Sarah Potter Writes

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Author Interview: J. S. Strange

I’m delighted to welcome British author J. S. Strange (otherwise known as Jack) for a return visit to my blog. Jack writes zombie apocalypse novels featuring a feisty young woman called Winter Smith. You can read my review of his first novel, Winter Smith: London’s Burning, which he self-published in 2015, as well as an excerpt from when Jack featured as my guest storyteller last year.

He’s due to to publish the second book in the series, Winter Smith: The Secrets of France,  on August 17. Meanwhile, there’s a Goodreads Giveaway to enter for a chance to win a copy of the first book.


Jack, what age did you start writing stories/novels?

I started writing from a young age. I was always writing stories, whether it be brand new ones usually involving all of my cats, or stories adapting existing films and plots. I used to love sitting there drawing and writing, because I found it so much fun. When I was about sixteen, I started writing one book, and I finished it. I wrote it by hand. But then at seventeen I started writing the Winter Smith series.

Have you ever scared yourself with your vivid imagination?

Sometimes I’ve managed to spook myself out with my own thoughts. I’ve grown up on horror, so I’m always picturing horror scenes. It’s easy to imagine something going wrong, and there’s been a few cases where I’ve freaked myself out by convincing myself there is someone in the house with me, or I’ve heard a ghost.

What inspired you to write a zombie apocalypse novel?

It was the first thing I thought I could really tackle and enjoy doing. I’ve watched a lot of zombie films, and always loved them, and I find zombies really thrilling. I’ve heard people say they’re cliché, and it’s a shame to see people rule out zombie novels and films as just another zombie story. I get what they mean. A lot of the books I read never explained where the dead came from, whilst others were just blood and gore and nothing else. I also found that a lot of characters in these zombie books and films weren’t very interesting, and didn’t seem to have anything to them. So I thought, because there’s a whole world of zombies already there, I can have something to base my stories off, but I want to change it as much as possible. I want a zombie novel that has the zombies we recognise, but I wanted characters with personality and depth. I wanted more problems and flaws to these characters than just surviving and avoiding being bitten. I wanted to explain where the dead came from and why. In London’s Burning, I kept a lot of original zombie elements, because I think you need that. You need people to have something to latch onto and recognise. But in The Secrets of France, my next book, I’ve explained where the zombie virus came from, and I’ve also introduced a new breed of zombie.

Why did you choose to have a female as your main character in Winter Smith: London’s Burning and Winter Smith: The Secrets of France and how easy did you find it to write from her point of view?

I’ve always found females empowering, interesting and easy to get along with. I grew up with a lot of female leads, and I love nothing more than a kick ass female doing her thing. I grew up with Lara Croft, and I always found her appealing, because I loved the adventure and I love that it was led by her. She had so much depth and a great backstory. I also really love female led bands and pop stars, because they always seem to have an edge, and it’s great to see them doing their thing. So I just decided that in the process to change the zombie genre, I wanted it female led, as most of the ones I’ve seen or read or heard about are dominated by a muscly man, normally with a fighting background, fighting his way through the dead. I wanted a female character who was young, fresh and flawed, but could handle herself well. Saying that though, I never really went out intending to have a female lead for the sake of a female lead. Winter Smith came to me before the idea, so it was natural to include her as the main protagonist. I didn’t find it too hard to write from her point of view. Most of my friends are female, so I based some traits on some of them, very loosely. I hate stereotypes, and know humans are very complex, so I just tried to avoid making her too ‘girly’, and I tried to forget I was a young man writing as a seventeen year old female. I did read recently, however, that many male authors are now writing under female pen names, especially when writing female leads. Maybe I should have done that with the Winter Smith series. Who knows what would have happened?

Who is your favourite character in the novel and why?

I think my favourite character is Violet Black. She’s quite a flawed young girl, but she’s ballsy and has a lot to say, and knows how to stick up for herself. I love writing her, and I love making her witty and trying to make the reader laugh. I think you either love Violet or you hate her.

What’s your rationale behind choosing Gay and Lesbian Fiction as one of your two book categories for Kindle Direct Publishing, when there are no gay relationships in book one?

There are very subtle hints at sexuality in London’s Burning. I’m a gay author, and it took me a while to discover who I was and who I liked. When I was sixteen/seventeen, I mostly knew I liked guys, but there would be days where I would feel conflicted, and thought I liked girls, too. So writing sixteen/seventeen year olds, I had that in mind. So Winter Smith is trying to work out who she likes and who she is. I plan to explore the LGBT themes a bit more in books two and onwards. They’re not key parts of the story, at least not yet, but they’re there. I also chose the gay and lesbian genre because I’m a gay author, so I thought it might be good to try and fit in that category, in case people are looking for works written by authors in the LGBT community. I also thought that maybe, amongst all the erotica and romance novels, a zombie novel would stick out as well.

Do you intend to stick with this genre after you’ve finished the Winter Smith series?

I plan to write another two or three Winter Smith novels. There will definitely be a third, and more than likely a fourth, but I think the fourth might be the last one. I don’t plan to stick with the zombie genre. I think I need a break from that. As I mentioned earlier, people tend to write off the zombie genre as nothing new. But whenever I have tried to write something fun, it always has dark twists to it. I think I’d like to move into thriller writing, and I probably will stick to the horror genre, too, as that’s my favourite genre, and most of my ideas have horror to them. But I’d like to write some young adult novels, as well as possibly an erotic novel in the future. I want to try everything last least once. I need to find what works for me. Right now, horror and thriller seems to be the right thing for me. We’ll see!

How do you organise your writing time?

I don’t! I struggle. I need a place in the quiet to write, where I can’t be disturbed. But when you live in a house with TV’s playing programmes and hoovers going off, and people asking me questions, I find it really hard. I tend to write whenever I can. Sometimes it’ll be a chapter, other times it’ll be a page, then I’ll manage to find ten minutes. Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, I can write from morning until afternoon, but that’s very rare! I’m hoping it improves when I figure my life out and get my own space!

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

A bit of both! I had the whole plot written out for London’s Burning, but with The Secrets of France, I kept writing until every kink was ironed out and I knew where I was going, and how to get from book two to book three. With other works, I have the plot loosely planned out, remember the key points, and just write.

Why did you decide to self publish rather than publish traditionally?

I tried! Believe me, I tried. I submitted Winter to literally every publisher I could find. I still submit it now. Every rejection letter I got through was disheartening, mixed with happiness that I’d even had a reply. I know this is my first work, I’m young, and hopefully there’s plenty of opportunity for work to be published in the future. I think I knew I wanted to get Winter Smith out there, and I wanted people to read the story, so I self published. I’m quite good at marketing, to a certain extent, and I enjoy promoting myself and my work, so I wasn’t too worried about self publishing. I do think, though, that Winter Smith will be the only books I self publish. I hope that my next work over the next few years will get picked up. But maybe four or five years down the line, I’ll find nobody wants me, and I’ll be back at the self publishing game.

