Alison O’Leary Interview: “I always knew that I wanted to write”

 

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Another awesome interview for you today as I chat to Alison O’Leary about her novel Street Cat Blues.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?

Like most writers, my writing style has evolved over time so that some of my early efforts are completely unlike anything that I might produce now – thank goodness! Looking back at things that I wrote a number of years ago, they seem quite cringe making, but I think that’s all part of the learning process.

I discovered crime fiction via Agatha Christie when I was about twelve and was totally drawn in to the world that she created. I had nothing in common with it (and let’s be honest, who did?) but I found it totally fascinating. I guess it was a form of escapism but none the worse for that. From Agatha I progressed to writers such as P D James and Ruth Rendell and have enjoyed crime fiction ever since.

As well as being very fond of crime fiction, I am also interested in true crime. Of all the crimes, murder is the big one and I was always interested in how very ordinary some murderers are and sometimes how trivial their motive.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing crime fiction?

I always knew that I wanted to write but, of course, like everybody else, I had to earn a living. I taught law for a number of years but in the background I was always scribbling away. I had more than my share of rejections and learned, like many writers, to live with it. As time went on I began to attract some interest from agents and publishers, which at least told me that I wasn’t completely wasting my time.

It finally dawned on me that the key to success is persistence. I think that some potentially very good writers give up too early. Of course, there are always the stories of the lucky few who land a massive publishing deal plus film rights first time round but that kind of scenario is rare. For most of us it’s a question of keeping on keeping on. And, of course, in the digital age there are increasing opportunities to see your work in print. Apart from the possibility of self-publishing (which has been made much easier now) there are also quite a few smaller independent presses who may be willing to take a chance on a new author because they publish eBooks.

I’m a law graduate and studied Criminology as part of my degree. I also later taught it so I guess I kind of knew that crime was always going to be my genre.

Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

Without wishing to sound too pretentious, inspiration can come from anywhere – it could be a news story or an overheard conversation. Sometimes it comes from real cases. I always keep a notebook or scrap of paper handy because sometimes a plot development or an idea for a character can suddenly come to me at odd moments; on a train for instance or even sometimes in a meeting when I’m supposed to be concentrating on something else! However, I suspect that, in common with many writers, if I waited until I was in the mood for writing I doubt I’d get much done! The thing about writing is that you just have to do it, whether you feel like it or not. But the joy of it is, once you’ve made yourself sit down at your desk and stop surfing the internet or sending text messages, the thing takes over and you find yourself immersed in the story again.

What style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

I like murder mysteries and also psychological thrillers but I’m not keen on too much blood and gore. I’m also probably not a great fan of police procedurals, but having said that, if they’re done well then they can be a great read. These days I think a lot of books cross genres so a romance might also have a crime within it. I’m also a bit of a fan of non-fiction, particularly biographies and autobiographies. I guess when all’s said and done; a good book is a good book, irrespective of genre.

If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Although he’s not a crime writer, one of my favourite all-time authors is P G Wodehouse but I’m not sure we’d get much work done. I think we’d be wasting too much time laughing. He wrote such perfect prose that always seemed to exactly capture the mood. One of my favourites is when he describes his aunt Agatha as having the demeanour of one who, picking daises on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’m currently working on the sequel to Street Cat Blues and I’m pleased at the way some of the old characters are interacting with the new ones. It’s in the early stages so I’m not sure yet where it’s going to take me – the ideas are coming thick and fast.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?

I do read things other than crime and have recently discovered Lisa Jewell. I really admire her ability to tie the characters in so well with the plot. I also enjoy Erin Kelly and Claire Mackintosh.

Many thanks for answering my questions- I always love hearing from an Agatha Christie Fan!

 

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A Checkered Past Review: Less Twee Than You’d Expect

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Styled to mirror the writing of classic Golden Age authors, I was intrigued to check out A Checkered Past. Book four of the Emmeline Kirby, which I recently discovered after encountering the author on Facebook, is a scintillating tale of theft, murder and general mayhem.

