Monday 30 May 2016

A Conversation with Allen Ashley

Allen Ashley is the author or editor of 13 books comprising one novel, three short story collections, one book of essays and articles, one poetry collection (“Dreaming Spheres”, PS Publishing 2014, co-written with Sarah Doyle) and seven anthologies of short stories as editor. 

In 2006 he won the British Fantasy Award for “Best Anthology” with “The Elastic Book Of Numbers” (Elastic Press, 2005). He is co-host with Sarah Doyle of “Rhyme & Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club” at The Dugdale Theatre, Enfield. 

Allen is a committee member of the British Fantasy Society and is singer and lyricist with the indie rock band The False Dots. He works as a creative writing tutor with five groups currently running across north London. He also works as a critical reader for a reading agency.

Thank you Allen for joining us in conversation and we wish you lots of success with your writing and music.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Like so many others, I have written since I was a child. Stories, songs, cartoon strips, silly versions of well-known rhymes… I think I made my first submission to a magazine when I was 14 or 15. I had an acceptance when I was about 16 but it never actually saw the light of day. I think all authors who have been doing it for a long time will have plenty of these “shaggy dog” stories of promises of publication and apparent breakthroughs that never actually appeared. On the other hand, back in the 1990s I once received a £100 “Kill fee” when a publisher reneged on their contract to run a short story.

My most reprinted story is “Dead To The World”, which first appeared in the award-winning British independent press magazine “Fantasy Tales”. This was then reprinted in book form in the anthology “The Best Horror From Fantasy Tales” (Edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton, Robinson Publishing) and gave me the boost at the right time to keep going. There’s that Biblical quote about the road to righteousness being covered with stones, thorns and all sorts of hazards. That’s the writing road, actually. Still, after all these years I now have 13 books to my name as author or editor, 150 stories published, countless non-fiction articles and poems. I won the British Fantasy Award in 2006. I have also been short-listed on five other occasions.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I don’t limit myself to one tiny area of the broad writing field. I continue to write, submit and get published regularly. Nowadays, I do a lot of work as an editor, which I absolutely love. I sometimes quip: “Let the authors do the work!” but, in truth, the two great thrills of editing are: discovering a new voice and helping them on their way; and being sent something outstanding that one couldn’t have written oneself.

My great passion is short stories. As I’m not likely to write a “New York Times Bestseller” any moment soon, I earn my living as a critical reader and a creative writing tutor. As some of you reading this will know, I am currently running Novel Focus Group for Greenacre Writers. I also host poetry and spoken word events. Plus I am the judge for the annual British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition – currently open until 30 June 2016. Details here 

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?


You’re probably going to want a more fulsome answer than that. OK, I created a character called “Ben Grocott” in my story “Life and Trials” (collected in “Somnambulists” by Allen Ashley, Elastic Press, 2004). This was something of an epistolary story, told via school reports, police reports, the judge’s summing up and so forth. Grocott is shown to be a bully, a thug and a cop killer but some reviewers felt sorry for him calling him “troubled” even though he’d instigated all of the trouble himself. My point: no author can be truly in charge of the characters they create.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I have successfully written many stories from perspectives that are markedly different from my own white male point of view. I have written stories focused on women, on characters of colour and on characters who are physically challenged. My story “A Chip Off The Bloc”, for example, is narrated by a lesbian secret agent for the royal guard battling against a bunch of male pirates.
However, my understanding of “Diverse Author Day” and similar initiatives is that the focus is on encouraging and supporting authors from communities perhaps not fully represented in the broader writing world. As a tutor, I work with authors of varying ages, backgrounds, genders and abilities. All my groups are open to writers wherever they come from; the only requirement is a willingness to improve.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I don’t have a specific fantasy place in mind. Over the years I have taught myself to write (and edit) successfully under all sorts of conditions. Somewhere quiet without distractions is, of course, the ideal. I’m lucky enough to have a study at home where I can settle myself. But I’ve written on buses, tubes, trains, etc. Libraries as well, of course. I find that a good walk can help; a beach walk is excellent in this regard. However, I once wrote a whole poem on the walk from the bus stop to the office I was working at back then. It was a slightly musical piece, too, so I did well to keep it in my head all day until I was able to get home and record it on (showing my age!) a cassette recorder.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

This is a slightly difficult question because to have written many of these pieces I would have to have been a different person – i.e. I would have to have actually been J. G. Ballard or William Burroughs. So if I say “The Atrocity Exhibition” or “Cities of the Red Night”, it’s a slightly nonsensical answer because only those guys could have produced those classics.
Of course, there are loads of books, poems, songs and individual stories that I would be proud to have written. Envy should serve as an inspiration. As an editor, one of my great thrills is to receive a story that makes me think: wow, I wish I had written that.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

My standard response is one that is perhaps never going to make anybody rich but here goes anyway: Find your own voice. Who wants to be a tribute act? Going through the phase of writing just like your idol/s is a natural part of the learning process, of course; but, ultimately, for you to be fulfilled you want to write in a manner and on subjects that are pertinent to you.
There’s a lot of general advice that I would give to writers: learn the necessary skills, research your markets, edit thoroughly, join a writing group and, perhaps most importantly, don’t expect overnight success. It’s a hard slog. Forever.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am very pleased to confirm that I will be launching the revised, updated version of my novel “The Planet Suite” at Finchley Literary Festival on the evening of Friday 24 June. I will be reading from the book, be interviewed by Sandra Unerman and conduct a Q & A. As a Finchley boy, I’m really thrilled about this and I hereby advise everyone to attend!!!

