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Five minutes with Alexander McCall Smith

Rhodesian-born novelist, Alexander McCall Smith, reveals how he breaks the rules of publishing. . .

Perhaps best known for creating The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana Alexander is not your average novelist.

The former professor of Medical Law – and proud member of The Really Terrible Orchestra – left his successful academic career to devote write full-time following his highly acclaimed No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

Since then he has received numerous awards, including the National Book Awards and Author of the Year Award in 2004. In 2007 Alexander was awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2007. He holds honorary doctorates from nine universities in Europe and North America.

Alexander talks to Mary Hogarth about success, favourite authors and his love of people watching.

What’s the secret of your success?

I’m not sure that there is a secret but I do know I have been very fortunate. Building strong working partnerships with agents, publishers and booksellers is important to me. We have a very strong team both here in the UK and through my overseas publishers and American agent.

I know I break all known rules of publishing by writing four or five new books a year. But somehow it works.

Your three favourite writers are . . .

WH Auden – I discovered Auden in my mid twenties when I worked for a while at Queen’s University of Belfast. His work influenced the way I look at the world. I still carry his Collected Shorter Poems with me wherever I go.

Nadine Gordimer, her novel, The Conservationist, is very beautifully written. There is a grave sparseness to the prose, but at the same time it conveys atmosphere beautifully.

R K Narayan, who wrote a whole series of novels set in an Indian town called Malgudi. I have read them all.

You love people watching – has this impacted on your work?

All writers find inspiration in the daily lives of those they encounter, snatched conversations overhead at train stations or standing in queues in the supermarket. Edinburgh’s coffee shops are very good places to overhear snippets of conversation.

Having published 16 novels in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series – how do you find inspiration for fresh stories?

I try to visit Botswana at least once every year to keep the country fresh in my mind. I am very fond of the people of Botswana and a great admirer of that country so I find no shortage of inspiration. I lived there for a time when I was younger.

Which has been your favourite to write?

It is a little like asking a parent which child is their favourite.  I do enjoy my regular conversations with Precious Ramotswe in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

And Bertie . . . poor little Bertie. I do so enjoy writing about Bertie in the Scotland Street series.

Recently I have written the first in a new adventure series for young readers, School Ship Tobermory. This has been great fun.

Describe a typical writing day.

In Edinburgh I would get up at around 4am and write until 7am, then I would go back to bed for an hour or so.

Late mornings tend to be taken up with the business side of writing – responding to requests for interviews, answering letters, and reading through contracts. In the afternoon I will go out for a while, then perhaps write again in the late afternoon.

Can we have preview of your next novel?

The next novel to be published is Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories. I have taken five old, black and white or even sepia photographs and imagined the stories behind them – who were those people, what were their stories, why are they smiling, what made them sad.

Surprising tales of love and friendship emerged. It offers a window into the past – where love is still all that matters.

Three items you would take to a dessert island?

The Collected Works of WH Auden

A pair of comfortable shoes

Can I take my iPad so that I can listen to music?

Alexander McCall Smith has three books out this Christmas: The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, the latest in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; Chance Developments, a stand alone novel published in November and School Ship Tobermory – the first in a wonderful new adventure series for children.

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Five minutes with Jenny Colgan

Jenny Colgan reveals how she combines her great loves – writing and baking – with family life.

 

ColganJenny-Charlie-HopkinsonHer books strike a chord because they have an inherent sense of reality ­– recognizing that life is messy.

Jenny’s plots are built around real-life scenarios with all the good and bad traits of human nature coming through in equal measure.

To date she has written nearly 20 novels, including Christmas at the Cupcake Café and The Little Beach Street Bakery.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Café won the 2012 Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance and was a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller, as was Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams, which won the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2013.

Jenny talks to Mary Hogarth about writing, interacting with her audience and writers that inspire her.

 

How did you become a writer?

I left college and got a job in a hospital, but always wanted to be doing something more creative.  I always thought of myself as a comedienne if you like, someone who did funny stuff, so I tried stand up.

It was so hard and I didn’t really have the performance skills. That is a polite way of saying I was awful.

After that came cartooning, sketch writing, then I wrote a novel. Before becoming an author I tried everything creative I could think of and – like anyone else – I heard ‘no’ a lot.

