by Toni McGee Causey
All of our hearts are just overwhelmingly saddened for Cornelia, and what she and her family are going through. Everyone here at Murderati wants to extend our condolences to all of the Read family, wherever they are, and especially to our beloved Cornelia. Come home soon to us, C. You are missed.
I love this group. Our commenters, our regulars, our lurkers… you all make this place so incredibly special. Thank you all for hanging out with us.
And as I’ve said before, one of the very best things about this gig is getting to talk at length to fellow ‘Rati members and find out such cool things about them. Well, I jumped at the chance to interview our own Zoë Sharp and had so much fun. I think this blog could have gone on for pages and pages. We’re going to be dangerous, when Zoë makes it over here for her tour in June.
This, my friends, is fun! And so, the interview…
Toni McGee Causey 1) Anyone who peruses your website or blogs for any length of time will realize that you are a professional photographer. In one of the interviews on your site, you mention that you like to try to give descriptions that encapsulate the character instead of being a full “formal CV.” Could you tell us a little bit about how you started off in photography, how you knew how to proceed to make a living at it, and what it taught you about description? (Framing, light/dark, contrast, composition, the importance of the telling detail, etc.)
Zoë Sharp 1) As with most things I end up doing, I kind of fell into the photography side of things, having started out writing non-fiction articles for motoring magazines. After a couple of years doing that, my editors started saying, “Can’t you just take some pictures to go with these words?” And – as is so often the case way when people are too ignorant to know the true difficulty of what they’re agreeing to – I said, “Erm…OK.”
(Toni’s note… okay, that cracked me up. Are you sure you’re not a contractor? (grin))
When it comes to making a living at it, the advantage I had when I started was that I already had a market for my work – the articles I was writing were the hook on which to hang the sale of the accompanying pictures. As I’ve since discovered, although good pictures will sell an OK story, bad pictures will kill a good story stone dead. I would never have thought, when I started out, that there would be enough work just in photographing weird and wonderful cars to make a living – in fact, I was told outright by a very experienced newspaper photographer that it couldn’t be done – and yet, 22 years later, here I still am…
Just about all the photographic work I do now is on location, rather than in a studio, so it’s a constant challenge to find a suitable backdrop for each shoot. I’ve developed a habit of looking at places with location-hunting in mind, even when we’re not on the way to a shoot. As Sherlock Holmes said, people look, but they don’t see, and I feel working as a photographer has taught me to see more. I like snapshots, taken from up high or lying on the ground, looking at things from a different angle, in a slightly different way. I don’t spend hours setting a shot up, I just know where the light and shade needs to go, place the flashguns, and shoot. I like to write the same way. Although I can appreciate beautiful prose, like the Laurie Lee books I read years ago, usually pages of description about the contents of someone’s desk bore me and I start to skip-read at that point, so my aim is to avoid writing the bits other people skip.
TMC 2) You have a terrific list of fun hobbies; you’ve even flown a helicopter! So tell us a little bit about your hobbies, what inspired each, what’s the most fun you’ve had for each, and how they’ve influenced you as a writer.
ZS 2) Oh boy, we could be here all day with this one! Somebody once said that you always regret the things you didn’t do, more than the things you did, so if I get the opportunity to go and do something, I tend to take it. It’s no good sitting around in your octogenarian bath chair going, “Oh, I wish I’d got round to…”
The Robinson R22 helicopter trial flight was a birthday pressie from Andy, and it was wonderful, if incredibly difficult. I think at one point after my instructor handed over control, he rather nervously advised me to pull the nose up because, “Erm, we’ve gone into a bit of a screaming dive here…”
(T’s note… this is probably where I’d have had the heart attack.)
Now, I’m not sure if the hobbies affect the writing, or vice versa. In the Charlie Fox book I’ve just finished the rewrites on (Hurrah!) I’ve included horses. I mean, they’ve always been there as a vague part of Charlie’s background, but it’s never been more than mentioned in passing as backstory. This time, I had the perfect opportunity for it to play a fairly important part in the plot, and as one of the few things I’m actually qualified to be is a horse-riding instructor, I had the confidence that I could get my facts right.
I think my favourite hobby, stemming from an old job, has to be sailing – especially on a big multihull, at night, when there’s nothing to block out the stars from reaching right down to the horizon on all sides. Fabulous. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to get Charlie onto a boat…
TMC 3) I’ve read in a couple of your interviews that your very first novel was one you wrote when you were fifteen and your dad (God bless him) typed it up on carbon paper (pre-computer days) and sent it off for you to publishers. (Aren’t dads the best?) You got “rave rejections” and clearly showed an early talent. But enquiring minds want to know… what was that first novel about? And what did you learn from it?