I’m hugely busy otherwise with various projects. As mentioned before, I am the sole judge for the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition. I have also guest-edited an issue of the magazine “Wordland”, which should be released soon. I am working on a new editorial project for the British Fantasy Society aimed at new and emerging writers. Plus I have five creative writing groups on the go.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I can remember changing schools when I was about six. There was only one book available to me in my class in the new school that I hadn’t already read and it was a selection of Grimms’ “Fairy Tales”. I really liked the character of “The Brave Little Tailor” who kills some flies – “Seven with one blow” – but is believed to have slain a giant. Something in that has remained with me, even if it’s only the bluffing element!

You can follow Allen on twitter: @AllenAshleyUK

Saturday 28 May 2016

A Conversation with Joanna Campbell

Joanna Campbell’s first novel Tying Down The Lion has just been named as a contender for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize award 2015. The Guardian pioneered this award in an attempt to select a ‘reader-judged’ winner and Joanna is among 70 on this year’s list.

Born in 1960, Joanna grew up in Hayes, Middlesex. She studied at Exeter University to obtain a degree in German and has taught both German and English as a second language. Her love of reading began at the age of three and remains today. Her passion for books has led Joanna to write over recent years and her ability to observe people and remember the little details has been invaluable in her writing.

As well as having many of her short stories published in magazines, Joanna has had her fiction shortlisted in many competitions including the Bridport, Fish and the Flannery O’Connor Award. A collection of Joanna’s prize-winning short stories, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, will be published later this year.

Tying Down The Lion came from a short story Joanna had written, 'A Temporary Uprooting', which was frequently short listed in competitions. It follows Roy Bishop and his half-German wife Bridget, accompanied by their daughter Jacqueline and Grandma Nell, as they take a road trip to Berlin in the summer of 1967. Berlin at this time is divided by the cold war and is recovering from the devastation caused by World War Two.

Grandma Nell has a dislike for foreigners, including her German daughter-in-law, and Jacqueline observes and records the interactions between the family members during their travels.
Tying Down The Lion is a book about division but also about reconciliation. It shows the necessity of family love and understanding. There is warmth and humour mixed with the reality of the prejudices and bigotry which inevitably came in the aftermath of WW2.    

The following conversation gives us the opportunity to know Joanna a little better and we wish her every success with the book.

Tell us of your journey as a writer
I started writing seriously about seven years ago, but there has never been a time when I haven’t invented people. My earliest memory is staggering around the garden with a stick, pretending to be a lame, elderly man. I did this regularly for a long time, presumably wanting to discover how it might feel to be in someone else’s skin. I was always cripplingly shy and craved time alone to make up other lives.
When I was a little older, I wrote stories and poems to amuse friends because I didn’t feel I could hold their attention any other way. When I was seven, I made a guitar from a piece of cardboard, composed a dozen poems to ‘sing’ and staged a solo Eurovision Song Contest to an audience of one—the girl next door, bribed with a sherbet fountain.
As an adult, I couldn’t find a job I loved because I always wanted to work by myself. I was terrified of teamwork because if the process ever ground to a halt, I was sure I would be exposed as the faulty cog in the machine.
I was in my late forties before I thought of sending my stories and poems to magazines and competitions. An initial boost came when I was a runner-up in a competition run by Woman and Home magazine.
Although I have never written with a particular publication or competition in mind, once a story is finished and polished, I check to see where it might fit best. When ‘The Yellow Room’—a beautiful, high-quality literary magazine founded by writer and editor, Jo Derrick—published some of my first stories, I felt I had set foot on a path that I had always wanted to find and follow. It seemed to lead me to buried treasure and I haven’t been able to resist unearthing more and more ever since.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
My role is to entertain the readers; for my words to move them, either to laughter or tears—hopefully in all the right places. If even one person is stirred by what they see on the page, then that is enough for me.
It is thrilling to be shortlisted in a competition or to be one of the winners, but to hear someone say they were gripped by my story or that they laughed out loud, or shed a tear, is the real prize.
Positive feedback is the greatest accolade of all and the knowledge that I have added some value, however fleeting, to someone’s life is my favourite aspect of being a writer.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Bridget Bishop, the narrator’s mother in Tying Down The Lion, made me bristle at first. She is enveloped in her own past and preoccupied with her quest to go ‘home’ to Berlin. However, as Bridget led me deeper into her story and took me into the past, she revealed the depth of her suffering and the disconnection with her roots had damaged her ability to notice how much her new family in England needed her.
I met her as a fragmented person with a confused sense of self, and readers will find out if a more complete woman emerges in the end. What I have learned from Bridget is that we are all on a quest to establish our own identity, and should try to understand—rather than feel alienated by—each other’s missions.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?
There are two places. One is the garden of the house in Middlesex where I grew up. I’m sure it was quite ordinary, but it seemed magical when I was a small child, with its low walls and little steps that led to different levels. It was a perfect place for solitary games of make-believe and therefore endless possibilities. It is without doubt where, after inventing my first characters, I began to think, “What if…?”
The other place is a high-ceilinged apartment on the top floor of a once-grand town-house in the former East Berlin, where I once stayed on holiday. The shabby building still showed remnants of its former grandeur and the street below had become bohemian and bustling with life since the fall of the Wall. The apartment was steeped in history, evoking both the luxury of a golden era and the barbaric slicing into flats that followed during the years of communist rule. The preliminary ideas for Tying Down The Lion acquired a real shape there.
But my favourite place of all to write is my home, a small cottage in a quiet Cotswold village. If I were told I could never leave it, then providing all my family were there too, I would be content.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
I am having difficulty choosing between two, so if I may, I would wish I had written either Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons or Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. I love both these novels for their eccentricity, the rich characterisation and wry, natural humour. I have been kept from reading many a new book by my longing to return to these and re-read them all over again.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
In one word—finish!
Seriously, the first stage of writing a novel is like hanging out the washing on a bright day with a decent breeze. Every peg brings pleasure. The sheets are billowing and the shirts are swelling. The outlook is hopeful.
But after a while, the sky darkens and a storm lashes at your laundry-line. If you battle through the downpour, you will bring it all in—eventually. However, after that, worse is to come. You will actually become the wet sheets and dripping shirts as each of them is fed—slowly and painfully—through a mangle.
Beginnings are easy and full of hope, but you have to rise to the challenge when the clouds gather. Progress can be painful and slow, but it will be worth it. I spent five years writing and researching Tying Down The Lion, but a beautiful dawn chorus heralded the final words as I typed them and made every moment I spent putting myself through the wringer absolutely worthwhile.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
I am currently promoting Tying Down The Lion and also thinking of ways to promote my short story collection, due for release later this year. This is so different from writing! I am naturally quiet and shy, so thrusting my book at people seems a world away from where I should be. However, it can be a lot of fun too and I have made new friends, both online and in ‘real life’, as a result. All my family have helped me with ideas for publicity and been so supportive that I wonder how I would manage it without them.
I am also writing a novel I started two years ago that is now nearing the end of the first draft. There will be many more drafts to come, but it is beginning to feel less shapeless. I have changed the structure three times, settling for four different viewpoint characters with alternating chapters, and I feel comfortable with it for the first time.
This new novel is about a family who experience a tragedy and must find their way through the dark times that follow. Only the reader is aware of a potential new disaster lying in wait.
The characters have reached the stage where they are leading me and dictating the course of events. I am looking forward to seeing how it ends and hope they all find what they are searching for. I won’t know until I reach their final chapter.

