Five authors from three genres discuss why they write, why they came together and what the future holds for their (currently) all female collective
What was it about crime writing that appealed to you?
It was crime ‘reading’ that first appealed from a very early age. I read every Famous Five and Secret Seven book in the village library. Then I moved onto Nancy Drew … and finally Agatha Christie. I think it was the pace and tension of the books and the guess-who element that challenged your brain! I still like to guess right before the big reveal! I suppose I somehow morphed into writing what I knew … which was crime! (in the literal sense)
Who are your favourite crime writers?
Obviously Agatha Christie. Then PD James. But I also admire some of the current day writers. I’d list Peter May, Ann Cleeves, Robert Galbraith and Ian Rankin as my current favourites.
What about the genre do you think it is that keeps audiences so enthralled?
I probably touched on it in my first answer, the tension and intrigue of crime thrillers are really addictive. Plus I think they are timeless. Look at a story like The Mousetrap that has been on the theatre at the West End for decades. People like to be excited and thrilled and taken on a journey, crime gives you all of those emotions in abundance.
What is it about the Welsh coast that makes it the perfect setting for your novels?
I think the Welsh coast, and the remoteness of Anglesey in particular, give my novels a really distinctive feel. There are some stunning locations and thousands of years of history and archaeology that give real depth to locations. Setting is vital for me, and people really compliment how I bring the places to life and make them want to visit. I think you also have to have a love and connection with a place to bring it to life in your novels, and Anglesey is a very special place to me as it’s where I do most of my writing.
Do you think there should be more space for ‘regional’ stories in the wider media?
Yes, I do. I think people will always feel an affinity with their place of birth or a pride in where they live and I think that should be more celebrated in national media. I’m not Welsh but I am passionate about putting Anglesey on the map, so to speak, and showing people a coastline that is so like Cornwall it’s untrue, and yet many people couldn’t pinpoint it on a map. Hopefully my novels will be able to introduce people to the area, and create an interest in the island and the area in general.
When did you decide you wanted to be a crime writer?
My ideal read would be a cross between literary fiction and crime, with insights into other cultures, arts, experiences and stuffed with memorable human beings. I love crime novels which are more brains than bloodbaths, whose characters are believable and affected by what they experience. Not to mention having more roles for women than victim. So when I couldn’t find the books I wanted to read, I decided to write them.
How do you decide on a location for your stories? Or do the locations come before the plot?
Plot came first for Behind Closed Doors – all I needed to do was find the right financial centre to set as a backdrop for a serial killer of corporate ‘Fat Cats’. Other times, the location tugs at my sleeve like an insistent child. Pembrokeshire in Wales and the Basque County both demanded a story of their own. My definition of literary genius is setting your books in places you want to (re)visit, especially if you can wedge in a bit of food and wine research.
Do you take more from classic crime writers or the new era of crime writers that we’ve seen erupt from Scandinavia?
Interesting question. I am most certainly influenced by the Golden Age of crime writers and bow down at the feet of Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh. Yet contemporary European crime stories, especially via their television adaptations, leave their mark. Series such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge lure you into those stories, personalities and spectacular settings. They have something distinctive which appeals to me: the pervasive atmosphere, long-term character development, multiple plots and unfamiliar language.
What is it that you enjoy about writing a returning character?
Beatrice Stubbs is so familiar I actually feel I know her. I walk around Zürich or London or Vitoria thinking that’s where my bike got nicked, that’s Beatrice’s office, that’s where I ate that dodgy oyster, that’s where Beatrice met Ana…
I planned her whole journey over six books and she has occasionally surprised me (eg, in Cold Pressed, the little minx) but I know where we’re going and enjoy her company. Not least her eggcorns; misused familiar phrases more apt than the original: “You’re worth your weight in coal”. Writing Beatrice is like coming home.
You have had a diverse, eclectic working life; what is it about writing that keeps you coming back?
I never went away. Letters, short stories, poetry, books, plays and article are always bubbling away in the background. Sometimes, such as when I was a theatre director, the storytelling urge was sated. But new ideas surface all the time, even in the middle of other ideas – I’ve broken off writing a novel to scribble down a short story. Creative thoughts often occur in the most sterile environments; hospital corridors and airport lounges. If there’s something rustling in the undergrowth of my imagination, I can’t help but follow its trail.
