Author Q&A

AUTHOR Q&A and EXTRACT!! Awakening by Sam Love

Awakening CoverFar from a doom and gloom autopsy of the contemporary environmental crisis, ‘Awakening’ indulges in fun. From the craziness of shipping bottled water 6,000 miles, to how bacteria evolves for a counterattack, this collection laughs at humanity’s war on nature. After reading Love’s poetry, you will never look at nature in the same way.

“Sam’s musings on planetary survival emerged out of his pioneering work in the civil rights and environmental movements a half century ago, but have not stopped deepening. May the awakenings which have come to this big-hearted poet ripple out to transform our entire society, for Sam Love has become our modern-day Walt Whitman, a beam of light in this moment of darkness.”

– Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, Author and Research Scientist on Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona.

“I generally find contemporary poetry overly pretentious, and intentionally opaque, but Sam’s poetry is lucid and provocative. Fifty years ago, as one of the first Earth Day regional organizers, Sam played a key role in Earth Day’s mobilizing millions of people. Now Sam writes beautifully of environmental shame and hope.” 

– Denis Hayes, President of the Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970.

Today I’m welcoming poet Sam Love to The Shelf to talk about his latest poetry collection Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival.

Awakening is an ecopoetry collection that examines the environmental crisis from a number of perspectives, musing on long-distance shipping to examining the evolution of the natural world and I’m delighted that Sam took the time out of his schedule to answer some questions and tell us more about Awakening, and to share one of his poems with The Shelf.


Sam Love Author PhotoHi Sam, welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Your first chapbook of eco and nature poetry, Awakening, has just been published and has already been nominated for the prestigious Laurel Prize.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the collection and its themes?

Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival is a collection of my environmental poems that address critical ecological issues in a literary and sometimes fun way. Now issues like global warming have literally disappeared from the news as Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter absorb the media environment. But these ecological issues aren’t going away.

Each of the poems addresses a pressing issue such as global warming, plastic pollution, endocrine disruption, our insane support systems, migratory pattern changes, or deforestation. But rather than present them as a science tome, I frame the issues in very clear language and images that are relatable. I even had fun with some of them, for example in “One Word: Plastics” I speculated that aliens invented plastics, a material so “…enticing we couldn’t resist the lure of a plastic covered earth.”

Your poems explore various aspects of our relationship to nature and the environment. What is it that draws you to this subject?

I have been concerned about the environment since I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager. I also worked on the national staff of the first Earth Day in 1970. April 22 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day. Unfortunately, a great opportunity to promote environmental awareness was lost because all events were cancelled because of Covid-19.

I feel poets can play an important role in changing our environmental consciousness and they need to speak out in poems with clear messages. It is not a time for obscure images that we hope some people will get. Also, people are scared and depressed because of Covid-19, and we can provide inspiration and understanding. I recently put up a graphic on Facebook “Quarantine Your Body, Not Your Mind, Read Poetry.” Some people shared it.

Over the years I have had a number of environmental poems published so I decided to pull some together in a manuscript which Fly on the Wall Poetry Press published as Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival.

In the last few years, the climate crisis has become an increasingly important topic on the world stage; however, environmental issues are often assumed to be the remit of scientists. What role do you think writers and the arts play – or should play – in helping to address environmental issues such as climate change, plastic waste, carbon emissions etc?

Environmental issues affect all of us. Poets and artists are gifted with the ability to hear our survival instinct screaming and they can visualize or articulate the cry for help.

Teachers could take inspiration from some of my poems that explore where things come from. They can develop exercises such as showing the class a plastic water bottle from Fiji and challenge them to write or draw about where the components come from. Or challenge the class to explore what native plants fed an earlier group of people. Covid-19 has revealed some real cracks in the food delivery systems and in “Karmic Revenge” I speculate that “native spirits are smiling as their ghosts watch can openers stare at empty grocery shelves.”

I recently published an article entitled “Short Loop Living” on Medium, and shortening our supply chains is a good way to think about our carbon footprint.

We are also seeing more ecopoetry appear. At first relegated to emerging small presses who paid only in copies, ecopoetry is now rocking the poetry world. Contests with substantial backing are now springing up to encourage green poems. One of the most prominent is the Laurel Prize. UK Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage donated his honorarium as Laureate to establish an annual prize for environmental, ecopoetry, or nature poetry books.  The contest offers a first prize of £5,000.  The Prize is administered by the Poetry School and follows the success of its annual Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry, an award for the best single ecopoem.

Some readers struggle with poetry – it’s often perceived as ‘difficult’, which I always think is a great shame. Do you have any tips for readers who might be interested in reading more poetry but are struggling to access and engage with poems? Where should they start when they look at a poem?

If possible, it helps to hear a poet read the poem in their voice. That’s why it is so exciting that Twitter is now allowing short videos.  Poetry may be the original short attention span medium since most poems are relatively short. Also great poetry mines a phrase to create an image in your head as you are reading it. So many poems fall into categories like feminism, racial identity, ecopoetry, LGBTQ, teen angst etc. It may help to find a niche that you can relate to and read some of those poets. You may find they give voice to some of your inner angels and demons.

The Shelf note: I think this is a great idea for accessing poetry and there are some clips of Sam reading his work aloud on his website so do check that out!

Are there any particular natural landscapes or spaces that help inspire your work?

We really are in a new era with ecopoetry. It breaks from nature poetry that describes the landscape out there apart from us. Classical nature poetry romanticized and explored the natural world with poets like William Blake, Shelley, Keats, Mary Oliver, and Robert Frost. Other poets such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder focused us on how we live within nature and ways to lower our impact.

But travelogues and lyrical descriptions of nature tend to view nature as out there, apart from us. In a sense they harken back to the King James Bible’s interpretation of Genesis where God grants humans “dominion” over the Earth. According to one translation God admonished humans to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The authors of Genesis never envisioned factory fish trawlers decimating entire species.

With the emergence of an ecopoetry sensibility, poets are recognizing that we are integrated into nature and our actions affect the ecological construct of the web of life. Our very existence, with our cities, technology, engineering, reductionist science and blessing from the almighty is wreaking havoc on our planet and leading to massive extinctions. For many ecopoets the clock is running out. Sustainability may be a truly radical concept. In my poem regretting the demise of the ecology symbol I write, “if everyone lives the American dream, we will need a planet, three times the size of Mother Earth, and the last time I looked, she’s not gaining weight.”

Your poem ‘Escape’ uses a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, one of the foundational texts of nature writing. Is Thoreau a favorite writer and have his reflections on nature inspired or influenced your own work in any way?

Thoreau’s work was a celebration of observation and quieting the mind. When I recently reread Walden I realized it was a critique of the emerging industrial age with all of its busy-ness. He understood solitude is important to open one up to the natural world. I think the real problem today is overstimulation. I weed my inbox and there are still over 2,000 emails. We are constantly assaulted by noise. I used to edit TV commercials and you would hold a scene for three or four seconds. Then the pace picked up so now commercials are a strobing light show. The real casualty now is the loss of memory. We are so overloaded memory is disappearing from our culture. Today’s politicians can say or do something preposterous and a day later no one remembers it.

Can you tell us a little more about your writing process? How do you get from an initial idea to a finished poem? And what does a typical working day look like?

I read the news in both print and on line to observe the culture and I describe my work as exploring cracks in the culture. With environmental issues driven by consumption, those cracks may be stealing our children’s future. I will see something like an article on what’s happening to sperm and then I cogitate on the concept (cogitate is an old- fashioned word for slow deliberate thinking and I titled one of my poetry books Cogitation and lament that no one has time for it now). In the Awakening poem “Each Day” I encourage everyone through their actions to become their own ad agency to advertise a viable future.

You’ve previously written a children’s book, My Little Plastic Bag, to educate children about plastic waste. Did you find the writing process differed from the one you use when you write poetry? And what made you want to write for children?

Poetry is all about creating mental images. My Little Plastic Bag started as a poem I wrote about what happens to plastic bags on the side of the road. I cycle on some rural roads in North Carolina and I got so angry at all the plastic trash thrown from cars that I wrote the poem to let people know where the plastic goes. A version of it appeared in Eno, Duke University’s environmental arts magazine, and several people said it should be a children’s story so I teamed up with a wonderful local illustrator, Samrae Duke, and she brought my words to life. I am impressed with how fast kids get the lessons that there is no away and there are cycles in nature. A Spanish version is being used in a literacy program in rural Mexico and it made my day when the director sent me pictures of the kids reading the book.

I always ask guests on The Shelf to recommend some books – if any readers of Awakening wanted to find out more about ecopoetry, nature writing or writing about sustainability and the climate, who would you recommend they read?

One of the best contemporary books is Fly on the Wall Poetry Press’s Planet in Peril. The publisher is now recording some of the poems and putting them on the web so you can hear the poet’s voice. Two other anthologies are Earth Songs edited by Peter Abbs and The Ecopoetry Anthology edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street.

A lot of ecopoetry has an immediacy to it and there are a number of Twitter accounts where you can find ecopoetry. One of the most active is Poets for the Planet (poetsfortheplanet.org).


Sam has also kindly agreed to share one of his poems from Awakening with us:

Crazy Water

(A tale of two raindrops)

 

Nothing says affluence more

than a square bottle of pure water

from a virgin South Pacific ecosystem,

where raindrops fall on a pristine rainforest.

Empty American plastic

bottles travel thousands of miles

to Fiji for filling from

the mineral-laden volcanic aquifer.

Machines twist on Taiwan plastic caps

and apply labels

from who knows where.

Once filled and ready,

the square bottles are snugged

into an imported cardboard box.

Next, the bottles load into shipping containers,

so the water can move 6,000 miles

across the Pacific to ports in California

or through the Panama Canal to the East Coast.

Cranes like giant erector sets

then unload the water

for shipping to your store.

Savoring each smooth sip

evokes the illusion of health,

but wonderful for your body

is not wonderful for the planet

as one million Fiji water bottles

per day move around the world

on belching container ships.

To really enjoy Nature’s finest water

just ignore how its super-sized carbon footprint

contributes to the changing climate

with record hurricanes and floods.