ZS 3) Hmm, funny I’ve just mentioned horses, because it was a horsy tale, much inspired by Anna Sewell’s BLACK BEAUTY, which I listed recently as the most influential book I ever read as a child. That book – her only novel before she died tragically young – changed the laws on animal cruelty in the UK, and had a huge effect on public opinion. So, I thought I’d write my own horsy tale, although sadly it lacked the same kind of social comment. In fact, it lacked any kind of social comment! The dusty old typescript now languishes in a box in the attic and my father (God bless him indeed) keeps threatening to dig it out and put in on eBay. No chance!
Bearing in mind it was written back in pre-word-processor days, the publishing houses were not inundated with typescripts, but they were still enormously kind in their rejections. I often wonder what would have happened if it had been accepted, but getting the thing turned down numerous times, however gently and encouragingly they did it, was enough to shatter my fragile self-confidence as a writer. I put that ambition aside and went out and did various other things instead for a few years before I got into the non-fiction side, which satisfied my desire to put words on paper – for a while, at least!
I suppose at a basic level, what I learnt from it was that I could complete a story from start to finish, even if it wasn’t quite the right story. If I’d managed to become a novelist at that early age, I think I would very quickly have run out of things to say. I’d been nowhere and done nothing.
At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!
(T’s note… I’m so glad you went back to it, though! The world needed Charlie Fox! But I love that you show so clearly how sometimes it’s best to let go of that first attempt, shelve it, learn from it and move on. So many first-time writers really and truly want to do the hard work… but they also want to live the fantasy that the first book is going to be “the one.” I’m grateful to your dad! And if he’s reading this, and wants to make a few extra bucks for an old yellowed typescript he just happens to have sitting around his attic… call me.)
TMC 4) You live (were born) in the UK, and your Charlie Fox books were initially set there. Now Charlie’s traveling in the US for various books. Tell us a little bit about the difference in the culture between where you live vs. the US — beyond just differences in language. Do you see any significant differences in how a strong character like Charlie is perceived here vs. there? Or, are you finding that with the internet and TV, cultural differences are eroding? (Or something in between?) I’d love a sense of the place where you grew up / where you live now vs. cultural nuances you’ve discovered in your travels in the US. Also, what were the obstacles in setting a book in the US?
ZS 4) I think the main difference between the UK and the States is the scale of the place. We describe our house as halfway up the side of a fell in the middle of nowhere, but in reality we’re only five miles from the nearest small town, not several hours’ drive along deserted arrow-straight road without another human being in sight. OK, so the local population is outnumbered probably ten-to-one by the sheep, but there isn’t that sense of real isolation you can achieve in America.
Charlie is possibly accepted more easily in the States, because you have more of a tradition of strong female characters. If you think of American TV, you have more kick-ass women in programmes like Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We have Miss Marple. I think we absorb a lot of US culture over here through TV, because if an American series is successful, for instance, we tend to import it as is. In the States, though, it seems that the UK concept is simply remade with an American cast and setting. Apart from villains, of course. At one point, every movie had to have a Brit as the chief baddie. And if he wasn’t a Brit, he at least drove a Range Rover…
(T’s note: Or he was James Bondish.)
I would not like to try and write a book entirely from the POV of an American main protagonist. At least with Charlie, she’s a Brit and she still thinks like a Brit, so I’m constantly looking at a foreign culture through her eyes. She’s always felt apart from other people because of her abilities, and this increases her outsider status. Keeps things interesting!
(T’s note: I’d agree–I love the fish-out-of-water situations Charlie finds herself in, and I especially love seeing the US from the eyes of a non-American. It can be so illuminating.)
We’d travelled a lot in the States before I took Charlie over to Florida for her first American job, and although Florida is a very touristy destination, I wanted a very particular setting for the book – Daytona Beach during the Spring Break weekend. That was probably the first time where the time and place came first, and the story arrived afterwards.
TMC 5) Charlie Fox is one of the best and strongest female protagonists I’ve ever read and I love this series. So much so that I am champing at the bit for the newest book. Tell us a little bit about how Charlie came about?
ZS 5) Funny you should ask that, because I’ve just finished reading a thriller that seems very much in the vein of the old all-action, macho tough-guy style that I used to read when I was younger. There were very few women in the book, and they performed the ‘traditional’ female roles – sex, cooking, ministering to the sick, crying during a firefight, and being unable to take the safety-catch off a weapon. And it reminded me of exactly why I came up with a character like Charlie. I simply couldn’t find one I didn’t want to shake until her teeth rattled!
(T’s note: Exactly! Bravo!)