Protagonist Emmeline Kirby is back in London determined to make a success of her new job as editorial director of investigative features at The Clarion. Three months have passed since the events of the previous book, in which she took a trip to Torquay, which led to devastating revelations that surfaced about her fiancé Gregory Longdon. A dashing jewel thief, he is determined win back her affections with the help of Emmeline’s best friend and Grandmother.

Meanwhile, as Gregory battles to prove his worth, Emmeline stubbornly pursues a story about looted Nazi art and an IRA collaborator. When a stolen Constable painting belonging to her best friend Maggie’s family turns up in the collection of Max Sanborn, the chairman of the company that owns The Clarion, her personal crusade brings danger close to home.

Battling these conflicts, Emmeline colludes with Gregory to uncover the truth from a knotted tangle of lies, deceits and shadowy dealings. With strong characterization of all of the central characters, and a number of the minor ones, writer Daniella Bernett has enhanced a series which, although I’ve not encountered it myself before, has the potential to gain a strong following in the future.

There’s a particularly good balance in the novel between Emmeline’s personal life and her investigation of the case. The two are entwined from the beginning, and yet the author does not allow this to overwhelm or become too soap opera-y, which is always a good sign. I’m not a fan of crime fiction that ventures too far into the detective’s personal life without a reasonable motive, and whilst there was the potential here for Bernett to go too far and make this more of a romance, she manages to just keep it the right side of syrupy.

My only issue with the book is some of the writing style. For example, the opening does not draw the reader in the way it should, with  many of the sentences starting with the same words, and paragraphs, which are traditionally used to break up passages, used haphazardly- a phenomenon which continues throughout the book. As a result, the novel does not flow as well as it should, and it does take a while to really get engaged with the story, but despite this there’s a lot to like in this Golden Age style novel.

In all, I’d say this is a pretty good novel that has not been stunningly crafted, but has the potential to go far. Whilst I personally won’t be going out of my way to read the rest of the series, there is something intriguing about Bernett’s protagonist that keeps bringing me back to thinking of other strong, female detectives modeled on the Golden Age style. And that can only be a good thing.

Vicki Goldie Interview: “I would say that without reading it would be impossible to be a writer”

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Golden Age crime fiction fan and author Vicki Goldie talks to me about how this seminal era shaped her work!

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?

I grew up reading Agatha Christie, she was my mother’s favourite and then I progressed to the other golden age authors especially Dorothy L Sayers. I then came across a local Dorset writer Gladys Mitchel in the 1980s. They all influenced me and made me a little obsessed with Art Deco and that period in time. Just as I was thinking about trying some more writing I met Peter James. He was very generous with his advice and he has greatly influenced my style and form of my books.

How has your time working for libraries influenced your writing?

My job was to organise author events and promote libraries to the reading public. So over nearly twenty years I met an awful lot of authors and quizzed them on writing. We also ran writing workshops and that was fantastic help. Of course, I also read a huge number of books! Libraries are invaluable for research and also save a considerable amount of money though borrowing their books for free.

Please tell me about Blind Witness. What defines your writing style?

Blind Witness is book one of a series of books featuring Alasdair Charters and his wife Melissa. Alasdair is a blind World War 1 veteran. I have been married to a blind physiotherapist for over 40 years and I wanted to examine the prejudices that surrounded disability then, and found they still persist today. His wife is an aristocrat but is also a socialist, and I have some fun with that. The story line is pure golden age, a country house weekend party where a murder occurs. Rather than gritty crime it is more fun, although as Alasdair has PTSD, which of course was not understood then, but can be very serious.

I am part of a writers’ circle in the New Forest and they have been very helpful in helping me define my style and remove bad habits.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I am beginning each book with a flash back to the war. This was a great suggestion from the excellent Kate Rhodes who came down a few years ago and did an event and a workshop at Westbourne Library.

