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Author Beatriz Williams discusses her latest book A Certain Age

9780008132613What was your inspiration for writing A Certain Age?

Growing up, we didn’t have much extra money—my father was a civil engineer, my mother a homemaker—but both parents were passionate operagoers and they basically steeped me in Verdi and Wagner from an early and completely inappropriate age. At five, I was entertaining dinner guests with a melodramatic rendition of Desdemona’s death scene, and I was crushing on Plácido Domingo as Des Grieux when my friends were into David Cassidy. (Although I think I just dated myself there.) So the idea of star-crossed love is sort of imprinted in my DNA, and one of my favourite moments in the entire canon arrives at the end of Richard Strauss’s marvellous masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier. I won’t reveal the spoiler for those who aren’t familiar with the work, but it’s just a singular act of grace performed by an extraordinary woman, and the more I thought about this opera and its themes – love and loss, class, youth versus age, romanticism versus realism—the more I thought that Manhattan in the 1920s would suit this story and this character beautifully. And luckily my editor was happy to go along with it!


All of your novels have been set in the first half of the twentieth century. What is it that draws you to write about this period?

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to conflict—it’s the fuel that drives the narrative along. And conflict arises out of change, and the transformation that took place in the first half of the twentieth century is probably unparalleled in written history. All the ingredients start falling into the pot as the century turns—scientific advancement, powerful artistic movements, economic and social unrest—and then the First World War just throws the whole mixture into a terrible oven and out comes the modern era. The culture changes irrevocably. There is massive cultural friction as this new world rises up from the old one, giving us the extraordinary electricity of the Jazz Age. Then on top of that we’re plunged into economic depression and then another cataclysmic war. You could write forever about this period and still not get close to making sense of it all.


Tell us about the research you do for your books.

Here’s my grand theory of historical fiction: I’m not here to teach you history. There’s some marvellous narrative nonfiction out there that will tell you everything you need to know about dates and battles and events and how it all fits together. My job is to describe what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be a human being navigating a lifetime during a period of cultural change, so I absorb old films and old books and diaries. I want to know how people talked and thought, the everyday details of their lives. When I do need historical facts I’ll look them up as I go, but I aim to weave these into dialogue and plot. I don’t give history lessons, because what person imagines herself in a historical setting as she’s living her life? Nobody! I’m not telling you what the Jazz Age was like; I’m showing you.


At the heart of A Certain Age is a very bittersweet love triangle. As such, did you find this hard to tie up satisfactorily?

Actually, this was the easiest part! I really started from the end, because that was the moment that captured me in Strauss’s opera—the tricky part was navigating the path to that ending, because you have to make each character sympathetic in order for the reader to care, to feel that bittersweet tug. And while all three characters travel through a terrible sea in this book, I think Theresa Marshall’s journey to redemption is the hardest and most moving, so writing those final scenes was—for me—one of those golden moments, where I felt I had done exactly what I wanted to do and brought all the ships to some kind of shore.


The nineteen-twenties was a period of great change both in America and Europe. What do you think were the most important things to come out of this decade, particularly for women?

When I think of the Twenties, I’m often reminded of my grandmother, who was a child of the British Empire and grew up in Kobe, Japan, before moving to Calcutta (where she met my grandfather) and finally to London after India’s independence. She used to say that this was a marvellous time to be a woman—we were taking jobs and contemplating careers and feeling our strength, we had the vote and the automobile and the freedom from chaperones, and if you look at the films of the period, they are absolutely chock full of vibrant, dashing, confident women who were nonetheless feminine and glorying in that femininity. And then—my grandmother says—after the war we FELL ASLEEP (I can still hear her indignant voice saying that) and we DIDN’T WAKE UP AGAIN until the Sixties! So while baby boomers love to think that they invented the sexual revolution, it really wasn’t so. And I would add that in America, the enactment of Prohibition at the start of the decade served in many ways to fire that hurtling toward freedom. Suddenly men and women were drinking together in clandestine establishments, flouting the law, and as we all know, once you start flouting one little law it becomes much easier to flout others!


You have a magical way of weaving in characters from your other novels into all your books, was this something you set out to do from the beginning? Or was it something that happened quite organically?

It was absolutely organic! My second book, A Hundred Summers, bore no relationship at all to my debut, Overseas, but in writing it I discovered I had a real affinity for America’s Eastern coast during the period between the wars. In particular, I loved the family I had created—the Schuylers, named deliberately to evoke old New York—because first of all, this fictional clan seemed to be producing some really interesting, assertive women, and secondly…well, the older the family, the more skeletons in the closet! So when I sat down to write The Secret Life of Violet Grant, I decided to incorporate the Schuylers back into the narrative, and while writing that book I realized I had to write about Vivian’s two sisters as well. And there you go. Family epic. That’s how it happens.


Further to the last question, Theresa’s story is left quite open ended – will we see her again do you think?

Oh, we certainly will! She turns up again in the book I’m writing now—out next summer—and I have a whole novel planned around the outcome of Theresa’s story in A Certain Age. She’s the kind of character who transforms every scene she walks into, and you can’t waste a character like that!


Can you tell us about your next novel?

It’s called Cocoa Beach, and it picks up the story of Sophie’s sister Virginia, who’s on a train to Florida at the end of A Certain Age, tracking down her missing husband, whom she first met as an ambulance driver during the war. The narrative alternates between the First World War and Florida in the 1920s, involving bootleggers and a ruined citrus plantation. It’s got a real Gothic flavour, which I’ve been wanting to try for some time!