What interests do you have apart from writing?

I run a videography and website design company, as my background is in television programme editing. I enjoy film making, and I hope one day to write a short film, feature film or a television series. As I grow up, though, I realise that a lot of this work is very much about who you know, and coming from a small town, I know nobody, so whether or not that happens is another question. I also run a clothing company, because I like being creative and being able to design something.

Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?

Hopefully with my own successful business that I can live off, and earn decent money from. As well as that, I hope to be traditionally published. It’s one thing I think about daily, and wish to happen.

Author Interview: William D. Holland

Today I’m thrilled to have a chat with my very good blogging friend and fellow author, Bill (William D. Holland). This is a return visit, as Bill was also my guest storyteller in January of this year, when he shared an excerpt from his paranormal crime thriller Shadow Over the Hangman’s Noose, the third book in his “Shadows” series.

Welcome back to my blog, Bill…

Very exciting, being interviewed by someone I respect greatly, so thank you Sarah, and hello to my new friends across The Pond.  Sarah has tossed a few questions my way, some softballs, some very hardballs indeed, so I’ll try to answer them all with my trademark bluntness and honesty.

My pleasure, Bill, the respect is mutual and may you gain many more friends from over my side of The Pond 🙂 Now for those softballs and hardballs…


Bill, was there a defining moment when you decided to become a freelance writer, or did life decide it for you?

Oh my goodness, Sarah, let’s see.  I had always wanted to be a writer, dating back to my college days, but as trite as it may sound, life had other plans for me . . . and then I managed to get in my own way for a number of years, blocking any possible progress.  So the turning point you are asking about came eight years ago when I realized that the teaching profession, after eighteen years, was not what I envisioned it being.  It was moving in a direction I could not live with, and so one day I tossed my keys to the principal of the school and told her to have a good life.  The next day I declared myself to be a writer.  I had no financial safety net and not one clue how to actually be a freelance writer, but by God that’s what I told the world . . . I am a writer!!!

Before you started your blog “Artistry with Words”, you had a blog titled “The Happy Life as an Alcoholic” and 5 years ago you self-published a 52-page eBook titled Loving life as an alcoholic. Why did you equate the words “happy” and “loving” with the alcoholism and what made you decide to kick the addiction?

The second question is the easy one to answer: I decided to begin recovery because I was miserable and I didn’t want to die.  It’s been over ten years now and I still don’t want to die.

Happy and loving?  Without alcohol dictating my every move in life, I am now free to enjoy life and love myself and others, and that’s what I try to do daily.  I love life; always did when I was younger, and now that I’m not drinking I love it again.

As a side note, I no longer write in that “alcohol” blog because I don’t want to be known as a writer who only writes about addiction.  I’m so much more than a recovering alcoholic.  I’m not a writer who writes about addiction, nor am I just a writer who is recovering.  I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual being having a human experience.

You’ve self-published 15 full-length books, although I counted 26 publications in all, if you include the shorter publications. Did you ever submit any of your works to traditional publishers, or did you decide to self-publish from the start?

No, I didn’t start out self-publishing.  When I began writing novels, my goal, and my dream, was to be picked up by a major publishing firm, and then fame and fortune would follow shortly after that.  My first three novels were pitched to many, many publishers, to no avail.  After that I decided the publishing game had changed, and my best chance at any exposure was to simply self-publish.  I have no regrets, by the way.   I love writing, so even if my circle of followers is relatively small, and sales are modest, I still get to do what I love doing, and that is writing and telling a story.

And without trying to sound all Pollyanna, if I didn’t make a penny on my novels, I would still write them.


So far I’ve read and enjoyed (in a nail-biting sense of the word) your novel Shadows Kill, which you describe as “Death Wish” meets “Silence of the Lambs” and is the first book in your Shadow Thriller series. Why does someone as mild-mannered, peace-loving, and gentle as you choose to write such dark and visceral fiction?

There are two influences, actually.  When I was a child the famous serial killer, Ted Bundy, was our paperboy (he delivered newspapers to homes in our neighbourhood).  Once it was discovered that he was a serial killer, it was only natural to become fascinated by the dynamics of an evil human being appearing so normal, and Bundy did, in fact, appear very normal.

I then became fascinated by the concepts of “Good and Evil.” What if there is a real entity of Evil?  What if it invaded the bodies of humans and guided them on evil lives?  And what if there were those among us who are chosen to fight Evil?

That is the basis for my Shadow Series of novels.

With which of your literary characters do you identify the most and why?

That would be Tobias King, the main character in Resurrecting Tobias.  It is as close to an autobiography as I am likely to write.  Toby is me and I am Toby.  A great deal of the story is fictional, but the spirit of the story, and the spirit of Toby . . . well, read it and you’ll catch a glimpse of me growing up, maturing, falling, and finally finding happiness.

Are all of your novels set in your home town of Olympia near Washington? If so, how much artistic license do you take with the setting; in other words, would locals recognise the locations? And (you don’t have to answer this last bit) are your literary characters composites of people you know, plus bits of yourself?

I would say 90% of my novels take place in Olympia. The only exception, really, was Resurrecting Tobias, which takes place in a number of different locations, but they are all locations I have visited or lived in.  And really, I take very little artistic license with Olympia at all.  Locals would most definitely recognize streets and actual businesses that I write about.

Characters are definitely composites of people I have known, or do know.  I’ve mentioned this before: I am basically a lazy writer when it comes to inventing characters and doing research for locations.  I write what I know about almost all of the time, and that includes people.  I’ve lived sixty-eight years and during that time I have met some fascinating people.

This year you’ve taken a break from novel-writing to concentrate on self-publishing 3 colouring (coloring) books, which I believe have yielded some healthy local sales, especially at the farmers’ market where you also sell quails eggs and herbs. Why have you diversified into producing colouring books and would you advise other novelists to diversify rather than focus on one area of creativity?

There were a few reasons for the coloring books. I wanted another item I could sell at the markets, so I did one for each of the two cities where the markets are located (their histories) and one about urban farming.

The second reason was because I had spent the better part of the four previous years writing novels that were dark and gloomy, and it was affecting me in a negative way.  I could sense my mood darkening and that is not a good thing for this boy.  Alcoholics should not spend too much time in the darkness if it can be avoided.

Finally, I switched gears because I felt my novel-writing was getting a bit stale.  I needed a break from my characters and I suspect they needed a break from me.