I took the Jericho Writers’ writing course and followed all his advice. It made me analyse the book and it is amazing to find themes in your drafts that you were unaware of when writing. Having found them it is good to develop them. It makes the book richer.

What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

I do read a huge amount of crime both modern and old fashioned. I love discovering new authors especially ones that have been out of print for years. All books have something to teach you as a writer. I love reading Santa Montefiore, it is important to vary your genres.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Well sadly the fantastic Sophie Hannah is already doing this with Agatha Christie to great success! Jill Paton Walsh is writing Lord Peter Wimsey and they are super too. So not someone dead I think. As for someone living I am not sure I am at that level of expertise yet!

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

I am completing my second book in the series called Blind Pool, it is set in the Somerset Levels and a house party are caught up in the floods and cut off and then murders begin to happen. I am also researching book three, which will be set in the south of France.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to going forward?

Far too many to mention, but I do buy Peter James, Christopher Fowler, Charles Todd and of course Sophie Hannah the day they come out. I am a huge fan of Louise Penny and her new novel is out on 27th November.

Anything you’d like to add?

I would say that without reading it would be impossible to be a writer. And without libraries it would be impossible to read the amount necessary to achieve that goal.

Many thanks for answering my questions Vicki- it’s great to meet another Golden Age fan and a lover of Peter James’ work!

Can’t Keep Up With La Carre? That’s Kinda The Point

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The first few episodes of the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, adapted for TV by the same team who did the astonishing The Night Manager a couple of years ago.

Many watchers who fancied seeing something similar have since switched off, but for those that really enjoy a good spy drama from Director Park Chan-wook. There are some truly awesome performances, particularly from Hollywood favourite Michael Shannon, whose slimy spymaster is equal parts hilarious and intense, with his regular yells of ‘Shimon’ and his disconcertingly fraught and changeable conversations.

Alright, so you do have to suspend disbelief at times, but still The Little Drummer Girl is an exquisite drama. However, many watchers on Twitter have complained about how complicated the show is. To this I say: If you want something easy, go watch Pingu. The Little Drummer Girl is a spy drama; spies, by their very nature, live complicated lives, and portraying these is bound to be a little confusing.

Also, you have the issue of creative licence. I’ve just bought the book of The Little Drummer Girl, as I’ve never read it before and the series has wet my appetite, but having been a fan of Le Carre for years I know that he often uses characters with multiple identities and pseudonyms, as well as narrative devices such as flashbacks and swift transitions between time and place. In televising the novel Chan-wook has utilised a number of filming techniques to keep his viewers entranced. This can confuse some, but it’s designed to keep you watching and make you really pay attention.

That’s the key problem, in my opinion: in a world of easy watching, where shows can be paused and re-joined quickly and easily, viewers are turned-off by the idea of having to really pay attention. You can’t go off and call your sister, make yourself a snack or check Facebook before returning to The Little Drummer Girl. By the time you get back they’ll be using different names, in a different country and they’ll be a completely different threat.

Previously there was also a film version, and I’ve not seen this, but I suspect that the issues remain largely the same; this is a grown up drama that you cannot tune in and out of easily.

Look at the end of the day, I reckon a big part of the problem is that there’s no Tom Hiddleston equivalent in this adaptation. Alexander Skarsgård is no substitute, and as such viewers can’t stare at his arse whilst not following the plot. Let’s face it, both dramas were equally confusing and deceptive, but the introduction of a Hollywood star made many keep watching The Night Manager long after they lost interest in the plot. The Little Drummer Girl does not have this benefit, but as a stylish, beautifully crafted adaptation there’s nothing currently on TV that can hold a candle to it.

 

Stan Lee Obituary

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Having created some of the greater characters, series and franchises in the comic book world, Stan Lee, Marvel Comics legend, died today aged 95.

The Writer, Editor and Humanitarian was declared dead today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to Kirk Schenck, an attorney for Lee’s daughter, J.C. Lee.

