Interview with Tess Gerritsen

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen talks about her latest Rizzoli & Isles medical thriller, The Killing Place.

The night before I am to meet Tess Gerritsen at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, her publicist texts me to say that they are on a “smog schedule” so could I meet them at Gerritsen’s hotel instead? I agree, although I have no idea what a smog schedule is. Some kind of industry insider code? Or is Gerritsen, who will be travelling on to Newcastle after our interview, concerned about poor visibility affecting the next leg of her journey? This is Scotland, after all.

The answer is neither. The apologetic publicist explains the following day that they are in fact on a tight schedule and the word mix-up was the result of texting while tired.

Gerritsen herself is bright and lively when she meets me at the hotel reception. Although she only arrived in the UK from her native Maine a few days earlier, she has miraculously avoided jet-lag and was on top form the previous evening, entertaining an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by recounting the real life incidents that have inspired medical thrillers. Dinner conversations, news stories and even the antics of her sons have given Gerritsen the glimpse of the macabre she needs to spin out a terrifying plot.  “I go for the dark stuff. I’m always looking for things that are disturbing because I think that people are interested in those topics.”

The inspiration for The Killing Place came from declassified U.S. federal government reports about an incident in the sixties where thousands of sheep were found dead in a valley. Gerritsen was shocked by the reports because she realised the same thing could happen again to an entire city. She knew she had hit on the idea for a great story because “the emotion around the inciting incident was like a punch in the gut.”

The Killing Place is the eighth book to feature police detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr Maura Isles. Gerritsen turns the traditional relationship between the crime solving duo on its head in this novel when Maura goes missing, leaving Jane to track her down.

After the GPS leads Maura and her travelling companions along a road that is closed in winter, they find themselves stranded in the mountains during a snow storm. They think they have been saved when they stumble upon an isolated village but it is soon clear that something sinister has happened in the tiny settlement of Kingdom Come: the houses have been abandoned, meals left untouched on kitchen tables and cars still parked in garages. With nowhere else to go, the group sets up shelter in one of the deserted houses but it isn’t long before they realise that there is someone out there in the woods, watching them. Days later, a burned out car is found with four bodies inside, one of which is identified as Maura Isles. Jane Rizzoli is determined to prove the identification wrong and to find out what really happened to her friend.

“I think that the best mysteries are when the character has an emotional reason to want the case to be solved,” Gerritsen explains. “What sort of creeped me out about this idea was the abandoned houses and the meals left on the table. I like to take something that looks like a horror story on the surface but in fact there’s a logical explanation for it.”

As with all of her medical thrillers, The Killing Place has its share of gory drama which Gerritsen’s background in medicine left her more than equipped to deal with. (She trained and worked as a physician before becoming a full time writer.) “This particular book did not have a lot of research involved. I went online to find cases of GPS disasters. There have been a lot of people who have had accidents or who have died, in the US especially, because we have a lot of very solitary places, a lot of wilderness. There have been people who have been stuck in the snow for weeks because they’ve driven down a seasonal road.”

The Killing Place sees the introduction of two new characters, troubled teenage runaway Rat and his dog Bear, who Gerritsen reveals will be making a comeback in a future novel. “Rat and Bear are going to be more a part of Maura’s life in the future. The next book is not going to have them but I think in the one after that I may show them at their new school.”

The Killing Place by Tess Gerritsen jacket image

The Killing Place is out now in Bantam paperback (£7.99).

Update – 11th Jan 2011: According to an article in the Bookseller, The Killing Place is now number 1 in the Official UK Top 50 books.

Interview with David Wishart

Meet the historical crime writer who has made a career offering alternative solutions to Roman mysteries 

David Wishart is a cooking enthusiast. Dried herbs are strung across the ceiling of a kitchen bursting with pots and pans and other cooking paraphernalia. As we sit down to a delicious meal of homemade fish soup and pizza, he tells me enthusiastically about his pasta making machine and tarte flambée board. When he is not writing or experimenting in the kitchen, he is out on long walks with his two dogs, a pastime that gets his creative juices flowing. Aside from cleaning, which we both agree is a waste of time, the one thing you won’t find him doing is promoting his novels. “It’s something I’m ashamed of, but I don’t like networking or marketing. I’m not an author, I’m a writer. A writer just writes.”

After graduating from university with a degree in Classics, Wishart spent several years abroad teaching English, a role he describes as “the best job in the world if you like travelling.” It was while he was living in Greece that a strange dream inspired him to write his first novel, a mad sci-fi adventure where a six foot high table lamp, a giant bottle of aspirins and a teenage girl go in search of a powerful energy transformer masquerading as a pomegranate. “It’s off the wall and it’s fun,” he says. “I thought that I was a children’s writer and I would write science fiction or fantasy.”