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Five minutes with Tony Parsons

Despite leaving school at 16 – and after a few years of unskilled, low paid jobs – Tony Parsons got his first job in journalism at the New Musical Express (NME). For a few years he has juggled journalism with fiction achieving phenomenal success. Writing is, quite simply, his life.

Author Tony Parsons talks to Mary Hogarth about writing his first book while working the night shift at a distillery, those wild years at NME and his dog, Stan.

Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters[/caption]

How did you get that first job on NME?

By publishing a novel. It was called The Kids and it was not very good but when the NME advertised for new writers in the summer of 1976, they asked for a sample of work and I sent my novel. So that looked pretty impressive, I imagine.


Did this shape your work as a journalist?

I don’t think I was really shaped as a journalist by the NME. There was too much sex, drugs and Rock & Roll – too many nights when I didn’t go to bed.

We were a weekly publication the pace was relentless so there wasn’t much chance to learn more than the basics of journalism. It was only after I left the NME that I started to grow as a journalist and a writer.


Tell us about your first book, The Kids

I left school at 16 and worked in a series of low paid jobs. In my late teens I got a job on the night shift at Gordon’s Gin Distillery in Islington. They gave us free Gin and left us alone from 8pm to 8am. While my colleagues slept, I wrote my novel.

It took a year to write, another to find an agent, then a year to find a publisher. So that is how my first book evolved – by never giving up.

I think that is how every first book evolves.


Who has had the biggest influence on your writing?

Probably Ian Fleming because he taught me books can be more exciting than anything else in the world.


How did Max Wolfe’s latest investigation, The Hanging Club, evolve?

The idea came from spending a day at the Old Bailey. If you go down to the basement and then keep going, you can see the ruins of Newgate prison, which was London’s jail for 800 years.

Inspiration came from the idea of these two places co-existing. The Old Bailey, where justice is fair, enlightened and modern, then Newgate, where justice was brutal, vengeful and Biblical. That was the starting point for a story.

It’s about a group of vigilantes who decide to bring back capital punishment for evil people they believe haven’t been sufficiently punished by the system.


For you which comes first, the characters or the plot?

First comes the title. From that the plot develops, then come those characters who make that plot work. Although if you are writing a series like Max Wolfe, then a lot of the characters already exist, so you need to decide on the new faces you introduce.


The-Hanging-ClubHow do you keep pace with advancements in crime detection?

I try to make it as authentic as possible. I listen to police because they can always teach me something. Cops tend to like the Max Wolfe books, which of course is very pleasing. But I am also not afraid to make stuff up it serves the story. A novelist should never underestimate the power of imagination.

Sometimes you write something that comes from your imagination and then it happens in real life. A novelist should not only reflect life, but also anticipate it.


Your typical writing day?

The top floor of my house has an office. There’s a bedroom, a bathroom and a room for writing that contains everything I need – computer, TV, dog basket as my dog Stan joins me for my working day.

I get up early and go – either taking my dog for a walk or driving my daughter to school. And my wife Yuriko does the other thing – daughter or dog. And that’s all before breakfast.

After breakfast I like to start work because I feel that a writer’s energy levels are higher earlier in the day. Also there are fewer distractions before the world starts to intrude.

I give myself a daily task – either planning a chapter of maybe writing 1,000 to 1,500 words, or reworking a scene that just needs improving. Whatever it is, I do it. Then I knock off – walk my dog, go to the gym, read a book and don’t feel remotely guilty.

And then I get up the next day and do it again.


The most important lesson learned?

Write from the heart. It has to be real for you or it will never be real for anyone else.


Name three writers who have inspired you the most

Keith Waterhouse – author of Billy Liar, newspaper columnist and playwright. He taught me that you should never place limitations on what you do – it is all about telling a story – then you should attempt to master everything.

When I was 16, I wrote to 100 authors, publishers and agents for advice. Only Keith Waterhouse replied, he wrote: ‘Dear Tony, get an agent.’ It was good advice.

Ian Fleming – I have to return to Fleming. He was the first adult writer that I chose to read, that wasn’t given to me by teachers to improve my mind.

John Le Carre – taught me that thrillers can be as intelligent – or even more intelligent – than a Booker Prize winner. He showed me that even those exciting page-turners, can be written in beautiful language with vivid characters that seem very real.

Le Carre taught me to aim for the stars.


The Hanging Club by Tony Parsons is published by Century, £12.99.

Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters

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Five minutes Freya North author of The Turning Point

“I have struggled with writer’s block,” Freya tells Mary Hogarth.


FREYA-USE-2015-1It took four years to become established as an author, admits Freya who has since penned 13 best-selling novels. Her latest story, The Turning Point, revolves around chance events – reminding us you can’t take anything for granted.

As with all good fiction, this book leaves a mark on the reader. Can any of us really plan the future? Reading Freya’s latest novel might just make you take another look at that five-year plan. . .

Below Freya reveals the inspiration behind her latest story and talks about her life as a writer.


How did The Turning Point evolve?

I wanted to explore a relationship between two single parents in their early 40s – and the complexities that such a subject brings with it.  I also wanted to look at how there comes a time when we feel so conflicted as parents, when we want to claim back a little of our own identity and consider our own needs while never compromising putting our children first.

