher And Other Stories, and rereading quite a lot of Roald Dahl.

9. What do you do when you want to treat yourself?

I like to go swimming outdoors in reservoirs and rivers. You need to build up to it which I have been doing over the years. It’s good for waking you up.

I watch a lot of films and television.

I have a dog – I like spending time with any animals.

I like cake.

10. Any films you’ve seen recently and enjoyed?

The reason I was in London this week was because the option on The Gallows Pole has been sold so I’ve been watching quite a few films by the company that’s bought it.

I’ve enjoyed American Honey.

I’m quite into sixties and seventies British horror films. Also obscure seventies TV series that I’ve found on YouTube. The violence in some couldn’t be shown on TV today.

11. If you could sit down to dinner with anyone, real or fictional, who would you choose?

I’m a big fan of Iggy Pop. I was stood next to him at some event and I thought there’s nothing I can say to him that’s going to be of interest so I kept quiet. He’s a unique individual, a force of nature. If I could sit down with him, he’s a raconteur who’d be full of stories. He changed the course of music I think.

12. What has no one asked you that you wish they would?

Probably exactly that.

 

Thank you Ben for providing such interesting answers to my questions, and for being so amiable and supportive on my first telephone interview. You may follow Ben on Twitter: @BenMyers1

Click on the book cover above to find out more about The Gallows Pole. 

The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books who I previously interviewed here

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

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Author Interview: Isabel Waidner

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Isabel Waidner, author of Gaudy Bauble, which is published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

The name’s Isabel Waidner. Writer, queer. Working-class, EU migrant. Currently lecturer in creative writing at Roehampton University in London, with specialisms in avant-garde literature, cultural studies, gender studies and embodiment. Ex-musician (lastly with the indie band Klang, records out on Rough Trade and Blast First).

2. Can you tell us about Gaudy Bauble?

Gaudy Bauble (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017) is riot of all things marginalised (LGBTQI, BAME, working-class, also the nonhuman, the not-just human). It is designed as an intervention against the normativity of literary publishing contexts in the UK, and the growing conservativism and nationalism in Tory Britain and beyond. The narrative is set within a London-based queer subculture, the near future (201x). It builds around a fake detective story. It’s just, the detectives don’t detect anything. Instead, they appear to effect an out-of-control insurgence of disenfranchised things, unheard(-of) things. Gaudy Bauble ask what might become possible if the marginalised (the riff-raff) were running the show, and I promise they are making a difference.

3. What inspired the book?

The project to develop more progressive, innovative and diverse forms of literature which are missing entirely from the existing UK literary canon. To be part of a transformational literary community and subculture contributing towards a progressive and inclusive politics in the UK. The project to effect social change. Also, the work of writers, performers, artists, academics and activists including Mojisola Adebayo, David Hoyle, Lisa Blackman, Charlotte Prodger, Ego Ahaiwe-Sowinski, Irene Revell and Campbell X, pioneers like Derek Jarman and Brigid Brophy, and US writers like Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, CA Conrad and Jess Arndt, to name just a very very few.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

I’m not an ideas writer (or rather, I rely on having several ideas within the space of one sentence). But neither do I pre-plan. My ideas around pre-planning are much in keeping with those developed by Lucy Suchman’s in her monograph, Plans and Situated Actions (1987). Here, Suchman analyses human interactions with a Xerox photocopier in order to argue that our conventional understanding of preplanning as the straightforward execution of a preset plan, does not take into account what she terms the situatedness of all human behaviour, a sort of improvised responsiveness that is part of our actions and practices including writing.

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Everything. I love being a writer, it’s my dream. 

6. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes of course.

7. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

Read.

8. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Just recently:

  • Jess Arndt’s collection Large Animals
  • Jay Bernard’s The Red and Yellow Nothing
  • Joanna Walsh’s Seed and Worlds from the Word’s End
  • Rosie Snajdr’s forthcoming A Hypocritical Reader
  • Richard Brammer’s The End of History
  • Dodie Bellamy & Kevin Killian’s (ed.) Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977-1997
  • Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Shape of a Mortal Girl
  • Eley Williams’s Attrib
  • Jeff Hilson’s Latanoprost Variations
  • Eileen Myles’s Afterglow: A Dog Memoir
  • R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s
  • Huw Lemmey’s Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse
  • performance artist Scottee’s screenplay Bravado
  • Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem.

I also liked Dead Ink Books’ collection Know Your Plays: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class, notably Abondance Matanda’s contribution.

9. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

ALL OF THE INSPIRATIONAL AND ADVENTUROUS WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS AND READERS, ALL REAL.

10. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What do you most look forward to in your entire life? The publication of a book I’ve just finished editing, called Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (out in February 2018 with Dostoyevsky Wannabe). The book might be interesting to your readers and anyone interested in the interdependency of independent publishing and innovation in literature. It features some of the UK’s most innovative writers including Mojisola Adebayo, Jess Arndt (US), Jay Bernard, Richard Brammer, Victoria Brown, SJ Fowler, Juliet Jacques, Sara Jaffe (US), Roz Kaveney, R. Zamora Linmark (US), Mira Mattar, Seabright D.Mortimer, Nat Raha, Nisha Ramayya, Rosie Snajdr, Timothy Thornton, Isabel Waidner, Joanna Walsh and Eley Williams.

 

Thank you Isabel for providing such interesting answers to my questions. You may follow Isabel on Twitter: @isabelwaidner

Click on the book cover above to find out more about Gaudy Bauble. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Interview with Adrian Magson, author of Rocco and the Nightingale

Today I am delighted to welcome Adrian Magson, author of Rocco and the Nightingale, to my blog (you may read my review of the book by clicking here). This book is the fifth in the Inspector Lucas Rocco series but the first that I have read. Adrian has provided some excellent answers to the questions I sent him. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m a full-time writer of crime and spy thrillers, the ‘Beginners’ columnist in Writing Magazine, an occasional reviewer for SHOTS Magazine, have written hundreds of short stories and features for women’s magazines, invented a knock-down post for use on motorways, am a black belt and former taekwondo instructor – and most importantly, I’m married to Ann and live in Gloucestershire.

2. Can you tell us about Rocco and the Nightingale?

Lucas Rocco is a French detective posted from Paris (Clichy) to the tiny village of Poissons-les-Marais in rural Picardie in northern France (‘Death on the Marais’) as part of a government initiative to spread investigative resources to the provinces. His previous work means he’s accumulated some enemies, and in particular has been blamed (wrongly) for the death of an Algerian gang leader, Samir Farek (‘Death on the Rive Nord’). Now Farek’s brother, Lakhdar, has vowed to get even, and has hired an international assassin called the Nightingale to bring Rocco down.

Rocco’s big problem is that nobody knows the faceless assassin’s real identity. When it becomes apparent that there have already been two unexplained murders nearby, one of another policeman disliked by Farek, and one a minor Paris street criminal turned informer, Rocco realises he’s running out of time.

In the meantime, Rocco has to carry on his job, as it’s business as usual and crimes in Picardie, as elsewhere, wait for no-one. And there’s his elderly neighbour, Mme Denis, and the fruit rats in his attic to keep happy…

3. What inspired the book? 

Quite simply I wanted to try something else.** After writing five London-based crime novels (the Riley Gavin/Frank Palmer series) and the first of the Harry Tate spy thrillers (‘Red Station’), I wondered whether I could use my childhood experience of living in France and write a detective story set in the area where I lived (Picardie). It was a punt, pure and simple, just to see if it would work. It did and turned into four books and a novella. I’d been wanting to write a fifth for a couple of years, but wasn’t able to, and had got involved with other projects. But now it’s happened, and ‘Rocco and the Nightingale’ , thanks to David Headley and Rebecca Lloyd of The Dome Press, finally got to see the light of day, and I’m delighted with what they’d done with it.

** All writing is like that, to me, anyway; a try-out to see if I can do it. Sometimes it doesn’t work, other times it does. I like the does times best.

4. When writing, are you an architect who researches and plans everything in advance or a gardener who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically?

Well, ‘Rocco and the Nightingale’ is my 22nd published book and I’ve tried the planning route before, but always seem to go off-piste shortly after the opening chapter. I therefore wouldn’t meet the title of architect; but I’m not really a gardener, which requires a fair modicum of planning and forethought. What I tend to do is find a small nugget of something which seems worth looking at, then write a scene which occurs to me to see where it goes. (Yes, it’s that unstructured). That scene can be anywhere in the potential story-line, front middle or end, and will be in a long line of other scenes which I’ll set about stitching together to make sense. I suppose if I am a gardener, I’m the kind who tosses a seed in the air and wanders back later to see if anything has happened.