Would I recommend diversification?  Definitely if you are a freelance writer who needs the income from your writing endeavours.  And truthfully, I recommend a switching-of-gears for any writer from time to time. I think it helps a writer to grow when a new challenge is faced, and I think it helps a writer to remain fresh in his/her writing. Staleness is an easy trap to fall into, and a comfortable place to be.  I’ve seen quite a few well-known authors fall into that trap, when they should have retired five years earlier.

Who in your life has inspired and/or influenced you the most?

You said “in your life” so my answer is about life in general, and that person would definitely be my father.  He died many years ago, when I was nineteen, but the lessons he taught me are still with me today.  I still miss him greatly and it’s almost been fifty years since I saw him last.

His influence?  Hard-work….focus….treating others with respect….never complain….find answers, not excuses….family and friends are treasures and should always be protected….get the most out of your talent and then push for more….these are things which will be with me until I join him in the next realm.

Who is your favourite author?

There are three who have influenced me greatly: Harper Lee, James Lee Burke, and John Steinbeck . . . master storytellers, exquisite creators of scenes, and an ability to see the grimy, gritty underbelly of life, in very realistic ways, without glorifying it.

What is your next project?

I’m currently on the second draft of my next “Shadows” novel, this one called “Shadows Fall on Rosarito.” That will be the fourth in that paranormal-thriller series.  And I’m halfway through the fifth in that series.  The working title for that one is currently “Shadows Embrace Mary and Her Little Lamb.”  Once those two books are finished I’ll get to work on a “coming of age” story about my life during the 60’s with my best friend Frank.  It will be dedicated to Frank because, well, he’s dying of cancer right now and it’s important, to me, that he be immortalized.  Good people always should be, don’t you think?

Thank you so much for the questions, Sarah.  I hope others find my answers interesting.  If they want, they can find me on my blog at, and all of my novels can be found on that blog as well as at Amazon under the name William D. Holland.

Again, thank you!

Interview: Meet Author, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

I’m thrilled to welcome author, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields to my blog for a second time, on this happy occasion to interview her about her writing.  For those of you who missed her guest storyteller post back in November of last year, here’s a recap of her biography.

Kansas City native Rochelle Wisoff-Fields is a woman of Jewish descent and the granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants. She has a close personal connection to Jewish history, which has been a recurring theme throughout much of her writing. Growing up, she was heavily influenced by the Sholom Aleichem stories, the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. Her novels Please Say Kaddish for Me, From Silt and Ashes and As One Must, One Can were born of her desire to share the darker side of these beloved tales—the history that can be difficult to view, much less embrace.

She is also the author and illustrator of This, That and Sometimes the Other, an eclectic anthology of short stories.

Before becoming an author, Rochelle attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied painting and lithography. Her preferred media are pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor. Her artwork is featured on the covers of her books and within them as well. Her coffee table companion book to her trilogy which will feature character portraits, A Stone for the Journey, is due out in the spring 2017.

Rochelle maintains a blog called Addicted to Purple where she facilitates the internationally popular flash fiction challenge known as Friday Fictioneers. She and her husband, Jan, raised three sons and live in Belton, Missouri. When she takes a break from writing and illustrating, Rochelle enjoys swimming, reading and dancing.


All three of your novels in “The Havah Gitterman Saga” are wonderfully rich in historical detail. How did you approach your research? And how much information did you already have to hand, due to your Jewish background?

Wonderful questions to which there are no simple answers. One would think that growing up Jewish, I would have come into these novels with more ammunition. However this is not the case. We were secular Jews so I really didn’t know a lot about liturgy and traditions.  

When I was born in 1953, memories of the Holocaust were fresh in everyone’s minds. The massacres called pogroms in Eastern Europe that occurred forty years prior to Hitler took a backseat.

I credit my mother with what little knowledge I had of my Eastern European heritage. Her father came from Poland in the early 1900’s as she put it “at the age of 19 with nothing but the shirt on his back and became a self-taught tailor.” She said he didn’t know his own birthdate because the pogromists customarily destroyed the synagogues first, which is where birth and death records were kept.

I’m grateful for the internet, which holds a wealth of information and Google is my friend. Wikipedia is a good place to start. Such sites as Jewish Gen and Jewish Virtual Library are also great resources as well.

Jewish Gen has a holiday calendar that was invaluable for keeping dates straight and true to life. It was how I knew that Bayla’s birth on December 1st, 1899 was first night of Hanukkah. When she celebrated her 8th birthday in 1907 it also fell on the first night of Hanukkah.

Old newspapers are wonderful resources. One website I used, especially for the third in the Saga, AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN, is It’s full of treasures from a newspaper called “The Kansas City Journal.” The character of Judge William H. Wallace came from those pages. I couldn’t have invented a better nemesis for Havah.

What inspired you to write the first novel, Please Say Kaddish For Me, and did you plan from the beginning for it to be a standalone novel or part of a trilogy?

In the beginning, I planned to write my grandfather’s story, but no one in the family seemed to know much about him aside from what I already knew about him. Yet, I wanted to tell the dark side of Fiddler on the Roof. That part of history that few, including some of my Jewish relatives, know nothing about.

There is a version of the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer said in honor of the dead that we recite in my synagogue on Yom Kippur. After each line, the name of a site of persecution is said such as Treblinka, Auschwitz, etc. One of those places that I knew little about, until the beginning of my research, was Kishinev.

Curiosity piqued, I began my research trail. One of the first things I learned was that the bloodbath on Easter weekend 1903 took the lives of at least 50 Jews, including children. Not only that, but it was the first internationally recognized pogrom. Since it was in what’s now known as Moldova and not Poland, it became clear that this story had nothing directly to do with my grandfather. (I did name a character in the third book Sam Weiner after him.)

Mind you, when I started PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME I was greener than grass in May. I had no clue how to write, I only knew I had a story to tell. As good fortune would have it, I’d met a fellow Hebrew student Annie Withers who was also a professional writer. Thanks to her, I ended up in three different critique groups.

I can’t tell you how many revisions I did as I learned the craft. I mean I really can’t, because I lost count a long time ago.

I didn’t see myself writing a second novel. I thought that once I completed PSKFM my work would be finished—until I read about the pogrom in Odessa, Ukraine in 1905 and the response of the Kansas City Jewish community. So began my work on FROM SILT AND ASHES. As I learned more about writing and about my characters I found myself bouncing between the two novels and, practically, writing them simultaneously.

At one point, I thought I’d completed both of them and began work on AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN. About 60,000 words into it, I landed a contract for PSKFM and FSAA with agent Jeanie Loiacono.