The fact that Frankie and Scott live in different continents also added a further dimension of frustration, elation and longing. Then of course there is the dramatic tension and twist (no spoilers), which enabled me to really delve very deeply into the way we deal with crisis and huge life-changing situations.


Does Frankie have reflections of your character?

Out of all my characters yes – she’s the closest any of them have got to me. The fact that I had suffered so acutely with writer’s block in my previous novel, The Way Back Home, really helped me inform the character of Frankie.


Have you had a similar experience where fate has changed your path?

Well six-and-a-half years ago I broke up with the father of my children, sold my house and moved from town to country.

It was nerve-wracking and yet resuscitating. It coincided with my mother’s cancer diagnosis (I’ll pleased to say that she is now cancer free). One of those periods where, in the face of great adversity, fears and sadness somehow one finds the deepest strength to make changes. 


9780007462308.jpg.pagespeed.ce.dvBzHLsDq2Tell us about your typical working day.

It is defined by the school run, the needs of two dogs and one horse. I never judge the success of my working day by word count alone – always by if my writing has come from ‘the zone’.

I do believe that work expands according to the time you allow – so if I only have six hours to write, I absolutely make them happen.  I also find kick-starting each novel by writing at the library really helps. By two-thirds of the way in, I could pretty much write in the middle of a traffic island or station concourse as I’m in another world entirely.


The best part of being a writer is?

Really focussing on one’s imagination – and giving a parallel reality to one’s daydreams. I meet people I’d never otherwise cross paths with – even if they are mostly figments of my imagination.


Most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

ERGONOMICS. I cannot stress this enough. I do Alexander Technique and have changed the way I sit – it’s actually really improved my productivity and I don’t suffer the stiffness or aches I used to. Check my website for more details.


How much time do you spend promoting your work?

I really enjoy doing the PR as I spend most my career with people who don’t actually exist. I try and restrict my main activity to coincide with publication – otherwise my writing would suffer. Social media takes a lot of time, perhaps up to 1.5 hours a day, but it gives me a fantastic chance to connect directly with my readers. And I truly love that.  

My Facebook page is so chatty – they seem like extended family of my characters, really. 


Which book have you enjoyed writing the most?

The Turning Point. It took me on an incredible journey physically to Canada, as well as creatively and personally. But I’d never left my kids that long to travel that far. It also felt like the entire story pre-existed, that it was simply out there in the ether waiting for an author and I was the author lucky enough to take dictation from those characters.

Your top five authors?

John Irving, Rose Tremain, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Maggie O’Farrell.


Have any impacted on your work?

Thomas Hardy for sure. I love the way landscape is never a backdrop in his work, always a leading character. That’s a huge inspiration to me. Charles Dickens for his extraordinary character portraits – unforgettable people.  

John Irving for his tremendous talent in weaving such beautiful detail into such great stories. Maggie O’Farrell and Rose Tremain for their sublime imaginations and beautiful turns of phrase, the sensitivity in their writing, in their story telling is truly breath taking.


Are you working on a new novel?

Yes, I have two and can’t decide which to start first.  Currently I’m also trying to write a screenplay – I absolutely love film and want to challenge myself to see if I can produce a story in such a different form.

It’s nerve-wracking. I am used to having 120,000 words and 470 pages. . . Now I have a maximum of 120 pages.  

Find out more about Freya’s work from her website at:

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Author talk: Q & A with Denzil Meyrick. Creator of the DCI Daley books.

Meyrick,-Denzil1. What inspired you to become a writer?

I think my granny was instrumental in nurturing my love of books and reading. By the time I came along she was an old woman and not in good health, so she had lots of time to read me stories. I can see her yet, beside the coal fire in our house in Campbeltown, reading to me, or telling tales of her own. Though she was born in Machrihanish, she ended up as head cook, working for the Lord Mayor of Hull, where she met my grandfather, who was his chauffeur. She remembered being in floods of tears as the Black Watch marched through the city on the way to war, the pipes skirling and in full highland fig; she described this as the most homesick moment of her life. Apart from London, Hull was the most bombed city in Britain, so she had many harrowing tales of the blitz. In common with many writers, I was also encouraged by some teachers; curiously, I met one of them, Morag Allan, who taught me in primary school, at a function I spoke at recently. It was great to see her. I remember Mrs Henderson and Anna McIntyre, who also taught me at Castlehill Primary School, as being particularly inspiring, too. I don’t think the value of good primary education can be emphasised enough; in the first few years of a child’s life, they should be encouraged in all they excel at. Too often in education now, children are forced to learn as part of over-arching government initiatives, which owe more to doctrinaire politics, than to the worth and importance of learning. Finally, as always, I must mention Kintyre author and broadcaster, the late Angus MacVicar. I interviewed Angus for the school magazine when I was thirteen. I sent him a copy of the publication, to which he replied with a lovely letter, praising my youthful efforts and asking to see more of my work. He told me shortly thereafter that I should be a writer. I have never forgotten this, or his help and encouragement, then and later on in my life.

2. What keeps you motivated as a writer?
I think it’s wonderful when those who have read my work take the time to contact me and tell me how much they enjoyed it. This certainly spurs me on to keep sitting down at the laptop. Of course, it’s a fundamental question; why do humans want to tell stories from the past, present or future? I have a few books in my head just now that the rest of me is trying to catch up with and actually write. It’s also great to be signed by Polygon, the help, encouragement and advice I’ve received since becoming part of the Birlinn family, is motivation enough to keep going. The thought that my work can be read as widely as possible is a thrill.