Finally at last somebody said yes to my first novel. I wasn’t much use to the NHS, that’s for sure. 

 

Christmas-Surprise-pbkTell us about your writing routine?

I write about 2,500 words a day. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

It was 1,000 words for years. I just got more efficient when I started having children. 

 

 

Where do you write?

Anywhere. Cafes, planes and trains, airports, in the car parked in a layby, in our local garden centre or waiting for my kids tutoring to finish.

Once when I was near to deadline I finished a book in the last row of a cinema. Where I am doesn’t matter at all.

Although I particularly like cafes because they bring you sandwiches. 

 

Why put recipes in your novels?

Well I moved to France when I had children and you have to learn to cook there, everybody does.

Plus as I had three children under five, I never left the house. So I’d potter about the kitchen and basically learned how to do it. Then I thought it might be fun to share what I’d learned, and some really simple recipes.

If you don’t like the recipes you can ignore them, but if you do, well, it’s really fun to see what people make – they often send me pictures

 

Favourite three authors?

Douglas Adams, Jon Krakaeur and George Eliot. 

 

Whose work inspires you the most?

Loads of writers inspire me. Sci-fi and children’s writers inspire me because they are so productive.

Douglas Adams was a huge influence because he’s so brilliantly funny. Marian Keyes as she just tells it like it is and Rose George for writing about whatever she likes.

I am also inspired by Jon Ronson as he is such a beautiful stylist, Steven Moffat who is so clever and LM Montgomery because she’s so warm. 

 

A preview of Jenny’s latest book The Christmas Surprise

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little sweetshop she owns and runs.

But when fate strikes Rosie and her boyfriend, Stephen, a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their Lipton friends to hold them together. . .

 

The Christmas Surprise the standalone sequel to the bestselling Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop series is available online and in stores priced £7.99.

For more details about her books, life and recipes visit http://www.jennycolgan.com

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Ask the Author: Skin by Ilka Tampke

By Vikki Patis

I spoke to the wonderful Ilka Tampke about her debut novel Skin.

ilka-photo_smIlka Tampke was born in Sydney in 1969. She studied theatre at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst NSW and completed honours in performance at University of Western Sydney. Tampke directed the Sydney Women’s Festival, Mallacoota’s Festival of the Southern Ocean and numerous other arts and cultural events in Australia and the UK before commencing post-graduate study in writing at RMIT, Melbourne. She was writer and editor of Quest, national journal of adult learning in 2010 and 2011, and was awarded a Glenfern Fellowship in 2012. Her short stories and articles have been published in several anthologies. She lives in Woodend, Australia, with her partner and two children.

Skin is her first novel, but you wouldn’t know it. I reviewed Skin for the Lovereading review panel earlier in the year, and I think the review speaks for itself:

‘Wow. It’s not often that I’m lost for words, but with this book, it’s hard not to be. I devoured Skin within hours, sneaking chapters between meals and forsaking other things just to get a little bit more.’

Click here for the full review

9781473616424.jpg.pagespeed.ce.9SRWMOh2RmAfter adoring Skin, I wanted to know what inspired Tampke to start writing.

I have always loved writing since I was a small child, but dancing and acting took over for me when I became a teenager. It was not until I had my first child, that I sat down and began focusing on writing again. So I guess my daughter inspired me to become a writer.

Her number one tip for aspiring writers is to finish their manuscript.

I see so many brilliant writers who will never be published because they don’t finish their wonderful beginnings. I always say that a completed manuscript might get published, but an unfinished one never will. I also recommend that writers apply for as many competitions/residencies/awards as they can. I found my publisher through applying for an award for which she was the judge. It’s a great way to get your work under editors’ noses.

I wanted to know what inspired the setting of Caer Cad, and why Tampke decided to write about the Iron Age in particular.

It was a roadtrip that I took to Somerset when I was a young backpacker living in London. I was so touched by the ancient sites of this part of Britain that I knew I would have to write about them. In some ways, I feel more ‘at home’ there than I do in Australia.

I was interested in ancient Britain more generally, but as I began to research, I found that it was the Iron Age, with its mysterious druids and the Roman Invasion that offered a powerful dramatic narrative.