The news will have come as a shock to the comic book community, and indeed the wider creative world. The Creator and Publisher was renowned for revolutionising the superhero genre by giving his characters real emotions and dilemmas. He worked with some of the greatest artists of their times and supported film studios and TV producers in developing visual representations of his extraordinary creations.

These included the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spiderman. Many of the series wove into each other, and Lee was renowned for flawlessly integrating them and keeping the stories going, to the delight of his many readers around the world.

Having been born during the great depression in 1922, Lee gained a job at 17 in a publishing house owned by his relative Martin Goodman, and began writing scripts for superhero and mystery comics. Later, when Goodman fell out with his editor in 1941, Lee, then aged just 19, was made Editor-In-Chief.

Briefly during the Second World War Lee wrote content for the army, but he remained renowned for his work creating superheroes, crusaders and coppers.

Renowned for making short cameo appearances in films featuring his characters, as well as playing a sporting role as himself in a number of shows such as The Big Bang Theory, Lee was known for his wicked sense of humour.

Passionate about the arts, the Stan Lee Foundation was founded in 2010 to focus on literacy, education, and the arts. Its stated goals include supporting programs and ideas that improve access to literacy resources, as well as promoting diversity, national literacy, culture and the arts.

Married to Joan Boocock Lee, a voice actress whom he survived by a little over a year, Lee has two daughters who will, doubtless, miss him as much as his adoring fans, who will never forget the unique niche he carved out in the superhero genre.

Ultimately, Lee’s works and ideas have resonated across the creative community, and his unique ideas and ready wit will influence many generations to come.

John Bowie Interview: “As far back as I can remember I’ve written”

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This week John Bowie, from the beautiful city of Bristol talks me through his gritty crime fiction and how he came to write it.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime noir fiction?

I started out writing dirty realism, which evolved a crime side to it. The noir has always been there: the atmosphere tying it together. A shout line ‘Classic Crime Noir Full of Dirty Realism’ was used for my first book. I think it still works. There are many layers for book lovers, writers and music fans to discover beyond its pigeonhole though.

I wasn’t sure of crime fiction originally. I always loved dirty realism, the Beat Generation and noir and they flowed to and from my semi-autobiographical pieces I was working on.

Then I read a Robert Lewis book on a beach in Malaysia. Realising it was set in the same city and timeframe as my work, and with a really similar tone, my wife and I almost wondered if I had some Fight Club style alter ego. I referenced this in my themes of identity in Untethered. Paul Auster, who I’m a big fan of too, and Robert Lewis both get honorary mentions in Untethered as well as quite a few other writers, bands and artists who I’ve been inextricably interwoven together with by creativity over time.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing?

As far back as I can remember I’ve written. I had a short story published, Milburn’s Last Class, with Storgy this year. This was a dark fiction piece reimagining a story I’d actually written and read out in school. It was my revenge through storytelling after being repeatedly berated by my teacher.

My writing took a more purposeful vocation as I started writing what I thought was my version of Bukowski’s Post Office in 1998. I worked for a corporate hellhole of a bank at the time and it was good therapy to drink, write, paint and anything else besides what I was meant to be doing. It built up into four outlined books over time and sat on a virtual shelf in my head and in lots of sketch and notebooks. They were semi-autobiographical noir pieces but lacking a momentum somehow. Later I discovered hardboiled P.I. and crime fiction. The mechanisms I discovered in these were such an important springboard to move my works off my shelf and onto other peoples’. It gave my writing a vehicle beyond the cathartic poetic rants I was used to.

Tell me all about your books. Why do you believe readers enjoy them?

I feel the semi-autobiographical elements give a depth that can only come from reading something that has already or is maybe going to happen. With the lyrical atmosphere, it’s a believable hard fiction with a killer soundtrack. I use metaphysical tools to place the reader in my past and present.

What books do you like to read and how do they impact on your own writing?