This torrent of fresh rainwater

will be cleansed by municipal water systems

and piped to the tap of those who can’t afford

to grip a square bottle.


Thank you again to Sam for taking the time to talk to answer my questions and tell us more about Awakening! I hope this might encourage some readers to check out some of the ecopoets discussed so do let me know if you pick up Sam’s collection, or any of his recommendations!

Awakening by Sam Love is published by Fly on the Wall Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Fly on the Wall online store, Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to Isabelle from Fly on the Wall for putting me in touch with Sam and providing the sample poem and accompanying pictures for this post. 

Author Q&A · Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR Q&A!!! The Silence by Susan Allott

The Silence CoverIt is 1997, and in a basement flat in Hackney, Isla Green is awakened by a call in the middle of the night: her father phoning from Sydney. Thirty years ago, in the suffocating heat of summer 1967, the Green’s next-door neighbor Mandy disappeared. At the time, it was thought she fled a broken marriage and gone to start a new life; but now Mandy’s family is trying to reconnect, and there is no trace of her. Isla’s father Joe was allegedly the last person to see her alive, and now he’s under suspicion of murder.

Isla unwillingly plans to go back to Australia for the first time in a decade to support her father. The return to Sydney will plunge Isla deep into the past, to a quiet street by the sea where two couples live side by side. Isla’s parents, Louisa and Joe, have recently emigrated from England – a move that has left Louisa miserably homesick while Joe embraces his new life. Next door, Steve and Mandy are equally troubled. Mandy doesn’t want a baby, even though Steve – a cop trying to hold it together under the pressures of the job – is desperate to become a father.

The more Isla asks about the past, the more she learns: about both young couples and the secrets each marriage bore. Could her father be capable of doing something terrible? How much does her mother know? What will happen to their family if Isla’s worst fears are realized? And is there another secret in this community, one which goes deeper into Australia’s colonial past, which has held them in a conspiracy of silence?

Susan Allott’s impressive debut puts suburban neighbourhoods under the microscope, takes a deep dive into the fractures of family relationships, and reveals the heart-breaking realities behind Australian’s stolen generations.

The Silence revolves around Isla, a young woman living in London and called home to suburban Sydney when her father becomes the main suspect in a decades old disappearence. As Isla investigates Mandy’s disappearence, she uncovers long-buried secrets that lie at the heart of her parent’s relationship – and is forced to come to terms with the legacy that these have left within her own life.

Although not an easy read by any means, The Silence makes for a thought-provoking and gripping investigation of familial and societal trauma, covering issues of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, PTSD and, most importantly, the danger that can be caused by the silences we refuse to acknowledge in our lives.

Alternating beween 1997 and 1967, this is a slow-burning mystery with a compelling core. Although all of the characters are severely damaged in their own ways, I found myself caught up in what was happening to them and desperate to find out how their present days lives had been shaped by the events of a long-ago summer.

With shades of both Jane Harper and Celeste Ng, The Silence is a meaty and compelling slice of domestic noir and I’m delighted to be able to welcome author Susan Allott to The Shelf today to tell us more about her dark suburban tale.


Hi Susan! Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Thank you for taking the time to chat and answer some questions for me! First things first, could you please tell us a little bit about The Silence and what it is about?

Hello! Thanks for having me!

The Silence is an Australian-set mystery about an investigation into the disappearance of a woman called Mandy, who has in fact been missing for 30 years, but wasn’t reported missing until her father died and she didn’t come forward for his will. Mandy’s husband was a policeman at the time of her disappearance, and part of his job involved the removal of Aboriginal children from their families – a Government policy that continued until the 1970s.

These two strands of plot come together as Isla Green, whose father is a suspect in relation to Mandy’s disappearance, starts bringing all sorts of secrets to the surface – family secrets but wider historical ones too, all of which have been hidden in plain sight for a long time.

The Silence takes place over two time periods – 1997 and 1967 – and alternating between these slowly reveals the secrets that lie behind both Mandy’s disappearance and within the heart of Isla’s family. Did you always intend to structure the novel this way? And how did you manage the various complex plot strands across both timelines?

It actually dawned on me quite late that I needed the dual timeline structure to make the novel work. For a long time the novel was set entirely in 1967. As soon as I put the 1997 timeline in, the book started to feel mysterious and layered, and the whole thing came together. I loved putting in those chapters set in 1997 because I was living in Sydney in the late nineties myself, so I had a lot of memories to draw on. The 1967 timeline needed a lot more research.

I used a program called Scrivener to plan out the book, and I think I’d have been quite lost without it. It helped me to manage all the different points of view and fit the 1997 chapters around the 1967 ones. It also allowed me to move chapters around so the reveals came in at the right place. I had lots of notes in the margins of each chapter to remind myself of what I needed to hold back and what I needed to get across.

You alternate between a variety of perspectives in The Silence. Why did you want to bring multiple voices into the novel? And did you find any one character easier or more difficult to write than others?

That’s a good question. I wanted to write a novel that invited readers to empathise with a range of complex, flawed people, even if they weren’t always entirely sympathetic. By writing from a character’s point of view for a whole chapter at a time, I was able to get under their skin and inside their head, capturing the way they speak and think. Hopefully this made them three-dimensional and convincing.

The character of Steve was a real challenge but he was also the character I kept coming back to every time I started to despair of the book; he always fascinated me. I wanted readers to empathise with Steve and to feel quite uneasy about that, because of his role in the child removals. I didn’t want him to be easily written off as entirely bad. It’s so much more interesting to consider whether anyone is essentially bad; how we might all need to manage the good and bad in ourselves all the time. The ultimate and most uncomfortable question is whether any of us might be capable of doing something terrible if circumstances aligned. I hope I managed to prompt the reader to consider some of those things.

I loved writing Isla as a child in 1967. I don’t know why but I found the four-year-old voice quite easy to tap into – possibly because I have children of my own, who were young when I started writing. I also loved writing Mandy’s chapters. She is a complex woman, the product of her time, and she is quite different to me in many ways. Through Mandy I learned how to fully imagine a character and bring her to life.

I love the title of the book because silence really is at the heart of so many of the novel’s plot strands. From the official silence that surrounds the Stolen Generation to the domestic silence at the heart of Louisa and Joe’s marriage and the silence surrounding Mandy’s disappearance, there are so many things that these characters need to confront and learn to speak about. Did you always intend for silence to become a theme for the novel or did this emerge as you were writing?

It emerged as I was writing. I didn’t think about themes at all when I started out, I just concentrated on developing the characters and putting them into situations that would test them. It was quite late in the day when I realised that silence was a unifying theme. Or rather, I noticed that the novel was really about the things that go unspoken because they are too shameful to be put into words.

At some point I read the 1968 lectures by an Australian anthropologist called W.E.H. Stanner, where he refers to what he calls to the ‘great Australian silence’ around the history of Australia in relation to its First Nations people. That was when I took on board his idea of silence as a denial of history, and the title came from that.

Isla, Louisa, Joe, Mandy and Steve are all flawed individuals in their own way – they often make very poor choices that have negative consequences for themselves or others – yet I felt sympathy for them all. What made you want to write about these characters and how did you go about giving them some fairly dramatic flaws whilst retaining the reader’s sympathy for them?

It’s interesting you say that because I wasn’t sure I wanted the reader to retain sympathy for them all. What I was aiming for was empathy, which I think is different to sympathy. There are some things that some characters do which I think make sympathy very difficult – although I don’t want to dictate how readers respond to characters of course!

The way I write is to try to imagine what it feels like to be the character I’m describing. What it’s like to physically be in their body, whether their clothes feel comfortable against their skin, whether they can taste the last thing they ate, whether they are hot or cold or thirsty. When I have that physical sense of them, I start making things happen to them and I start to hear their voice and understand the world from their perspective. I gave them flaws because everyone is flawed and that’s what makes people interesting and relatable. I think people enjoy reading about characters they can relate to; they don’t all have to be ‘likeable’ in my opinion, as long as you understand where they’re coming from.

I was fascinated by the way in which the novel interconnects with the history of the Stolen Generation, and was particularly taken by your author’s note when you correctly state that the subject of Australia’s colonial legacy isn’t really taught in British schools. Did you always intend to write about this aspect of Australian history or did this emerge as you wrote the novel? And can you tell us a little bit about your research of this topic?

I’d written several chapters of The Silence, and had a whole cast of characters, when I read a book called Australia, the History of a Nation by Philip Knightley. He mentions a policeman living in Victoria, a southern Australian state, who gets home from work and cries on his veranda because part of his job is to remove Aboriginal children from their families and take them to state institutions. I already knew about the Stolen Generation but hadn’t thought of writing about it. But this policeman and his personal conflict felt like a way in. I wanted to know how someone would cope with realising that something they believed to be right was in fact wrong, and had caused untold pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Easily the most important source while writing The Silence was the National Library of Australia oral history project, where Aboriginal people who were removed as kids, or whose family members were removed, talk about that experience. There are hundreds of recordings and I listened to some of them several times. I also made good use of the Bringing them Home report which was tabled by the Australian Federal Parliament in 1997 and examines the child removal policy in great detail, leading to the national apology in 2008.

I had the novel checked by several Australian readers too, including an Aboriginal man based in New South Wales who gave it his approval. And my publisher arranged a sensitivity read which was very helpful and I took all their comments on board. Although The Silence is a work of fiction, I feel a responsibility to the people who went through the events I’m describing, and I wanted to capture it all as truthfully as I could.

The Silence is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing it and your journey from manuscript to publication?

I started writing The Silence the year I turned 40, which was also the year my youngest child started school. I’d been trying to write before that, and had always wanted to write a novel, but it was the peace of the empty house that allowed me to finally get started. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, to write a book and then re-write it umpteen times until it’s good enough. Especially as I was also working part time and raising my kids. Writing requires you to be selfish, to forget about everyone and everything apart from your fictional world, for long stretches of time. Sometimes it’s hard to justify that, especially when you doubt you’ll ever be published.