His first published novel, however, was an entirely different beast. The inspiration for I, Virgil, a fictional autobiography of the Roman poet, came from an essay he had written as a student at the University of Edinburgh. “It wasn’t a crime book but it did have an historical puzzle and that’s what interested me.”

Wishart began to seek out other historical puzzles that would make interesting novel plots and the next one he came up with was “Why was the Roman poet Ovid sent to the Black Sea and never allowed back?” His novel Ovid was the first to feature Marcus Corvinus, the Roman nobleman sleuth who would go on to star in a whole series of historical crime novels.

“Corvinus started out as a real surprise to me. I had a sort of character in mind – middle aged, certainly, and very straight down the line – but I couldn’t get him to come alive.” Wishart spent three days in front of the computer unable to write until one day, while slumped in his chair in a dressing gown with a glass of wine in his hand, the character suddenly started talking to him.  “He wasn’t the person I had thought he was at all. He was 19 for a start, and he was this total immature, yuppie, spoiled brat. It was so surprising but he was absolutely right and I was chuckling. And after that the book wrote itself.”

The books in the Marcus Corvinus series are humorous, with the characters speaking in modern dialogue. The complex plots can generally be divided into two categories: political mysteries and whodunits. In both cases, Wishart likes to base the story around a documented historical event, using the facts to come up with a new, fictional solution. “It’s a bit like doing The Times crossword: you’ve got to produce an answer that covers all the bases. In crime novels you can’t finish up with the accepted explanation, otherwise it’s just an historical novel.”

Wishart works out the solutions to the historical mysteries he is writing about in much the same way Corvinus does. “I’ve got a list of characters and I imagine how and why each one could have done it.” Wishart, and correspondingly Corvinus, work through the list of key players, formulating theories and eliminating suspects as new information comes to light. “It’s almost like a checklist. At some point you’ve got to put a cross.”

Corvinus is kept on track during his investigations by his sharp-as-a-tack wife, Perilla. “He’s very clever but his enthusiasm and cleverness carry him away beyond the point where he thinks. He’s impulsive. Perilla is a lot more logical. She’ll be looking for flaws and problems. I can let Corvinus take the reader down the hypothetical path and then let Perilla stop that and take them back to reality. At end of the day it’s got to make sense. Perilla is a brake on fanciful plotting. She keeps me, not just Corvinus, on the right line.”

By unravelling the mystery in this way, Wishart ensures that the reader and Corvinus are always at the same level. He confesses to hating crime novels where the writer is purposefully withholding clues from the reader. “That’s why I like writing in first person: you get to assume the reader is fully apprised of what the character is thinking.”

One aspect of first person narrative that sometimes causes difficulty is that the reader must be able to empathise with the character. “Some aspects of Roman life would be completely alien to us and would break the empathy. For example, the real Marcus Corvinus wouldn’t have had an issue with slavery at all. Slaves were ranked below domestic animals. They weren’t people.” In the novels Wishart sometimes has to “blur over reality” so that modern day readers can identify with the characters.  The fictional Marcus Corvinus has developed a camaraderie with his slaves, putting up with his temperamental cook’s mood swings and concocting plans with his wife to help his major domo get a girlfriend.

On the whole, Wishart likes to portray Roman life as accurately as possible. He admits to already having a comprehensive knowledge of Roman history thanks to his Classics degree. He supplements this by further reading into the background of each novel. “The most useful source of research has been the 19th century Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, two solid volumes of everything you ever wanted to know about Roman and Greek background.” He researches his topic thoroughly before starting to write. He stresses that “you have got to let the character tell the story” and for that reason he has to know everything he can about the background history so that the character doesn’t “walk in a direction you don’t know about.” He likens his theory to seaside binoculars: “you can turn them any way you like but when the money runs out the shutter comes down and you’re blind. If you think your character is going to turn right because you’ve researched that area and he turns left instead, it’s like the shutter coming down.”

He warns against letting the extent of your research show in the writing. “I find that very annoying because it breaks flow of plot. Research is a bit like an iceberg. One tenth of it appears in the book but the other nine tenths aren’t lost, they give the one tenth stability. The reader should think that if they got the author into a corner and said ‘tell us a bit more about this,’ the author could do it. It gives you street cred as an author.”

As well as schooling himself on the historical background, Wishart studies maps of Rome for place names and geography. Surprisingly, he did not actually visit Rome until after he had published several books in the Corvinus series. “Until comparatively recently my only source for the topography of Rome was an early 19th century classical atlas.” Although he planned several trips to Rome, he was always thwarted at the last minute by a series of disasters, from sinking ferries to outbreaks of farming diseases.  His sixth attempt to reach the city was successful but, “two days before we left the pope died. I feel personally responsible for that.”