3. What’s your favourite book, and why?
Wow, that’s a hard question to answer! I admire so many authors and love so many books, that it’s virtually impossible to narrow it down to one. Since I have to, though, I’ll opt for one that isn’t really a solitary book at all, since it comes in various volumes: The Gulag Archipelagoby Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I’ve been fascinated with Russia and politics in general since I was in school, so this book is a natural choice. It exemplifies all that is important about the written word and its power to inform and move those who read it; that and to act as a catalyst for change; I’m not saying that The Gulag Archipelago brought about the end of Stalinism alone, however it did its bit to inspire the people who did, to act. The struggles of those condemned to misery by such a pernicious political credo, stands this book up as one of the great literary lessons of all time; as compelling as it is harrowing.

4. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (ie silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?)
I like to get on with what I’m doing first-thing, so I prefer to write in the morning, as early as possible. As I reach the latter stages of a book especially, I tend to get up in the wee small hours to have the chance to write in peace. I suppose I should say that I prefer to pen my magnum opi whilst being gently wafted by lightly-oiled nymphs, luxuriating on a far-flung tropical shore. Instead, I usually write, cross-legged on the couch, which doesn’t create the same mental picture, somehow. I love listening to the radio, however I just can’t concentrate to write with Radio 4 on in the background, so I quite often stick on some classical music; that, or silence. I’ve just realised that I sound like a right old buffer! Something my family will, no doubt, ratify.

5. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer?
I think for anyone who has a dream, or ambition, be it writing, or anything else, the key is to hang onto it. Practise writing skills: language, grammar, punctuation, the mechanics of story-telling – anything that will help hone what you want others to read. I’m learning all the time, as I’m sure all writers are. Also, be honest with yourself; let those you trust and whose judgement you value comment on your writing and try to learn from what they say – good, or bad. Be prepared for disappointment and criticism, too; everyone who ever picked up a pen with an ambition to become a writer, has had to suffer these emotions. If you believe, if you truly believe you have something to say, have faith and be persistent. Tenacity normally garners its own reward.

6. How easy was it for you to find a publisher?
I must say, I was lucky; like everyone else, I read the apocryphal tales of mass rejection and frustration suffered by so many putative authors. In my case, I started sending out my first book to publishers and agents in April, and I was offered a publishing contract in late July. For various reasons, I wish I had taken more time before signing up with the first company who offered me a deal, however, regret is like resentment, pointless. Now with Polygon, these worries are at an end.

7. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book?
Are we back to the lightly-oiled nymphs again? Just after starting work on The Last Witness, I received a lovely letter from an old lady, who lived in Clydebank and told me how much she had enjoyed my first book. It reminded her of time she had spent in Campbeltown (the real Kinloch) after the war; it was really heartening to read. Also, as I was just about to finish the final version of the book, I appeared at the inaugural Tarbert Literary Festival; I was really touched to discover so many of my old teachers had taken the trouble to come and hear me speak – it was most humbling, not to say strange, since during my school days, they were always telling me to shut up! This and the continued love and support of my lovely family, which is always a good experience.

8. Who are you generally writing for?
I suppose I should say posterity, or something profound like that; the real answer is less ambitious, and perhaps selfish; for me. To have even the tiny measure of success I have experienced has been fantastic. To finally achieve a lifetime’s ambition is even better. Trust me, not all of my endeavours have gone this well; at the risk of sounding like a Masterchef contestant, having my work published has changed my life. When I say that I write for ‘me’, I write for the perpetuation of that feeling of accomplishment; that, combined with the realisation that I am, at last, not falling short of what was expected of me, or letting myself down. Along the winding road of life, we accumulate many who help us, but also many detractors; to the former, you have my profound thanks and appreciation; to the latter, I say, paraphrasing DS Scott, ‘get it right up ye.’

9. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I spent a lot of time involved in some business or other, so I suppose I would gravitate towards that. When I was young, as well as literary ambitions, I harboured musical ones. Is it too late…? Probably, yes.

10. What one thing would improve your life?
I’m going to be boring and say, better health. Sadly, I suffered a period of illness a few years’ ago, that has left me with some problems. To wake up in the morning ‘pain free’ would be wonderful. Having said this, I know of so many people who are so much worse-off than me, so I thank God for what I have. When we were young, and perhaps didn’t fancy another plate of mince and potatoes, my mother gave us the ubiquitous ‘They’re starving in China’ speech, which most children of my vintage must have endured. Our answer then was simple; ‘I don’t care, can we have a Chinese carry-out, instead?’ As time rolls on, though, I think one’s empathy gene begins to work much more effectively; one look at the news is enough to remind us all, that even though our lives could be improved, they could be a bloody site worse.

11. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world?
That’s easy; the Tuscan coast. It is beautiful; only a forensic examination of my soul could reveal how I feel about this land.

12. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know?
My wife tells me that I display aspects of many characters from my books – even the nice ones. In reality, I suppose most of those who live their lives between the pages of my novels owe their creation to the wonderful mish-mash of people I’ve known. Despite what they would tell you in Campbeltown, only one character in my first book was a direct lift from a real person; a cameo, if you like, a tribute to someone who I’m very fond of and helped me when I was down. They know who they are. Again, having said all that, I hope the wonderfully warm and unique spirit of Campbletown and its people, shines through in the populace of its fictitious counterpart, Kinloch, for that is the real inspiration.