Thank you so much to Greenacre Writers for inviting me to join in this conversation. I have so enjoyed answering your questions.

You can follow Joanna on twitter: @PygmyProse
Tying Down The Lion is published by Brick Lane Publishing

Wednesday 25 May 2016

A Conversation with Harry Parker

Image courtesy of Gemma Day
Harry Parker will be appearing at the Finchley Literary Festival. 
Meet the author - Church End Library: 
Fri 24th Jun 2.00-3.00pm 
See more here.

Harry Parker grew up in Wiltshire and was educated at University College London. At twenty-three he joined the British Army and served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009.

Harry's creative side was present from an early age and mainly took the form of drawing and painting. Although he did write some black comedy while in the army, it was an army-funded Arvon creative writing course in 2013 that took his writing to a new level. Writing from his experiences as a soldier, Harry's debut novel Anatomy of a Soldier, took shape.

Harry now lives in London. As well as playing with some ideas for a future novel, Harry attends art school and still loves to paint. He has also completed a post graduate course at the Royal Drawing School and likes to sea-kayak in his spare time.

Anatomy of a Soldier is different from other war novels in the form it takes. Both sides of the conflict is told through a variety of inanimate objects which makes for a very unusual read.

“Captain Tom Barnes is leading British troops in a war zone. Two boys are growing up there sharing a prized bicycle and flying kites, before finding themselves separated once the soldiers appear in their countryside. On all sides of this conflict, people are about to be caught up in the violence, from the man who trains one boy to fight the infidel invaders to Barnes’ family waiting for him to return home.

We see them, not as they see themselves, but as all the objects surrounding them do: shoes and boots, a helmet, a trove of dollars, a drone, that bike, weaponry…and the medical implements that are subsequently employed.

Anatomy of a Soldier is a moving, enlightening and fiercely dramatic novel about one man's journey of survival and the experiences of those around him. forty-five objects, one unforgettable story" -
Faber and Faber.

We wish Harry every success with Anatomy of a Soldier and good luck with his future writing and with life in general.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

After I left the Army I had a desk job I wasn’t enjoying very much. I have always practised visual art – drawing and painting – so my wife said I should give it up and do something more creative. I went back to painting but also started writing. I attended a weeklong Arvon course in Devon and the early ideas for Anatomy of a Soldier formed. I set aside a few months and treated writing as job, working nine to five every day. I wrote the first draft in 12 weeks – and then the edits, pursuing agents and the roller coaster of finding a publisher started.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I still feel like a novice and that my role is to get better; to write another book. While working on Anatomy of a Soldier, I felt a responsibility to tell as good a story as I could, but also one that was true to the subject matter I was investigating. When I paint, I always want to depict something about the world that is new and surprising in the hope that an audience would look, acknowledge and understand – to think, ‘God, I’d never thought about it like that before’. I suppose I also aspire to do this with my writing.

I enjoy using my imagination to create a new world or person or feeling or situation. That, and the thrill of the keyboard melting away and the scene pouring out of my head onto the screen… it’s not always like that though.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

When writing Anatomy of a Soldier I wanted to write the story of the enemy – the insurgents that plant the bomb that injures the main character. They are on the other side of the conflict and while it might have been easier to dislike them, to dehumanise them as evil for their actions and motives, it was important to me to try and give a balance – why are they involved in the conflict, what are their fears and pressures? It was easy to empathise with them once I’d humanised them.

4. GW recently organised #diverseauthorday: do you think literature accurately reflects the diversity of culture we have today?