Historical fiction is having something of a renaissance, what about the genre do you think captures the minds of readers?
I think readers enjoy having the past brought back to life, to learn about famous and infamous historical figures, as well as the everyday peasant. I think they love unearthing a deeply-buried story, intrigue or mystery and looking at it in a modern-day light. They basically want to see how we lived in times gone by.
What drew you to this particular period of French history?
I became interested in the bubonic plague and wondered what it would have been like to live through that first horrifying outbreak of the 14th century. Also, the other two novels of The Bone Angel trilogy are set against dramatic historical eras: the French Revolution and Nazi-Occupied France of WW2. I wanted an equally dramatic backdrop for Blood Rose Angel, and one in which the skills of a healer woman would have been in great demand.
Having written both short stories and novels do you have a preference for one medium over the other?
I definitely prefer writing novels; a complex project you can really get your teeth into, not to mention learning so much from the research. I enjoy creating stories, characters and settings that can develop and evolve over the course of 100,000 words. Writing short stories really helped me cut my teeth and learn the basics of the writing craft, though.
Is there any other period of history that you’re yearning to write about?
I’ve now written historical fiction set in the 14th, 18th and 20th centuries, which already covers quite a range, but I’m also drawn to the more recent past, the 1950s and 60s, and would like to write something set during that time period.
There seems to be a strong consensus at the moment that it is important to tell women’s stories, was this a motivating factor for your novel?
I wanted to write about strong and determined women, in times when women either had no rights at all, or were regarded as second-class citizens. I wanted to have them succeed and conquer in male-dominated societies.
What made you want to write historical fiction based in rural France?
I live in a small French village that abounds with intriguing historical events and mysteries. The local historical society boasts a wealth of information on this region, and for more recent history, such as WW2, there are fortunately still some living witnesses to provide authentic research.
How does having had such a travelling childhood affect your outlook as an author?
I think I was always the outsider – maybe not visibly, but as soon as I opened my mouth. My accent, my vocabulary, was always hovering somewhere mid-Atlantic, and someone was always correcting the way I said things! Even though, after 40 years back in the UK, I blend in pretty seamlessly now, it’s left me with an empathy with those who don’t quite fit. Those are the characters I am drawn to, whose lives I want to probe.
We seem intent, as a nation, on forgetting the racial tensions of the past, do you think this could have any long term repercussions?
One of the things I realised, as I researched the book, is the way that racist ideas and language get recycled, again and again. If you take out a handful of identifiers, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between things that were being said about Jewish immigrants in the 19th C, or Afro-Caribbeans in the 60s, South Asians in the 70s or East Europeans now. As for the current refugee crisis, there are shocking parallels with the 10 millions ‘displaced persons’ that were left at the end of the Second World War.
We need to be reminded, over and over, that people arriving on our shores are our future doctors, lawyers, sports stars, entertainers, entrepreneurs… And above all, that they are human beings.
There is something uniquely British and multicultural about Ska music, do you think any other genres of music meet the same culture crossing heights that it does?
If you read the accounts of the early days of British Ska, it was musicians from very different backgrounds getting together and experimenting with blending different styles of music. If someone needed, say, a horn players, they found a great horn player – never mind if they had been playing in an entirely different sort of band before. It happened again to some extent with Bhangra, blending traditional Indian styles of music with modern, Western styles, though there was less obvious mixing of musicians alongside the music.
It’s hard for that sort of experimentalism to take place in the big studios. I am sure it goes on in garages and sheds up and down the country all the time, and is popping up on YouTube if you know where to look. But Ska was perhaps unique, in that it happened at just the right moment to become the sound of a generation.
When you’re not writing you have put a lot of effort into connecting authors and readers at literary festivals, why do you think it is so important to forge these connections?
Writing can be a very lonely profession. I would certainly have never got to the point I have today without the support I received, first from my online critique group and then from Triskele, who grew out of that original larger group. So I see connecting with other writers as ‘paying that forward’ – as well as just being a lot of fun.