13. If you could swop lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
None of them, haha; down to me, they all have so many problems and personality defects, I feel for them. Maybe Hamish, who has achieved Zen-like wisdom- well, in his head, anyway – I can see myself a bit like that.

14. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it?
Since I’ve only written two books, I think the endings of both are wonderful, but I would say that. Certainly, there are bits and pieces I would change in my first book, Whisky from Small Glasses. Now with Polygon, and having had an insight into how a proper editorial team works and can improve a book, I wish I had had the benefit of same the first time round. Mind you, as I said earlier, I’m not big on regrets; just as well, really.

15. If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘dream’ occupation be?
No problem there; I would love to have been a musician, of the Sting, Paul McCartney, David Bowie variety. I don’t suppose there are too many from my era who didn’t fancy a go at that, at one time or another. Failing that, a test cricketer, for cricket is surely the most noble and compelling game humanity has yet to produce. I fear that both of these notions are likely to remain just as your question depicts, dreams.

16. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character?
Now, there has been much discussion on this subject. The conclusion is, most probably a fattened-up Gerard Butler, to play Jim Daley. He happens to be the right age, height and appearance to play the character; he’ll just have to get knocked into the pies if he wants the part. As it happens, I think Brian McCardie, the Scottish actor who played Liam Neeson’s sidekick in Rob Roy and starred in the UK version of ‘Low Winter Sun’, would be perfect in the role of his namesake, Brian Scott. I wonder who’ll agree – thoughts, please.

17. Why are books important in your opinion?
Despite the advances in digital technology, even TV, radio and film, books are still the best way to impart a story. What one of us has read a book, then seen a film of the same tale and thought the latter was better? Books stimulate a part of the brain that is being left to lie increasingly dormant, as we all stare blankly at screens, in this shiny, paper-free, modern world. Books broaden the mind and alert it to the endless possibilities life can reward us with, if it is managed in the correct way. Books bring light, that’s why the peddlers of darkness have been so keen to destroy them over centuries. I despise what is being done to our library network in this country in the name of ‘austerity’. To me, it is a most calamitous policy to remove the written word from those, who by force of circumstance, can least afford to lose it. Books provide an immersive experience that informs, entertains and enlightens; maybe most important of all, books allow us to understand ourselves. Our lives would be so much poorer for their loss.

18. What are you reading right now?
The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks. Quite simply, I think Banks is one of the greatest literary talents Scotland has ever produced; his imagination was boundless, and he had the good sense never to omit humour from his work. As I wrote in a recent article; many rivers will flow, under many bridges, before we see his like again.

19. Which authors do you particularly admire?
As mentioned, Banks and Solzhenitsyn, are wonderful. George Orwell inspired me in my teens; as did Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Asimov, Hardy, Buchan, Powell, McIllvanney, Grey, Massie and so many, many more. I love the writing of Patrick O’Brian and George MacDonald Fraser, now, like so many, lost to us in person, but still with us in words.

20. If you had a superpower what would it be?
Flight; then it would be up, up and away for Tuscany, and the well-oiled nymphs.

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Five minutes with Carole Matthews

Carole-Matthews--OfficeHaving penned nearly 30 novels, Carole reveals her favourite character is Lucy Lombard because “she is a warm-hearted, accident-prone, chocolate fiend”.

We all know real life is messy. Carole, life expert extraordinaire, writes about love as it is – complicated with all its indiscretions, compromising positions and, not forgetting, those happy endings that are so hard to achieve.

Carole talks to Mary Hogarth about her prolific output, her latest novel The Chocolate Lovers’ Wedding and what she reads for fun.


How did The Chocolate Lovers’ Wedding evolve?

Some years ago I wrote two books, The Chocolate Lovers’ Club and The Chocolate Lovers’ Diet, which were my most popular books worldwide. I thought I’d finished with the group of friends who were the characters in the books, but they always seemed to be at the back of my mind and I kept wondering what had happened to them.

Then one day, a reader tweeted me to say ‘Write more about the chocolate lovers’ ladies’ and I forwarded it to my editor. She tweeted back to say ‘I’m in!’ and it was as easy as that.

It was lovely to pick up with these characters again. I feel as if I know them so well. I wrote The Chocolate Lovers’ Christmas and when I’d finished the book I knew there was more to come! Hence The Chocolate Lovers’ Wedding.

Your favourite character in the book is?

It has to be Lucy Lombard, a warm-hearted, accident-prone, chocolate fiend.

She is way too much like me. Always well-intentioned, never quite getting it right.

How do you craft your characters?

The way I start my novel is by creating big background stories for my characters.

I know who they are, how they were brought up and all their secrets. But I hardly ever use this information in the book. It just means that when I start writing I know them better than you ever would a real-life friend.

Will there be a fifth Chocolate Lovers’ novel?

I’m at the point, again, where I think I’ve finished with them.

Actually, I made myself laugh writing that, as I probably haven’t . . . The story could definitely go on and I do love these ladies. But I think I’ll do as I did before and put them aside for a few years and see what happens.

There are other books I need to write first!