When I picked the third novel back up to complete it, my characters had changed so much over the course of the stories that I whacked a good 40,000 and, for all intents and purposes, started over. 

Who are your favourite three characters in the saga, and why?

This is a tough question because the answer can vary from day to day and I have so many characters it’s tough to choose only three. Of course I adore Ulrich, Havah’s dear friend and benefactor, however I’ll have to go with the three who have grown and changed the most over the course of the three novels that cover a ten year period.

Havah Cohen Gitterman, the main character and lynchpin of the trilogy, has her childhood ripped from her in one night. She’s often selfish and headstrong. I really like her because she’s also forgiving and willing to learn. No matter what curveballs life—or a cruel author—throws her way, she’s determined to rise above them. For example, when she loses the manual dexterity in her right hand she becomes proficient with her left. She has a mother’s heart, big enough to accept her daughter’s blindness and adopt three traumatized orphans as well.

Lev Gitterman is one of those three orphans and Havah’s nephew by marriage. In PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME he started out as a nine-year-old boy who was only meant to be mentioned once or twice. However through FROM SILT AND ASHES and AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN he took it upon himself to become one of the most important people in the books. There is a tenderness about him that I love. He’s able to work through the trauma and abuse that have beset him his entire life and rise above it.

The third character I have to include is Nikolai Derevenko, a Russian doctor. I only meant for him to be Ulrich Dietrich’s sidekick. Ironically, I’d have to say that, of all of the many characters, Nikolai is the most complex. That alone makes him one of my three favorites. Over the course of the three novels, he goes from being a confident surgeon to a haunted man who has seen too much. His past and present collide in the third book. Writing his redemption was a great experience.

It’s unusual for a publisher to allow an author to illustrate her own book cover. What is your artistic background? And do you consider yourself primarily an artist or a writer, or both in equal measure?

As long as I can remember, I wanted to be an artist. According to my mother, no piece of paper in the house was safe. Everything had to be drawn on. As far as training is concerned, I attended two years at the Kansas City Art Institute before deciding I had different ideas about art than my instructors. In retrospect, I was a bit hasty and quite immature. I do consider myself both illustrator and author in equal measure.

While working on a book, how do you organise your writing time?

Organise? Organisation has always been a challenge for me. I’m pretty spontaneous and tend to flit from one activity to another. However, before I retired from full time employment, I did have to be quite disciplined. Since my hours as a cake decorator were mostly early morning to late afternoon, I would rise between three and four in the morning to write.

Since I wrote the major bulk of AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN post retirement, my time was more flexible. However, as a creature of habit, I found that my best writing time is before sunrise.

With the first draft, do you edit as you go, or save it until the end?

When I wrote PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME the first time, I wrote it from beginning to end. Being a novice I considered it finished. In retrospect, I had a lot to learn. With AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN I edited as I went. In fact, when it comes to editing, I’m guilty of editing my emails and even text messages.

Are you easy to live with when absorbed in a project?

If you asked my husband Jan, I think you’d probably get a resounding, “No!” He’s put up with many late suppers and the absentee wife.

Who is your favourite author, and why?

Without question, my favorite author is Geraldine Brooks. She is the maven of historical fiction. Her books PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and CALEB’S CROSSING are brilliant examples. Her extensive research and use of the language of the times give authenticity to her work. Her characters tend to be three dimensional and practically walk off the page. I want to be her when I grow up.

What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any ideas for future projects?

The next work in progress is A STONE FOR THE JOURNEY, which will be a coffee table companion book for Havah’s trilogy or as my publisher has dubbed it, “The Havah Gitterman Saga.” The plan is for the book to be hard-back containing at least 180 8”x 10” full color pictures of scenes from the novels as well as character studies.

When my publisher, after seeing a few of those character portraits I’ve posted on my blog, asked if I would be interested in producing a coffee table book, I didn’t have to think twice. This is really the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

Prior to obtaining your first deal with a traditional publisher, did you ever consider self-publishing?

No, not really. However with seeing the success of such novels as THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, that was ultimately picked up by a traditional publisher and made into a movie, I might reconsider on a future project.

Do you have any writing tips for aspiring authors?  

Before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. Be willing to listen and learn. Nobody’s first draft is perfect. (I’m not sure the 20th draft is perfect.)

To be a writer, one should first be a reader.

Be aware that these days, the author must be willing to be his or her own publicist. Social media is important. Set up a blog and interact with your commenters. Build your brand. Join blog writing challenges. Not only are they wonderful for honing your craft, but for networking as well.

Know your audience. Today’s readers have short attention spans. Most won’t read such classics as GONE WITH THE WIND or EAST OF EDEN (more’s the pity) where there’s a slow build to the action. The action must begin in the first chapter.

If you truly believe in your writing, don’t give up! To quote agent Terry Burns, who, incidentally turned my novel down in 2008:

“Publishing is a process of trying to have the right product in the right hands at exactly the right time, hitting that window of opportunity while it’s still open. … 85% of all authors give up or just put it out themselves with little success. The publishing world belongs to those who are persistent, grow their craft, and who do the extraordinarily hard work of getting established in business.”


Available in print and on Kindle

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Review: Please Say Kaddish For Me

Review: From Silt and Ashes

As One Must, One Can

November’s Guest Storyteller, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Barbara Monier has kindly tagged me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Barbara describes herself as an “author, novelist, cynical hopeless romantic”. She has two novels finished and published and a third on the way.NWWbegins

Thank you, Barbara, for thinking of me for this event.

Last week, I answered some set questions in my post for the Meet My Character Blog Tour, so you may notice a small amount of overlap in the answers below, but hopefully not too much.

1. What am I working on?

I’m taking the Summer off from writing, apart from haiku and tanka poetry, having recently completed my 90,000-word speculative fiction novel. This is my fifth novel and the outcome of a journey experimenting with various types of fiction. His Seed (or alternatively, Counting Magpies) is set in the 22nd century and its themes are male infertility, sexual exploitation, incest, love and romance, as measured against the yardstick of humankind’s threatened extinction. That all sounds very serious, but it’s not science-or remotely preachy.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I’ve always had a tendency to cross-genre. When I first started out, literary agents and publishers made comments such as, “This is really original and well-written, but unmarketable for a novice author” or “I really like this, but where would it go on shelves in bookshops?” or “I applaud your imagination, but comedy, fantasy, horror is just too much of a mix”. I heeded their comments and had a go at writing a straight genre medieval-style sword and sorcery fantasy novel, which had so many full reads and near-misses, I finally flung my hands in the air in despair and declared (I’ll quote Monty Python’s Flying Circus here ) “And now for something completely different!”