The Silence is the first novel I wrote, as well as my first published novel, and I taught myself to write with this book, making all sorts of mistakes in the process. It took me 7 years to write, but I guess all the hard work paid off because when my agent submitted the manuscript to publishers we had interest from Harper Collins within 24 hours, and they went on the buy the book.

Moving away from writing for a moment, I always ask guests on The Shelf to recommend some books. Were there any books that particularly influenced your writing of The Silence or that you would recommend to readers who love The Silenceand want some more Antipodean-set fiction?

The book that influenced me the most was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. He tells his story from multiple points of view, and each chapter immerses us entirely in the experience and world view of a different character from a diverse Melbourne community. It’s the most impressive exercise in empathy I’ve ever read.

I was also inspired by The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s a well-told and moving story that will leave you feeling uneasy about the way Australia was settled, with enough nuance to stop short of easy judgements against any of the characters.

There are lots of excellent books written by First Nations Australians; the one I was most influenced by was Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Daisy Pilkington Garimara. Told by Molly’s daughter Doris, this is the incredible story of how the three girls escaped the children’s home they’d been sent to in Western Australia and walked 1600 kilometers back to their home in Jigalong. The film that was based on the book, called Rabbit Proof Fence, is also excellent.

Now that The Silence is out in the world, what’s next for you? Are you writing a second novel and, if so, can you tell us anything about it?

My current work-in-progress is a spooky mystery set in south London about a young couple whose house renovations unsettle the history of a building, unlocking a pocket of time that starts to bleed into the present. They need to stop history repeating itself if they want to avoid the fate of the previous inhabitants.

I’m enjoying writing about my own local area this time around – no need for google earth! Especially as a lot of the planning and research has been done during lockdown, it’s been amazing to spend so much time exploring the place where I live, which I’ve been guilty of taking for granted in the past. So it’s a big diversion from writing about the other side of the planet. Whether it will be easier this time around remains to be seen!


Many thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and tell us more about The Silence. It’s fantastic to see more antipodean-set fiction making its way to UK shores and I’m sure The Silence will provide fans of Jane Harper and Celeste Ng looking for their next slice of suburban noir.

The Silence by Susan Allott is published by Borough Press and is available now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a Netgalley widget for the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 15 August so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

The Silence BT Poster

 

 

Author Q&A

AUTHOR Q&A with Lynn Johnson, author of The Girl from the Workhouse!!

The Girl from the Workhouse CoverEven in the darkest of times, she never gave up hope

Staffordshire, 1911. Ginnie Jones’s childhood is spent in the shadow of the famous Potteries, living with her mother, father and older sister Mabel. But with Father’s eyesight failing, money is in short supply, and too often the family find their bellies aching with hunger. With no hope in sight, Ginnie is sent to Haddon Workhouse.

Separated from everything she has known, Ginnie has to grow up fast, earning her keep by looking after the other children with no families of their own. When she meets Clara and Sam, she hopes that she has made friends for life… until tragedy strikes, snatching away her newfound happiness.

Leaving Haddon three years later, Ginnie finds work as a mouldrunner at the Potteries, but never stops thinking about her friends in the workhouse – especially Sam, now a caring, handsome young man. When Sam and Ginnie are reunited, their bond is as strong as ever – until Sam is sent to fight in WW1. Faced with uncertainty, can Ginnie find the joy that she’s never had? Or will her heart be broken once again?

Lynn Author PhotoI am delighted to welcome Lynn Johnson to The Shelf of Unread Books today to talk about her debut novel, The Girl from the Workhouse. Lynn is a good friend of mine (and all-round lovely person) so I am absolutely delighted to see her hard work researching and writing The Girl from the Workhouse paying off! The novel, described as ‘heart-breaking, emotional family saga’, has been getting rave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, as well as on the recent blog tour. So, without further ado, over to Lynn to tell us more about The Girl from the Workhouse!

Hi Lynn! Thank you for taking the time to chat to The Shelf of Unread Books and answer some questions for me! First things first, could you please tell us a little bit about The Girl From The Workhouse and what it’s about?

Thank you for inviting me to join you, Amy. The Girl from the Workhouse tells the story of Ginnie, an illiterate young girl who is parted from her family when they have to go into the local workhouse after her father loses his job. She has to grow up fast and learns that good things are often followed by bad. Even her new friends, Clara and Sam, are snatched from her. She gets a job that nobody wants in a pottery and is reunited with Sam who becomes more important in her life than anyone else. In Ginnie’s world, poverty and loneliness are never far away, but there is love too. So, when the Great War intervenes, will her heart broken once again?

The novel begins in 1911. Did you always want to write a historical novel set in that period, or did Ginnie’s story just demand to be told then? The Girl From The Workhouse is set in your (and my) native county of Staffordshire. Was it important to you to set the novel in the Potteries, or did Ginnie emerge as a Staffordshire lass? How did you capture the sense of the place when writing the novel?

I have always enjoyed historical fiction, so it was natural for me to head in that direction. However, the novel came about after I researched my family tree. Ginnie, my protagonist was inspired by my grandma and some of what happens to Ginnie happened to my grandma during that second decade of the twentieth century. I was born and bred in Stoke-on-Trent and it is very important to me. To me, the place is a character in itself and I couldn’t think of setting it anywhere else. I have lived in Orkney for nearly fifteen years but it is The Potteries that I have the urge to write about.

The early portion of the novel sees Ginnie sent to the Haddon Workhouse. What research did you have to do to capture this experience? Did you find out anything that you weren’t expecting in the course of your research into workhouse life?

I think that research is one of the most important aspects to writing about a world you haven’t experienced for yourself. It’s the little snippets of information you discover that really brings your writing to life. Burslem and Wolstanton Workhouse was not open to visitors when I started to write the novel. I visited Southwell Workhouse, near Nottingham which was built along similar lines. It’s a National Trust property and the staff were extremely helpful. I also visited Gladstone Pottery Museum to immerse myself in the workings of an early twentieth century pottery. A great experience too. In fact, when it comes to research, I have found most people to be extremely helpful.

Ginnie is, of course, the main protagonist of the book however her friends Clara and Sam, as well as her family, also feature prominently. Do you have a favourite character from amongst your cast and, if so, why? And was anyone particularly easy or difficult to write?

That’s a difficult question. When you build characters, you start to fall in love with them. I loved Ginnie because she was so close to me for so long. Her friend Sam is very caring and loves Ginnie to bits. He’s kind and gentle and someone you can’t help rooting for. I think they have to come as a package!

The Girl From The Workhouse is your first novel. Can you tell us a little bit about how the novel came into being and your journey to publication? Do you have any tips for would-be historical novelists?

It started as a short story umpteen years ago. Someone told me it was like a Catherine Cookson novel and I was gob-smacked. I enrolled on Arvon writing courses, read various writing magazines and basically learned the craft of writing fiction. I wrote, and re-wrote, tried different tenses, first/third person, dual time and all sorts until I was satisfied with it. Then I made a resolution to try to get it published. I set myself milestones, with deadlines – and kept to them. I joined the Romantic Novelists Association and took advantage of their New Writer’s Scheme which provides its members with an opportunity for a whole manuscript to be critiqued by an experienced romantic novelist. At the RNA Conference last year I had a 1-2-1 with Hera Books and bagged myself a publisher! If you are writing a novel with a romantic element I would certainly recommend joining. The Scheme opens at the beginning of January each year and is filled within a day or so – you have to be quick off the mark!

Moving away from writing for a moment, I know you are a keen reader. Can you tell us about any books that have inspired you to write The Girl From The Workhouse? Or that helped you with the research for it?

It is well known that to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader and I when I’m not writing, I am usually reading. I read quite widely and have to feel in the right mood to enjoy a book. The books that inspired me to write The Girl from the Workhouse couldn’t have been more different. A cross between Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery, All Quiet on the Western Front by Enrich Maria Remarque and a variety of family sagas.

Now that Ginnie’s story is out in the world, what’s next for you? Are you writing a second novel? And, if so, can you tell us anything about it?

Constance Copeland entered the novel as a minor character near the beginning of The Girl from the Workhouse but she insisted she had a lot more to say. She became more and more important to me during the course of writing the novel so I asked her to write a monologue to tell me her story – and she was right! So, she will play a large part in the next book, which comes out in 2021.

Many thanks Lynn for taking the time to talk to me! The Girl from the Workhouse by Lynn Johnson is published by Hera and is available as an ebook from Amazon

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!!! Train Man by Andrew Mulligan

Train Man CoverMichael is a broken man. He’s waiting for the 09.46 to Gloucester, so as to reach Crewe for 11.22: the platforms are long at Crewe, and he can walk easily into the path of a high-speed train to London.

He’s planned it all: a net of tangerines (for when the refreshments trolley is cancelled), and a juice carton, full of neat whisky. To make identification swift, he has taped his last credit card to the inside of his shoe.

What Michael hasn’t factored in is a twelve-minute delay, which risks him missing his connection, and making new ones. He longs to silence the voices in his own head: ex-girlfriends, colleagues, and the memories from his schooldays, decades old. They all torment him. What Michael needs is somebody to listen.

A last, lonely journey becomes a lesson in the power of human connection, proving that no matter how bad things seem, it’s never too late to get back on track. 

Journeys intersect. People find hope when and where they least expect it. A missed connection needn’t be a disaster: it could just save your life.

Train Man has been called a “profoundly affecting” and “beautiful story” by Ruth Jones (author of Never Greener) and I am delighted to welcome the author, Andrew Mulligan, to The Shelf today to discuss the process of writing difficult topics and creating realistic characters, and the importance of making human connections.


Hi Andrew and welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books. First things first, can you please tell us a little about your debut novel Train Man?

It’s my first adult novel – I’ve written several children’s books, but TRAIN MAN was an opportunity to do something different, and peer into an altogether darker place.  A man is on his way to kill himself, having decided life can only get worse. He’s in good health physically, but feels the demons have him cornered – I mean that metaphorically, as this is not a fantasy novel. He meets people who confirm these feelings, and people who challenge them: his journey ends up being extraordinary.

Train Man deals with some very difficult topics, including depression, suicide, and the effects of poverty. How did you go about ensuring that these topics were handled sensitively, and were you every worried about using the book to discuss these issues? Or did you always see the book as a way of widening the conversation around mental health?