What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing my second edit of a book that is due out in January 2017. I haven’t got a title yet and I can’t say too much other than that it’s been a joy to write.

Tell us about your daily writing routine?

People often ask me how I manage to write two books a year and the answer is always very dull! I start work about 8am then write to 1pm.

I have an hour for lunch during which I read a tabloid newspaper, which is a great source of stories. Then I work until about six.

I try hard not to work at weekends.

There’s no magic bullet to getting novels written. You just have to put your botty on your chair in front of the computer for a long time.


At the moment you are reading. . .

I’ve embarked on the whole Game of Thrones series which I’m loving as I’m a big fan of the television series, but I’m having to intersperse it with shorter books.

I’ve just finished Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. I was a big Stephen King fan in my teens, but haven’t read one of his books in ages and this was a choice from the book club I belong to. I’ve absolutely loved it.

Stephen King’s writing is beyond compare – it’s sharp, witty, gripping.

He’s the ultimate commercial writer. The way he draws his characters is second to none and I’m so glad I read this. Of course, I’m going to have to read the sequel now.

What would you like to be doing in five years?

Walking up hills in the Lake District with some sandwiches and a good book in my backpack.

A preview of Carole’s latest book The Chocolate Lovers’ Wedding is available as an eBook or in print. For more details about her books, life and recipes visit

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Marian Keyes is making it up as she goes along!

Fiercely funny, hilariously candid and heartfelt observations on modern life… 

9780718182526Making it Up as I Go Along is Marian Keyes’ third collection of essays and like Marian herself – gets right to the heart of what it means to be a woman in 2016. After reading the book we really wanted to share some of our favourite quotes (see below) – and we heartily recommend the book for even more gems…

Marian Keyes on:
No Regrets:
“They’ say you only regret the things you don’t do, which is total codswallop because there are no words to describe how much I regret that time I dyed my hair blonde. (It went green. And not in a good way. And I didn’t have any money to get it fixed, so it stayed bad-green for a very long time).”
Holidaying in Laos:
“Just before I went to sleep, I put my anti-mad tablets out on the bedside yoke for easy access in the morning. And when I awoke, after a lovely slumber, weren’t they all ett?! Yes! My anti-mad tablets! By insects or small beasts unknown! Who must have been going around in TOP form all day.”
Marian-Keyes-2014-credit-Barry-McCall_vsFake Tan:
“This is how I tan: feet – golden. Stomach – mahogany. Shins – Germolene pink. Face – bluey-white, offset with a massive, red, peeling, Bozo-the Clown nose. At the end of two weeks in the sun I look like a patchwork quilt.”
Learning to Cook:
“I didn’t cook. I didn’t know how and I didn’t want to learn. The thought of having to have meat ready at the same time as potatoes at the same time as two veg made me want to crouch in a corner, whimpering and rocking.”
“I had my hairy legs lasered and it was a resounding success! Previous to this I have had the hairiest legs in Christendom. Loads of times I’ve met people and they’ve said, ‘Oh no, I bet my legs are hairier than yours, mine are REALLY hairy,’ then I unveil my furry limbs and they usually swallow hard and step back and say, “Riiiight, I see what you mean…”
What would Scrooge do:
“Nor would Scrooge send Christmas cards. So neither do I. The first year I thought the guilt would kill me, but it’s got easier. Maybe it’s like committing murder: the first one is the hardest.”
And to finish…
Marian Keyes Lexicon:
“Feck: the most misunderstood, falsely maligned word ever. It is NOT a swear word. Anyone, even the Pope, could say ‘feck’ and no one would look askance. It is nothing like the other ‘F’ word. Feel free to use it liberally.”
Click here to find out more about the book and Download a Free Extract.
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Researching Madagaskar

Guy Saville knows the difference between researching a novel online and on location – he has done both. Read the fascinating story behind his alternate history thriller series The Afrika Reich.

guy savilleMy debut novel, The Afrika Reich, was a thriller based on the premise of the Nazis winning World War II and conquering Africa. Much of the action was set in the jungles of Congo and worn-torn Angola. Shortly after it was published, a BBC cameraman and old Africa-hand emailed to say how much he enjoyed the book and that I must know the continent well. It was a great compliment – and yet I’d never visited sub-Saharan Africa. Every detail about the setting had come from reading.

The main reason for staying deskbound was the sheer danger of visiting the locations. I did look into it, but was strongly warned against going by the Foreign Office. So when it came to writing the follow-up, The Madagascar Plan, I was determined to walk the same ground as my characters.

The Madagaskar Plan is based on a real Nazi project to deport the entire Jewish population of Europe to Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. I spent months doing archive research for the historical elements of the book, but when it came to local colour, I got on a plane and flew below the equator. In recent years Madagascar has begun opening up to intrepid tourists, most of whom travel to the south of the island with its natural wonders. My book is set in the north, a place few foreigners go.

9781444710700I travelled 700 miles over land from the western port of Mahajanga to Diego Suarez, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, where the climax of the novel is set. The journey itself was often uncomfortable (suffocating heat one day, lashing rain the next, the air always electrified with insects) and occasionally hair-raising. The roads in Madagascar’s interior have pot-holes big enough to swallow vehicles! Once I had to cross a ravine on a rope-bridge that would have made Indiana Jones blanch.