To me, speculative fiction is the new respectable name for cross-genre science fiction or fantasy; although some purists will scold me for saying this. Having consciously applied the speculative label to my work, I’ve felt compelled to write in a more literary style than before. I acknowledge that there’s some exceedingly literary published science fiction and fantasy out there, but such works can be sadly overlooked by readers who look down their noses at genre novels.

As far as the finished product goes, it is definitely more literary and lyrical than my other novels, although quite minimalist in style compared to other works that are considered literary. It also breaks away from the urban nightmare often portrayed in Dystopian fiction, instead depicting a future in which nature has started to regenerate without so many people around to rape its resources.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Normal is boring and I just don’t feel driven to write about everyday things. Of course, it’s impossible not to include them in a novel, or readers would have no frame of reference to draw upon, but I’ve always loved “what-if” novels set in the future or in a fantasy kingdom. You see, I’m not very adventurous myself in real life; on the other hand, my imagination is huge and extremely adventurous. Up to the age of thirty-six, I daydreamed during every spare moment. Then I decided to write my first novel and pour all those daydreams into something more constructive, rather than releasing them into the ether. The first draft of my first novel — a time travel romance — received a publisher rejection containing the word “promising”, which was sufficient praise to spur me on; although sometimes I still blush at the memory of sending out an unedited first draft to a publisher.

4. How does my writing process work?

Writing straight on to the computer, I start with one or two characters in my head and perhaps write a piece of flash fiction or prologue about them, just to fill the blank screen with something. It’s all about calling my brain to order and dialing up my literary muse. This starter stuff usually ends up being dumped in the second draft. Having got underway, I soon come up with some kind of emotive and perilous situation into which I throw my characters. From thereon in, the world blossoms around them, new characters unfold and, before I know it, my fictional characters have taken over telling the story, throwing up the most wonderful surprises along the way. Usually the end of the novel comes to me, somewhere past the halfway mark.

I used to write in a linear fashion and then go back to weave subplots in with subsequent drafts. With my latest novel, I wrote from six different character viewpoints, weaving in flashbacks as I went, which required an awful lot of concentration. Normally, I don’t plan a plot or make any notes, but hold everything in my head. This time I admit to having had to stop a third of the way through the novel to construct a family tree/timeline.

I carry out research on the trot, as and when it’s required, and rarely suffer from writers’ block. If my brain won’t work, it means I need to take a break and do something completely different. I tend not to write at the weekend or in the evenings.


I’m now pleased to pass the baton on to two of my writing buddies …

Benjamin Jones, otherwise known as Graphite Bunny, whose blog is full of wonderful photography and prose poetry, and who was my guest storyteller on this blog back in March.

Henry Gee, who blogs at about all manner of things that catch his attention: some of them quirky and some halfway normal. He’s appeared twice on my blog: first, in November for an interview about his then self-published novel “By The Sea” and then a week ago in a post about his success in finding a traditional publisher for the same novel.

Blondeusk, who calls her blog Blondewritemore and describes herself as “a novice writer starting her journey”.

Dave Farmer, who blogs at davefarmersblog about life, writing, and zombies(!), and who was my guest storyteller on this blog in June.


And here’s the link to Henry Gee’s “Writing Process Blog Tour” post.

Meet My Character Blog Tour

Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate has kindly tagged me to take part in the Meet My Character Blog Tour.

Andrea, a pagan by inclination, blogs about nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons, all of which she sees as a source of great inspiration to her creativity as a writer and painter. Whenever I visit her blog, I come away feeling both soothed and uplifted.

Thank you, Andrea, for thinking of me for this event.

Now it’s my turn to tell you about the main character in my completed 90,000-word speculative fiction novel.

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

His name is Anna and he’s fictional.

2. When and where is the story set?

Anna is born in AD 2166 and the story is set in what we know as the British Isles. It begins in Dorset, England, and then Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland, but the main block of action takes place in the independent state of Wightland (previously the Isle of Wight). There is also back story revolving around Warsaw, Poland, and its criminal underworld.

3. What should we know about him/her?

He’s a rare specimen in a world populated by women and, for the unscrupulous, a prize worth capturing and exploiting. At the start of the novel he’s a sweet, honest, nature loving boy who believes he’s a girl. As the story progresses and he learns what being male means in a world run by women, he turns into an archetypal moody and manipulative teenager who discovers music and finds some solace in this. The few people who care about him, are also partly responsible for his disillusionment and must work hard to prove they’re worthy of his trust.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

The main conflict is related to his uniqueness and his exploitation by a deluded criminal/quack geneticist. His life is messed up in the first place by his discovery that he’s a boy.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Freedom to choose his own mate, rather than have multiple mates chosen for him, and ultimately to escape back to the wilderness from whence he came, taking with him the people he’s learned to love and trust.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

This novel, which is now finished, has had many titles. In the first draft it was called Eulogy to the Last Man which, for reasons I won’t disclose, was rendered redundant. In the second draft it was Wightland, and the third Counting Magpies. In the final draft it’s His Seed, although I still quite like Counting Magpies and have called it this in one of my submissions, just to confuse issues. And no, you can’t read more about it, as I don’t want to give the whole plot away.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

As I’m going down the traditional route and throwing myself upon the mercy of agents and publishers, I can’t answer that. All I can say is that I hope it happens in my lifetime.


I’m now pleased to pass the baton on to three of my writing buddies …

Benjamin Jones otherwise known as Graphite Bunny, whose blog is full of wonderful photography and prose poetry, and who was my guest storyteller on this blog back in March.

J.S.Watts, whose website you might like to check out, and who blogs via Goodreads , approximately monthly, but sometimes less frequently and mainly about things writerly (both fiction and poetry).

Henry Gee, who blogs at about all manner of things that catch his attention: some of them quirky and some halfway normal. He’s appeared twice on my blog: first, in November for an interview about his then self-published novel “By The Sea” and then a week ago in a post about his success in finding a traditional publisher for the same novel.

Blondeusk, who calls her blog Blondewritemore and describes herself as “a novice writer starting her journey”.

Dave Farmer, who blogs at davefarmersblog about life, writing, and zombies(!), and who was my guest storyteller on this blog in June.


And here are the links so far to the posts of those I’ve tagged:

Dave Farmer

J.S. Watts


Henry Gee

Interview with Author Geoffrey Gudgion

Gudgion-arbour I’m delighted to welcome Geoffrey to my blog to chat about his début novel Saxon’s Bane and various aspects of his writing life, including what he’s working on at the moment.