The book is a novel, and first and foremost it obeys the general rules of fiction. Characters come to life through their fears and objectives, and we have a rising sense of jeopardy as those with whom we empathise suffer. The issues raised are not handled sensitively, nor is there any conversation about mental health: the book is about people trapped, the way we all feel trapped at least some of the time.

Your main character, Michael, has his life altered by a chance encounter at a train station. Why did you choose to make train stations and journeys such a central part of the novel? Do you think there is something about these transient places that encourage us to reflect on life and on the journeys we undertake through it?

The railway is an obvious metaphor, with its connections and delays – the beautiful combination of meticulous planning and total coincidence. I spend a lot of time on trains, and – yes – the rhythms do encourage introspection of a kind. You’re in a tin, looking out at the unfurling world. You’re making progress, whilst still – and if there isn’t some barbarian shouting into a phone you can actually think. In fact, you have time to think. You may even find yourself attempting conversation, lifting the blinds, peering into someone else’s world. And it’s amazing what people carry with them, as it were.

Train Man is a testament to the power of human interaction and the kindness of strangers. Was this something that you deliberately wanted to bring out in the book, or did that aspect come about whilst you were writing the novel?

I’ve never been able to write dark, miserable novels that confirm our fear that life is terrible. For many of us, life is a constant adventure, even if there is much to get dismayed and angry about. The book isn’t about the kindness of strangers, though, for many of the strangers are quite ruthless. My hero meets people locked in their own egotism, playing their self-promoting little games – the book is about non-conversation and concealment, as much as it deals in revelation. Ultimately, the human contact is positive – but most of us know that to be the case. A chance encounter with a smiling check-out operator in Tesco’s really can change the day. It’s quite frightening how vulnerable many of us are to those tiny intersections.

Given the intense nature of the subject matter, I imagine Train Man was sometimes a difficult book to write? Can you tell us a little more about your writing process and how you managed to balance Michael’s dark mental state with an overall message about the importance of human connection and a sense of hope?

It wasn’t a difficult book to write, because the mix of live-action and reminiscence always seemed very real. I became very attached to my characters, very quickly – and I find my writing degenerates fast if I’m not enjoying the writing process. I usually look forward to getting back to the laptop. In any case, Michael is like most of us: he wants to be cheerful. He knows he’s lucky, if only because he has his health. He’s not in a war-zone. But those things fail to mean anything when all you can think about is your failure to connect, and the absence of meaningful structure. The wind is in his house, and he can only see failure. He can only focus on the pain he’s experienced and the pain he’s inflicted, and I wanted to release him from that. I never doubted that he would be released.

Are there any books that inspired Train Man? Or books and authors that you think anyone who enjoys your novel should seek out?

Train Man was to be a radio play, because all I could hear were the voices. I wanted the babble of non-communication, and I was reading a lot of Anne Tyler as I wrote it: nobody writes real dialogue quite like Anne Tyler, and I kept ‘An Accidental Tourist’ beside me – an outstanding book about a man unaware he’s having a breakdown.

And finally, what is next for Andrew Mulligan? Is there another novel in the works that you can tell us about?

I’m working on the next children’s book, plus a commission for Radio 4. The next adult novel is nearly done, but it’s become demented. I listen to the news too much, and the insanity has found its way into the characters. They’re doing and saying terrible things right now, and I don’t seem able to stop them – so I fear it won’t be ready for some time.


Thank you so much to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions and discuss Train Man!

Train Man by Andrew Mulligan is published by Chatto & Windus and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.

You can read reviews and find out more about the book on the other blog tour stops, so do go and check those out! And many thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour.

Train Man Blog Tour Poster

 

Author Q&A

AUTHOR Q&A!! Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver

Back to Reality CoverWrong time, wrong place, wrong body…

Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time

Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.

As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back through time and space to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.

Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.

In her desperate quest, Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.

Back to Reality is the brainchild of author and screenwriter Mark Stay and fellow Brit and inspirational non-fiction author, Mark Desvaux (who writes fiction as Mark Oliver). I’m delighted to welcome both authors to The Shelf today to tell us a little more about their bestselling book, and the unusual genesis for it!


Welcome both! First things first, can you tell us a little bit about Back to Reality?

MARK S: It’s a fun, pacy, page-turning read about second chances. Our protagonist Jo is forty-two, stuck in a rut, humiliated and facing the sack when a Back-to-the-Future-meets-Freaky-Friday body swap event happens and hurls her back to nineties where she becomes her twenty-four-year-old self on the verge of rock stardom. And there’s a funny bit with a cow.

Back to Reality has a rather unusual genesis as it is the result of your participation in The Bestseller Experiment podcast. Can you tell us a little about the podcast, and how the writing of Back to Reality came out of that?

MARK S: I wrote a movie called Robot Overlords, and then wrote the novelisation, and lots of old friends got in touch and one of them was Mark Desvaux. He told me that he had always wanted to write a novel but he had never got beyond twenty-thousand words. Well, one thing led to another and suddenly we’re running a weekly podcast and writing a novel together! The challenge was to write, edit and publish a novel in twelve months and get a Kindle bestseller flag. More importantly, we challenged our listeners to beat us to it and many of them did! In fact, this week one of our listeners, Lorna Cook, hit the overall number one spot on the UK Kindle chart with her debut novel. It’s been amazing watching our listeners’ careers jump into orbit.

How did you find the experience of co-writing Back to Reality and did you feel that this changed the eventual feel and style of the book in any way?

MARK D: Co-writing is a completely different experience to writing solo. It has incredible challenges but also incredible benefits. We pretty much plotted out the whole novel upfront – 50,000 words! – but it helped us know which way the story was going, and probably prevented some pretty interesting debates down the road. The best part about working together was when we were bouncing ideas off each other. It is one thing to play with an idea in your head, but it’s great fun throwing it out there and then hearing the other person run with it and up the stakes even further. It is definitely a case of the sum of the parts…

We had so much fun coming up with challenges for Jo, our protagonist, and it was often the throwaway comment that suddenly stuck and became a huge part of the story. I highly recommend for every author to try it, as it takes you outside your comfort zone and you also learn a huge amount form each other.

MARK S: I’ve co-written screenplays before, but filmmaking is such a co-operative experience that you expect to work with other writers, actors, directors. But when I write a novel, it’s my happy place. I can write at my own pace and have complete control and chop and change as I like. So having someone else write a novel with me was hard work! The advantage, however, was it became the book that never slept. Mr. D is in Canada and I’m in the UK, so I would write in the day, hand it over to Mr. D to work on, and then I would wake to find a ton of changes and notes. It was like having an editor sending you corrections every day. It certainly kept me on my toes.

Back to Reality is a heart-warming and funny story that centres around a woman who finds herself hurtled back in time and into a parallel universe, and it very much fits the current trend for ‘up-lit’! What made you choose that particular idea when you set out to write a bestseller? Was it a result of your own styles and previous writing experience, the podcast research, industry knowledge?

MARK D: I love stories that inspire. I think part of the reason why Up-Lit is so popular right now is it counters all the challenges we see every day in media headlines. As I have spent many years coaching,  giving seminars and radio getting people to think about what is really important in their life, I really wanted to make sure the book had that feel-good factor. Like life, it’s is not all plain sailing though – Jo is really put through the wringer!

As two long-time married family men with incredible wives, the book is also a tribute to sacrifices Mums have to make. Looking back, this unconscious choice that developed as a core theme in the book was even more pertinent when I discovered my wife, and Mum of our three children, was diagnosed with terminal cancer just a few months into the project.

MARK S: We put together a spreadsheet of all the things we liked, including music, books, films, and we discovered the common threads in our lives. Music was big, as was Douglas Adams and Back to the Future, hence the rock n roll/time travel themes in the book. If you listen to the earlier episodes of the podcast we did briefly consider writing a Gone Girl/Girl On The Train-style thriller, which would undoubtedly have been a bigger seller, but we’re not big fans of that genre and I think the readers would have seen through that. It was important that the book be a reflection of us and be truthful. And the theme of second chances really resonated with our listeners who are all writers — many with families and jobs — all looking to achieve their dream of writing and publishing a book. We wanted it to be a positive book that readers would recommend to their friends.

In The Bestseller Experiment, you speak to authors, readers and publishers about the key things that go into making a bestselling novel. As Back to Reality has become a Kindle bestseller, clearly the advice worked! What would be your top take-away tips for anyone looking to emulate your success?

MARK S: There are no hard and fast rules, but there are common principles that will help you become a more successful writer. Treat it like a job. The write-every-day thing doesn’t work for everyone, but you do have to put the hours in one way or another. You have to be diligent and persistent. Yes, there will be rejections and bad reviews, but the writers who fail are the ones who give up.

And we found that building a community of writers — like our fantastic listener base — really helps. That doesn’t mean you have to be going to swanky launch parties in London, but you should get to know your local booksellers and librarians — they will have tons of contacts — and go to local writers’ groups and festivals. You will find your peers and you will help one another as you rise together (and then you start getting invited to their swanky launch parties in London!).

How did you go about publicising Back to Reality and turning it from a published book into a bestseller? And has promoting the recently released paperback edition differed in any way from publicising the e-book?

MARK S: We built a small army of beta-readers from our listeners. We had hired an editor and a copy-editor for the bulk of the edit, but we also wanted the listeners to take ownership of the novel and give us their feedback and it was invaluable. We popped a Google doc online and they left us hundreds of notes. It was amazing. It also meant that we had them shouting about the book on social media on our launch day, and that was crucial in getting us those bestseller flags. Since then we’ve dabbled in Amazon, Bookbub and Facebook ads with varying degrees of success. We’ve been very honest about the ups and downs on the podcast, and our listeners — many of whom are published now — have been doing the same.

The paperback gave us another excuse to make a noise and it’s lovely to have a physical book to show people. Marketing the paperback has been more difficult as print costs mean we can’t compete on price with larger publishers, but we’ve had some great support from the likes of The Book Depository and we’ll keep plugging away at festivals and conventions. Next up is the audiobook edition… and we’ve been tinkering with a screenplay…

Has the experience of taking part in The Bestseller Experiment, and the subsequent writing of Back to Reality, altered your writing going forward? And, if so, how?