While in Rome, he felt more connected to his characters, noting that they seemed to “come alive”. He describes an instance where “Corvinus almost took over.” While travelling on the underground with his wife, he noticed someone trying to pick his pocket. “I got him by the throat and I wasn’t letting go. The door opened and he kicked me and took off. I took off after him, grabbed him and I literally lifted him off his feet and slammed him against the wall.  He thrust this bag at me. He didn’t get anything and we won, but it wasn’t me, it was Corvinus.”

Having a strong relationship with your characters is, according to Wishart, the main advantage of writing a series of novels. “They’re all friends. You don’t have to get to know them as you would new characters. You’re straight in there and you can watch them develop. At the beginning, Corvinus had only his own opinion and that was it. Now he can see other people’s points of view, which is good.”

After fifteen years and as many books with Hodder & Stoughton, Wishart has moved to a small print-on-demand publisher with the latest novel in the Corvinus series, Bodies Politic. Being a “small fish” at Hodder, there was little money for marketing his books and he describes his frustration at seeing them disappear into a “publishing black hole”. He is much happier now that he is with PlashMill Press, who have recently launched a blog dedicated to promoting their authors and showcasing their work. Visit the blog now to find out more about Bodies Politic and to order a copy.

Interview with Kirsty Scott

Kirsty Scott is “not one of those authors who gets up at four am then hangs upside down on gravity boots to get the blood flowing to their brain.” With her career as a journalist and a busy family life making demands on her time, her fiction writing is confined to the evenings. She is not one of those authors who maps out every detail of their plot in a colour coded flow chart, either. She did go out and buy a whiteboard once but admits guiltily, “It was a kind of displacement activity. I didn’t use it. Instead my kids scribbled on it.”

So how did she keep track of the many interweaving plot strands in her most recent novel, Fortune House? “It was really tricky. I used large A4 notebooks. By end I had four of them. I’m not very organised; they should all have been dated or labelled but they were even all the same colour.”

Fortune House centres around four generations of the Haldanes who have gathered at their family home for a celebration. The reunion is overshadowed by lingering pain from the death of a son and brother many years ago, which the family have to confront if they are to deal with their problems in the present day.

Like Kirsty’s previous two novels, the Sunday Times bestseller Mother’s Day and Between You and Me, Fortune House is told from the point of view of a number of different characters. The narrators span four generations and are both male and female, which presented a challenge to Kirsty who until then wrote “mostly about women my age. There’s a 12 year old boy and a 63 year old man in Fortune House. I thought, ‘how do I get in their heads?’” She turned to the internet for answers. In the novel, 12 year old Jamie is tormented by malicious text messages from bullies. Kirsty visited online forums and blogs to find out how children in similar circumstances “tried to deal with it or didn’t deal with it.” She spoke to friends to understand the emotions of a parent in that situation.

The problems faced by the other characters in the book are similarly topical. Fortune House is set around New Year 2010 and Kirsty had to stay abreast of political and cultural developments to ensure the references in the novel were current. “When I started writing the credit crunch hadn’t happened yet. Thankfully I was in the final draft and could put hints of that in.”

Having written three novels with a strong family element, Kirsty now feels it is time for a change. “The whole chic-lit sphere is quite oversubscribed. I’d love to write a thriller now. I see myself writing crime.” Working as a news reporter has given Kirsty access to a wealth of material that could form the basis of a crime fiction novel. “Journalism is so privileged,” Kirsty says, pointing out that she can question insiders and experts to gain information. “I can pick up the phone and say ‘what’s going on here?’ I’m constantly amazed at how much people are willing to divulge.” But the licence to be nosy comes with a price. “You’ve got to consciously work at keeping your humanity,” she says, explaining that you can become immune to bad news when you work in journalism. “When there’s a train crash you ask how many are dead. If someone says two there’s a sense of disappointment. You have to remind yourself that this is a big tragedy for somebody.”

It is not uncommon for journalists to embark on careers writing fiction but Kirsty is perhaps one of the few who, despite success as a novelist, has no plans to give up journalism. “I’ve been a news reporter all my life. I love journalism. Fiction is my kind of down time. It’s a fun thing to do.” Kirsty has also developed an interest in scriptwriting and would consider adapting one of her own books for the screen. “I’ve just done bits and pieces. It’s the thing that gets pushed to one side…I would love to write the screenplay for Fortune House.”