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Publication is always top of the tree, but finding the story coming together and gathering pace is part of the ongoing buzz. I like the editing process, too, because that’s when you add polish and correct all those niggling typos, as well as spotting (hopefully) any bloopers.

Hearing from readers is a huge plus (especially the ones who like the books), because that’s when you find out which characters they enjoy – an important point when writing a series.

6. And your least favourite?

The gap between projects. If I’ve just finished one book, I often find I’m not ready to slough off all the research, writing and editing and launch immediately into another. That’s when I get restless and start kicking the furniture and wondering if that’s my lot. It doesn’t usually last longer than a couple of weeks, but during that time I write shorter pieces, reviews or catch up on my reading (and polishing the furniture).

7. Do you enjoy using social media?

Not so much. It’s a distraction when I’m writing and I’ve simply got a short attention span. I also dislike the negative side of it from those people who seem to enjoy insulting others just because they can. I do enjoy the humour, though, which can be shocking, subversive and occasionally give you a coffee-through- the-nose moment. I came off SM last year for several months for a break, and it was a great relief.

8. How actively do you seek out reviews of your books?

If you mean Amazon, I don’t. It’s lovely to see the ones which pop up elsewhere, especially from readers who write in (and with whom you can communicate), but being given a 1-star on Amazon because of the price of the book, for example, is less welcome. I also don’t ask people to review my books, because it feels pushy.

9. What do you choose to do when you wish to treat yourself?

It might sound boring, but I’m not much of a self-treater. (That doesn’t mean I mind anyone else treating me instead!) I do enjoy going to the afternoon pictures with Ann, though, because that means I’m beyond reach or distraction for a couple of hours, I can pig out on sweets if I feel like it and it reminds me of when I used to go to the flicks when I was younger.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I most recently enjoyed ‘Bloody Reckoning’ by Rafe McGregor, ‘The Accidental Detective’ by Michael RN Jones, ‘The Liar’ by Steve Cavanagh (audio) and am currently listening to ‘Smoke and Whispers’ by Mick Herron.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

My parents. They’re long gone, but there are lots of things I wish I’d asked them when they were here. They were also great company and enjoyed a laugh.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

‘So, Adrian, how excited are you at the impending release date of the new Quentin Tarantino blockbuster film based on your novel (insert title here)?’

AM

This post is the final stop on the Rocco and the Nightingale Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Rocco and the Nightingale is published by The Dome Press and is available to buy now.

Interview with Shelan Rodger, author of Yellow Room

Today I am delighted to welcome Shelan Rodger to my blog. Several years ago Shelan invited me to my first London literary event where I mingled with, amongst others, Broo Doherty and Anne Cater, both unknown to me at the time. I am delighted that Dome Press have chosen to release her beautifully written second novel, Yellow Room, which deserves to find a wide audience. Shelan has provided excellent answers to my questions – I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

‘Writer and wilderness lover with a patchwork life’ is how I describe myself on Twitter. Born in Nigeria, I grew up in an aboriginal community on the Tiwi Islands north of Australia. I was eleven when my family moved to England and after graduating in modern languages from Oxford, my travels began again and I spent a number of years in Argentina and Kenya, before moving to Spain, where I live on a volcanic stretch of coastline in Andalucía.

Professionally, I started as an English language teacher, moving into a variety of roles over the years, all connected to international education, or learning & development projects around anti-discrimination and leadership during the time I spent in Africa.

Writing has been a lifelong passion, fuelled by a fascination with what shapes us and our sense of who we are – which I’m sure is partly driven by the mish-mash of cultures and landscapes in my own life!

2. Can you tell us about Yellow Room?

Yellow Room is a drama that explores the power of secrets, the forces that mould our sense of personal identity, the grey areas that flow between the boundaries of relationships. It is set in England and Kenya, with a poignant insight into the 2008 post-election crisis that took over a thousand lives.

3. What inspired the book?

Yellow Room was born from a very simple idea which I cannot share without giving too much away! But it grew out of a fascination with what creates our sense of who we are and whether the ‘I’ we believe in really exists or is just an illusion. And secrets! Why are we so fascinated by them? Why do we have them? Secrets are insidious, powerful, pervasive, also a clue to our sense of personal identity if we listen to them –  and I wanted to explore their power through the lives of my characters in Yellow Room.

I also wanted to explore the way our inner world interacts with and can be affected by another culture and external events around us and I did this against the backdrop of Kenya, where I was living when I wrote the first draft of the book. Much of the insight into the historical events, as well as the lives of street kids in Naivasha, is inspired by personal experience.