MARK D: In every way! Our eyes have been well and truly opened by the incredible authors we have interviewed. At last count, they have collectively sold over 350m books between them, so it is the highest level of advice you can probably get. It has been an honour to deep dive with them and we are constantly humbled by their stories of early failures and persistence. It is a good reminder to us all to never give up.

MARK S: I learn something every week on the podcast. It’s like a never-ending creative writing course. It’s helped me find the balance between writing for myself and writing for the reader and keeping them on the hook. I’m a much-improved writer because of the podcast.

Now that Back to Reality is out in the world, what is next for The Bestseller Experiment? Will there be another bestseller forthcoming from the podcast? Or are you both now working on individual projects?

MARK D:  As usual, I have 101 writing projects I want to get stuck into… On my list right now is a non-fiction book on which takes a very different approach to dealing Cancer and a Children’s Picture book called The Marshmallow Bear. I am also busy promoting the book my wife left my children called “The Very Last Monster Book” which has been really well received and apparently was the top-selling children’s hardback in Canada over Christmas

MARK S: People keep asking for a sequel, but Jo’s story is done and we’re happy with it. I published my fantasy novel The End of Magic this year, and I’m also working on new TV and film projects, and I’ve just finished a draft of a new magical fantasy series called The Witches of Woodville. I’m a busy boy!


Thank you so much to both authors for answering my questions about Back to Reality and The Bestseller Experiment.

The novel is definitely a feel-good read that is perfect for summer, and the podcast has had some fabulous guests including (but not limited to!) Joanna Harris, Ben Aaronovitch, and Michelle Paver so makes for a great bookish listen.

Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver is available now in ebook and paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Amazon, Book Depository, and Waterstones.

You can find out more about The Bestseller Experiment on the project website, and the podcast is available to download on all good streaming and podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts. 

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Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!!! Haverscroft by S. A. Harris

Haverscroft CoverHaverscroft House is big, old, gloomy and in need of some major refurbishment. Kate Keeling’s husband Mark has his heart set on it – despite the crumbling car in the garage and the locked attic that they are not allowed to view before they move in.

Kate only agrees to leave everything she knows in London and move to Haverscroft in a bid to salvage her marriage.

Little does Kate realise but Haverscroft’s dark secrets will drive her to question her sanity, her husband, and fatally engulf her family unless she can stop the past repeating itself.

Can Kate keep her children safe and escape Haverscroft in time, even if it will end her marriage?

Haverscroft is a deliciously dark supernatural tale from debut author S. A. Harris. I am delighted to welcome Sal to The Shelf today to tell us more about the book and about the process behind creating a gripping modern ghost story.


SA HarrisWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Haverscroft is described as a ‘modern ghost story’. What was it that drew you to the genre and how did you go about updating the tropes found in classic ghost stories for a modern setting?

I have loved ghost stories since I was a small child so it felt very natural to write one. Many such stories are historically based but I wanted mine to be in the modern day.

Although a contemporary setting offers fresh challenges, mobile phones for one, many of the essential elements of a good ghost story are timeless. Things that go bump in the night don’t really ever change. There is little difference in the dodgy electrics at Haverscroft to a guttering candle flame. Unexplained sounds or peculiar smells are as disconcerting to someone living in 2019 as they were, say in Charles Dickens’ Jacob Marley, in A Christmas Carol, is not unlike the damaged soul of Edward Havers in Haverscroft.

Fear is one of our strongest emotions; it is essential to our survival. Dark corners, shifting shadows or unfamiliar noises can just as easily spook us today as they did our ancestors over millennia.

In addition to being a ghost story, Haverscroft is an intimate portrait of a marriage on the rocks, and of a modern family trying to atone for past mistakes. What made you want to combine domestic drama, something more commonly associated with psychological thrillers, with the supernatural?

I wrote the first couple of pages of what would become Haverscroft one Sunday evening as I sat by the fire over the winter of 2010/11. Kate and her family spilt onto the page and were instantly very real to me. Kate was recovering from mental illness. I knew she had cheated on her husband Mark but I didn’t know why. They were at once a family in crisis and looking for a fresh start. I knew the house they would find was haunted.

The details of Edward and Helena Havers developed later but the basic premise was there quite naturally from the start. There was no conscious decision on my part to mix the elements of a psychological thriller with a supernatural tale. It was simply the story that arrived on a winter’s night as I sat beside the fire.

Protagonist Kate and her husband Mark are both very realistic characters, both of whom have secrets to keep. Was it tricky portraying the more difficult aspects of their characters whilst also keeping the reader on their side? And how did their fallibility tie into the overall feel of the novel?

Very! I wanted Kate and Mark to be characters the reader would sympathise with and understand even if they did not agree with their behaviour or the decisions they made.

Mark and Kate are under considerable stress for very different reasons at the start of the novel and consequently, their behaviour is sometimes challenging. Mark is snappy, short-tempered and shouts at the children. Kate is often distant and slow to respond because of her mental health. It took several drafts of the novel to get their relationship as I wanted it to be and for the characters to read, I hope, sympathetically.

Kate and Mark’s fallibility ties in with the mistakes made by the other characters in the narrative. Mrs Havers has not made good life choices! Mr Whittle and Oliver Lyle leave much to be desired.

The overlap is particularly strong with Mark’s obsession with Haverscroft House, one he shares with several other characters in the story. Kate’s fragile mental state makes her feel isolated, not only from her husband, and at times from her children as well, but also from the other characters. She is not certain whether to trust Mrs Cooper, she worries about village gossip in a similar way to Alice Havers. At the beginning of the novel, nothing is certain; the Keeling’s failing marriage and the fallibility of all the characters tie the novel together.

Kate struggles with her mental health throughout the novel, frequently questioning her own sanity as supernatural events begin to unfold at Haverscroft. Was mental health something that you specifically set out to address in the book, and how did you go about blending this with the ghost story genre?

I did not consciously set out to address mental health in the novel. When Kate first walked into my mind I knew her mental health was at the root of her problems. She is burden with guilt regarding the damage she perceives she alone had done to her marriage but also in her neglectful relationship with her mother.

As the novel evolved over time and through various drafts it became clear why Kate was so troubled. As the novel grew, mental health became a theme. Edward Havers has PTSD. Like Kate, Richard Denning has suffered a nervous breakdown. Mark is under enormous strain and is barely holding onto his sanity at points in the novel.

As an unreliable narrator, Kate was perfect for a ghost story. The reader can never be sure her decisions are rational or her internal thoughts reliable. Kate’s mental health fed the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, something all good ghost stories need.

Haverscroft House and the surrounding village community both feel very real! Are they based upon a real place, or entirely conjured from your imagination? How did you go about researching such a place?

I first realised Weldon Church and the river running past the village was based on a real place when we collected our third child from a school camping trip. His elder two siblings had been on a similar trip years before. The church must have stuck in my mind as the feeling of déjà vu when I saw Surlingham Church, the graveyard and lychgate was starling. I had been walking around it in my mind for months!

The village is not based on any one place but countless Suffolk villages. The small hamlets I’ve driven through countless times that straddle a lane, a building here and there and then they vanish, just trees and cow partly again in the rear-view mirror.

Haverscroft House is entirely in my imagination. It is so clear, even now I sometimes take a walk through its rooms and climb the wide staircase or sit on the small metal seat beneath the willow trees and watch the water ripple across the pond.

Haverscroft has some throwbacks to some of the classics of the ghost story genre – I definitely got some ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Secret of Crickley Hall’ vibes when reading it! Were there any authors/titles that particularly inspired the writing of Haverscroft? And any books that you would recommend to readers who enjoy Haverscroft and want to seek out other modern ghost stories?

These are too numerous to mention! Some influences would be Daphne Du Maurier, M.R. James and more recently Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts and The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales.

Some titles I have read whilst writing Haverscroft have been The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements, The Small Hand by Susan Hill, Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffee, The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah, Haunted by James Herbert and The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley to name just a few.

I have over the years also read the classics you mention in your question and would recommend those to readers as they remain powerful narratives. I have just finished Michelle Paver’s most recent novel, Wakenhyrst and would recommend her ghost story, Dark Matter as one to read.

Haverscroft is your debut novel but I believe that you are now working on a second supernatural tale. Are you allowed to tell us a little about the new book?

Silent Goodbye is a supernatural tale set on the Suffolk coast. Evie Mathews returns to England to her late father’s old house to spend the New Year with her estranged brother only to find he is missing. The house seems changed and not in a good way. As time pulls out and with no sign of her brother, Evie starts to fear not only for his safety but also her own. The story is in my head but lately, there has been little time to get it down on paper! Now Haverscroft is launched and finding its own way in the world and with a family summer holiday on the horizon, I hope to get writing!


Thank you so much to Sal for talking all things spooky with me today! The ghost story is one of my favourite genres and, having read Haverscroft, I can highly recommend it as a compulsively chilling tale that is sure to keep you turning the pages late into the night!

Haverscroft by S. A. Harris is available now in paperback and ebook from Salt Publishing and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers, including the publisher, Waterstones, Hive, Book Depository and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book in order to prepare for this Q&A, and to the author for answering my questions!

You can check out reviews and other content about Haverscroft at the other blog tour posts, details of which are below. Thank you to Emma Dowson from Salt Publishing for organising the tour and inviting me to take part!

Haverscroft Tour Poster

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!!! Inceptio by Alison Morton

Inceptio CoverNew York – present day, alternate reality. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – elimination by government enforcer Jeffrey Renschman or flight to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.

Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen a lover, safety – at a price – and a ready-made family. But Renschman reaches into her new home, intent on destroying her.

To survive, she has no alternative but to toughen up, to learn to fight her fear and her enemy. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a heart-wrenching trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it…

Inceptio is the first book in Alison Morton’s Carina Mitela Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. I’m delighted to welcome Alison to The Shelf today to tell us more about the book, and about the unique alternate reality that she has created in the Roma Nova universe.