Raising a family while being active in several areas of writing is a lot to contend with but Kirsty remains philosophical. “It’s a big juggle for everybody. Some days it works, some it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets to seven thirty and the kids have finished dinner and I think, ‘Now it’s time to write,’ but I just want to collapse on the sofa. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t get it done. I love writing.”

Kirsty drew on her experience of combining a career with family life in her first novel, Mother’s Day. She wrote the first three chapters and a synopsis while on sabbatical from the Guardian and submitted them to a publisher. They e-mailed back asking to see the rest of the manuscript. Although Kirsty had not yet finished the novel, the publisher advised her to get an agent and recommended a few names. “After thirteen chapters my agent said let’s try again, and that time I got a deal.”

When the book was published in 2006, Kirsty found it hard to let go. “I was quite desolate when I stopped writing about the characters in Mother’s Day. I felt I knew them so well.” Kirsty’s ability to identify with her characters meant that while she was writing “they were guiding the scenes. You know what they would say because they are so real. You know how they would react, the words they would use.”

To write about the children in the novel Kirsty looked to her own offspring for inspiration. “I borrowed heavily from my children in my first book; the silly things that kids do and say. My daughter has read Mothers’ Day now but thankfully she didn’t recognise herself. You’ve got to stop using kids as fodder when they’re teenagers. They need a private life that you don’t use.”

Kirsty feels strongly about protecting the privacy of her friends too and insists that she has never been tempted to include real life dramas in her novels. She has an “inherent sense” of which anecdotes she can use in her writing and which she should leave well alone. “Sometimes I hear something and I think ‘that would make a great story,’ but I don’t write about it. You could lose a friendship over it.”

The only person Kirsty admits to having based a character on is herself. “I think authors betray themselves completely subconsciously in the characters they create. If anyone, I’m holding a magnifying glass up to myself.”

Interview With Sergio Casci

Sergio Casci is a Glasgow based screenwriter whose television credits include River City, Personal Affairs and Sea of Souls. His first feature film, American Cousins (2003), a romantic comedy about a Scots-Italian fish and chip shop owner who takes in his American Mafia cousins when they go on the run, was voted third best Scottish film of all time in a poll by The List magazine. His most recent film, The Caller, stars Rachelle Lefevre (New Moon, Twilight) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood). Filmed at the end of last year in Puerto Rico, the psychological thriller about a divorcee tormented by sinister phone calls will be released later in 2010.

I got into screenwriting while I was working as a BBC news trainee. After a couple of years I realised that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a journalist. When a big story broke other people were desperate to get sent on it and I was hiding in the toilets. I was a bit of a wimp. I was talking to a newsreader there about how lots of Scots-Italians come from this one small village in Tuscany called Barga, which is where my family come from, and she thought it was a great idea for a documentary. I went to speak to somebody who worked in features at BBC Scotland and she put me in touch with this documentary maker, Don Coutts. We came up with an idea for a documentary and I went over to Barga with him and he directed it. It was a really lovely film; very lyrical, very warm hearted, because he’s that kind of director. We got to know each other very well and it turned out that we both really wanted to make films so I went away and I wrote a full length feature screenplay, a sort of European political sex comedy thriller, which – given that the films that tend to succeed are single genre films – was destined for failure. It was a real learning experience so I thought I would be a bit less ambitious and try to make a short film.

My first short film was called Dead Sea Reels and it was about a magical piece of film which, when you play it through a projector, shows you what you need to see. The film went on to win an international award was very well received. That gave me a lot of encouragement. I wrote more short films which Don directed so in the end we made three short films together.

I started writing for television after that and eventually I reached the stage where I was earning as much from writing as I was from journalism. I had a lot of work lined up so I thought, ‘This is the time to jump.’ As soon as I left my job at the BBC, all the work immediately dried up. I had a shocking six months. It was almost like the universe had conspired to fool me.

The thing that saved my career was River City. I got involved when it was just being set up and they gave me quite regular work which meant that I could feed my family. With River City you get a bible, character outlines, the back story of each character and, if you go in for a commissioning meeting, they’ll give you an A story, a B story and a C story. Within each story they’ll tell you where they want the characters to start and finish and you have to bring the thing to life and inject as much drama as possible.

Writing for a continuing drama is not that different from writing your own film. With River City you’re working with someone else’s show so you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. There are so many people involved – writers, technicians, producers – that you all have to follow what the centre is saying, otherwise it would spin out of control. If you are writing your own film it will only get made if someone puts money in. At the point where someone puts money in, you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. If you were a writer who had millions of pounds of your own money to finance your film, I suppose you could do what you wanted, but in cases where somebody does write and direct and produce their own film, the finished work suffers. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve written that hasn’t been improved by other people’s input.