TMC 6) I see that sometimes in interviews, questions are always popping up about the “gender divide” in the thriller / mystery genre, and honestly, I have to wonder if this is a divide that is perceived by those in the business rather than the audience… meaning, the business perceives it, acts on it, creates a system whereby it’s harder for female led books to be marketed in general, and thus creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve noticed that you (like myself) didn’t perceive a divide and wouldn’t characterize the issues a strong protagonist faces in order to win over an audience. That said, what *do* you perceive as the issues facing a writer who’s writing a strong female character? What sorts of things are you wary about with Charlie, and how do you make us care so much about her.
ZS 6) I think the big problems are that, not only do I write a strong female character, but I have an obviously female name as well, which does seem to put off a certain element of male readers. I still get amazed emails from male readers saying they actually enjoyed reading a Charlie Fox novel, which was often given to them by a female friend/relative. And yet, I don’t know what made them wary about picking up one of my books in the first place. What are they expecting that they did or didn’t find?
I tried not to make Charlie a ‘guy in nylons’ as someone so nicely put it once.
(T’s note: I thought for about a half-a-second to Google ‘guy in nylons’ and then I came to my senses. You are welcome.)
She’s just…a person. She’s competent and resilient, but she’s aware that she has a capacity for violence which worries her in a way I don’t think it would a male main protag. She has a nice dry sense of humour, which I hope makes her more human without slipping into comedic, but at the same time she could kill you with her thumbs.
On the marketing side, I think you’re entirely right. I look at some of the weird overseas covers I’ve had, and wonder where on earth the books are supposed to be aimed. I recently signed a deal for a couple of the books to come out in Russia, and I’m intrigued to see where they pitch those. Just as long as they don’t do the covers in pink…
From a personal standpoint, it annoys me to be pigeonholed purely on gender. I’ve been getting that for most of my life. I think if I was starting again, though, I’d go for a pseudonym that was very definitely non-gender specific. Let people pick up the books with an open mind, and decide what they think afterwards.
(T’s note: I so completely concur.)
TMC 7) Tell us a little bit about how the Charlie Fox novels were created (following what event?), and how you see the series growing? I’m interested in the fact that, as a series character, Charlie *is* continuing to grow and change as a result of events from previous books. Was this planned? A part of your natural inclination?
ZS 7) Charlie came about because of two things. One, as I already mentioned, was because of the lack of the right kind of female characters within my reading sphere. The other was receiving death-threat letters in the course of my non-fiction work. That was a very strange and unsettling experience, particularly as the police never quite pinned down who was responsible, although we had our suspicions at the time. I think I was probably very lucky to come out of it relatively unscathed.
(And that is still so scary — just to think how real the possibilities are. I think it’s made you strong, and savvy, though.)
Charlie’s background came partly from the stories of bullying, hazing and suicide at a training camp called Deep Cut, and the rest of her quirks and qualities simply grew out of her experiences, coloured by my own.
Yes, she has grown during the series, but I felt I didn’t have the option to keep her static. I knew when I started out that she was not going to stay an ‘amateur sleuth’ for long. There’s only so many bodies an amateur can trip over before nobody would ever want to stand next to them in a bus queue, just in case.
I think if Charlie had already been working as a bodyguard in the very first book, with her relationship with Sean rekindled from their army days, there wouldn’t have been the same imperative. As it stands, she needed to come to terms with the past before she could move on, and she’s done this at a steady rate – at least until things start going Horribly Wrong for her on a personal level.
TMC 8) I am the lucky LUCKY recipient of an ARC of the very first Charlie novel, KILLER INSTINCT, which is coming out THIS MONTH from Busted Flush Press. This is a fantastic book and I feel like a total fangirl, squeeing on the sidelines, but I am thrilled that I got to read it. Not only was I surprised to learn that there were four books prior to FIRST DROP, I was frustrated that they weren’t readily available, ’til now. This is *wonderful* news and the covers are amazing. Tell us a little about how this re-release of the four originals came about.
ZS 8) David Thompson at Busted Flush Press has always been an enthusiastic supporter of my work, so I was delighted when he expressed interest in bringing out new editions of the early Charlie Fox books. Because David is a bookseller as well as a publisher, he has his finger on the pulse of what’s likely to sell and what isn’t, so we’re both really hopeful that the books will do well.
And, I know it’s confusing, but there were actually three books before FIRST DROP, and then a fifth between that and SECOND SHOT. (T’s note: oops. But now it’s starting to make sense…) When I thought up the title for FIRST DROP, it related to the rollercoaster Charlie is riding at the start of the book. I liked it because, in coaster terms, once you’ve climbed the initial lift hill and hit the first drop, you can’t stop, you can’t slow down, and you can’t get off the ride – you’ve just got to hold on tight and hope you’re still alive at the finish. It suited the story, I thought, but I never realised it would set a precedent.
