Saturday 28 October 2017

A Conversation with Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is the highly acclaimed author of biographies of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen. His first novel, The Lying Tongue, was published in 2007. His journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and the Washington Post

His latest novel A Talent for Murder, is inspired by the mystery of the Agatha Christie disappearance. 

‘I wouldn't scream if I were you. Unless you want the whole world to learn about your husband and his mistress.’

Agatha Christie, in London to visit her literary agent, boards a train, preoccupied and flustered in the knowledge that her husband Archie is having an affair. She feels a light touch on her back, causing her to lose her balance, then a sense of someone pulling her to safety from the rush of the incoming train. 

Wilson not only knows his subject but he deftly moves the tale away from mere literary ventriloquism and into darker territory. Great fun, too. Observer

So begins a terrifying sequence of events. Her rescuer is no guardian angel; rather, he is a blackmailer of the most insidious, manipulative kind. Agatha must use every ounce of her cleverness and resourcefulness to thwart an adversary determined to exploit her genius for murder to kill on his behalf... 

It's an absolute pleasure to welcome Andrew for a conversation and wish him much success with his new novel.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a child. I studied English at King’s College, London and then did a year-long journalism course at City, after which I worked as a features writer for most of the UK nationals. When I was in my late 20s I wanted to write something more substantial than a 2,000 word interview and, at the same time, I had been reading the novels of Patricia Highsmith. I wondered whether there had been a biography of the famously private author and when I realised there wasn’t, I thought about writing one myself.  I was lucky that the first agent I went to with the idea took me on.  

After the publication of Beautiful Shadow, the first biography of Highsmith, I wrote a novel, a literary thriller called The Lying Tongue, as well as a number of works of non-fiction, including biographies of Sylvia Plath, Harold Robbins, and Alexander McQueen, as well as a book about the survivors of the Titanic. I’ve always been driven by my curiosity, writing about subjects that interest me.

Then, a few years ago, I had this idea about Agatha Christie as detective. I’d always been a Christie fan - she inspired my first piece of extended fiction, The German Mystery, which I wrote when I was 12 (luckily it remains unpublished!). I was fascinated by the writer’s real-life disappearance in December 1926, when her abandoned car was found in Surrey and she went missing for 11 days, before she was discovered at a hotel in Harrogate. She rarely talked about the mysterious disappearance and there have been various theories about her motivation over the years. I used the facts of what really happened - taken from witness statements, police reports and newspapers - and into the gap of what we didn’t know I injected a crime story. What if someone was trying to blackmail her? What if someone wanted her to commit a murder on their behalf? And so the seed of the novel A Talent For Murder was born. 

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

It depends what I am working on. If I am writing a biography then it’s my job to tell the story of a person’s life with respect and a certain amount of empathy. My subjects have all been ‘difficult’ people, but I wanted to try to get under the surface of their tricky personalities to see what shaped their life decisions. 

If I’m working on a novel the prime consideration is writing a compelling and gripping story that will keep a reader turning the pages. 

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

I suppose in terms of my non-fiction, it has to be Patricia Highsmith.  She found many social situations very difficult, and often seemed full of hate and bile, but she was incredibly vulnerable and sensitive too. The challenge was to write a book in which all the different - and contradictory - aspects of her personality were reflected. 

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters? 

I approach each book with a fresh eye, as if it were my first book. The challenge in writing about Agatha Christie was to try and get her tone of voice right. Of course, she is a character, but I write about her in the first person. So I wanted to capture the particular way in which she saw the world. Luckily, I had always read her novels - she was my first introduction into the world of ‘adult’ literature. I also listened to lots of audio books, so that the flow and structure of her sentences seeped into my unconscious. 

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

Any house by the sea — I always find the changing nature of the ocean good for writing. Luckily, I live about a 20 minute walk from the sea in Devon, so I try to get down there as often as I can.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

It has to be Bleak House by Dickens - a crime story, a love story, a story of identity, a story of society. Epic in its sweep, but gripping from page one, right until the very end. 