I’ve got many, many weaknesses as a writer but one of my strengths is dialogue. There is a rhythm and a poetry to dialogue and until it’s right, it offends me. Musicians wince when they hear a guitar being played out of tune. I wince when the rhythm and tone of dialogue is not right. I don’t write the way people talk because that would be dull. You want the dialogue to be effective but still sound natural so that a person watching thinks that that is how people talk. It’s fraudulent. I don’t think you have to be great at dialogue to be a successful screenwriter. You can be a brilliant screenwriter but crap at dialogue and you get someone in to fix it. Getting someone in to fix the structure or the character development or the plot is much, much harder.

One of the lead actors in American Cousins was a brilliant character actor called Dan Hedaya. When he had a scene he would try to cut the dialogue down as much as possible. He thought that the purest form of acting was with no words spoken at all. When he had a scene with nine or ten lines he would often cut it down to two or three. On every occasion his version was better than mine because it achieved everything I intended with my dialogue but in a much more efficient and emotionally charged way.

I still keep hoping that one day American Cousins will find a mass audience. It didn’t have the resources behind it to publicise it properly. It’s really heartening that the people who’ve seen it seem to genuinely love it, the only problem is that so few people have seen it. If you have a film that people really hate and you generate controversy then you get journalists writing about you. But American Cousins wasn’t controversial.  It was just a film that made people feel good. That’s no use. Maybe if we’d shot a puppy in the first scene… I’ll have to remember that for my next movie.

I think some people were pissed off about the chip shop mafia in American Cousins - I mean how stereotypical can you get? – but I wrote that film very much for me. I wasn’t thinking about what would appeal. The fact is, for a hundred years the vast majority of Scots-Italians worked in cafés and chip shops and ice-cream shops. My great grandfather came to Scotland in 1899 and worked in a café. My grandfather then worked in a café and my dad worked in a café. Yes, it’s a stereotype but the reason that stereotypes and clichés exist is because they contain a great element of truth. I don’t have a prejudice against stereotypes. I think it depends how you use them and where you go with them. The Mafiosi in American Cousins is a heinous stereotype but I would argue that the portrayal of these people in the film was not stereotypical.

My big thing now is The Caller. I’ve always loved supernatural thrillers and horror movies and I’ve always loved comedy so I’ve tried to do both in my career. I think there are a couple of laughs in The Caller but in terms of genre it is very definitely a supernatural thriller. The film’s in post production but I’ve seen bits of it and it looks great. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the producers and the director and the actors to thank for that. Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to film, with great crews and a fabulous variety of locations. I went over for a week to watch the filming but I wasn’t tempted to offer my own ideas. On set the director is boss and if he wants my opinion I’ll give it to him, otherwise I’ll just let him get on with his work. Don’t interrupt a surgeon in the middle of a brain operation!

At the moment I’m working on two projects which are adaptations of my wife’s [Helen Fitzgerald] novels. One’s a feature film screenplay for her thriller, The Devil’s Staircase, and the other is a TV idea based on her Krissie novels and it’s called Dead Lovely. You do have to perform major surgery when you adapt a novel because it’s this great, sprawling, panoramic thing and you can’t just plonk it into Final Draft and put in on the screen. You have to decide what the essential parts are and distil them into a three act movie while remaining true to the spirit and intention of the novelist. The good thing about working with my wife is if I collapse two characters into one or do something radical, instead of sitting there worrying, ‘Oh my God, will the novelist now stalk me for the rest of my life?’ I can just ask her and, more often than not, she’ll come up with solution that’s better than mine. From her point of view the good thing about working with me is that she knows the person adapting her book is never going to betray her vision. She’d kick my head in.

Interview with Meirion Jordan

Meirion Jordan was born in Swansea in 1985. He read Mathematics at Oxford before going on to the University of East Anglia to complete an MA in Creative Writing. He is currently working towards a PhD in Creative and Critical writing at UEA. His first book of poetry, Moonrise (Seren, 2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

 I find that there is often this misconception that people can be good at the arts or the sciences but not both. Have you ever encountered that? Are people surprised when they learn that your background is in maths?

Most people are a little surprised but they accept it relatively quickly. There’s no real shortage of poets who have a background in science. Miroslav Holub, for example.

 In many of the poems in Moonrise your interest in mathematics comes through in the way you view nature. Do you find there is a natural overlap of maths and creative writing?

There’s a very interesting interplay between maths and creative writing: both attempt to approach notions of truth but in completely different manners. In Moonrise I’m often trying to look at nature as being a complex and systematic force. One thing that I was trying to do with the book was to reclaim this idea of the moon from pure romantic visions, to reckon with it in more technical terms. I read a lot of science fiction and I write a lot of science fiction poetry. That’s another good crossover point. A lot of sci-fi is written by scientists. I like it because it is a literary genre that doesn’t seek to appeal directly to high brow notions of what books and literature should be.