I suspect there has never been an easier time to write. Laptops and the Internet mean that anyone can sit down and give it a go… it’s easier to redraft and perhaps we have more disposable time than people did in the past. But it’s easy for me to say that as a white middle-class man who has had a good education. Those opportunities are sadly not available to everyone: inequality in literature probably reflects inequality in our society.

5. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Just to the library to write. I find it difficult to write if there’s anything too interesting going on. But can I please be transported somewhere for a touch of research? Maybe one of Vladimir Putin’s next cabinet meetings or the next time they are making a breakthrough at CERN.

6. What is the one book you wish you had written?

I’m not sure I can answer this – there are so many. A book I read recently which left a huge impression on me was Pincher Martin by William Golding. The writing is brilliant, mirroring the subject matter so that, for example, you are breathless when the main character is drowning. It has such a powerful way of describing the way we experience the world. It’s also unsettling: the ending is shocking and reframes the context of the whole book.

7. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

A few things I try to remember: write a book you’d like to read yourself and haven’t read before; and, never hold onto the words too tightly – a phrase or sentence you love and have cherished probably needs to be cut, it will stick out from the rest – cherish the story or idea and let the words support that. Everyone is different though, as all readers are, and what is important to us will be different – advice is never as useful as just writing to find your own way.

8. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Every time I tell someone what I am writing the idea wilts a little and I don’t want it to die. It’s important that I keep it to myself for now, but there are no soldiers.

Anatomy of a Soldier is published by: Faber and Faber

You can follow Harry on Twitter: @harrybparker

Monday 23 May 2016

A Conversation with Vaseem Khan

Vaseem Khan was born in London in 1973. After obtaining a degree in Accounting and Finance at the London School of Economics he worked in Mumbai, India for ten years. On returning to London in 2006 he joined the Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London and still works there today. Throughout his working years, encouraged by his love of great literature, Vaseem has always found time to write.

His debut novel The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was published in August 2015 to excellent reviews. It is the first in the Baby Ganesh detective agency series and Vaseem is currently working on books two and three.

It was his experiences in Mumbai that were the inspiration for the series, Vaseem told Claudia Winkleman on BBC Radio 2’s Art Show earlier this month. On arriving in Mumbai he was greeted with the unusual sight of seeing an elephant wandering down the centre of the road. This vision stayed with him and a passion for elephants developed – after cricket and literature of course!

As Inspector Chopra, forced into early retirement, is dressing for his last day at Sahar police station his wife Poppy informs him that he has inherited an elephant. On arrival at the station a large crowd is gathered: a young man has died and it is thought that he drowned whist drunk. His mother believes he was killed and does not trust the police to investigate her son’s death as they are a poor family.

During the ensuing days, Chopra feels a certain desolation as he finds little of interest to fill his time. The young elephant is refusing to eat and he discovers that the new inspector is refusing a post mortem to establish the cause of death of the young man.

Ashwin Chopra, a principled and honest man, wishes to do what is right for the elephant and the dead boy so he seeks knowledge on how to care for baby Ganesha and commences his own investigation into the boy’s death.

Chopra’s enquiries take him to some of the darkest places of the city as he realises there is more to the young man’s death than was first suspected and Ganesha proves to be of valuable help in the search for the truth.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a well written book, easy to read and very entertaining with wonderful descriptions of the vibrant city of Mumbai. We wish Vaseem good luck with the novel and look forward to reading the next in the series, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown.

Tell us of your journey as a writer:

I wrote my first novel aged 17. Of course, I thought it would be a runaway bestseller. I sent it off, sat back and waited for the contract. Instead I got my first rejection letter! I wrote for 20 years before an agent accepted me. I had a great career in the real world in the meantime, which made it difficult to find time to write but I kept at it. I don’t think you can decide to be a writer. The American author John Irving once wrote that a defining moment for him came when another novelist pointed out to him ‘anything else he did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying.' So I think the first thing that any writer needs to do is make the mental adjustment from saying I’d like to be a writer to saying – I am a writer. That’s what I did!

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

For me a writer’s role is to transport readers to a different time, place or situation and then to immerse them in the plot of the particular novel they have written. Personally, I think a writer’s principal job is to entertain. I have read books which have been incredibly erudite and complex but somewhere along the line the author has started to write for him/herself rather than the reader. I have tried to keep my Baby Ganesh detective agency series – beginning with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – light, charming and entertaining.

The best thing about writing for me is bringing characters to life. I loved creating Inspector Chopra and his elephant sidekick baby Ganesha, shaping their personalities and their behaviour. After a while you realise that you can predict how they will react in any given situation – that’s when you know your characters have truly become real.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
In the third novel in my Baby Ganesh agency series – which I am still writing – we will meet the Queen of Mysore, a eunuch who runs a group of other eunuchs. She is someone who is involved in petty crime and is ruthless in her dealings with others. And yet she cares deeply about the eunuchs under her wing. She has suffered greatly in life which has shaped her views about the world. Eunuchs are at the margins of Indian society and suffer from prejudice and abuse. So although the Queen is not the most likeable of characters nevertheless she is someone I do empathise with.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I would love to spend a couple of months in the High Arctic! I have an idea to write a crime novel set in the High Arctic – where temperatures can fall to -50C, where night lasts four months, and polar bears are forever on the prowl. As I was thinking about this I thought what an amazing place to actually write. The very northernmost communities of Inuit natives live simple lives, with very little intrusion from the sorts of things that continually distract us in the West. Of course, their lives aren’t easy battling against the elements. But I like to picture myself in a warm cabin, surrounded by the sounds of an eternal winter, with nothing to do except write. And if I need inspiration all I have to do is go out into some of the most incredible scenery on earth!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. This is the best book about India that I have ever read. It is the book that made Salman Rushdie famous and was voted the ‘Booker of Bookers’ meaning it was voted the best Booker prize winner over a 40 year period! Why do I wish that I had written it? This book introduced me to magical realism as a literary concept, and showed me how it can be brilliantly used to illuminate real events from history. The book tackles India’s transition from the Raj to an independent nation, and vividly animates Indian life during that period through the eyes of the protagonist, Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of Independence with amazing gifts – telepathy and an incredible sense of smell!