On Amazon, I  awarded Saxon’s Bane five stars and titled my review “A Superb Debut Novel by a Master Storyteller”.  I won’t tell you what the story is about, as Geoffrey is going to do that. All I can say is that I found it an exceedingly exciting read, of the sneaking-looks-when-you-should-be-working variety, and one of those novels your mind keeps returning to long after you’ve put it down.Geoffrey managed to make me care deeply about the fate of the three central characters (plus the horse), raising my pulse-rate far too high on occasions, while causing me to wish the stickiest of ends upon the baddie and his cronies. He paints a wonderful picture of a present-day English village: one rooted in a more savage past that, once unearthed, reasserts itself upon the psyches of so-called civilised people.

SP: Who is Geoffrey Gudgion? I know, but perhaps you’d like to tell the others.

GG: I’ve been many things. A Royal Naval Officer, but they weren’t quite ready for me, and a businessman, which paid the bills even though Corporate America wanted my English soul. Now I have one part-time job but mainly write. When not writing I go a bit mad on horseback. I’m married with two great kids who are old enough to be off the payroll. Oh, and I’m a really bad pianist. Is that enough?

saxons bane mockupSP: For the benefit of potential readers, could you describe Saxon’s Bane in a few sentences?

GG: It’s a thriller with a supernatural twist. An archaeologist shows a preternatural understanding of the Saxon couple she is excavating. A young man comes close to death in a car crash. Two people whose insight might be dismissed as obsession or post-traumatic stress, until the modern world around them starts to mirror the ancient, bloody past…

SP: Despite ending up with Solaris as your publishers, when working on your novel you had no idea it was fantasy novel. What sort of novel did you think you were writing?

GG: I simply didn’t understand ‘genre’. I had a story that was fighting to land on the page, that’s all. When it was published, people started labelling it ‘fantasy’, which surprised me because it’s meant to be believable in a real world framework. It’s also been called ‘horror’, although I think it’s a bit too lyrical for that, ‘historical’, even though 80% is set in the present day, and ‘literary’, which is good for my ego. Hell, it’s a ghost story.

SP: Like many creative people, you felt obliged to go down some “respectable” career paths first. Do you see this as wasted time, or as useful experience to draw upon in your writing now? And you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but is your main character Fergus’s explosive walk out from his job based on your own experience?

GG: Wasted? Nah. All life is a script, and life in the Boardroom gave me a wonderful supply of characters. And as for Fergus’s row with his boss, who hasn’t relished the thought, perhaps many times in their career, of telling the bastard on the other side of the desk what they can do with their job? I loved writing that bit.

SP: In your novel, you paint an extremely vivid picture of the English countryside and rural life. A reviewer complimented you on your ability to revive and modernise the great classical tradition of rural British horror, proving there’s nothing creepier than the countryside. Is there a time when you’ve freaked yourself out with your own imagination and had to run for civilisation without looking back?

GG: No. That must either mean I’m writing tame ‘horror’, or I’m really sick. Seriously, though, it is the unknown that freaks us out. As a writer, you know what’s coming. And if you don’t, you’ve lost the plot and that IS freaky.

SP: An emotionally damaged horse features greatly in Fergus’s convalescence following his near-fatal car accident: a sort of mutual healing between man and beast. Is there any parallel between what youBally & helmet describe in your novel and your relationship with that handsome horse you own in real life?    

GG: Horses possess a deep, wild empathy. They can understand us at a primal level, and unlock emotions that are buried within us. No horse has ever healed me in the way that Trooper heals Fergus, but horses have helped me keep my equilibrium. I can climb into the saddle tense, but the mental slate is wiped by the adrenalin-charged madness of a gallop, or the surge-and-soar of jumping.

SP: Now you’re not burdened with a day job, how do you organise your writing time and physical writing space?

GG: It depends on the stage I’m at with a book. On a writing day (and sadly that still can’t be every day) it’s tough at the beginning of a project and I have to force myself to craft words. By the end, it becomes and obsession and nothing else matters. It’s a bit like wading out into a river, slow and muddy at the edges, but once the current takes you it’s quite a ride. I write best in the mornings, and my most creative space is an arbour in the garden. When it’s too cold for that, I have a study where I play English birdsong as a background while I write.

SP: Now you’ve nearly finished your next novel, did you suffer or are you still suffering from any of the “second novel” anxiety experienced by some authors?

GG: I did at the beginning. I started Saxon’s Bane in hubris (“I can do that!”) and finished in bloody-minded stubbornness, determined to break through despite the rejections. By the time my agent Ian Drury accepted it, I knew what good looked like. The first drafts of my second book, Catherine Bonnevaux, were not good, and I had to learn to push on and leave imperfection behind me. I’d written 120,000 words before I knew it could be turned into something good.

SP: What is the second novel about?

GG: When newly affluent businessman Paul Devlin and his girlfriend Fiona buy a barn conversion near Halstead Hall, the ancestral home of the Bonnevaux family, they believe they are buying a rural idyll. They are met by a wall of resentment, and are drawn into a conflict that has its roots in pagan times. It’s a ghost story that interweaves modern greed with medieval piety and Dark Age myth. There’s a fuller overview on my web site at

SP: Having spent time in the Royal Navy, would you consider writing a contemporary maritime fantasy novel drawing on some of the wonderful sea myths?

Last year I went sailing with a friend, and we moored one night in a remote inlet where a Saxon church sat hunched on the shoreline and the bones of dead sailing ships poked through the mud as the tide went out. The setting gave me some ideas that may well surface in a future book.

Sarah, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog. I’m honoured to be here!

And thank you to you, too, Geoffrey. It’s been a great honour and pleasure to have chatted with you. SP 🙂


Interview with Henry Gee

Henry Gee mono_6156Mermaids, museums and murder are just some of the ingredients in Henry Gee‘s gothic horror crime novel By The Sea — a book that has earned him a decent number of five-star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads. He really knows how to paint a vivid canvas with words and, personally, I loved everything about his novel: its characters, setting, fast-paced plot, mystery, and suspense.

Henry and I chatted about his book and how he came to write it. His answers to my questions make fascinating reading, which is why this post is longer than my usual 🙂

SP: In five sentences or less, how would you describe your novel By the Sea?

HG: Following horrific bereavement, Detective Inspector Persephone Sheepwool of the Met flees London for the quiet seaside town of Deringland, on the remote North Norfolk coast. But when the bodies start falling at the shadowy Lowdley-Purring Institute, whose inhabitants are dedicated to finding the secrets of the Sea, Sheepwool finds that horror has a way of catching up with her. Even with the practically minded Detective Constable Elaine Fitch to help, Sheepwool finds that some secrets just don’t stay unburied. That’s three!

SP: For any reader of By the Sea, it is obvious that you have a scientific background. Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that fiction authors should write about what they know?