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

It’s probably the same advice that many people give. Don’t give up. Write as much as you can. Read as much as you can.  Tell a good story. Just try and get the words down. You can always edit later. 

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

The second in my series of novels featuring Agatha Christie is out in May in the UK next year - March in the US. It’s called A Different Kind of Evil and is set in Tenerife. Here’s a bit more information about the book.

In January 1927 – and still recovering from the harrowing circumstances surrounding her disappearance a month earlier – Agatha Christie sets sail on an ocean liner bound for the Canary Islands. 

She has been sent there by the British Secret Intelligence Service to investigate the death of one of its agents, whose partly mummified body has been found in a cave.

Early one morning, on the passage to Tenerife, Agatha witnesses a woman throw herself from the ship into the sea. At first, nobody connects the murder of the young man on Tenerife with the suicide of a mentally unstable heiress. Yet, soon after she checks into the glamorous Taoro Hotel situated in the lush Orotava Valley, Agatha uncovers a series of dark secrets.

The famous writer has to use her novelist’s talent for plotting to outwit an enemy who possesses a very different kind of evil. 

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I think it has to be Miss Marple. I loved the fact that she is kind and gentle, like my grandmothers, but also that she is incredibly observant, nosy and has this core of steel. 

A Talent For Murder is published by Simon & Schuster

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewwilsonaw

Saturday 14 October 2017

A Conversation With Imogen Hermes Gowar

Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts before going on to work in museums. She began to write small pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with and around, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA.

She won the Curtis Brown Prize for her dissertation, which grew into a novel titled The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. An early draft was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition 2015, and it was also one of three entries shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.

Imogen lives, works, and walks around south-east London – an area whose history she takes a keen interest in – and her first novel, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock, will be published 25th January, 2018. You can read an extract here.

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.

Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

[A] beautifully written debut. By turns bawdy, witty and moving, this is a glorious romp through Georgian London. - The Bookseller

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

Absolutely delighted to welcome debut novelist Imogen to Greenacre Writers and wish her well with the novel which is already causing a storm months before it is published.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

It’s a cliche, but, I’ve always written. When I was eight or nine I got wise to the fact that publishers put their address in the front of their books, so I secretly sent Walker Books a story I had written. I got a lovely personal rejection letter describing my work as ‘very sweet’, which disgruntled me greatly.

I was aware quite young that writing wasn’t a ‘job’, and put it on the back burner until my mid-twenties, when I signed up for a creative writing evening class. I’d graduated into the credit crunch in 2009 - I was really lucky to get waged work in the museum sector, but it was a slog. Allowing myself to take writing seriously was really a form of self-care: I desperately needed intellectual stimulation and a sense of accomplishment, which I wasn’t getting at work. My tutor, Katy Darby, encouraged me to apply to the Prose Creative Writing MA at UEA, and with her reference I won a scholarship to go in 2013. I started writing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock for my dissertation there, and something about it felt so different from the other novels I’d struggled with. It wasn’t all plain sailing - I sometimes found it a huge struggle to keep writing, and there were a lot of rejections - but eventually the manuscript was a finalist for both the MsLexia First Novel Award and the Deborah Rogers Award. I got my agent around May 2016, and the novel sold to Harvill Secker soon after that.

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

I think it’s a lot about being observant and sensitive. Reading, watching, listening, before parsing what you’ve gleaned into your own words. My favourite part is the sense of other worlds opening up around me, whether in the research or the writing stage.

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

Absolutely - this is one of the primary reasons I write. Creating characters and making them move convincingly through their world is always an exercise in empathy (at least in my own practice): the more flawed they are the better, for me. There is one character in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock who is almost objectively dislikeable, but the longer I wrote her the more respect and affection I had for her, and when I finished the book she was the character I found it hardest to let go of.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that eighteenth century London was not entirely populated by straight white men, and in my writing I want to place value on all sorts of people’s lives. On the other hand, there are stories I don’t think I have a right to tell. There are many people better equipped than I to give voice to a great host of experiences: I stick to what feels right to me.