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Write, write and then, when you’re absolutely sick of it, write some more. I think perspective is what most novice writers lack. The real question any writer should ask themselves is ‘am I good enough?’ In other words: is my writing of a sufficient standard to put together a coherent, well written novel in the genre I want to write in? I estimate I wrote over a million words before I was published, completing half-a-dozen novels, garnering more rejection letters than I care to mention. Looking back at my early work I not only cringe but can see how I have now become a vastly better writer in terms of the actual quality of the writing but also in terms of pace, plot and characterisation. Unless you are one of the lucky ones who hit instant success your road as a writer will be similar. Never give up.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I like to work on a lot of things simultaneously. I have just completed the draft for the second in the Baby Ganesh agency series The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown – which will be out next spring. [This book is now published] This book is about the theft of the world’s most famous diamond – the Kohinoor – which was originally mined in India. The Kohinoor is currently part of the British Crown Jewels. In the novel the Crown Jewels have been brought to India for a special exhibition. A daring robbery sees the Kohinoor stolen and Chopra and Ganesha called in to try and recover the great diamond.

I am also currently writing the third in the series (no title yet) where Chopra and Ganesha are on the trail of a kidnapped Bollywood star. And I’m also fleshing out the plot for the fourth episode when they will be travelling outside of Mumbai to Chopra’s native village in Punjab, north India, to try to unravel the mystery of Ganesha’s origins. So keeping busy!

You can follow Vaseem on twitter: @VaseemKhanUK

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is published by Mulholland Books – An imprint of Hodder and Stoughton

Thursday 19 May 2016

A Conversation with Cari Rosen

Cari Rosen is editor of Gransnet, sister (mother?) site of Mumsnet and the author of The Secret Diary of a New Mum (Aged 43 1/4), The New Granny’s Survival Guide and Northern and Proud of It. She appears regularly on television and radio and writes for a number of national newspapers. Away from work Cari spends far too much time in Tesco. And on Twitter. And eating chocolate. She can often be found walking long distances around London and usually has her nose in a book.

It’s boom time in the world of middle-aged maternity and now The Secret Diary of A New Mum (Aged 43 ¼), tells it as it really is.

Mid-life motherhood is one of the hottest topics around and the papers are full of it. The number of babies born to mothers over 40 has doubled in a decade – and one in every five births is to a mum aged 35 plus.

"Brilliantly observed. Reading this book about motherhood is like looking in the mirror, funny, embarrassing and yet cruelly honest. It feels good to laugh about it now the stitches are out." (Fay Ripley)

How do you cope when you are old enough to be the mother of everyone else in your NCT group? What do you say when people start asking about baby number two? And how do you survive a career break and get back to work before you are pensioned off?

The Secret Diary Of A New Mum (Aged 43 ¼) can at last provide the answers as it lifts the lid on what it’s like to face menopause and new motherhood at the same time.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Many novels started in my head. Several started on paper. All consigned to the bin!

The first book I actually ended up writing came from nowhere as the result of a casual comment on Facebook. I’d said something about my toddler and a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years remarked “I love your updates. When are you publishing? How about The Secret Diary of Cari Rosen, Aged 42 ¼?

A cliché, perhaps, but it really was a ker-ching moment. I scribbled down a paragraph and showed it to the literary agent I was working with for one day a week (definitely a case of right place, right time). He steered me through the whole writing-a-pitch-document thing (for memoir/non-fiction you don’t necessarily need to have written the whole book before submission) and within a couple of months I had a deal.

I’ve since had another two books published and am currently working on a novel.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Writing has to fit around my day job (as an editor) and family life and it can be hard to find time to really get my teeth into something. That’s the frustrating bit – what I like most is immersing myself in a story and playing around with the best way to tell it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes – in the book I’m working on now there’s a character who’s fairly odious. But there are reasons for him being the way he is and when they become clear it’s much easier to understand what’s made him that way.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters? 

The books I’ve had published so far are 1) memoir 2) non-fiction and 3) a miscellany. So essentially all fairly factual. The novel is also (part) based on a real story so I’m not yet sure how diverse the characters will be.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why? 

That’s a tricky one. One of my favourite places in the world is Scotland and I love the idea of holing up in the hills with my laptop – though I fear I would spend too much time admiring the scenery and going on sorties to replenish my stocks of Scottish tablet.

I did recently spend a weekend at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales with a bunch of fellow Prime Writers and that was pretty productive for all of us. I think we all found having others around to bounce ideas off/provide chocolate/empathise about bits that just weren’t working (etc) really valuable. So perhaps I should forget splendid isolation (however tempting) and stick to group retreats.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Good question! There are so many books I’ve loved that it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. In terms of literary fiction – anything by Maggie O’Farrell. For the bank balance, 50 Shades of Grey (which I have slightly less than no desire to actually read – but all credit to E L James for finding what was obviously a huge gap in the market.) Otherwise…Bridget Jones’ Diary., which coincided with my own Bridget period (including parachuting with a microphone and more big pants than I care to remember)

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Don’t give up. And chocolate definitely helps.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading? 

