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 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.

Interview with Sade Adeniran

Sade Adeniran proves that hard work and perseverance will get you there.

“Oh no! I forgot about the interview,” Sade Adeniran laughs when I phone to talk to her about the recent success of her first novel, Imagine This. It is no wonder the interview slipped her mind. She has just completed an intensive promotional campaign for Imagine This and is now preparing for a trip to South Africa to attend the Time of the Writer Festival. I offer to call back later but Sade very kindly agrees to talk to me while she does the ironing.

I met Sade last year at a writing retreat in Spain and was impressed by her proactive approach to marketing Imagine This, which won the 2008 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for The Book to Talk About 2009. These achievements are all the more remarkable when you realise that Sade published and promoted the book herself.

Like many writers, Sade went down the self publishing route because her manuscript was being overlooked by the big publishing houses. “I thought that if my novel was attractively packaged in book form, publishers would be more likely to read it.” When she looked into printing options, the bargain hunter in her was delighted to discover that the more copies she printed, the more money she would save.  I ask how many books there were in the first print run. “Eleven hundred,” Sade replies breezily.

It was not until she saw the books stacked up in her flat that Sade realised her work had only just begun. “I was thinking, how am I going to get rid of these?” Her solution was to organise a book launch and create a website through which she could sell the surplus books. “It all just snowballed from there,” Sade says. Her modesty is misleading. It took a lot of hard work and determination to bring Imagine This to the public’s attention.

Her marketing campaign included appearances on local radio and television. “I got on the phone and bombarded people with e-mails and phone calls until they gave in and let me come on to talk about Imagine This.” For many writers, venturing out of their creative cocoons to talk to perfect strangers about their work is a terrifying prospect. This was also an obstacle for Sade, who confesses, “I am not a people person. Before I send every e-mail I’m agonising over it. What will people think? Will they just delete it? I worry about it.” There is no magic formula for overcoming these fears. “I have to talk myself into it,” she says. Two years have passed since Imagine This was first published and I wonder if it ever gets any easier to approach people. Sade replies with an emphatic “No!”

The success of Imagine This can not only be attributed to Sade’s sheer determination to get the book out there. The well written and compelling narrative has captivated readers and sparked a vigorous word of mouth campaign. The novel tells the story of Lola, a nine year old girl who is torn from her home in London and sent to live with relatives in Nigeria. Although the setting of the novel is culturally very specific, Sade believes it has universal appeal because “it’s about somebody’s life experience, so it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, you just have to empathise with a character’s pain.” She points out that the title of the novel invites readers to imagine what life is like for Lola, even if they come from different cultural backgrounds to the protagonist and do not share her experiences. The cover design reinforces this idea.

“The cover painting was by a friend. I saw the painting on their website and it instantly appealed, just as it was.” Later, however, Sade had a dream that the she was looking at the painting in an art gallery. “I was wondering who the boy and the girl were and what they were talking about. The effect of looking at the characters’ lives from a distance played on the title, Imagine This.” In the first print run, the cover of the novel shows the painting on white background “because the walls in an art gallery are usually white.” The cover design in the second print run depicts the painting framed and hanging on a wall. (A second print run proved necessary when orders for the book were still coming in even after the first batch of eleven hundred copies had sold out.)

Despite the large demand for the novel and the positive reaction of readers, Sade still could not get a big publishing house interested in Imagine This. “No one was biting. I began to wonder if the book was any good. I had to decide who to believe: the readers who loved it or the publishers who wouldn’t buy it.” Sade decided to trust her readers and entered Imagine This into several novel competitions. It was not shortlisted for either the Orange or the Costa prizes and Sade was at a particularly low point when she received an e-mail from the organisers of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with a letter attached. “I didn’t open it for at least two days. I thought it was another rejection.”

When she finally did read the letter, she was amazed to find she had won the Regional (Africa) Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. Attending the awards ceremony in South Africa gave her a new perspective of her status as a writer. “I was dreading going as a self published author, a pretend writer,” she admits. “I went with this complex.” After meeting the other award winners, however, Sade’s worries were quickly dispelled. “They were very encouraging. They made me feel like a real writer.” It was a revelation too, to discuss her book with the competition judges. “They are academics and they were talking about Imagine This as a literary novel. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It did my ego a world of good.”

Sade returned to the UK with a fresh wave of confidence that helped her continue to promote her book.  Her perseverance was rewarded when readers voted Imagine This onto the shortlist of ten books competing for the title of The Book to Talk About 2009. During the second phase of voting to determine the winner, Sade sent out blanket e-mails to everyone she knew, encouraging them vote. The result was announced on World Book Day on the 5th of March and, although Imagine This did not make the top spot, just being in the running has been a huge boost. “In the last 3 weeks I have sold more books than in the last year,” Sade tells me.

It is clear that Sade is her own harshest critic when she refers several times to “losing” the Book to Talk About campaign. Nevertheless, she does seem to be approaching a place where she can happy with everything she has accomplished. “It is gradually dawning on me that I have achieved a lot, that I should be proud,” Sade agrees. Although she continues to claim that she has been lucky, she does tell me, “The book is good. I can admit that now. If you don’t have anything in the book, word of mouth will never spread.”

Sade is currently involved in a school outreach programme which has given her the opportunity to discuss Imagine This with a group of year nine students. “Imagine This has no generational boundaries,” Sade explains. “Everyone’s been young.” The positive feedback from the school students has been overwhelming. “I was welling up with tears when one fourteen year old boy came up to me and said ‘I don’t read but I read your book and it really touched me.’ He’d even written a review of it and given it ten out of ten. To me as a writer, that’s better than any prize.”

Imagine This is being put to one side now so that Sade can concentrate on writing her second novel. She hopes that the success of Imagine This, coupled with the fact that she has now snared an agent, will mean that publishers are more willing to read her second book. “That’s half the battle, getting someone to read it.”

Although the marketing of her second book will be in the hands of the publisher, Sade still plans do her own promotional work, such as book readings, on the side. “It’s better for me. It means more royalties. It all depends on what kind of deal you get with your publisher anyway. There might be no budget for marketing my second book.”

Before the interview ends and Sade is allowed to concentrate all her efforts on ironing, I ask if she has any final advice for writers trying to publish their first book. “Self publishing is hard,” Sade says. “Hard, hard, hard. Think twice. I wouldn’t say ‘no, don’t do it,’ just be aware of the pitfalls. You have to be bullish and grow a thick skin. Once you’re on that journey, if you’re as lucky as I have been then it’s wonderful.”

Imagine This is available to buy online at Amazon or through Sade’s website.