 When it comes to writing poetry do you think your age puts you at a disadvantage compared to older poets with more life experience than you?

I’m inclined to think of it as an advantage. I was 21 when I wrote Moonrise. The book represents an apprenticeship in poetry. It’s very difficult to see a writer’s form without two or three books. Because I’m just getting started, I’ve got nothing to lose, no reputation at stake. I can take risks; it’s an exciting thing for me.

 How do you feel about Moonrise being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection? Were you disappointed not to have won?

It’s like a big thumbs-up in the sky that I can look out my window at from time to time, but it doesn’t stop it from raining on me! I’m not much of a competitive poet. I can’t say I’m too disappointed about not winning.

 The critical reception of Moonrise has been very positive. All the reviews I have read have been good. Has that been encouraging?

My editor is very enthusiastic about good reviews because it means people are more likely to buy the book. It’s largely a business thing. As a writer, a good review is often more dangerous for me than a bad review. A bad review will tell you what you are doing wrong, a good review won’t tell you anything. I read one review which was generally positive but where the reviewer had some strong reservations about where he thought I was slipping. That sort of constructive criticism of my work is immensely valuable.

 Do you get any useful feedback from doing poetry readings?

Poetry readings are normally done in connection with a book and since the books are rarely published fewer than 18 months after the last poem was written, there is often a big gap between what you are writing at the moment and what people are expecting. I try to reflect what I’m writing about at that particular time. You can usually tell what’s working from how people respond. I’m more gloomy in my writing than I like to be in real life. A short visit to the psychiatrist is a dark poem but people find it a lot more entertaining when I actually read it. I do have a dark sense of humour – certainly in Moonrise – which other people possibly find strange. 

 What are you working on now?

I’m writing poetry on quite historical matter at the moment. In the next few months I’ll be handing my second book into my publisher. I’m going through it now, rewriting to a greater or lesser extent.

 Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process?

It’s definitely a bit of a funny process. Composition occurs in my head rather than on paper. I wrote Moonrise in pencil in my notebooks and was able to go from the blank page to a poem in a relatively short while, writing short lyric pieces of between 4 and 50 lines. I wrote mostly at night after other people had gone to bed, when I had the most mental and personal space.  I’m more diverse in my writing habits now, partly as a result of doing things at UEA. I’m not averse to writing down a few things in the library and I’ve found that I will now write something long straight onto a computer then come back and alter it.

 Apart from diversifying your writing habits, have there been any other benefits from doing an MA in Creative Writing?

It got me into critical writing, linguistics, literary pragmatics – academic pseudo-disciplines that have sprung up around literary criticism. On the creative side, it gave me one year to take my writing places I would not have been able to go had I been writing purely by myself. It was worth doing for that.

 You’ve stayed on at UEA to do a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. What do you hope to achieve from that?

I’m hoping to get a third book of poetry out of it. It’s all contingent on what my publisher thinks that they can publish. For the moment I’m happy to write away in a university department – there’s lots for me to learn and lots of time. I’m not in any rush. I have so many more years of writing poetry ahead of me – something I do relish a little.

 Where do you see yourself in the future?

I would like to get involved in teaching creative writing, to bring creative writing skills to a wider audience. You can never say anything about how your literary career is going to develop. Poetry takes on more than just a professional form; one can write poems for an audience of one and those are just as important as poems written for hundreds of people.

 Moonrise is available to buy from the Seren Books website.

Interview with Daisuke Takahashi

Daisuke Takahashi explains how a childhood book inspired a life of adventure.

We all know that childhood reading is important, that it feeds the imagination. No one knows this better than Daisuke Takahashi, whose love of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe inspired him to travel the world as an adult. In his twenties, Daisuke backpacked throughout the world, drawn to the wilderness of Himalayas, the Antarctica, the Amazon and the Sahara. His fascination with the Earth’s most remote regions stemmed from his love of Defoe’s classic novel. “For me Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was a kind of bible. It tells how one can manage to survive in a remote part of the world.”

He had always regarded Robinson Crusoe “as a fiction of the 18th century, just the imagination of author.” When he learned that the novel is thought to be based on the experience of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), Daisuke determined to find out everything he could about Selkirk’s story and how it related to Robinson Crusoe’s. “What was the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Everything started from this question and provided me with my inspiration.” Daisuke documents his pursuit of the answer in his book, In Search of Robinson Crusoe.