The aforementioned novel. It’s a work in progress!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why? 

I remember wanting to be Petrova from Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. I was never a ballet-and-neat-hair kind of child and I felt we were kindred spirits. I also loved Titty from Arthur Ransome’s books (for many of the same reasons). My favourite book as a child was Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.

The Secret Diary Of A New Mum (Aged 43 ¼) is published by Vermilion (Harper Collins)

You can follow Cari on Twitter: @cazroz

Cari Rosen is taking part in this year's Finchley Literary Festival

Monday 16 May 2016

A Conversation with Louise Beech

Louise Beech remembers sitting in her father's cross-legged lap while he tried to show her his guitar's chords. He's a musician. Her small fingers stumbled and gave up. She was three. His music sheets fascinated her - such strange language that translated into music. Her mother teaches languages, French and English, so her fluency with words fired Louise's interest. She knew from being small that she wanted to write, to create, to make magic.

She loves all forms of writing. Her short stories have won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting twice for the Bridport Prize and being published in a variety of UK magazines. Her first play, Afloat, was performed at Hull Truck Theatre in 2012. She also wrote a ten-year newspaper column for the Hull Daily Mail about being a parent, garnering love/hate criticism. Her debut novel was a Guardian Readers' pick for 2015.

She is inspired by life, history, survival and love, and always has a story in her head. Her debut novel, How to be Brave, came from truth - when Louise's daughter got Type 1 Diabetes she helped her cope by sharing her grandad's real life sea survival story.

'This book tells the story of Rose and her mother, Natalie, who are trying to cope with Rose's newly diagnosed, and very serious, illness. With the help of a diary she discovers, Natalie begins to tell Rose the tale of a group of men battling to survive on the Atlantic ocean in a lifeboat with limited food and water. This is a moving and richly drawn novel, and fine storytelling in its purest form. With lilting, rhythmic prose that never falters, How to be Brave held me from its opening lines. I found myself as eager to return to the story of Colin, Ken and their companions on their boat in 1943 as Rose herself was! Louise Beech masterfully envelops us in two worlds separated by time yet linked by fierce family devotion, bravery and the triumph of human spirit. Wonderful' - Amanda Jennings, In Her Wake.

Her second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, is released TODAY via Kindle and was inspired by her time working with children in the care system.

When she was fifteen Louise bet her mother ten pounds she'd be published by the time she was thirty. She missed this self-set deadline by two months. Her mother is still waiting for the money.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Oh wow, it has been long. Lifelong. Truly. But great, even with the lows. I’ve always written, ever since I could hold a pen. I told anyone at school who would listen that one day I was going to be a world famous novelist! I wrote little stories and full novels from being a child – I only wish I still had them. Being a very young single mum then occupied my time mostly. But when I was thirty I sent some articles I’d written on being a mum to a local newspaper editor, and he offered me my own weekly column, which I wrote for ten years. This gave me the confidence to start sending other work out. After my daughter was ill and I gave up my job to care for her, I had more time to write. To cope I wrote short story after short story, and they began winning prizes and being accepted by magazines. I took a brave leap and wrote my first full novel in 2008. It hooked me an agent, but not a deal. Book two didn’t get me one either. A third I never shared. Then I began How to be Brave in 2013 and knew (just knew) it was somehow going to be the one. My agent retired before she could send it out. I got rejection after rejection for the book. But I just carried on, and finally the wonderful Karen at Orenda Books said she loved it, and the rest, as they say, is book history.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I see the role simply as storyteller. Telling and sharing stories, ones that might entertain, make someone feel, escape life for a while. Perhaps even heal. I know that writing some of my novels has been a very healing experience, and I hope that extends to readers. I absolutely love meeting readers. I’ve made some wonderful friends on this writing journey. So aside from the joy of the actual writing (it is and has always been pure joy to me) I love meeting new people because of it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Oh, this is a hard one. I’ve create characters I disliked and didn’t ‘get’ at all. Quite a few of them. But one I found myself empathising with? Hmmmm. I’d have to say a young mum in The Mountain in my Shoe. She’s let most of her childiren go into care and has made some huge mistakes, but I truly felt for her, and was hoping she’d be redeemed in the end. And you’ll have to wait and see if she is…..

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In the novel that will hopefully be my third release - Maria in the Moon - there are a whole range of diverse characters since the novel is set in a flood crisis centre, where a young woman finds the courage to remember a forgotten tragedy from her childhood. The people who volunteer at this centre, and those who ring its helplines, probably represent just about every kind of person you’ll ever meet in life - rich, poor, old, young, happy, sad. It was a challenge but a joy to find their stories, their tragedies, their truth.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I’m still in love with New York. We went for a week last year (for the second time) and I’m so happy on its gaudy, busy, vibrant streets. I’d love a high-up apartment there so I could write with a glorious view, and then be able to escape to the streets and people-watch for inspiration.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

One already out there? Probably The Book Thief. An all-time favourite. One of the few books where I literally forgot who I was and where I was while reading it.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Never give up. Read and write extensively. Never let the multiple rejections stop you if you absolutely believe in your work. Enjoy it. Love your writing, and enjoy doing it.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently editing my second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, which was inspired by my time voluntering with children in the care system. Many of these kids have what is called a Lifebook, in which carers, social workers, and family members write up the young person’s childhood events so they have a history of it when they’ve left the care system. I always thought, wow, what an incredible way to tell a story. So a Lifebook is one of the narratives in The Mountain in my Shoe, alongside Bernadette who has just found the courage to leave an abusive husband, and ten-year-old Conor who is missing. I’m really excited. The book means a great deal to me.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

It has to be Katy from the What Katy Did series. I even named my daughter after her. I so admired her bravery after a childhood accident. She inspired courage in me when facing difficulties in my own young years. And bravery has become quite a theme in many of my own novels.