HG: Up to a point. I think it’s important to get details right, inasmuch as one can, especially where they are important to the story. If you can’t have the details, you have to employ a judicious vagueness. For example, the novel is set up as a detective story, at least to start with, but I know nothing at all about how the police do their jobs. And although I am a scientist by training, I know rather little about the details of molecular biology – I was a palaeontologist, a botherer of bones. This aspect, though, allowed me to get a good feel for museums. I’ve always been fond of the more old-fashioned kind of museum, the kind that grew out of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of eccentric Regency or Victorian gentlemen. Museums whose collections are haphazard, with all kinds of objects of uncertain provenance mixed up together, to create unusual, almost surreal juxtapositions. I’ve haunted such museums since my childhood – the first museum I ever visited, as a very small child, was the Horniman in South London, which is still very much like that. During my years as a graduate student I visited strange and wonderful museums up and down the country in which you might find all kinds of things in odd corners, casually stuffed onto shelves or propping the doors open. Efforts to modernise such museums, make them more ‘relevant’, almost never work. Parts of the Lowdley-Purring Institute are modelled after at least one real museum. No, I’m not telling you which one. But most of it was dreamed up anew, presumably from a multitude of influences each too small to isolate. I have recurring dreams about large, labyrinthine and rather spooky buildings.

SP: As a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, senior editor of the scientific journal, Nature, and author of numerous science books that sometimes challenge the status quo, do you feel that when writing fiction the onus is upon you to be extra meticulous about facts, as well as maintaining an internal logic to your story?

HG: Yes. And then again, no. What I have found about science is that the more you find out, the less you know. Everything I’ve written, whether fiction or nonfiction, seems infused with the idea that science is not about knowledge and facts, but ignorance and doubt. If this sounds surprising, consider the day-to-day routine of my day job as an editor at Nature, which is to read scientific papers sent from all over the globe describing new knowledge, some of it surprising, bizarre, even horrifying. And because Nature is one of the most visible and highly read journals in the world, scientists want to send their best and most surprising research there. So, every day, I am forced to confront the very edge of the clifftop of knowledge and look over the edge. I am very lucky. Very few people get to do this. I reject nine out of ten scientific manuscripts that hit my desk. As a consequence I probably know more surprising secrets than the average spy. A very small amount of this ends up as public knowledge, written about in newspapers, even less gets discussed on TV. So, where most people see what seem to be irrefutable facts, I see a thin varnish covering an abyss of doubt, ignorance … and possibility.

As for internal logic – yes, that has to be maintained, not so much as a matter of scientific credibility but for the necessary suspension of disbelief all readers require. Even if many elements in the story are fantastic, they still have to hang together. For example, I spent quite a lot of time working out the complex semi-parasitic life-cycle of mermaids, making sure that it remained consistent despite the twists and turns of the plot.

SP: By the Sea crosses the genres of mystery, crime, horror, fantasy, and gothic fiction. Is this why you chose to self-publish this novel rather than submit to traditional publishers, who are forever mindful of books fitting neatly into a category? Do you believe that traditional publishers might one day force themselves out of business by sticking to such narrow criteria?

HG: As with all such things, the novel grew out of a rather disparate set of circumstances. I’d been a professional writer for about 15 years when I realised that I could hardly call myself a writer unless I had at least tried some fiction. So I sat down and wrote a huge SF novel. I wrote 125,000 words in three months. During this adrenaline rush I’d be up until 3 some nights and still go to work on a high. Finishing it was exhilarating. Of course, I thought it was wonderful, but like most novice novelists, I failed to realise that it was just the first draft, and would take a lot of hard work before it could be let out of doors on its own.

My agent tactfully suggested I shelve it and instead try what she called a ‘puzzle’ book, using my scientific knowledge and love of arcane riddles. “Like Dan Brown, only better,” she said. That’s when By The Sea was born. The experience of writing my embryonic SF novel showed that I was fine at characterisation, action and dialogue, but needed to work on pace and plotting. So I asked my friend Jennifer L. Rohn – a working scientist and published novelist – if I could write it for her LabLit website ( as a weekly serial. After all, I said to myself, if it worked for novelists such as Dickens and Trollope, it might work for me. It would help me keep the pacing even and the plot tight. Jenny kindly agreed, and I delivered the book to her chapter by chapter. Although I was usually a few chapters ahead of publication, the beginning of the novel was appearing online before I had finished writing it. It helps that Jenny is a terrific editor as well as a writer, so the book got tighter still before it hit the screens. If that wasn’t enough, Jenny runs an occasional science-in-literature book group at the Royal Institution and By The Sea was the featured book for one of the meetings.

After the serial finished, I delivered it to my agent, but I think she found it a bit weird – as you say, somewhat of a genre-bender. So she agreed that I could self-publish it. You can get it as a print-on-demand paperback (on Lulu) as well as for Kindle. To be fair it hasn’t sold many copies – I’ve given many more away than I have sold – but that’s fine. Obviously, I’d love it to be a bestseller, but the people who’ve read it seem to like it, on the whole, and if it weren’t for self-publication it wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

There was a happy ending for my SF novel, too. Every so often I’d take it out of the bottom drawer and play with it. It turned from a single long novel into a trilogy, and after some years it was in a pretty decent state. Andrew Burt, a fan who’d seen and liked the draft when I’d loaded it up on his free fiction website, turned up years later as a small-press publisher in his own right. Andrew asked me if it was still available, so that’s published too, as The Sigil. Like By The Sea, there’s a lot of science (archaeology this time) and its confrontation with the unknown. Also, like By The Sea, the main protagonist is female.

SP: Pickled Lily, the mermaid, is of pivotal importance in your novel, as are some of the hybrid Victorian curiosities housed at the Lowdley-Purring Institute. In amuses me, that in your work as a scientist, you have openly rejected the “aquatic ape theory of evolution”, and yet choose to write about marine-animal/human hybrids in your fiction. Are you just letting down your hair here and having a bit of fun, or do you think that something genuinely scientific lies behind the legend of mermaids?

HG: The mermaids are there purely for fun – they are not meant to be taken seriously in the ‘real’ world outside the novel. However, as you’ll have guessed, there’s a certain ambiguity about all the stuffed mermaids we meet. Some are obviously very bad fakes. Others look disarmingly real. I don’t want to give anything away, but that ambiguity is a key part of the big reveal – an ambiguity that acts as a focus, for me, for the whole novel, and for the pursuit of science as a whole. Scientists can only ever look at one tiny piece of reality, and even then under very carefully controlled conditions. What they think they have found, as a result of their experiments, might not say anything much at all about the vastness of the unknown.