4. When writing, are you an architect who researches and plans everything in advance or a gardener who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically?

Definitely a gardener – and I love this image! I start with a vision of the tree I want to create and then rather blindly plant the seed that I hope will bear fruit, watering and nurturing my idea along the way, but also aware that the tree may turn out to look quite different to what I had initially envisaged, as it grows.

5. What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

It doesn’t happen all the time of course, but those special moments when you achieve a state of flow that is almost like being in a trance, when words just seem to wash through you and it feels as though you are just a vessel for the characters on your page to speak through. There is something very earthy and connected about that feeling, the sheer wonder of creativity.

6. And your least favourite?

Eternally brushing that monkey off your shoulder, the one who looks down at what you’re writing and says, that’s a pile of crap, who do you think you are? Or even, very occasionally, wow that’s amazing. I know that this monkey is not what I need – he can come out later and behave appropriately when it gets to editing but I don’t want him around when I’m writing.

7. Do you enjoy using social media?

I am a social media novice really. If social media were someone I was dating, I would say that I’m not quite sure what I think of him yet. He makes me feel connected, shows me the glamour of a bigger world and yet I am shy in his company and not sure I can trust him yet…

8. How actively do you seek out reviews of your books?

I read reviews with real curiosity to see how individuals react to my books, aware that everyone will respond differently and loving the various nuances that come through. Whether they are heart-warming, challenging, insightful – full of praise or even damning – reviews are life-affirming for a writer I think. Because at the end of the day writing is only one part of the process; being read is the other. And the insight into a reader’s response is a true privilege.

9. What do you choose to do when you wish to treat yourself?

Gosh, anything from a massage, or a sundowner somewhere beautiful with a friend, to meditating on a cliff overlooking the sea.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being was a book I found intriguing; I love the way she explores and crosses the boundaries between past and present, between fact and fiction, between writer and reader.

Amanda Jennings is a writer fascinated by the different identities we all have inside us and what trauma and twists can do to wake these up and this is born out again by her latest novel, In Her Wake, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun was a delicious recent read; the almost dream-like way he uses language and the poignant exploration of buried love and longing.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Gosh, that’s a difficult question, there are so many – real and fictitious!

Carmen de Burgos was a Spanish author and feminist activist born in 1867. She was an extraordinary and brave character, one of those people who make history, a woman who fought for freedom at a time and place where women were far from free. And she was born in the village of Rodalquilar, where I live in southern Spain, so it would be fascinating if she could time travel now to sit down with me for dinner at a local restaurant in the place of her birth.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What an interesting but difficult question! Well, a lot of questions that writers are asked naturally have to do with what their books are about and what has inspired them or the writing process that created them. I haven’t (yet!) been asked the question: ‘What difference, if any, would you like your writing to make?’ I think that would introduce an interesting perspective, about what an author aspires to in terms of the relationship between writer and reader and the tiny part they play in the world…

Yellow Room is published by The Dome Press.

This post is a stop on the Yellow Room Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

You may read my review of the original release of Yellow Room here.

 

Interview with Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia Red Rose

Author Photo by Carsten Wilde

Today I am delighted to welcome true crime writer Piu Eatwell to my blog. Piu’s latest novel, Black Dahlia Red Rose, solves the seventy year old mystery of who murdered aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in a Los Angeles suburb in January 1947 (you may read my review of the book here). Piu has provided fascinating answers to the questions I sent her for this post. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background? 

Hard to know where to start on that one! Well, I’m British but have lived in Paris, France, for over ten years now.  I’m married to an Englishman, with three children who were born in France and are growing up here.  I started off writing books about life as an English woman in France, but have moved on to crime writing as it’s where I see my true vocation as a writer. Black Dahlia, Red Rose is my fifth book: my last was a real-life Edwardian thriller and detective story, The Dead Duke

2. Can you tell us about Black Dahlia Red Rose? 

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is the true-life story of one of the most famous unsolved murders of all time: the murder of 22 year old Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, whose bisected body was found tossed on a pavement in Los Angeles in January 1947.  In writing the book I went back to original sources – contemporary newspaper reports and police files – to reconstruct what I believe really happened in this case. 

3. What inspired the book? 

I have been long interested in Hollywood and crime, ever since researching a film for Channel 4 television about the Manson murders a while back.  In order to make that film, I spent almost a year in Los Angeles and learned a lot about the recent history of the city.  I decided I wanted to investigate another famous crime that took place in LA, and of course, the Dahlia murder must be one of the most notorious and intriguing of them all.   