Alison Morton Author PicWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Alison! Inceptio is part of the Roma Nova series. Can you tell us a little about the book and how it fits within the wider Roma Nova universe?

First of all, thank you for inviting me to your blog, Amy. Inceptio is the beginning of Karen/Carina’s story and the first book in the ‘Carina Mitela’ strand inside the Roma Nova series – Inceptio, Carina, Perfiditas. The other strand – Aurelia, Insurrectio and Retalio – features Aurelia Mitela, Carina’s grandmother, as a younger woman in the late 1960s/early 1980s.

The Roma Nova universe is an incredible alternate history that incorporates elements of the Roman Empire into the 21st century. How did you identify the point of divergence from our known history, and decide how the consequences of that would impact upon your world and the characters within it?

History is full of ‘what ifs’ and the dusk of the Roman Empire is very fertile territory. By the end of the fourth century, the empire was changing internally, retreating and disintegrating. Christianisation was almost complete, but a group of Romans held out and continued to worship the old goddesses and gods.

We hear a lot about Romans persecuting Christians, but by AD 395 Theodosius completed the switch and made practising traditional religion a capital offence. This was a perfect conflict point when the choice was conversion or death. Subsequently, twelve traditional families gathered up their families and goods and escaped north into the mountains to found a new, safer home – Roma Nova.

The world of Roma Nova is incredibly detailed. How on earth did you keep track of all the lore and history required for your world-building?! And how did you ensure that the world felt like a living and breathing one?  

The idea has been bubbling away in my head for a long time, decades even, so most of the world was formed by the time I was writing the series. To me, the Roman world is alive; when I walk on the slabs of a forum, I feel the Romans striding, jostling, dawdling on those same slabs. I close my eyes and hear the conversations, the huckstering, the arguing and intimate whispers of people there.

Good world building is crucial and once developed, a writer can concentrate on the characters and the story. It’s crucial with alternative history to study the point of divergence as that’s the last solid basis before jumping off into the void! More practically, I keep a tracking grid of chapters in each book as I go along, plus a spreadsheet of characters’ ages. As well as printed references, I’ve built up a virtual library so I can instantly check if I’m not sure of something. And being a bit of a nerd, if in doubt, I check!

When I’m writing, I tend to think in pictures, so I play out the scenes in my mind first and work out if the characters would do or say a particular thing. Above all, they must act like normal people in their (to them) normal environment.

Inceptio follows Karen Brown as she flees New York to Roma Nova and adopts a new identity to become an undercover investigator. How did you decide on Karen as your protagonist and in what ways did she develop in your mind as the story progressed?

I truly don’t know how Karen came to mind! Carina was more real to me. Karen’s life had to be a contrast to Carina’s, so I had to take her from ordinariness to extraordinariness. Yet her basic character, moral strength and resilience had to be present from her youngest days. I gave her a mixed childhood with loving then indifferent carers, and a determination to make her own way. She built a defensive shell around herself which augmented her natural tendency to challenge. But she still retains the self-doubt of that mixed childhood. When she is in her right place in her life, then those innate characteristics come to the fore.

Roma Nova is a society ruled by women. Was this something that you did intentionally and, if so, what did you hope to explore by creating a matriarchy?

Yes! I had a military father and a feminist mother, which is probably why I served six years in uniform. Since the first encounter with Romans at age eleven, I’d wondered what a Roman world run by women would be like. As I learnt more about Roman life and studied further, it became an increasingly burning question I longed to explore.  But in a way, Roma Novan society is ‘egalitarian-lite’ where contribution is by ability not gender and men are not disadvantaged.

The world of Roma Nova is heavily influenced by Roman history. What made you choose this particular period as a backdrop to your books and how did you incorporate Roman history into the 21st century?

I’ve been a ‘Roman nut’ since touching my first mosaic under a hot sun in north-east Spain. Since then I’ve clambered over a lot of Roman Europe. Rome lasted over 1229 years and went from a village in Latium to rulers of the known world. Not wishing to sound like the famous Monty Python film sketch, Rome underlies so much of our current life from arts, law, literature, practical engineering, industry, technology and systems. Despite the polarities in wealth, average citizen prosperity in the first century AD didn’t achieve the same level again until the Victorian age.

Roma Novans continue the core cultural and religious values as well as the robust attitudes and engineering and technology development ability of their ancestors; these helped them survive throughout the centuries. But, pragmatic like their ancestors, they had to evolve and adapt to the realities around them.

Today they are hi-tech innovators, they defend their corner strongly, speak Latin and used solidi as their currency, although with Internet banking and credit cards. Their main street is the Decumanus Maximus, but the traffic jams can be terrible!

The Praetorian Guard is an elite force guarding the imperatrix, or ruler, of Roma Nova but they are pretty much like any other NATO special forces military in their uniforms and weapons. Readers will find much that’s familiar, but with a Roman origin or at least flavour. Binding these together is half the fun of writing Roma Nova
Inceptio manages to combine the action and intrigue of a thriller with the alternate history often found in sci-fi, then laces it with romance and a coming of age tale. Do you feel the book fits within a particular genre or were you keen to use the unique premise to subvert reader expectations in this regard?

Haha! You’ve guessed. While I’m in favour of some subversion and wrote the stories as they came to me, I had to be realistic and market the series with a main category – thriller. However, I can dip into the sci-fi/alternative history, romance and historical fiction areas equally and readers come from each of these. People have often started reviews with ‘This is not my normal reading, but…’

As a reader, I enjoy cross-genre books most. A book without pace or progression, or without an emotional relationship or an intriguing hint of mystery doesn’t satisfy me. Most of all it’s the characters that drive the most interesting stories whatever their time or setting.
Inceptio is the first in a number of adventures for Karen. Could you tell us a little about where her journey takes her next? Will you be writing any more books set in Roma Nova?

Her next adventure, Carina, a novella, takes place a few years later when she goes to North America on what appears to be a straightforward mission. But, of course, it doesn’t turn out like that. Two-and-a-bit years further on, in Perfiditas, she faces betrayal on every level, personal, professional and political. And nine years later, in Successio, (‘the next generation’) she has to face the most serious enemy she’s ever encountered, one who threatens not only her family but Roma Nova itself.

The second strand of adventures feature her grandmother, Aurelia, firstly in Aurelia as a young Praetorian officer in the late 1960s, then later as a foreign minister in the early 1980s. We discover the real story behind the terror of the Great Rebellion in Insurrectio and the endgame of Aurelia’s bitter personal and national rivalry with Caius Tellus in Retalio.

Currently, I’m writing another novella, set between Aurelia and Insurrectio in the 1970s. Now that’s a really interesting research challenge!


Thank you so much, Alison, for answering my questions and sharing the fascinating world of Roma Nova with us!

To find out more about Alison and her books, you can visit her website, sign up to her newsletter, and follow her on Twitter @alison_morton. The series is available in both paperback and ebook from various online retailers and Alison has buying links on her website.

The blog tour for Inceptio continues until 4 March 2019 so please do check out the other stops for reviews, extracts and more! My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be part of this tour and arranging the interview with Alison.

Roma Novel Series Graphic

Inceptio Blog Tour Poster

Author Q&A

Q&A with Kendra Olson: Author of ‘The Forest King’s Daughter’

TFKD book cover[426]The year is 1886 and Swedish teenager, Ingrid Andersdotter, is about to face a series of life-changing events.

When Ingrid forgets to close the barn door one freezing cold night, there will be dire consequences for her family. To make matters worse, her attraction to the new school teacher leads to ostracism and shame. Ingrid’s strong opinions and the pressure of the powerful village church to conform to ideas she doesn’t believe in put her at odds with her traditional community.

Her only option is to leave her home and family. But is she brave enough to make an ocean crossing to a strange new land on her own, leaving everything she knows far behind? And will she find the freedom she dreams of if she takes such a risk?

I am delighted to welcome Kendra Olson to The Shelf today to talk historical fiction, folklore and new beginnings and to tell us a little more about her debut novel, The Forest King’s Daughter.

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Kendra Olson, copyright B MossopWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Kendra! The Forest King’s Daughter is your first novel. Can you tell readers a little about the book and what happens in the story?

Yes, certainly. The Forest King’s Daughter is a coming of age, historical novel with a hint of folklore in it. The story takes place in 19th century rural Sweden and follows the journey of teenager Ingrid Andersdotter as she faces a series of life-changing events. Ingrid battles against the effects of poverty and injustice in her life only to bring about consequences she can’t ignore. It’s how she deals with these consequences that will make all the difference.

The novel begins in Sweden in 1886 before moving to America. Did you always intend to write a historical novel and what drew you to that particular time and those places?

I’m American but moved to England almost fourteen years ago. My novel was inspired by my interest in my great-great-grandmother who, I discovered, emigrated from rural Sweden to America as a young woman back in the late 1800s. She interested me as she’d left Europe never to return and here I was returning over 100 years later, as a young woman. It was a family connection I had forgotten about.

As travel was so much more expensive and dangerous at the time (for steerage passengers anyway) I wondered what might have gone into such a decision. I became interested in Swedish history and started reading about the social conditions of the period. What I learned was that many single young women emigrated to America and that some people were very dissatisfied with the social climate in Sweden. I then started imagining what it might have been like to be a young woman back then—what might your life look like?

This led me to come up with my protagonist, Ingrid Andersdotter, who lives deep in the forest of Värmland (where my grandmother came from). Ingrid is courageous and wilful. She comes up against both her parents and the local church authorities (who functioned like the law at this time). I wondered where her battles might take her and how this would play out. I decided that she’d need to leave her village, but that her journey wouldn’t automatically take her directly to America (that would be too easy!) so she’s first taken to Stockholm where she works as a maid, before getting into trouble again and taking the final step—emigrating to America.

Readers get a real sense of the traditions, expectations and constraints of living in a rural community during the 1880s when reading The Forest King’s Daughter. How did you begin to research the novel? And did any of that research change the story in any way?