You can follow Louise on Twitter: @LouiseWriter
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy of How to be Brave.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

A Conversation with A. L. Bird

Amy Bird will be talking about her novel at the Finchley Literary Festival on 24th June 2016.

A.L. Bird lives in Finchley. She divides her time between writing and working as a lawyer.

The Good Mother, released in April 2016, is her major psychological thriller for Carina UK (HarperCollins), the fourth novel she’s written for the imprint. Her debut Yours is Mine reached the coveted No. 1 spot in the Amazon Women’s Crime chart. 

She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London, and is also an alumna of the Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ course, which she studied under Richard Skinner. Amy is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association

The Good Mother is an intense psychological thriller that maintains suspense throughout. 

Susan wakes up in a strange room. The door is locked and she has no recollection of getting there. Her primary concern is for her fifteen year old daughter Cara. When she hears Cara in the next room she is overjoyed that, although they are being held captive, they are at least together. Susan and Cara work out a plan for escape but all is not as it seems as the story unravels - culminating in a superb and unpredictable ending. 

Full review here

We thank Amy for taking part in our conversation and wish her lots of success with The Good Mother.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I was that person at school or at university who was always writing something – a review, a play, a diary. Indeed when I was 13 I started my first novel! But then in adulthood it took me a long time to find the idea for a full-length novel. Finally, in 2009 - inspiration! And I settled down to write. But then there’s that whole piece about getting published… I was pretty frustrated, so I went on a creative writing course at Faber Academy and also did an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. That’s where I met my publisher. And now we’re on the fourth book together! Since then, it’s been an interesting transition from exploring suspense and classic third person narrative to writing full-on ‘grip-lit’ thrillers like my most recent book, The Good Mother. It’s very close first-person style but still keeps the reader guessing about what’s actually going on. That’s how I most enjoy writing now.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To explore language, to feast on plot and narrative, and to be a sort of literary Pied Piper for readers – entertaining, thrilling, and drawing them on. When you are faced with sitting down to write your next book, your role is a private one between you and the page. It’s only as you edit and edit and edit that you are really honing the material, trying to see it from the reader’s perspective, and making sure they cannot see what you still want to hide – and that’s what will make them follow you until the last full stop. I love all of it or I wouldn’t do it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Oh always. I hardly ever create 100% likeable characters. I would find them too boring, too one-dimensional. When you look at all the great characters of classic and contemporary literary, most of them are flawed, but we empathise with them. That’s the joy of the challenge for the writer.

Last October Greenacre Writers organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience writing about characters of colour?

Pretty limited.  To the extent I have a diversity angle, it’s more about having strong female characters, who subvert assigned tropes and behaviours.  Experiencing motherhood for the first time recently, I tell you, there is enough still to focus on in eliminating stereotypes about women in our society and workforce.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I once did a writing retreat on a hill-top villa in Italy. It was magical, with just the right shade to sun ratio. It really cleared the mind and there was nothing to distract from the writing – but if you looked up you had an amazing view.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. There’s a brilliant combination of minute detail, flawed characters, and some weirdly horrible happenings, that builds suspense brilliantly. It’s my biggest book crush.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Just sit down and write. That’s the only way to get out that book inside you. Even now I have to remind myself of that. And don’t do it for money or fame or adulation – do it because you love it. That’s what will endure. Oh, and always write like you have a secret you’re not going to share until the very last moment.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

It’s another dark twisty thriller with family secrets at the heart of it. Every time I write a new book my husband thinks I’ve gone as dark as I can; then he reads the synopsis for the next one!

The Good Mother is published by Carina UK (Harper Collins)

You can follow A L Bird on Twitter:  @ALBirdwriter

Thursday 5 May 2016

A Conversation with Katharine Norbury

Katharine Norbury trained as a film editor with the BBC and has worked extensively in film and television drama. She is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA programme at UEA. The Fish Ladder is her first book. It was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was a book of the year in the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian. Katharine was chosen by the Observer as their Rising Star in non-fiction for 2015. The book has recently been longlisted for the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature and UK travel writing and nominated as a National Reading Group Day 2016 real life read. She lives in London with her family.

Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

“What a delight! The Fish Ladder is a luminous sort of book, beautifully written, darting here and there like a kingfisher over a stream. A beautiful, strange, intoxicating and utterly unique story ” –  Philip Pullman

 Combining travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology, The Fish Ladder has a rare emotional resonance. A portrait of motherhood, of a literary marriage and a hymn to the adoptive family, this captivating story of self-discovery is, most of all, an exploration of the extraordinary majesty of the natural world. Imbued with a keen and joyful intelligence, this original and life-affirming book is set to become a classic of its genre.