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

A very remote and well-insulated cottage in North Yorkshire, somewhere like Malham, with no space for anybody to visit me. I’d have a woodburning stove and a big desk, and write while the wind screeched outside. I spent my childhood on a North Yorkshire hillside, and my heart is still there.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

The Giant O’Brien by Hilary Mantel. I’m sure everyone names Mantel, but I admire this novel particularly because it is so brief, so pungent, so moving.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Only to keep going. Even if you only get to write for an hour a week. Even if it looks like a dead loss. Give yourself permission to be a writer, and when you get knocked down, get back up.

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

My next novel is set in a completely different era from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, but I think it twins with it in some odd ways. I’ll let my readers be the judge of that though!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Asterix! I was very interested in history and desperate for anything that made it alive and textured and funny.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published by Harvill Secker.

Follow Imogen on Twitter: @girlhermes

Sunday 8 October 2017

The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay

Review by Greenacre Writer Vasundra Jackison

If you have ever wondered what makes people risk their lives by crossing treacherous seas in overcrowded, dangerous boats, and how people- smugglers prey on desperate souls fleeing from war-torn countries, this is the book for you. Gulwali Passarley describes why he had to escape from Afghanistan as a frightened 12 year-old boy and how he survived 12 months of horrifying hardships before reaching safety in Britain.

I have heard somewhere that drowning is a peaceful death. Whoever said that hasn’t watched grown men soil themselves with fear aboard an overcrowded, broken down boat in the middle of a raging Mediterranean storm.

In 2006, his father and grandfather were suspected of being Taliban sympathisers and killed by US troops. Gulwali and his brother were then pursued by the Taliban to join them for revenge killings and by the US troops to become spies. His mother made the agonising decision to send them away.

Be brave. This is for your own good………………However bad it gets, don’t come back.

Gulwali had no idea what horrors lay ahead of him. Nor did he know anything of the outside world. He begged his mother to let him stay. But his fate was sealed. He was in the hands of ruthless and pitiless smugglers who treated the poor, miserable exiles with cruelty and contempt.

There’s a checkpoint coming up, you stupid little fool. Get off my train.

Terrified, Gulwali had to jump off a speeding train at that point in Bulgaria. He was imprisoned three times during the journey, where conditions were unspeakably vile.

Zig zagging across eight countries, enduring hunger, deportation, humiliation, cruelty and extreme despair, it is a wonder the boy made it to safety.

So many times on that awful journey I nearly didn’t make it……coming so close to drowning in Greece, on those endless treks without food or water when my young exhausted body wanted to give up and fade into blackness.

Gulwali experienced brutality not only from the smugglers, but from police officers too.

In Turkey…………..they walked me up another two flights until we stood at the very top of the stairwell. There they spun me around, and while I was still fighting for balance, shoved me backwards.

Here and there, the story does have characters that show some kindness. Some good people living in the mountains and certain fellow migrants do try to look out for him.

There are also some fascinating insights into the mindset of boys growing up in the closed world of a male-dominated culture. Gulwali does not think his sisters should go to school because they should be at home, cooking and cleaning. He feels strongly that women should always be covered, and is shocked when he sees the open faces of women in Turkey and Europe. But he grows up fast as he journeys towards safety.

When he finally reaches Britain, he has to battle with the authorities to gain recognition as a minor refugee, deserving of safe shelter, foster care and education. Eventually, Gulwali is granted asylum status. After graduating from university and winning many awards, he has become a vocal champion of democracy. He works tirelessly to highlight the horrors experienced by migrants and refugee children all over the globe. He plans to return to Afghanistan to help others when it is safe to do so.

As you read this story, you will feel sad, horrified, afraid, and angry. But you will also be amazed at the courage shown by Gulwali. This is an emotional read, but fascinating and powerful. It is beautifully written in a very easy flow style. An immensely rewarding read.

Thank you to Gulwali for the review copy.

The Lightless Sky is published by Atlantic Books

Follow Gulwali on Twitter: GulwaliP

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Greenacre Writer, Rosie Canning is thrilled to be part of the
QUIETER THAN KILLING blog tour over on