 4. Your true crime books are written as stories. How much leeway do you allow yourself when documenting the facts to ensure the storytelling remains engaging? 

This is something that gives rise to misunderstanding, because a lot of people think that – because my books are written like fiction – that I am therefore making things up.  In fact, this is not at all the case.  Everything that is between quotation marks is accurately reported dialogue, taken from contemporary sources such as police interviews or memoirs.  If I describe the weather on a particular day, it is because I looked up the historical weather reports.  As such, my books are as completely accurate as more conventional non-fiction – but because they read like a novel, a lot of people don’t realize this.  It is something that I therefore explained in the introduction to Black Dahlia, Red Rose. 

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer? 

Being totally immersed in another world – and this is the case whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction.  Also, I love the process of constructing the story or plot – again, essentially the same with fiction and non-fiction, except that with non-fiction the events have already been determined, you have to decide how you are going to present them, or put them together.   

6. And your least favourite? 

I dislike the “in-between times” – as now – when I have just finished a book, and have therefore been forced to tear myself away from that world.  Until I get my next project, I feel bereft and rather lost without the magic, inner world that always accompanies me whenever I am working on a book.   

7. Do you enjoy social media? 

I think social media is a mixed blessing in that it can be a wonderful tool to reach out to readers and also to keep up with what is going on in the world of books, but it is also a dreadful distraction that often keeps me from working!  Also, one thing I dislike about social media is the culture it has fostered by which people feel they have the right to say what they like, without any of the boundaries of politeness that govern more conventional discourse, leading to trolling, harassing, etc of writers and other public figures.  Politeness is something that should be universal and from which no forum should be exempt. 

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books? 

I am always happy to encourage honest reviews of my books because that, after all, is the point of writing: it’s a form of communication, and if a book is not being discussed, it’s no longer a living thing.  Having said that, I don’t see the value to anybody of reviews that merely trash books in a thoughtless way, or the kind of Amazon review that gives a book one star because it ‘arrived late.’  Again, as I said above, social media gives everybody enormous privileges and powers, in giving each of us a voice; but along with that voice, in my view, comes a certain amount of responsibility.  

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself? 

Lots of things!  A glass of champagne is my unfailing treat to myself when a manuscript is finally finished and sent off to the publisher.  I also love English pork pies, Marmite, and cheddar cheese (which are difficult to find in France!!), and reading books that are not directly connected with my research (a rare treat). 

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently? 

A very wide range: the ghost stories of M.R. James; a wonderful book on the history of ghosts and ghost-hunting called A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (Penguin, 2012); and a powerful recent speculative horror novel, Hex by the Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) – the story of a seventeeth-century witch trapped in a New England town.  

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction? 

That’s a difficult one, but I suppose if I had to choose, it would be Sherlock Holmes, as I would love to figure out how his brain ticks! 

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would? 

What my guilty pleasure is.  And in case you’re interested, it’s – of all things – renovating my children’s dolls’ house!  I have everything there in miniature 1/12th scale: right down to original paintings in the hall and tiny reproductions of my own books and those of my favourite authors in the library.  A psychologist could probably get quite Freudian about it – the search for a perfect miniature world, etc….. I find it incredibly calming. 

 

This post is a stop on the Black Dahlia, Red Rose Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is published by Coronet and is available to buy now.

Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

Where to begin – Guest Post by Anthony Cartwright

Today I am delighted to welcome Anthony Cartwright, author of The Cut, to my blog. In this guest post he talks of the Black Country where he grew up and where The Cut is set (you may read my review of the book here).

“I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further.”

The Cut was commissioned by Peirene Press 

“to build a fictional bridge between the Britains that opposed each other on referendum day.”

It is a fabulous read.

 

The EU funded some of the work you look out on now, just by the house where my uncle used to live, here on a terrace elevated above the Birmingham Road traffic. You used to be able to look into the old football ground from the upstairs bedrooms. Beyond that was the County Ground, where in summers gone my great-grandad would sit in his deckchair behind the bowler’s arm, out of the wind, with a pint of mild. He could look at the castle on the hill, listen to the clang of metal being bashed. The people loved Tom Graveney, Basil D’Oliveira, the Headleys; sons of England and Cape Town and Jamaica and Dudley. The town is an enclave of Worcestershire within Staffordshire; hence the cricket. The earth opened one morning in the eighties and the sports grounds fell into a hole. With a shift in the old limestone workings below, the place was swallowed, went the same way as the jobs. When the hole was filled years later they built a cinema, hotel, gym, bars, called the place Castle Gate. It looks like the rest of England. Or England looks like Dudley.