Thank you, I’m pleased that you think so. I started by exploring my own genealogy, which was fairly easy as one of my uncles had already done a lot of research, tracing our family all the way back to 17th century Norway. He’d also written up short descriptions of the relatives he knew something about, be that from personal experience, anecdote or family letters. Part of my research involved visiting my existing family in Sweden—the descendants of those who stayed and continue to reside in the same community. This was interesting and a lot of fun. They showed me the house my grandmother grew up in and talked me through what life was like back then. It was an amazing experience!

From there I explored the mythology of Swedish emigrants, reading novels that had been written about them, such as Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and some of Selma Lagerlöf’s stories. This was in addition to reading Swedish history and biographies and visiting museums, such as the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool where I saw replicas of the ships the emigrants travelled to America on.

While writing I tried to completely immerse myself in the story and time, so besides reading about the history and customs of Sweden and Swedish Americans, I tried to replicate what small experiences I could. For example, I visited the old dock in Liverpool where the emigrant ships departed from, which is no longer in use and difficult to find. It was exciting to sit on that old dock and imagine what it must have been like all those years ago. I rode the ferry to get a feeling for being in those waters—they were very choppy! I also learned how to make some traditional Swedish recipes, such as pepparkakor, which are like gingersnaps and baked every Christmas. I even listened to some old Swedish folk music. These experiences certainly fed my imagination while writing the story!

In terms of the research changing the story, I think it functioned more to direct the writing and to help me develop it. After deciding that I wanted to write about this time period, I began reading about it. It was only after I’d done some initial research that I was able to come up with story events, character details etc.

You incorporate some very interesting – and little known (in the UK at least) – folklore into the story. Was this always your intention or did you weave that in as the story progressed? What drew you to tell Ingrid’s story through the lens of a fairy tale?

When hearing stories and reading about the Swedish-American experience, I was struck by how different life was in Sweden in the 19th century. To an emigrant it must have felt almost like another world. Having loved the idea of fairies as a child, it reminded me that fairies inhabit a world just on the edge of our consciousness, in a place where the normal rules don’t apply. In the legends the fairy world sometimes manifests as a fairy circle whereby the person observing it is, quite literally, on the brink of two worlds. It struck me that this is similar to the experience of emigrants who have one foot in the country and culture they grew up in and another in their new country and culture. I thought this could serve as a useful metaphor in the story for Ingrid’s experience.

Then, when I read The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf, a native of Värmland, Sweden, I was struck by her magical depiction of Värmland in winter and the forest people, who were the torpare or crofters—the very same people I’m descended from. As a country’s folklore also reflects something of that culture’s worldview, I thought that incorporating a mythical element might also help me to become better acquainted with my characters and setting.

I should also say that while many of the myths depicted in the story are based on real folklore, the main myth—that of the Forest King’s daughter herself—is actually made up. While the elk are seen as the kings of Sweden’s forest, I have yet to read anything that mythologises them in this way.

The book is very much a coming of age story for young heroine Ingrid. Did you always intend Ingrid to be the focus of the novel? And how did she develop as you were writing her?

I always wanted the story to revolve around a central female protagonist. As I read more about the history of Sweden, particularly women’s history, her character grew from my reading. However, I also wanted her character to be accessible to modern day readers. While there’s a lot of commonality to human experience both past and present, there are elements to her character that I consciously tried to make more modern (her interest in education, for example).

Are there any books that you would recommend to readers who love The Forest King’s Daughter? Any that particularly inspired you or aided in your research?

This is a difficult question to answer as so many different books inspired me and aided me in my research! On the Swedish fiction side, Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson was both inspiring and helpful. Also, Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants trilogy and the stories of Selma Lagerlöf, which I’ve already mentioned. On the non-Swedish fiction side, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which is of course very different but incorporates a mythological element about the narrator’s past as well as Balkan folklore. I also love how Amy Tan weaves myth and magic into her family stories and her novels certainly inspired me. On the non-fiction side, I Go to America, Swedish American Women and the Life of Mina Anderson by Joy K. Lintelman helped me a great deal, as did the biographies of immigrant and refugee women more generally.

Do you have any tips for any would be historical novelists out there? The task of writing about a completely different time and place seems very daunting to me – where on earth do you begin?

It’s tricky to give advice as every writer approaches the creative process differently. While I usually start with a vague idea and then do some research to expand upon it, another writer might start writing, and only then begin researching. Also, as historical fiction can contain varying levels of fact, that too will play a part in how a writer approaches their subject. There are as many different ways to write about history as there are to write about contemporary times.

What I would say is that it’s important to do at least some research—the more the better—as readers need to believe in the world you’ve created for your characters. The more known a period/place is, the more likely readers will be to question the story should a detail be incorrect. But don’t go overboard with the detail. Instead, focus on what readers need to know so as not to lose them along the way.

Try to immerse yourself in your chosen setting. This will give you a greater understanding of your characters and help to make them feel credible to readers.  Readers want to be able to empathise with a character. This stands whatever your time period. In fact, the more distant the past the story is set in, the more important this is—it’s the reader’s ability to relate to the characters that will help connect them to that particular period of history.  Historical fiction is about bringing the past to life, so focus on ways to connect modern day readers to their historical counterparts.

Finally, are you working on anything else now that The Forest King’s Daughter is out in the world? Will this be in a similar vein or are you going for something completely different?

Well, after I wrote The Forest King’s Daughter I wrote another novel, also set in the past, albeit the much less distant past. That story takes place on a Navajo reservation in Arizona in the early 1980s. It contains similarities to The Forest King’s Daughter in that there’s an element of myth to it, but otherwise the story is very different. However that novel isn’t yet published. Much of it was written during my Masters in Creative Writing and it needs more attention and research. Since then I’ve focused on writing literary short stories, both contemporary and historical. I’m hoping to release a collection at some point.

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The Forest Kings Daughter is available now. Fans of historical fiction with an added dash of folklore will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone who enjoys a coming of age story with a strong-willed female protagonist.

A big thank you to Kendra for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly – it’s been a pleasure to have you visit The Shelf.

The Forest King’s Daughter is published by Pilrig Press and is available now as an ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon US and the iBook store. 

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Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

SALT OF THE SEA cover vis_previewI am delighted to welcome Roxanne Bouchard to The Shelf today to discuss her dark, poetic crime thriller We Were the Salt of the Sea, her first novel to be published in English and to feature Detective Joaquin Moralès.

As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets.  Detective Sergeant Joaquin Moralès, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown in the deep end of the investigation. 

On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fisherman’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters…

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Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Roxanne! We Were The Salt of the Sea is your first novel to be translated into English. Could you tell us a little about the book? 

We Were the Salt of the Sea is the story of a village on the Gaspé Peninsula in rural, coastal Quebec, a village haunted by nostalgia for the heyday of fishing that wakes up to tragedy one morning when a local fisherman, Vital Bujold, finds the body of a woman, Marie Garant in his net. Marie Garant lived a nomadic life aboard her sailboat and was on her way back from a trip down south. Her sailboat is then found a few kilometres east of the village near the Banc-des-Fous, a sand bar offshore where she had anchored overnight.

Marie was a woman who once tied many a man’s heart in knots and still manages to embroil Detective Moralès, who’s new to the area from the big city, in a tangle of fishing tales in his search for the truth. I think he earns himself a generous shot of rum!

I’m thrilled that my translator, David Warriner, chose this novel to pitch to Orenda Books, and that Orenda jumped right onboard, because it’s very Québécois. Not just the places, but the description of the characters and the language they use too. I’m over the moon with all this.

The novel is on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Why did you feel it was important to set the novel in that particular location? And how did the setting inform your writing? 

Gaspésie is a long way away from the urban centres in Quebec, and people tend to forget that a coastal Quebec exists. People see the Gaspé as a place to go on holiday, and not many novels tend to be set there. So a few years ago, I went out there and decided to spend a while in a small village, Caplan, and talk to the people there. I found a calm sense of peace washing over me when I got there, and that’s what led me to want to write about it and start researching a novel.

I love working from a theme. When I was in Caplan, the fishermen really opened up to me and told me all their fishing stories. I don’t know if it’s the same in England, but here, fishermen love to exaggerate, and their fish get longer every time they tell the story! I found it all very endearing. So I started to think about what kind of story I could craft around the central theme of lies. Why not an intrigue around a detective in search of the truth? That’s where the idea came from of slowing down time for Moralès once he leaves the city behind and learns to embrace the people of the sea (fishermen and pleasure-boaters) and slowly uncover the truth in a secretive fishing village.

Your detective, Joaquin Moralès, is newly arrived from Montreal, as is Catherine Day. Did you feel it was important to have an outsider’s perspective into the Peninsula and, if so, why? 

Yes, because I’m not from the Gaspé myself. When Catherine Day arrives in the Gaspé, people tell her what she has to do to fall in love with that part of the world. When we travel somewhere new, we all dream a little, we hope someone will tell us where to go and give us the inside scoop on how the locals live. It struck me how that might be an interesting place to start for readers who knew nothing about the Gaspé.

For Detective Moralès, what fascinated me was how a man who grew up by the sea (he’s from Mexico) but turned his back on it by going to live in a land-locked suburb of Montreal for the better part of thirty years can find remnants of his past surging from deep within. Now he’s back on the coast, maybe he can feel something he’s lost, a desire to feel young again, a yearning for love and reckless abandon…

When we stand and look out to sea, we feel humbled by the power of the big blue and inspired by the infinite possibilities we see on the horizon. I tried to put all that into words by writing about people who are discovering or rediscovering the sea.

You’ve learnt to sail in the waters of the Gaspé Peninsula yourself and the sea is an important image in the novel. In what way was the book influenced by your experiences learning to sail? 

I learned to sail in a harsh environment, for sure! The St. Lawrence River is tricky to navigate, not just because of its cold waters, but also due to the complex currents and tides that lurk beneath the surface. I’ve never had my own sailboat, I’ve always crewed with other skippers on all kinds of waterways. Learning to sail is easy, if you believe all the posters in watersports schools advertising lessons, but I’ve had my fair share of challenges, believe me. Either because of the weather conditions or the people I went aboard with. I’ve experienced distance and solitude, but I’ve loved every experience I’ve had out there. I’ve learned how surprising the power of silence can be, how the sea can resolve many ills, and how honest it can make people be. And I’ve felt the magic of the wind swelling my sails. How could I not want to try and share all of that?