SP: Your central bad guy, Morrison, who’s in charge of the Institute, is obnoxious and driven to the point of derangement. He selects the beautiful Dr Alex Beach as his researcher, to then use as a sex toy with which to satiate his lust. His chauvinism, control freakery, and violence towards her is something to behold. Often, authors construct their fictional characters from people they’ve come across in real life: they get away with this by constructing a composite character based on several people rather than one. Does chauvinism still exist in the scientific establishment, and is Morrison purely a creature of your imagination, or an extreme pastiche of people you’ve met? (No names requested, of course.)

HG: After I drafted the novel which eventually became The Sigil, one of the comments I got was that all my characters were too ‘nice’. That’s why, when I started to plot By The Sea, I decided to create an out-and-out villain, and Morrison was the result. Yes, he is a creature of my imagination, but based, to begin with, on the ‘suits’ – the kinds of the people you only ever see in boardrooms, or on trains speaking far too loudly on their mobile phones and reeking of cologne, and who talk entirely in bullshit bingo – forever running things up the flagpole, thinking outside the box, pushing the envelope and so on. I have resolved never to use the word ‘hate’ about anyone or anything, because real life rarely admits of such absolutes, but I really, really, detest people like that. So, yes, Morrison is, as you put it, an extreme pastiche of people like that.

However, I’m sorry to say that such chauvinism is very much alive and well in the scientific establishment. The tales female scientists, colleagues and friends have told me about the behaviour of some people, especially at conferences, beggars belief. Morrison takes that behaviour to a violent extreme – but the more I learn, perhaps his behaviour isn’t as extreme as one might imagine. Morrison’s internal monologue, for example, is relentlessly sexist.

But even Morrison has a crumb of goodness and reasonableness. He is indeed charged with the impossible job of saving the collections in the Lowdley-Purring Institute. And one might imagine that when he started his scientific career, his principles were as idealistic as those of any young scientist. I do not wish to exonerate him, but he’s a prisoner of his circumstances as much as Alex Beach or Inspector Sheepwool.

SP: It’s almost a tradition in thrillers to have an evil corporation or company behind the scenes controlling events for the worse. In By the Sea, you have Magus Pharm who are out to trawl the sea for new drug discoveries. And Dr Beach is at the Institute to investigate a “small and utterly obscure group of microscopic marine worms called carnostomids”. As a scientist, do you believe that our oceans contain all manner of yet undiscovered cures for our illnesses? What are your views on marine conservation versus technological and scientific progress?

HG: The Earth has far more ocean than land, and there are parts of the ocean floor we know less well than the surface of Mars. There are sea creatures that can do amazing things, such as distil the metals nickel and vanadium from seawater. It’s a fair bet that there’ll be some that contain useful natural products. And if history is any guide, there’ll be people sufficiently unscrupulous to exploit such things for profit and damn the consequences. Carnostomids, though, are precisely as fictional as mermaids.

SP: You’ve expressed an interest in resurrecting your female detectives, DI  Sheepwool and DS Fitch for a possible sequel to By the Sea. Would you say these are your two favourite characters in the novel? If so, as you were writing, did you feel as though you were primarily writing a detective story?

HG: Elaine Fitch is definitely my favourite character – she’s the only one who’s normal. The name ‘Sheepwool’ came from my elder daughter, who has a knack for coming up with bizarre names. She expressed a desire for a story featuring an Inspector Sheepwool, so the character was born. She also came up with the name of the pub, the Dazed Haddock – complete with the pub sign. I haven’t allowed my daughters to read By The Sea though, for obvious reasons.

I modelled Sheepwool explicitly on Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Like Morse, Sheepwool has a troubled past, and she’s knowledgeable about an aspect of the arts. For Morse it’s opera, with Sheepwool it’s surrealist art. Like Lewis, Fitch is the down-to-earth one, the one who likes to drive, and have egg and chips for tea. With that in mind, I wanted to write a detective novel. It didn’t quite turn out like that, though. Whatever By The Sea is, it’s not a conventional police procedural. I don’t think my mind is sufficiently tidy, disciplined or devious for the kind of plotting that such things require. I’m not at all sure that Sheepwool and Fitch actually solve the case, or even if there is a case to solve. They think they are, but they are dancing in the thin skin of what they think is knowledge that’s stretched thin across an abyss of the unknown. So it’s less a detective story than a gothic novel that happens to have detectives in it.

SP: For me, your attention to detail and setting are first-rate. Your writing is evocative, lyrical, and vivid. As I read By the Sea, I could almost smell the Norfolk air, feel the mist creeping around me, taste the salt, hear the waves, and see the greyness punctuated only occasionally by specks of sunlight. Many modern novels shy away from too much description or use of rich language. Do you see this insistence upon simple language as a dumbing down to suit lazy readers?

HG: Thank you – you are very kind. I wanted to do for Cromer, the place I call home, what Stephen King did for Maine. It’s very easy for me to overdo the flowery language, but I felt that was an essential part of the gothic feel of the novel. I remember going to see Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein at the cinema. Apart from one scene, it was a very faithful evocation of Mary Shelley’s novel, but almost everyone I knew who’d seen it complained that it was over the top, and far too long. But that’s the whole point, I’d say – it’s gothic. It’s supposed to be over the top and far too long. They just didn’t get it. Now, writing concisely is a virtue, and when I advise scientists on how to write well, I always point them to Jane Austen, who was a master of subtlety and economy. Perhaps because Austen detested the gothic – witness the literary tastes of nice-but-dim Harriet Smith in Emma, and the gothic send-up that is Northanger Abbey — the literati have been conditioned ever since to equate gothic with trash. It’s still easier to write at length than with brevity, but the trick with gothic is to keep it away from becoming either self-parody or camp.

 SP: I know that you are a huge fan of JRR Tolkien, or you wouldn’t be editor of Mallorn, the official Journal of the Tolkien Society. In what way has this great author, and others, influenced your writing? Do you read widely across all genres, or tend to stick to one or two?

HG: I admit it – I like Tolkien, though I have just stepped down from the editorship of Mallorn after eight years. I’m not sure how much Tolkien has influenced my writing, though. Neither am I convinced that it’s always a simple thing to detect one’s influences. If I’m influenced by anyone, it’s the Argentine essayist Jorge Luis Borges. He had a few things to say about influence-spotting – which is the kind of nice irony Borges would have appreciated.


Henry Gee has been on the staff of the science magazine Nature since 1987. His latest book is The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, just published by the University of Chicago Press. His blog The End Of The Pier Show ( continues to delight its three regular readers. That’s where you can find all the details about his books and other activities. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets.

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