I got a wealth of detail that books and Wikipedia could never have provided me: the snaking road layout of Antsohihy (a town that Google maps forgot); the local custom of burning coconut shells to ward off mosquitoes; the patter of geckos in the rafters as I lay in bed; the smell of smoke and ylang-ylang at the naval base in Diego. All this added greatly to the novel, which is why I would encourage any author to visit the locations they’re writing about if possible.

Madagascar wasn’t the end of my travels, though. I also went to Prora, on Germany’s Baltic coast, to see the ruin of the largest hotel in the world. Built by the Nazis in the Thirties, it has a frontage of 7km and is now being reclaimed by forest. And while on holiday in America, I made a detour to a remote canyon in Idaho to visit a hydro-electric plant similar to one I describe in the book.

I hope readers will thrill at the story and characters: find the novel unputdownable. But I also hope it transports them to Madagascar, that it brings the island so vividly to life that they will feel as if they are there.

Guy Saville’s The Madagaskar Plan is out in Hodder paperback on 28 January. Set in 1953, it imagines a world where Nazi Germany rules much of Europe and a vast African territory. There has been no Holocaust. Instead, five million Jews have been deported to Madagascar, a tropical ghetto ruled by the SS.

This article first appeared on BookBrunch (

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Five minutes with Sophie Hannah

Internationally acclaimed master of psychological crime reveals how staying at Agatha Christie’s home, Greenways, inspired her latest novel.


Sophie-Hannah_smSophie Hannah author of the latest Poirot, The Monogram Murders talks to Mary Hogarth about her favourite author and her zest for penning psychological thrillers.


What was Agatha Christie’s influence in A Game for all the Family?

The idea for A Game for all the Family evolved while I was staying at Greenways, in a rental apartment at Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon.

While staying there the house, landscape and setting by river was hugely inspiring so an idea emerged. The story is built around the heroine, Justine and her family were about to start new life in Devon.

Then strange things started to happen. . .


What happens?

A-Game-For-The-Family_smSoon after the move there’s a few things. It starts with the first of many anonymous phone calls from a stranger suggesting she and Justine share a guilty secret.

Her daughter Ellen starts to withdraw when her new best friend, George, is unfairly expelled from school. Justine begs the head teacher to reconsider, only to be told that nobody’s been expelled – there is, and was, no George. . .


How did you develop her character?

Justine’s character was easy – she is basically me.


You are a prolific writer. . .

I try write a book a year, but sometimes it’s two.

Last year I wrote the latest Poirot novel, Closed Casket as well as The Narrow Bed, part of the Culver Valley Crime series. That was hard. Often I had to stay up until 2am to get my daily word count done.


How do you plan your workload?

By focusing on one novel at a time. This is essential as my head is totally immersed in that story so I forget everything else becoming obsessed with work in progress.

I set a daily word count. This is different for each book depending on the word limit and deadline.

When I get a commission I decide what my daily word count needs be by calculating how many days there are between the start date and the deadline.

When I first started writing I worked out I could write 1,000 words a day. But my ideal target is 400 words a day as that’s not so daunting.


Tell us about The Narrow Bed

The-Narrow-Bed-jacket_smIn The Narrow Bed, the idea is tied up with the solution so it’s difficult to talk about. I first had the solution to the mystery – an interesting motive for murder.

It starts with what appears to be a serial killer (known as Billy Deadmates) killing pairs of best friends.

Before each one is murdered the killer sends them a book with strange contents. Then the heroine, Kim – like all the previous victims – receives book.

But the pattern doesn’t fit as Kim has no friends because she doesn’t trust anyone. So how can she be target of the best friend serial killer?


Click here for more details about Sophie’s work including her crime novels, poetry and children’s books.

Click here to read an interview with Sophie Hannah about her new Poirot novel The Monogram Murders.

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Sophie Hannah and Poirot

Internationally acclaimed author, poet and master of psychological crime takes on Agatha Christie’s favourite Belgian detective. . .

The-Monogram-Murders_smThis month (January 2016) marks the 50th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s death. One of the greatest crime writers of all time, her work lives on in both her books and those TV adaptations such as Marple and, of course our beloved Poirot played by the perfectly cast David Suchet.

Enter Sophie Hannah and her brilliant new Poirot story, The Monogram Murders. Written with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family, the novel has become an international bestseller, reaching a top five position in the book charts in more than 15 countries.

Sophie talks to Mary Hogarth about Poirot and her zest for penning psychological thrillers.


How did The Monogram Murders come about?

My literary agent, Peter Straus had a meeting with David Brawn, the editor at HarperCollins who looks after Agatha Christie’s books.

Peter told the editor ‘you should get my author to write another Agatha Christie book as she is a huge fan’. He responded saying that it was unlikely that the family would allow it.

But during David’s monthly meeting with the Christie Estate the family mentioned that now might be the right time to write another novel. So it was a combination of luck and serendipity.

I met the Christie family and we talked over potential ideas with Matthew Pritchard chair of Agatha Christie Limited, who is her grandson.

Recently Matthew has handed over to his son James, Agatha’s great grandson. Both are devoted to maintaining her legacy ensuring her stories reach as wider audience as possible.

The Monogram Murders have reminded everyone how great she was – sales of Christie’s Poirot novels increasing.


Agatha Christie had a unique voice – how did you capture that?

Sophie-Hannah_smWhen the book was commissioned I re-read all the Poirot novels and watched the TV series with David Suchet. Agatha was my favourite writer so I had read all her books more than once.