A large part of the book is concerned with Daisuke’s stay on Robinson Crusoe Island (formerly Más a Tierra), off the coast of Chile, where Selkirk was marooned for four years and four months. Daisuke, a seasoned traveller and explorer, used his survival skills to live off the island’s resources as Selkirk had done almost 300 years previously, with no modern tools or equipment. Daisuke believes that this experience was crucial to enable him to understand how Selkirk must have felt during the years he spent alone on the island. “I spoke to the island’s rocks and trees to relieve loneliness. Without this experience, I could not write about [Selkirk’s] castaway life.” Daisuke hoped that by living like Selkirk for a short time on the island, he would uncover evidence of the castaway’s existence. “Trying to find water and edible fruit or catching fish on the island like Robinson Crusoe was not for fun but to find Selkirk’s campsite.”

Daisuke draws on historical documents in In Search of Robinson Crusoe to give an account of Selkirk’s life. “We know about his castaway life from A Cruising Voyage Round the World by Captain Woodes Rogers. Rogers was a buccaneer and rescued Selkirk from [the island]”. In the small town of Lower Largo in Scotland, where Selkirk was raised, Daisuke gained access to documents from the local church which shed light on Selkirk’s personality. The church’s records of disciplinary action taken against Selkirk led Daisuke to draw the conclusion in his book that Selkirk was “hot-headed” and “prone to think with his fists.” This perhaps explains why, after one too many quarrels with the captain of the Cinque Ports galley, Selkirk was set ashore on a deserted island. To understand Selkirk’s role as sailing master on board pirating ships, Daisuke researched navigational history and explains that this information on the lives of pirates in the 18th century lends authenticity to his writing. “Many parts of my book rely on this indirect but historical background, however, I write the whole story as my personal journey and experience.”

Daisuke’s advice for aspiring travel writers is to gather as much information as possible on location. “Notes and photographs are essential; hand drawn rough maps and sketches too.” To recreate a landscape for a reader, Daisuke says that it is important to pay attention to all your senses. “How does the air smell? Is it dry or humid, hot or chilly?” Sometimes he takes sound recordings while he is travelling and tries to get a feel for the local language. “I write my emotional feeling too. I want to tell the readers how I feel about it, so the reader may feel what it is like to be there.”

For his next adventure, Daisuke hopes to delve into the background of another work of fiction and travel to the Guiana Highlands of South America. “They say that it is a prototype of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. How did Conan Doyle write the novel?” Daisuke aims to find out.

In Search of Robinson Crusoe is available to buy on Amazon.

Interview with Keith Gray

There are no taboos as far as Keith Gray is concerned.

“If I ever write an autobiography it will be called Red Bull Nights,” Keith Gray jokes, explaining that some of his best writing is done during the night. He has just finished giving a lively talk to the third year English pupils at my old high school, entertaining and horrifying them simultaneously with stories of rock climbing accidents and the effects of drinking too much Sunny Delight. Before he heads back home to catch up on that day’s writing quota, he lets me pick his brains on writing for young adults and talks to me about his most recent novel, Ostrich Boys, which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.

Ostrich Boys tells the story of Blake, Sim and Kenny, three teenage boys struggling to come to terms with the death of their best friend Ross. After a dispiriting funeral that does not seem to do justice to Ross’s memory, they steal the urn containing his ashes and set out to travel with it 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Scotland. They believe that taking Ross to Ross will be a more fitting tribute to their friend. Pursued by the police and by their parents, the boys have to overcome a series of obstacles that threaten to cut short their journey. On the way, they begin to uncover some uncomfortable truths about themselves and about their relationship with Ross and have to face up to the possibility that their friend may have taken his own life. It’s a difficult theme but Keith handles it with sensitivity and humour.

“I didn’t want it to be an ‘issues book’,” he explains. “When you read Ostrich Boys you can enjoy the adventure and the humour of it; it’s an exciting story, but there’s something heavy underneath.”  The darker issues that the novel touches on – death of a close friend and suicide of a young man – are counterbalanced by many funny moments as the main characters wriggle out of one scrape and land straight in another one. “People have said you shouldn’t have humour in the book, but not once do you laugh about suicide or death.”

Although the feedback on Ostrich Boys has been overwhelmingly positive, Keith has received letters from some parents and teachers who feel that suicide is not a suitable theme for young adults. “Where some people have a problem is that they think a book about suicide should be called Don’t Do It.”

Keith disagrees. “A lot of young people don’t want to be told things black and white.” He should know. His first published novel, Creepers, appeared in 1996 and since then he has been growing in popularity with teenage readers all over the world. He writes horror, thriller and adventure novels which have featured, among other things, terrifying creatures, runaways and guns.