What was it like working with a translator? How much input, as the author, did you get in the translation process? 

For the last year while the novel has been in the works, I’ve been trying my best to learn English, but I’m sure you’re going to laugh at me when I try to string two words together in the UK! David Warriner is extraordinary. He’s intelligent, funny and passionate about what he does. He even went out to the Gaspé to meet the Gaspesians who so inspired me. He’s a man who drinks Champagne and does yoga every day! So while I haven’t properly read his translation yet, there’s no one I’d trust more to do my words justice.

Translator’s note from David: Roxanne was a joy to work with. When we sabred open a bottle of Champagne together she helped with a lot of background and was always happy to shed light on the questions about the local flavour and imagery I’d text her once in a while. There are so many layers of depth and poetry to her words I had to be sure I was rendering them the way she intended.

You are one of the few French-Canadian authors to be translated into English. Do you have any recommendations for readers keen to read more books set in Quebec? 

If you like detective novels, Chrystine Brouillet is renowned as the Queen of Crime Fiction chez nous, and her Maud Graham series shines the spotlight on beautiful Quebec City. And if you’re a fan of road trips, you have to read Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues. I don’t think Chrystine’s novels have been translated yet, though.

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We Were the Salt of the Sea is available now and is the ideal literary crime thriller to curl up with – especially if you happen to have some champagne handy by the sounds of things! Or maybe some whisky if you want to channel your inner Detective Moralès…

Combining lyrical, poetic prose that is evocative of the sights and sounds of the Gaspé Peninsula with a taut and consuming mystery, this is a fantastic addition to any crime thriller fan’s TBR, especially those who like to indulge in a little armchair travelling alongside their reading.

Chrystine Brouillet’s Maud Graham series sadly hasn’t been translated into English as of yet but Volkswagen Blues is more readily available both in print and on Kindle.

A big thank you to Roxanne for answering my questions – and for David for being so kind as to translate the answers for me! Thanks must also go to my lovely friend Lettie for translating my questions – my GCSE French not being quite up the job!

We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard (translated by David Warriner) is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Amazon and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased feature, and to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour. The tour continues until 02 April so please check out the other stops on the way!

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Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

thumbnail_The Dark LakeI am delighted to welcome Australian author Sarah Bailey to The Shelf today to talk about her page-turning debut thriller The Dark Lake.

A beautiful young teacher has been murdered, her body found in the lake, strewn with red roses. Local policewoman Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock pushes to be assigned to the case, concealing the fact that she knew the murdered woman in high school years before.

But that’s not all Gemma’s trying to hide. As the investigation digs deeper into the victim’s past, other secrets threaten to come to light, secrets that were supposed to remain buried. The lake holds the key to solving the murder, but it also has the power to drag Gemma down into its dark depths…

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thumbnail_Sarah Bailey Author PictureWelcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Sarah! The Dark Lake is your debut. Can you tell us a little about the book and how you came to write it? 

Thank you for having me! 

The Dark Lake is a police procedural with a heavy dose of character study. There is a murder to solve and that propels the narrative but along the way we learn a lot about the detective assigned to the case – Gemma Woodstock. Gemma knew the victim, high school teacher Rosalind Ryan. Both grew up in the regional Australian town of Smithson where the book is set and both are keeping secrets. As Gemma works with her colleagues to identify Rosalind’s murderer, these secrets are revealed. 

From memory, it was the character of Gemma that came to me first and then I built the story around her. She is a complex, layered person and I enjoyed teasing out the various elements of her past that have contributed to her manner and approach to life. 

I get most of my ideas when I am doing things like driving or watching TV and the basic plot for this story came to me on a long drive one evening after my kids fell asleep in the backseat. I wrote the first chapter that evening and definitely had a good feeling about the story even though I wasn’t clear how it would all come together. 

The novel focuses on two women, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock and her former classmate Rosalind Ryan and covers both their time together at high school and Gemma’s later investigation into Rosalind’s death. Did you deliberately set out to make the links between the two women underpin the novel? Did both women arrive in your head together or did one character develop first?

Gemma definitely arrived in my head first. I fairly quickly sketched out her physicality and her character and could see what motivated her and what made her feel insecure.  

This is where Rosalind came in. In many ways she is the opposite to Gemma, or at least she is in Gemma’s mind.  As the story runs in two timelines, a lot of the book explores how the past impacts the present and the butterfly effect that certain actions can have, even years later. I tried to manage the complex links between Gemma and Rosalind carefully as this really was the key to the narrative arc – hopefully I succeeded. 

The novel is filled with secrets, both in the past and the present timelines and there are a number of interweaving elements. How on earth did you keep everything together in your head? I’m envisaging some sort of enormous wall chart with connecting lines and arrows all over it..!

It did get a bit tricky at certain points. I found the first draft relatively straight forward, I didn’t plot much, I had the premise and a few key points to hit and then I just wrote.  

The editing however almost did me in! That’s when I almost had to pull apart my own story and wrangle it into shape. I had timelines, Post-It notes – all that stuff.  

I used to joke that while Gemma was staring at case boards and trying to solve Rosalind’s murder, I was in the same boat rearranging my Post-It notes and trying to make the book work!  

It’s often thought that crime fiction is a reflection of the culture and society that it’s written in and about. Was the small town setting a deliberate choice on your part? And in what ways did the setting impact on your writing of The Dark Lake?

I think small towns are increasingly interesting. As we all become more connected I feel like there will be a growing fascination with places that remain small and isolated.  

In The Dark Lake, the town of Smithson is as much a character as the people. I wanted readers to be able to feel the heat and experience the oppressiveness felt by Gemma as she railed against the small-town scrutiny and small mindedness. I enjoyed showcasing the irony of her feeling like she was trapped in such a wide, open place. 

From a writing perspective I really tried to make the environment as clear as possible so that people could picture the place that had shaped Gemma. 

The Dark Lake has been really well received in your native Australia, as well as in the US and Canada, and has been in the Barnes & Noble Best Books of 2017 list and a Book of the Month club pick. What’s it been like to as a debut author to see your novel out in the world and being taken up by readers? Was it a smooth process from writing the book to publication? 

It is a very strange feeling! Seeing the book online or in bookstores was surreal, especially at the start. A few weeks after the book came out in Australia a friend texted me a photo of someone reading the book on the bus and for some reason that really hit home. I think it just felt so genuine and real.  

I was fortunate to have quite a smooth publication journey for The Dark Lake. I queried an agent online (Lyn Tranter) and she was interested in the manuscript from the beginning. She provided me with a lot of useful feedback and suggestions which I took on board. Once she felt it was in a good place, she pitched it to publishers and it got picked up by Allen & Unwin which was incredible. 

So it was actually quite a quick process and I really enjoyed working with people on the book after plugging away on my own for so long. 

There is however a graveyard of old manuscripts on my laptop and I hate to think how many hours I spent working on ideas that have gone nowhere so it has taken quite a long time to get to this point and there has been a lot of false starts 

I feel very lucky and very glad that I persevered and finished the book – there were quite a few points I the process where it definitely could have gone the other way. 

Following the success of The Dry, Australian fiction seems to finally be getting some recognition here in the UK. Do you feel that Australian crime fiction differs in any way from its UK and US counterparts? Or is the love of a good mystery universal?

I think it is universal. I believe that all good stories draw on big human themes and challenge us in some way to confront our own emotions and study our own relationships. 

In saying that, I feel like there are different storytelling styles and certainly different settings and perhaps people are becoming more interested to see how the dry Aussie landscape enhances a murder mystery. Snow was all the rage a few years back so who knows what will be next – maybe the seaside?! 

It’s frustratingly difficult to get hold of antipodean books over here. For anyone keen to discover more, do you have any recommendations of antipodean authors in need of wider recognition? And do you have any favourite crime thriller authors who inspire your own work? 

There are so many Australian authors that I love! Kylie Ladd is very good as is Sally Hepworth. Mark Brandi and Ben Hobson both published amazing Australian stories last year as did Claire G Coleman. 

The Stella Prize is always worth checking out, they create a list of ‘must read’ titles by female Aussie authors every year. UK residents should be able to search for this online and then access the books fairly easily. 

Another favourite of mine is Michael Robotham who is the master of nailing a character led crime thriller. And Liane Morriaty can weave a story like no one else.  

Honestly though, I could go on for ever, there are a lot of talented Aussie writers! 

Outside of Australia I love Ruth Ware, Sarah Pinborough, Gillian Flynn – and one of my favourite books in recent memory is Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. 

So what’s next for you? Is there more in store for Detective Sergeant Woodstock? 

 Yes, Gemma will definitely be back. I’ve just finished the final edits on the sequel which is called Into The Night. It follows on from The Dark Lake but is set almost three years later and quite a lot has happened in Gemma’s personal life since. She has moved to Melbourne and is navigating lots of new relationships – along with solving new murders of course!

It will be published in Australia this May and in the UK early in 2019. 

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The Dark Lake is available now and is perfect for fans of Jane Harper, with that page-turning, suspenseful quality that will grip you from the off and promises plenty of clever twists and turns along the way. With its brooding atmosphere and a female lead who has more than a few personal problems to deal with, it’s also reminiscent of the work of Claire Mackintosh and Gillian Flynn.

For anyone eager to follow up on Sarah’s recommendation and check out the current Stella Prize longlist, the list of titles can be found on their website here. Personally I’ve found Book Depository to be one of the better sites for getting hold of Australian fiction. An increasing number of antipodean books also seem to be being published on Kindle or in other ebook formats. If anyone has any other recommended sites for getting hold of books by Antipodean authors, please do drop a link in the comments below.

A big thank you again to Sarah for being kind enough to answer my questions! The blog tour for The Dark Lake has been running since 01 March so do go and take a look at some of the other posts for reviews, features and more!

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey is published by Corvus and is available now as a trade paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased feature, and to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour. 

The Dark Lake Blog Tour Poster