Fans of Skin will be pleased to hear that Tampke is currently working on a sequel (yay!).

It is much more grounded in the real history of Britain’s passionate struggle against Roman occupation and Ailia’s determination to preserve her culture’s knowledge. There’s a little less ‘fantasy’ in this one. The drama of real history has taken over.

She’s just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, which she describes as glorious.

Tampke hopes to be in the UK at some point next year. Keep an eye on her website http://ilkatampke.com.au/ and social media for updates.

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Author Talk: Sophie Cousens, winner of Love At First Write

When I first read about the Love at First Write competition, I had only written the first few chapters of my book, How to get Ahead in Television, and had no idea where the story was going. Seeing that the competition was run in conjunction with Lovereading made me convinced I had to get writing and enter. They have always been my ‘go-to’ whenever I’m debating what to read next, or just want to see what is going on in the world of books.

on setEntering the competition gave me the impetus to keep writing my book, then finding out I had been shortlisted gave me the confidence that this was actually a book worth writing.  When I received the phone call to tell me I had won I was actually at work in a TV production office. I was so thrilled, but I don’t think I could believe it at first. The conversation went something like this:

Corvus, “We’re calling to say you’ve won the Love at First Write Competition.”

Me, “What?”

Corvus, “You’ve won. We’re going to publish your book.”

Me, “You’re joking!”

Corvus, “No we’re not joking.”
Me, “No!”

How_to_get_Ahead_in_TV_cover_reducedCorvus, “Yes!”

Me (jumping up and down on my chair) “Really?”

My colleagues, eavesdropping on this conversation, assumed something amazing must have happened with the show we were making; perhaps I’d managed to book David Beckham as a guest? Sadly they were to be disappointed, but I was ecstatic – I’d much rather have my book published than meet David Beckham.

The team at Corvus have been fantastic throughout, and I’ve learnt so much from the editing process. I’ve felt very supported and am very proud of the finished manuscript. I just hope people will enjoy How to Get Ahead in Television and that I prove to be a worthy winner.

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Ask the Author: Kathleen Kent

By Vikki Patis

Historical fiction author Kathleen Kent spoke to me about her writing process.

KKentheadshotKathleen Kent is the author of three best-selling novels, The Heretic’s Daughter – recipient of the David J. Langum Sr. award for American historical fiction – The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts (set in 1870 Texas), which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 top choice for Historical Fiction, as well as the recipient of a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western fiction.  She has completed a fourth book, a contemporary crime novel, based on the short story, “Coincidences Can Kill You”, (Dallas Noir) to be published in 2016.  She resides in Dallas.

Kent grew up in a family of story-tellers, and remembers writing short stories from a very young age.

“I also read constantly, fiction, non-fiction, the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, but my favorite books were usually historical fiction.  Mary Renault, and her books about the ancient world, being some of my favorites.  I went to college to study writing, but my father, being an imminently practical man, convinced me to change my course of study to business where I could, “always write on the side.”  So for twenty years, after college, I pursued a career in New York, first in commodities and then as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense doing defense conversion work in the Former Soviet Union, converting military plants to civilian use.  I loved my job, but the desire to write was always in the back of my mind.  I was almost fifty years old before I decided to take an early retirement and begin writing.  My first book, The Heretic’s Daughter, took five years to write, as I had to learn the craft of careful research as well as develop the art of writing in the long form.  My family was very encouraging in this transition, and I couldn’t have imagined making the courage to begin writing a novel without their help.”

Her tips for aspiring writers include managing your expectations.

“I think many people have the desire to write, and have a story, or stories, that they want to commit to paper.  The hardest thing for most people seems to be in just getting started. That, and the expectation that everything they write must be perfect, from inception to ending.  It’s helpful, I believe, to shift that expectation to a certainty that the initial efforts, the first few drafts, are supposed to be bad.  That’s how we improve in any endeavor.  The other difficulty seems to be in waiting for the mood, or the Muse, to strike and create an effortless flow of beautiful, meaningful words.  It does happen—but rarely.  The author Ann Patchett once said in a book conference speech (one titled The Muse and The Marketplace), that there is no one, true Muse, just hard work.  So hard work and being able to tolerate the day-to-day tedium, what I like to call facing The Tyranny Of The Blank Screen.”