“I don’t think there should be any taboos or any restrictions on what we write for teenagers or young adults,” Keith says firmly. “I don’t write about drug use, because I’m very much from the school of ‘write what you know’ and I don’t have any experience of that, but there are other writers who have been involved with things like drugs and I think, yes, they should write about it. If young people have to deal with these things in real life then, yes, we should write about them in books.” Keith believes that suicide is an issue that affects young people today. “Suicide is the biggest killer of people under 35 in Scotland. I’m amazed more people don’t write about suicide.”

While Keith stresses the importance of writing about issues that matter to young adults, he avoids current issues that might quickly become dated. “If you try to be too topical or contemporary, by the time the book is written and published it is not contemporary anymore. There are certain issues with young people – bullying, friendship and family – that never age.”

Friendship in particular is a recurring theme in Keith’s novels. “I think in today’s world, friends are becoming more important. With the breakup of families, people feel closer to their mates than to their parents. I had some really good friends when I was at school so the ideas that I have seem to involve friends.”

Keith’s story ideas are inspired not only by his own teenage years but also by other people’s books and films. “The initial spark of an idea is ‘How would somebody feel if this happened?’ With Ostrich Boys it was, ‘How would it feel if your best friend died and you were part of the reason?'” Once he has identified the question at the core of the novel, Keith goes on to develop the characters.

“I work from emotion outwards. Before I knew the protagonist of Ostrich Boys was called Blake, that he was overweight and that he was one of the clever kids at school, I knew how he felt about his best friend dying. I built everything around that feeling.”

The protagonists of Keith’s novels are usually male, because he writes with an audience of teenage boys in mind. “There are lots of books written for teenage boys all about being a spy or shooting people or flying to the moon or whatever. There are very few books written for teenage boys that talk about what it feels like to be a teenage boy and that’s the gap I’m trying to fill.”

The way the main characters in Ostrich Boys communicate with each other, constantly taking the mick and winding each other up, is something that teenage boys reading the novel can identify with.  “The dialogue is the thing I am most proud of in Ostrich Boys,” Keith tells me. “Young lads show their affection by calling each other names. All the name calling, bitching and arguments in Ostrich Boys are 90% though love.”

Keith warns against using current slang in teen fiction, pointing out that it quickly falls out of fashion. “You can still write decent dialogue without using it,” he says, then adds with a mischievous grin, “Swear words never age.”

Although Keith does not like to research for his novels, finding that it gets in the way of the story, he does admit that to make his dialogue convincing he is “always switched on” during school visits. “I listen to the way kids talk, watch how they interact and see how they use language. That’s my research.”

School visits are a mutually beneficial experience. In return for the soaking up the speech patterns of young people, Keith inspires them with his love of reading.

“Reading a good book is the greatest pleasure I’ve ever come across. People who read books are cleverer, wittier, more open minded and downright nicer than people who don’t. ” And he certainly knows how to make books sound appealing to today’s gadget guzzling youngsters. “A book is an incredible piece of technology. It’s like a little solid block of virtual reality.”

Keith is also keen to get more young people involved with creative writing. “A lot of school is aimed at passing exams. Sometimes people forget to tell the kids that writing is just an incredible, cathartic, pleasurable experience. I’ve worked with young offenders and I get them to create an imaginary character and to write a story using that character to describe their own lives and themselves. It can be a really liberating thing to do.” No sooner has Keith uttered these words than he claps his hand over his mouth and apologises for sounding pretentious. I assure him that only his infectious enthusiasm for writing is coming across. You can get a dose of this yourself in the five podcasts that make up his Creative Writing Masterclass at the Scottish Book Trust website.

I ask Keith if he can offer any tips for adults who would like to write for a teenage audience. “If you want to write for young adults, you need to read some of the best writers out there for young people at the moment.” Keith reels off a few examples: “Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Siobhan Dowd – she’s fantastic. There are also some really appalling books for teenagers out there, but I won’t name any names. You have to read everything to let you know what’s good and what’s not so good.”

As for the actual writing, Keith’s advice is to “put story first. Young people don’t want morals and they don’t want to be preached at. They do want a damn good story.”

Point of view is crucial. “Don’t write hindsight fiction. Don’t be an adult looking back, be a teenager looking forward. When I write for young adults, I’m standing side by side with the teenager, looking forward.” In Ostrich Boys, the three main characters are looking forward into a future without their best friend in it. It is a crushing loss to come to terms with but they discover that life still has much to offer them.  “Blake, Kenny and Sim are having an adventure and Ross is going to miss out. That’s my message with the book.”

Ostrich Boys is available to buy in bookshops and at Amazon.

Ostrich Boys was shortlisted for the 2009 Carnegie Medal and is on the shortlist for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.