“There is much to learn from The Fish Ladder about how the memoir can tell a story as well as be a meditation; how language can be both profound and sensuous. It's an unsentimental but extraordinary exploration of how we use narrative to understand our place in the world” –  Amit Chaudhuri

We’d like to thank Katharine for taking part in A Conversation… and send our congratulations for the recent Wainwright longlisting. We wish her all the very best for the forthcoming film and sequel which we are sure will be as successful as The Fish Ladder.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

To be honest, I don’t think of myself as a writer. I have written – one book, published when I was 50. I am writing. But I don’t define myself by the medium. Rather, I am interested in certain things, and in communicating thoughts and ideas. In the case of The Fish Ladder, creating a work of prose/life-writing seemed to be the best way of realising what was happening at that time. It began as a very private project, an account of one summer spent with my young daughter in Wales but, as the summer progressed, it became apparent that the story might have a wider “reach” than that of my immediate family. The reason I was keeping a notebook that year was because I find digital photography difficult to master, believe it or not, and so when pharmacists stopped developing photographs I was obliged to find another way to “capture the moment”. Moments of joy – when a cloud passes over the sun, or a fish leaps out of the water. Or moments of transcendence – when your child smiles at you from a rock pool, bucket and net in hand, an orange crab wriggling on a nylon line. And so it was that I picked up a pen. The Fish Ladder is an “origins” story borne out of the notion of following a river from the sea to its source and this journey eventually became a metaphor for a more personal quest to discover who my natural family are and to contemplate the role of the adoptive family, with the landscape providing a counterpoint to the human story.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To bear witness? To explore the world. To ask questions. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I like the role though I find it rewarding and consider it essential.

Anything written has the potential to withstand millennia – the clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf. More recently, witness accounts such as Anne Frank’s diary have adjusted the moral compass of whole nations. There is an inherent moral weight on the writer.

Much of what we, as a reading public, know about environmental debate comes to us not through scientists or politicians but through writers such as Bill McKibben and Al Gore in the United States; Tim Winton, Verity Burgmann, Tim Flannery in Australia; Mark Cocker, Rob Cowen, Melissa Harrison, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Michael McCarthy, Richard Kerridge and George Monbiot in the UK. So writers are at the forefront of disseminating knowledge.

Freedom of expression is important to me and I have watched it being enthusiastically and voluntarily forfeited – in university “safe spaces” and in ideas about “cultural appropriation” to name but a couple of recent examples. The writer must therefore be robust, with a rhinoceros skin, and they must reserve the right to offend in order to articulate the ideas that motivate them. And we must all trust our readers to be the judge of whether what is written has any value or not, and not forget to disentangle the views of the writer with those expressed by their characters. And accept that, as with Pandora’s box, this position opens the lid on all kinds of demons!

The role of the storyteller has been central to human experience since we first sat around the fire entertaining and reassuring ourselves through the long dark nights, questioning our actions, and learning from them. It is with good reason that stories have been elevated and safeguarded throughout the ages by librarians, parents, teachers, priests and shamans. However, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the true role of those guardians of “story”. The stories are there so we can learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us, so we can think about complex moral issues in a truly safe environment, and also, to be entertained. That isn’t necessarily the impression that you get when you look at the atrocities committed in the name of certain books today and throughout the ages.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

This question had been crossed out although I think it is relevant to the life writer. There is no imperative for the reader to like a character in a work of memoir or biography. Some readers have loved the “I” of The Fish Ladder, others have taken against her/me. But I don’t think it matters. One of the least likeable characters in literature is Emma Bovary, but who among those of us who have met her hasn’t put their fingers to their lips, and read through tears and gasps as Emma stuffs her mouth full of arsenic powder after reducing her family to penury over curtains she couldn’t afford and the bills of her student lover? (I think it was the draper’s bill that finally tipped her over the edge!). It’s the human condition that we empathise with – the “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

The Fish Ladder is, at one level, a travelogue and there is a tradition in travel writing to respect the privacy of your fellow traveller. The people I met along the way ranged in age, class, religion, race, nationality and I simply presented them all as they appeared to me, while respecting their relative privacy. (So I didn’t say so-and-so had a nose like a melon, for example!) As a rule of thumb I don’t say anything about anyone that I wouldn’t be prepared to say to their face and in company! This is obviously a very different state of affairs to that of the fiction writer – think of Dickens’ character studies for example – where the writer can wallow in characterisation.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Oh. That’s two different questions. If I could go anywhere in the world I’d very much like to go to Australia. But as to where I would like to write? Proximity to mountains and the sea are ideal, as I think best when I am either swimming or walking. The Llyn Peninsula, the English Lakes, Catalonia. But I agree with Tim Winton who says that because he spends so much of his time outside, he writes in an austere room that doesn’t even have a picture on the wall, because a picture is a kind of window. Writing, for me, is an interior experience and the less distractions the better. But I do need to walk and swim in the gaps between writing so London (where I am now) isn’t the best place for me to work as it is packed with distractions!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

My goodness. That is impossible, forgive me.  Wishing you had written something by someone else implies a desire to get the credit for having done it! I think any kind of artistic endeavour is about paring down the ego, not inflating it. I’m just glad there’s a wealth of good stuff out there to enjoy! The book I read the most is the Odyssey of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore, and it is always at my bedside, but I have no desire to lay claim to it!

What advice do you have for would be writers?

To work hard. To heed the lived experience of writers you admire. To listen to Samuel Beckett, on failure, for example: “No matter, fail again. Fail better.” Or Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting”. To learn to accept criticism and see it for what it is. Your work can always be better. And your critics can be wrong. So don’t ask a member of your family to give you notes! Find someone you trust, a former school teacher, not your friends who are simply going to say: darling it’s marvellous! It probably isn’t! And also, to know when to walk away, and when something is finished.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am working on a screenplay of The Fish Ladder with the Irish filmmaker Enda Hughes. And I am working on Book 2 of what is probably a trilogy, with The Fish Ladder being Book 1. Another travelogue/memoir/landscape writing hybrid – but I work slowly and in many drafts. Watch this space!
You can follow Katharine on Twitter: @KJNorbury
Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.