Kent has just completed a book in a genre that’s completely new for her.

CG0s4m4WgAE5YzU“It’s a contemporary crime novel (title yet to be named) that’s based loosely on my short story in the crime anthology, Dallas Noir.  It was a scary thing making the leap into a whole new genre, but I think the creative fire thrives on risk. I’m thrilled to say that it will be published by Mulholland in the fall of 2016.”

During my fascination with the witch trials in early America, I stumbled across Kent, and instantly fell in love. One of the main characters in The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife is Martha Carrier. I wanted to know why Kent chose to write about this fascinating woman.

“Martha Carrier, one of the 19 men and women hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, is figure who loomed quite large in my life.  I first heard of her when I was about 8 years old visiting my maternal grandmother.  It was she who first told me of the Carrier family in 17th century New England, and of the hysteria that swept through the colonies.  When I asked her if Martha had, in fact, been a witch, she told me, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.”  From that moment on I was fascinated by Martha, and gathered research on the witch trials all through my childhood and into adulthood.  I always knew that if I was to write a book, it would have Martha Carrier as the central character.  She was courageous, standing up to her accusers, and going to her death rather than support the lie that she had contracted with the Devil to do ill in the world.  I admire her bravery, her wit and dedication to her family.”

She’s currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new book, A God In Ruins.

“I love her writing and read everything that she publishes.  I also read quite a bit of non-fiction as well, most recently the fascinating biography of the famous film director, Werner Herzog, A Guide For The Perplexed.”

After several years of author events, Kent has recently taken a break to finish her latest novel, but she imagines she’ll be doing more author talks when the novel is published next year. Keep an eye on her website for updates: www.kathleenkent.com

Kent’s novels are available on Lovereading.co.uk, the UK’s No1 book recommendation site.

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Cesca Major – The Three Things That Helped Me Get Published

A lot of people ask me about my journey to publication. Although my debut novel THE SILENT HOURS was my first full length novel it certainly wasn’t my first attempt at writing. So what led to that phonecall from my agent telling me my first novel would be published? Reflecting on this question I believe 3 things really helped me:


READING

Reviewing books for the women’s fiction website Novelicious (www.novelicious.com) helped me immeasurably and I didn’t even realise it at the time. I reviewed books for ‘Alternative Thursday’ which meant I essentially had carte blanche to review a whole range of books from different genres. I learnt so many lessons in writing from studying how writers managed (or failed) to pull me into their books. I learnt about gorgeous characterisation from Claire King, how to get people to turn the page from C L Taylor and how to write beautiful descriptive passages without boring the reader from Hannah Richell.

9781782395683SHORT STORIES

For me short stories made an enormous difference. They allowed me to experiment with my own style of writing and take risks. They were also a great break from the full length novel and a chance to write something new. Better than that you can enter them into lots of competitions and a short story I entered into the annual Woman and Home Competition made the shortlist and prompted me to go on and write THE SILENT HOURS.

GETTING AN AGENT

It is a reasonably lonely world when you’re writing and rejections come all the time. You didn’t win that short story competition, you are not the under 21 year old that has signed a 6 figure deal etc An agent is another person on your team. They believe in you and your writing and they take you seriously when you tell them you want to make writing a career. Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson (www.darleyanderson.com) was that person for me and she gave me the confidence to keep editing, working on a manuscript until it was ready to send out into the world.

And then that phone call did come. “Cesca – we have news.”

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Ask the Author: Vanessa Tait author of The Looking Glass House

By Vikki Patis

I recently received a review copy of The Looking Glass House, thanks to Lovereading.co.uk. It contained everything I love in a book, so I spoke to the author, Vanessa Tait, about her writing process.