I try to master the art of saying complex things in a simple way. There are so many good writers to discover and old favourites — true masters at it. I’ve been lucky and discovered some great new ones through my writing.

Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)?

Ghosts and future memories of the cities, music, people and life I’ve encountered all wrestle round in my head, waiting to be written out.

I always have a notebook for short story ideas and another for my novels to make notes with me. These notebooks are written into each story. They’re as real as the characters and places in them.

I listen to music and revisit it and the towns and cities my stories are set in, to add to the atmosphere too. This gives the words a lyrical feeling; like notes. The music and words weave together, pushing me on. It feeds the flow of it all as I go. Factory records, the Hacienda and the music of my time in Manchester (mid to late 90s) are at the heart of Untethereds’ follow-up, Transference. All four books in the series (so far) have intentional Joy Division feeling one-word titles with multiple interpretations.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me and 24hr Party People films made me think he’s passionate about the same music and themes that surround my stories; maybe I’ll send him a copy of something…

Ian Curtis, Sally Potter, Mary Harron, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Mark E. Smith, Charles Bukowski and David Cronenberg are all just wistful thinking; to bring them together for a drink fuelled brain drop of ideas.

What’s next for your writing? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us?

I dabbled playing with horror tropes recently. I applied my semi-autobiographical elements, music and questions on identity. It’s just come out with Dead Man’s Tome in the U.S. I’d like to try the same with other genres as short story exercises. I saw some great old Western covers in an old bookshop at lunchtime and thought a dark and dirty Brit-Western-Noir would work for me: ‘A Weston-Super-Nightmare’.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

Anything by Paul D. Brazill, Paul Heatley, Julian Barnes, Paul Auster and all the others I keep finding: there’s not enough time to quench the thirst they create. 

Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you so much for the interview- I’m chuffed to be asked!

It’s been great to hear your thoughts and learn more about your work, so thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

 

Bare Minimum Parenting Review: James Breakwell Strikes Again!

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Despite not having (nor ever wanting) kids, I thoroughly enjoyed James Breakwell’s previous book Only Dead On The Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, I was excited to find out what new nuggets of parenting expertise this dad of four, known online as Exploding Unicorn, had to offer in his latest book.

With its publication scheduled for tomorrow I thought I’d share my perspective on this latest offering from the American father of four girls, whose exploits I excitedly follow online. As a reviewer of his previous book I was pleased to receive the second and eager to find out the latest insight and knowledge that this Star Wars loving nerd turned dad had to impart.

Granted, I’m not really the audience he’s probably going for, being a woman with no desire or actual children who isn’t a mad fan of non-fiction books. Despite this, I found myself laughing out loud at points while reading Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child. 

Proudly declaring right from the start that his book contains no factual evidence, studies or anything remotely scientific, Breakwell has created a resource based on personal experience, which is both endearing and endlessly funny.

Going through the potential issues of different types of parenting, predominantly overachievers, Breakwell showcases how they are inherently wrong. Less anecdotal than I would have thought and liked it to be, the book nonetheless draws on the author’s experiences raising four young children to offer a completely new approach to parenting.

Defining and describing his pioneering strategy in detail, Breakwell makes an utterly hilarious case for simply letting children become who they are going to be, only shaping them when they steer too far towards the bad side of crazy. As Breakwell aptly states on page 28: ‘If you’re looking for a life goal, a good one is, “Don’t raise a serial killer.”’

Ultimately, Breakwell’s approach can be summed up by a popular saying: Don’t sweat the small stuff. He repeatedly reminds his readers that young kids forget pretty much everything, and as such they aren’t going to care if you weren’t there enough or gave them too many rules (within reason). This combined with his witty remarks and humorous asides about his own children make Bare Minimum Parenting a great read for anyone who has, wants or interacts with kids and is frightened that whatever they do will somehow influence them and change their lives for the worst. Spoiler alert: James Breakwell doesn’t think it will.