As for connecting with readers – why do any of us write except to have someone read our books? There is no greater pleasure than meeting a reader in the flesh and being able to discuss a book with them.
As well as writing fiction you do a huge amount of reviewing and writing on literature generally, do you think it is important for an author to keep interactive with the wider literary world?
Book reviews are the life blood for any author trying to market their books – so again, reviewing for Book Muse feels like ‘paying it forward.’
In particular there are so many wonderful Indigenous and BAME writers out there who sometimes struggle to have their voices heard. Originally I found a few through my research, but then one great book just led to another. Now I am on a bit of a mission to tell readers about them, through reviews in Book Muse and interviews in Words with Jam and on the Triskele blog.
Historical fiction is hugely popular at the moment but most focuses around either British, imperial or European history, what so attracted you about this period of Syrian history?
It was the figure of Zenobia herself as I’d never had any interest in Syrian history prior to discovering her, although I have always been a fan of Roman history. So many stories from the past can resonate with today and the stories of people who live in the present, and I like finding those similarities and writing a character than could live both in the past and the present, and in more than one world. The fact the Overlord series is set in Syria is purely because that is where Zenobia reigned all those years ago.
One of your central characters, Zenobia, has been largely forgotten about despite having a huge impact on Syrian history, why do you think this is?
Quite simply, history is written by the victors. Without giving too much away, Zenobia clearly did not overthrow the Roman Empire, she did not invade the capital, and Syria did not expand to become a glorious empire surviving hundreds of years. The history of Zenobia is written by the Romans, and they were not likely to revel in Zenobia’s achievements.
The narrative style you take is a key component of your novel, was it an early decision to adopt this tone and create a sense of oral history in your novel?
The series was always going to be written first person, looking back at a history dissolved by time and by war. That was always clear to be and was never really a conscious decision. The tone however was developed over a longer period of time. I wrote the first book in the Overlord series, The Rise of Zenobia, then I moved on to writing Tristan and Iseult. The latter was much more lyrical, and it was a conscious move to put more of the tone I had used in that novel into the Overlord series.
What kind of research did you carry out to write this novel?
Mostly reading the very few books that were written about Zenobia at the time, which was a very well researched book by Richard Stoneman, plus various texts he’d referenced, then lots of internet research into emperors around that time, general day to day living facts and discovering little things that would make the settings come alive.
Would you ever be tempted to write a contemporary novel?
If by contemporary you mean set in the present, then no. I can’t imagine ever writing one unless it was a children’s books which took children back in time to a place in history, or a place than was grounded by elements of the past. Even then I think I’d end up setting the present in the past, for example when you think of Narnia, the present was actually the war.
Why, when and how did you come together?
In 2011, three members of a peer critique site met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Five of them.
Going the independent route as a team felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and all Triskele’s books have a connection to time and place.
Since then, we’ve published 21 books, appeared at literary festivals, taught at writing workshops, built a loyal readership and earned ourselves the tag of ‘The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing’. (Jeff Norton, Byte the Book, January 2014)
What are the advantages of working as a collective, have you been able to achieve things you would have struggled to as individual authors?
Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say. Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.
The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution. And on a larger scale, there’s the Alliance of Independent Authors, an amazing source of information.
Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.
What mistakes have you made along the way?
Apart from choosing a logo which is a BDSM identifier, losing our website domain and lugging bags of food across London in the summer, it’s all been plain sailing.
Realistically, it’s hard work. Communication and strategy demand time and attention. Disagreements and tension can be destructive, so the ability to compromise and remain flexible is crucial. It’s safe to say any collective will encounter regular storms, but each one we weather makes us stronger.
Do you think it is important for authors to interact with their readers? How do you connect with readers?
Essential. We connect with our readers face-to-face at bookclubs, signings, bookshops and literary events. We talk to readers via Bookmuse, Goodreads, our own Bookclub blog and in person events in our local regions.
What are Triskele’s plans for the future?
Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We’re planning The Big Launch Party of November 2015, writing new books and organising festival appearances; exploring formats, such as audiobooks. Translations and adaptations; and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.