As the great-granddaughter of the Alice who inspired the stories by Lewis Carroll, Tait grew up in Gloucestershire, England, in a house full of Alice’s memorabilia. After school, she studied Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University in London, worked as a freelance journalist for the Times, Tatler, and The London Paper, and also did a number of odd-jobs, including dog-walking, working in a nightclub, and as a barista.
Tait spent more than 10 years working on The Looking Glass House, as well as working on her children, of which she now has three.
It may be clear by now that I love a good historical fiction, and The Looking Glass House is, among other things, exactly that. It transports you back to 1862, to where Mary Prickett is taking up her post as governess to the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church. She soon meets Charles Dodgson, an awkward, academic gentleman, who takes great interest in the children Prickett is in charge of, Alice in particular.
What I loved most about this story is that Alice isn’t the protagonist, or the heroine, or even very likeable. She is, in fact, a spoiled, somewhat manipulative little girl, used to getting her own way. One might expect Alice’s great-granddaughter to write about her in such a way that everyone falls in love with her. But, I suppose, we already have that in Carroll’s books. The Looking Glass House gives a fresh perspective, allowing us to wipe away the magic and beauty of Wonderland, and peep behind the curtains of real life.

 

Tait is a wonderful storyteller. Her prose is simple yet effective, and her words bring to life the real Alice. Mary Prickett is also a fascinating character, one I would very much like to read more about. Some people may not enjoy this stripping back of magical layers, particularly as it concerns a novel that generations of people have enjoyed, but I, despite being a fan of fantasy and fairy tales, have always adored the stories that show us the harsh reality. The Looking Glass House is fantastic read, which I finished far too quickly.

Like most writers, Tait always wanted to be one.

Nothing else seemed as good a way to spend my working life. Except perhaps to be a member of a girl indie band – which I wanted to do but never had the nerve. I preferred sitting alone, as it turned out!

And it took her a long time to get published.

What I had to learn was to let go of writing for publication and learn instead to enjoy writing only for its own sake. After all, even after the deal is signed there are more hurdles to climb: good reviews, more books to get into print. Once I stopped concentrating so hard on the beautiful sentence and began to be freer, more honest and less afraid of making a mistake, my book came together.

Also – just write, most days. And then rewrite. And rewrite again. It’s not glamorous.
Tait is currently working on another book, where a Victorian woman married to the proprietor of a pharmacy gets addicted to laudanum.

Morphine and cocaine were easily available over the counter in those days and actually morphine was seen as a feminine option – middle class women weren’t allowed to drink and were stuck at home. Boredom and constraint were perfect bedfellows for a laudanum addiction. I’m interested too in how attitudes to drugs have changed over the years. We always think of the Victorians as being so uptight, but they were throwing down things like Vin Mariani, whose main ingredient was cocaine.
So my next book, a Victorian trainspotting.

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Book Review: Day Shift by Charlaine Harris, plus Q&A with the author

By Vikki Patis

Thanks to the lovely people at Gollancz, I received a review copy of Day Shift, the second book in the Midnight, Texas series by the wonderful Charlaine Harris.

__________________________________________________________________

9780575092884Welcome to Midnight, Texas.

It’s a quiet little town, perched at the junction between Davy Road and Witch Light Road, and it’s easy to miss. With its boarded-up windows, single traffic light and sleepy air, there’s nothing special about Midnight . . . which is exactly how the residents like it.

So when the news comes that a new owner plans to renovate the run-down, abandoned old hotel in town, it’s not met with pleasure. Who would want to come to Midnight, with its handful of shops, the Home Cookin diner, and quiet residents – and why?

But there are bigger problems in the air. When Manfred Bernado, the newest resident in town, is swept up in a deadly investigation suddenly the hotel and its residents are the least of the towns concern. The police, lawyers and journalists are all headed to Midnight, and it’s the worst possible moment…

__________________________________________________________________

First, the book. I have to say that Day Shift grabbed me much faster than Midnight Crossroad did. Perhaps it’s because I’m more invested in the characters now, or that I finally realised just how many of them are from Charlaine’s other series, all of which I adore. (I have to admit, just how long it took me to realise this fact does make me feel somewhat foolish.) Whatever the reason, I tore through Day Shift in a couple of sittings, devouring every word, and feeling bereft when it was over.

I don’t want to give anything away, but this book in particular really appealed to the Sookie Stackhouse lover in me. It has mystery, magic, and marvellous characters. I loved finding out more about some of those characters, and really connecting with their back stories. Once again, Harris has created a world in which I want to live, with people I want to know, and an undercurrent of magic that I wish existed.