However, when the series was picked up in the States, FIRST DROP was where they started. I was already writing what would become SECOND SHOT by that time, which was originally going to be called FALL LINE, because of the ski connotations and the fact that the fall line is the fastest way downhill. Considering Charlie does get shot twice on the opening page of that book, it seemed to fit. But, my US publishers wanted another numerical title to follow FIRST DROP, and SECOND SHOT was the obvious choice.
T’s note: for those of you keeping score at home, here’s the order of the series:
Also, I’d like to point out to the readers here that you can start with Charlie right away and still go back to the earlier books (out of order) and love the series!
TMC 9) You’ve stated in other interviews that your schedule changes daily, and you aim for 30K words per month to try to hit your goals. I’d love to hear a bit more about how you manage to cope with the constant changes and keep track of your story’s details, and how you fit writing 30K in and around a very busy schedule. What was the single most helpful tip that you found while tracking your information? What was the thing you tried which derailed you and you’ll never try again?
ZS 9) We very often find that no two days are alike, so if we’re on the road and I can’t use my laptop, for whatever reason, I usually at least manage to make a few notes about the next piece of dialogue, or work out the basics for an action scene that’s coming up, or even just what information my characters need to receive or get across in the next chapter.
I do try and write about 30,000 words a month when I’m in the midst of a book, and I find that if I don’t have a target, it’s too easy for days to slip by with nothing getting done. Then you find yourself facing an insurmountable amount with a deadline looming. This allows me to pace myself a little better, and make a reasonable amount of progress. It’s only around 1000 words a day, but that’s finished words. I don’t tend to rush through a first draft and then make a lot of major changes in each subsequent draft.
What is the thing I tried that derailed me? Not spending enough time plotting a book before I started on it. Definitely. I don’t find detailed outlining makes a book stale for me, simply that it allows me to interweave a greater number of differing strands of a story more tightly together. And the best thing? Doing a summary of the book as I go, which was suggested to me by my friend, crime writer Lesley Horton. It’s an invaluable way of keeping on top of the story, and then of making any necessary mods afterwards.
TMC 10) Tell us a little bit about FOURTH DAY and when we can expect to see it out on the stands?
ZS 10) FOURTH DAY sees Charlie going undercover into a cult in California, looking not only for answers about the death of a former disciple, but also for the means of her own redemption. She’s pretty unhappy with her life at this point, and the cult’s leader, Randall Bane, proves a charismatic figure who makes her re-evaluate herself and threatens to cause a rift between Charlie and her lover, Sean. It was a fairly harrowing book to write and, having just finished the follow-up, things do not get easy for Charlie in the months that follow. As THIRD STRIKE was about her search for respect from the people who matter most in her life, this was a logical next step and I’ll be very interested to see what people make of it! FOURTH DAY is just out in the UK, and will be out in the States next year from Pegasus.
TMC 11) Who are your heroes? (Not just in writing, but in life.)
ZS 11) My heroes are the people you’ve never heard of, because they just keep their heads down and get on with it. We’ve become such a celebrity-driven culture that people are famous simply for being famous. As for my writing heroes, there are too many to mention, but top of the list come my fellow Murderati bloggers!
TMC 12) What five words would you use to describe yourself. (Can be a sentence, or just five individual words.)
ZS 12) Doing the best I can.
TMC 13) What’s up next for you? What do you dream of doing (doesn’t have to be writing related) that you’d love to try now?
ZS 13) What’s next? Work, work and more work! I’m about to go to CrimeFest next weekend, which should be lots of fun, then I’m over to the States for a mini-tour at the end of June, in time for the Busted Flush edition of RIOT ACT to come out. (Erm, we are still OK to borrow your guest room for a couple of days, aren’t we?) (T’s note: Are you kidding? I’m lining up all sorts of fun things and great food. Can’t wait!) I’m already planning the next book, plus we want to sell our current house and start building another. And we really NEED to get some more motorcycles this summer to do the four corners of Britain, and go and race round the Nürburgring in Germany, and go sailing again. But my biggest dream at the moment is to go to Cambodia to see the Ankhor Wat temple.
(Now… can’t you just imagine how much fun another interview will be after Zoës travels? I’m making a list of new questions now…)
And now for the commenters — let’s talk about hobbies — what we love to do and what we would love to try. Two lucky commenters are going to get a signed copy of Killer Instinct – as soon as Zoë hits the ground in New Orleans and I can get her signature for you.