I got to know Poirot really well. Then approached the story as though I was writing about a close friend – so much so that he felt like an old friend.


Did you work with trustees of the Agatha Christie estate?

Yes, everything was agreed in advance.

We discussed when the book would be set, whether it would be a prequel to her first Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but opted for 1929 as there was a gap in the series between 1928-32.

I wrote the outline to check everyone one was happy with my ideas. It was very detailed and provided an in-depth plan for the whole novel.

The Christie family were hugely encouraging all the way through.


The hardest aspect?

It was daunting writing a book set in 1929 because I didn’t have grasp of that period. I think of myself as contemporary writer. But when I started writing everything fell into place.

Once I found the setting and the voice of my narrator, Edward Catchpool the words flowed.


Tell us about next Poirot, Closed Casket?

Set in October 1929 it follows on from The Monogram Murders, which was set in the February.

The plot needed to have the all ingredients of a Christie story – everything had to fit together.

With Closed Casket, I had an idea for a motive/solution for a murder mystery that was incredibly simple but also very unusual – and it could be explained in just four words.

Rather like the solution in Agatha’s Murder on the Orient Express.  Even if someone knew no other details of that story, you could say those four words and they would get the concept.

Closed Casket has a similarly detachable, conceptual solution. This was the element that came to me first, and that drove the rest of the book. It felt perfect for Poirot.


What do you think would Agatha make of the books?

I don’t want to speak for her as she’s not around, but I hope she would like and approve of both books and not be able to guess the solution.


Will Poirot be having more adventures?

At the moment it’s on a book-by-book basis. When we agreed The Monogram Murders, we didn’t know there would be a second one.

Now it’s hard to think beyond the current one – and I don’t know if I am going to have another idea that will be right.

Click here for more details about Sophie’s work including her crime novels, poetry and children’s books visit.

Click here to read an interview with Sophie Hannah about the story behind her novels A Game for all the Family and The Narrow Bed.

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Five minutes with Vin Arthey

Former television producer Vin Arthey, reveals the challenges behind his biography of Abel – the backstory to Bridge of Spies. It is a story that has captivated Vin Arthey for more than 55 years, compelling him to write what has become the definitive biography of one of the most prominent spies of the Cold War.


Vin-ArtheyHis book, Abel: The True Story of the Spy they Traded for Gary Powers, was published to coincide with the release of Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies. In contrast the film focuses on the American lawyer hired to defend Abel then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of prisoners, while Vin’s biography documents Abel’s life story.


Vin holds a doctorate from Teesside University, of which he is a fellow, for his work on KGB Colonel William Fisher and maintains an enduring friendship with both the Donovan and Fisher families. Making his debut as a biographer, the acclaimed researcher and writer admits the book has been a life-changing experience. Since it was published he has undertaken numerous interviews and last month travelled to New York spending two weeks on a panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society.


Vin talks to Mary Hogarth about the challenges he faced and his hopes to write another biography.


When did you first decide to document Abel’s story?

In the mid-1990s I was on a contract at Tyne Tees TV to work on a drama/documentary series Stranger Than Fiction. A professor at Newcastle University had proved that William Fisher was the real name of the spy known as ‘Rudolf Abel’, and this story became one of the programmes.   So my first notes were TV research notes.

After the broadcast I kept researching – for example we didn’t know where William had gone to school – hoping to get what I thought was an amazing story commissioned as a network documentary.

I wasn’t successful, but a publisher heard about my research, and asked if I was interested in writing the Fisher biography. I’d never thought of being a writer, apart from scripting for TV. This approach was a life-changing experience. Suddenly I had become a non-fiction writer, a biographer.


AbelHow long did the book take to write?

I think I must have been a nightmare for the publishers as I kept adding to my research . . . and missing deadlines. Then, one day, I just bit the bullet.

The 70,000 words with the referencing, acquiring the photographs and all the permissions took just over a year. I had a day job, so working early mornings and weekends.


What was your biggest challenge?

The actual writing. Interviewing, meeting people, the research, even getting to obscure sources in Russian and German, was all very exciting. But getting the book written, finished, was without doubt the real challenge.


The most interesting research? 

The first was finding an article by a young German/American graduate student, written in the early 1960s, identifying German intelligence documents showing how the Nazis were fooled by a Soviet ‘radio deception’ operation in 1944. This proved that the Russian sources were reliable.

Then, getting to know Evelyn, Willie Fisher’s daughter. Not only was she able to tell stories about the family and its history, which helped me understand her father, his character and personality and motivations. She was a remarkable woman in her own right.


Did you get involved with Bridge of Spies

No. The film tells the story of lawyer Jim Donovan taking on the defence of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet illegal spy discovered in New York, Abel’s conviction, and then Abel’s exchange in 1962 for the captured US spy pilot Gary Powers.

My work is the biography of the man known as Abel, specifically his life and work before and after the five years that the film covers. The film ends with the events of 1962.

A little of Abel’s real identity became known in 1972. However, his real name, date and place of birth, were only proved in 1980.


Any plans for another book?

I’m well into the research for another biography, not of a spy, but of another 20th Century unknown that I’d like the world to know more about.

My notebook is full of ideas, all non-fiction and all biographical in focus, so ask me this question again in a year. . .


Abel: The True Story of The Spy They Traded for Gary Powers is published by Biteback Publishing and available from and all bookstores.



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