I also have to say just how much I love the author. Charlaine Harris is not only a fantastic writer, but she’s also a wonderful person. She was kind enough to be interviewed for my Ask the Author (http://www.readwave.com/ask-the-author-charlaine-harris_s55273) feature last year, and she also agreed to answer a few questions on this new series, for which I am incredibly grateful. My thanks also go to the lovely Paula, for setting the interview up.

What inspired you to use a setting like Midnight, Texas in your new series?

I had been thinking about my childhood quite a bit, and remembering every summer when my mom would take my brother and me to Texas to stay with her parents so she could help them during Rodeo. They ran a hotel in Rocksprings, Texas, which is still standing and operating, by the way. My mother and her sisters worked really hard during Rodeo, but I was mostly good for getting in the way, as I recall. The culture and landscape were very different from the Delta area of Mississippi, where I grew up, and I thought it would be fun to set the new series in a place that’s not a literal rendition of Rocksprings, Texas, but a place more like my impression.

So far, I’ve noticed Manfred Bernardo, Barry Bellboy and Quinn the weretiger from other books. Are there any other characters from your other series that I’ve missed? Will any more be making an appearance in the future? 

Yes, you’ve skipped a few. Bobo Winthrop is from the Lily Bard series, and Arthur Smith is from the Aurora Teagarden books.

Why did you choose to develop some of these existing characters for this new series? 

Some characters you just miss. And (especially) for Bobo, I wanted to see how he’d turned out. He’s a mature man in the Midnight books, and he was a teen in the Lily Bard books. What’s happened to him in the intervening years? All the characters have had time to change to some extent. It was the change that interested me.


You have so many brilliantly written characters, in all of your series. What are your tips for developing such characters?

I think every book character has to work. But while they’re fulfilling their function, they can be interesting, too. It’s much more fun for the writer to give each character life. I think experience has a lot to do with being able to create characters who really stick with the reader.

How many books are planned for this new series? When should we expect the next one? 

May of next year will see the publication of NIGHT SHIFT. I’ve signed for three books, and that’ll complete the contract. We’ll see after that.

Take me back to Midnight. I’m sure I’m weird enough to fit right in.

To read my review of Midnight Crossroad, click here. https://dracarya.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/book-review-midnight-crossroad-by-charlaine-harris/  Day Shift will be released on 5 May.

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Ask the Author: Jane Johnson, The Tenth Gift

By Vikki Patis

As part of the Cornish Reading Challenge, I spoke to Jane Johnson, author and Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins.

jane-johnson-author-portraitJane Johnson has worked in the book industry for over 20 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer, and is the author of The Tenth GiftThe Salt Road and The Sultan’s Wife. She was responsible for publishing the works of J. R. R. Tolkien during the 1980s and 1990s and worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, spending many months in New Zealand with cast and crew. Under the pseudonym of Jude Fisher she has written the bestselling Visual Companions to the films of Lord of the Rings andThe Hobbit. She has also written several books for children, including The Secret CountryMaskmaker and Goldseekers.

Jane married her own ‘Berber pirate’, and now they split their time between Cornwall and a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. She still works, remotely, as Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins.

Her first historical novel, The Tenth Gift, which is set around Gulval and Penzance, was inspired by a story her mother told her when she was a child, about an ancestor who had been stolen by ‘pirates’.

She didn’t know who these pirates were, but in 2004 I researched our family tree and found that young Catherine Tregenna’s birth records were in the parish register, but there were no marriage or death records for her. And then I learned there had been a raid in Mount’s Bay by pirates from the North African coast in 1625: they captured 60 men, women and children from the church in Penzance and sold them into slavery in Morocco. Catherine would have been 19 at the time: it was the perfect starting point for a novel.

9780141033419Johnson lives in Mousehole, a place she has loved since she was a child, but she was raised on Fowey.

My father was a fisherman and a lifeboatman there: I have always loved Cornish fishing villages, and because the roots of my mother’s family lie in West Penwith, it was the place I felt drawn to when I returned to Cornwall after working out of the county for 20 years.

She is currently working on a new book, Court of Lions.

It starts with two children, fast friends, growing up in the most beautiful place in the civilised world – the Alhambra Palace – in 15th century Spain. It. One is a beggar-child, the other will become the last Moorish king of Granada. They have no idea of the vast events that will overwhelm them as they grow to adulthood, as Isabella and Ferdinand sweep to power and bring the Spanish Inquisition into being to remove every non-Catholic from Spain. It’s a dramatic, epic period, but I want to concentrate on the poignant relationship between the beggar and the Moorish king. It’s a love story, a war story and a tale about the need for tolerance, in our time as much as theirs.