The newspaper says that Brexit threatens the new light railway set to run up the hill from the mainline, says the new Aldi will bring over thirty jobs. The town, like every place you look out on from this view, voted for Brexit, two to one for Leave across the West Midlands. Map the regions that made the difference and it follows the pattern of the death of industry, of coal, iron and steel.

The ground is always unsteady here. Take a step and an abyss can open up, a foot in one half of the country, a foot in the other half, the chasm widening below you. The cut, the canals, more relics of an old industrial order, were the things that linked the land-locked midlands to the sea, to far-flung London. There used to be a pub called The Sailor’s Return on the crest of the wave of Kates Hill, as if a ship might sail from the distant Indies right into Dudley Port, and the sailor swagger homeward up Bunn’s Lane.

That we lived on an old sea-bed in the middle of England was one of the many wonders of growing up here. At the Wren’s Nest there are trilobites buried in the rocks, creatures from that prehistoric ocean, a symbol of Dudley, hard and strange. The trilobite is there on the coat of arms, just above the salamander, who basks in flames below. We are a country of symbols, with our new Black Country flag – red, white and black – a link of chain emblazoned across it. Black Country Day is 14 July, the day the Cobb’s engine house started pumping water from the mines at Windmill End. The industrial revolution will be permanent.

Except just not here, any more. I remember the day I first thought I might become a novelist. Sitting on the 120 bus somewhere between the Langley Maltings and the Albright & Wilson chemical works, waiting to climb the hill, I thought I might write about this postage stamp of land, like Faulkner said, about defeat, about what it’s like to come down on the far side of something, about the past never really being past.

There is a whole shadow country beneath our feet. The canal tunnels pierce the hill and there are great caverns under the castle. There was a plan, early in the Second World War, to move the whole of the BSA munitions works here, to make an underground city of twelve thousand people and a few hundred thousand guns. It didn’t happen, but this is a country of outlandish plans. Lubetkin built the zoo in the thirties, white modernist pavilions set in old quarries. See the flamingos now from the top deck of the bus to West Bromwich. There is a hole in the hill where they used to dump the dead animals, a well of strange bones. The Richardson brothers, local Thatcherite property men, once planned the world’s tallest building at Merry Hill, the shopping centre they built by the old Round Oak steelworks, unstable ground indeed, where thousands of jobs fell into a hole and disappeared.

Wind down the lanes through Gornal, where the trees bend to each other above the road, to The Crooked House, another pub, a place made crazy with subsidence, where you can watch a marble roll uphill. This is a country of signs and wonders. And it is perhaps so unlike the country that is portrayed – if it is portrayed at all – in newspapers and on television screens and on radio stations that speak with an accent you do not hear on these hills, that you might struggle to picture it at all.

Which is where I should begin. This novel will be a story about magical thinking, a story about loss. The vote was a piece of magical thinking, a vote about loss. And it was many other things as well. Cast the zoo bones, read the runes on tunnel walls. If I must fall into this void then you will come too. There are countries where you have never been, though you have lived in them all your life.

‘It doesn’t matter what the question was, the answer was no,’ a friend says to me when we talk about the vote. And he goes on to tell me about someone he knows who killed himself not long ago, a couple of kids and no one saw it coming, and we talk about the people we know who have done similar. But try not to draw conclusions. There are people doing just fine. And it’s not like the place has a monopoly on the sense that the future lies somewhere in the past.

Watch the traffic flow along Birmingham Road past European roadside flowers. It was my uncle’s funeral a few weeks ago. Our family, living and dead, form a web across these hills. My brother, though he usually drinks Guinness, likes a cocktail at Frankie and Benny’s on Castle Gate, not far from where our great-grandad sat. They raise their glasses across the gulf of years. I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further. Out of the tunnel and into the light, down the hill and into the stream, along the river and into the sea.

And back again. We are all connected.

This is where to begin.

Anthony Cartwright is a novelist from Dudley. He is the author of four previous novels, most recently Iron Towns (2016). The Cut is the second novel in the Peirene Now! series, and was published on 23 June 2017.