Her advice to aspiring writers is simple: it’s all about putting the hours in.

Innate talent is a myth: what makes the difference is learning your craft and – as with any other skill worth pursuing – working very hard to improve it. That means reading books that inspire you, books you aspire to being able to write but can’t imagine you’ll ever have the skill to achieve: only by setting your sites high and trying to reach them will you become a better writer. Learn about structure on a large and small scale; learn to take your writing apart and put it back together, better. Listen to the way people really speak and learn how to render that in dialogue. Keep your language simple and be ruthless in your editing. And persevere: it’s a tough, tough job!

Although Johnson is trying to keep her diary clear this year to focus on her writing, she is appearing at a few events.

I’m running a Guardian Masterclass in April about the writing of epic fiction, and I’ve been asked to speak at the Romantic Novelists Association convention in July… It’s hard to find time to write when you’re holding down a full-time job.

Johnson recommends several novels:

Oh, there are so many! Anything by Mary Renault – superb historical fiction Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES Anything by Robin Hobb: sweeping epic stories with a touch of magic LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry: the greatest western ever written The poems of Rumi Robert Macfarlane’s sublime nature writing WILD by Cheryl Strayed: her trek along the Pacific Coast Trail reminds me of my own epic drama while climbing in the Moroccan mountains.

She’s currently re-reading A Dance With Dragons by George RR Martin, in preparation for the fifth season of Game of Thrones in April.

He’s one of the authors I publish and it’s been 4 years since I edited the book.

This or That

  1. Seaside or countryside? SEASIDE
  2. Ice cream or pasty? PASTY
  3. Sunshine or rain? SUNSHINE
  4. E-book or paperback? PAPERBACK
  5. Tea or coffee? COFFEE

Johnson’s The Tenth Gift is available on Lovereading, the UK’s No 1 book recommendation site. If you’ve chosen her novel for the Cornish Reading Challenge, get in touch! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Sarah Morgan talks about her new book First Time in Forever

First Time in Forever is the first book in Sarah Morgan’s highly anticipated Puffin Island trilogy.

Thoughts from the author:

sarah-morgan-authorWhen I finished my O’Neil Brothers trilogy (Sleigh Bells in the Snow, Suddenly Last Summer and Maybe This Christmas) and was pondering what to write next, I decided to explore an idea I’d had for a while, and that was a character who had chosen never to have children but found herself guardian to a little girl. There are so many great stories out there about becoming a mother and what it means for women, but I wanted to write about what it means to take on someone else’s role as a mum and what big shoes those can be to fill. And so the inspiration for my new novel, First Time in Forever, was born.

In First Time in Forever, Emily Donovan suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of ‘mum’ when her half sister is tragically killed and Emily is named as the legal guardian for her niece Lizzy. Emily is haunted by her past and convinced she’s not mother material, so I couldn’t wait to find out how she would react in this situation, and how she would cope with facing something that, for her, represented the ultimate challenge.

FirsttimeinForever_smPuffin Island has always been a sanctuary for Emily and her friends, so she turns her back on her high-flying career in New York, packs her bags, picks up Lizzy and starts afresh in the only place she’s ever felt truly safe. The island is beautiful – rugged coastline, gorgeous beaches, and friendly locals – but for Emily it represents another challenge because she is afraid of the water. Her new life on Puffin Island might be the best thing for her niece, but being surrounded by ocean on all sides forces Emily to confront memories she has kept buried for years.

Already dealing with so many challenges, Emily would be happy to avoid all emotional entanglement but sexy local businessman Ryan Cooper is determined to push her out of her comfort zone.

With a little help from Ryan, Emily starts to do all the things she has avoided for most of her life, and to tackle her fears head on. Soon, she’s carried away by the magic of Puffin Island. Her journey to taking a leap of faith and putting her heart on the line was such an emotional one for me to write. This is a story of courage, friendship and, of course, romance and I really hope my readers will be swept away by Ryan and Emily’s love story.

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