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This is a set of answers to questions that I asked successful, published authors. I have always wanted to write and find it fascinating to speak to people who have succeeded in something that I admire so much. Everybody I spoke to was very polite and I wish them all future success.
After my recent positive experience interviewing some of my favourite authors, I decided to do it again - reach a little further with some new questions. This time, my main purpose was to glean advice from those who have been there first, enjoy!
Which authors did I speak to?
- Sophie Hannah, author of The Narrow Bed, which received critical acclaim, and some of her books have been translated into more than 20 languages.
- Peter James, author of multiple international bestsellers, including the 'Roy Grace' crime series.
- Michelle Richmond, an American novelist whose book The Year Of The Fog was a New York Times bestseller.
- Jill Santopolo, author of national bestseller The Light We Lost.
What did they have to share with me?
What would you have done if you couldn't have been an author?
MICHELLE: My dream would have been to go into space, but the path I would have taken if I had not decided to throw myself into this writing thing would have been to go to law school. That was my plan when I was in college, and a writing professor at a bar talked me out of it. "You're a writer," he said. "Go write!" Which was probably not the best advice career-wise, but I was fortunate that it turned out okay.
SOPHIE: Unrealistically? I'd be a country music superstar. That would be my total, ideal dream job. Realistically? I'd be a psychotherapist.
Jill: So in addition to being an author, I'm also the editorial director of a children's book imprint at Penguin Random House. Being an author was something I always dreamed of, but my very practical father told me that it was hard to make a living as a writer, and I should get myself a job with a salary. So I've been writing and editing at the same time for the past sixteen years. I think that even if my books hadn't been published, I'd be doing the same thing—helping people make their stories better during the day and writing my own at night and on the weekends.
Peter: I did have a different career! I started my career - back in 1970 when I first arrived in Toronto, and worked for Channel 19 TV as a gofer, on the kids daily show Polka Dot Door. One day the scriptwriter was ill and the producer asked me to write the show - I ended up writing it for nearly a year, then after 15 years in film and television as a screenwriter and producer in the crazy movie business, it was sheer bliss to become a full-time writer.
Which are your favourite to write: the good characters or the bad ones?
MICHELLE: I enjoy writing every character, and I never think of them as good or bad. I think of them all as flawed and human. Certainly, I can relate more to those characters who are trying their best to be good humans and falling short. There are a couple of characters in The Marriage Pact whom I would not want to meet in real life!
SOPHIE: I don't believe in good or bad characters - all characters are flawed, to varying degrees. My favourites to write are those whose dialogue is vicious and sarcastic - for example DCI Proust or Claudia Playford and Randall Kimpton in Closed Casket.
Peter: One of best pieces of advice I ever received was to love your characters, even the bad guys. That was terrific advice, and I just love writing my villains! If you think back on many of the most enduring villains in literature, they have something about them that makes you care for them. Frankenstein's Monster, telling the doctor that he did not want to exist - the doctor created him! Dracula, a monster, but charismatic and charming. Hannibal Lecter - a monster, but we like him...
Do you ever have too many ideas about how to end a book and struggle to choose which ending you prefer?
MICHELLE: Yes, I write many endings for each book! I wrote an entirely different ending to The Marriage Pact which was nothing like the current ending, and I still sometimes think I should have gone with that ending. I never know where a book is going when I begin to writing, and I don't outline. I discover much of the story as I go along, putting the pieces together, so that by the time I get to the end I try out a number of endings before I settle on what appears, at the same time, to be the best one... although I often have second thoughts.
SOPHIE: Not usually. I normally have a very clear idea about how each book should end.
Peter: With all my books, I create a basic plot structure which includes the high points of drama and the ending, as I always know the ending that I want to get to, within this I plot the first 20 percent of the book in considerable detail. But what I find in the first 100 pages is that the characters start to take on a life of their own, I know the principle character arcs that I want to happen but as I get more into the book I often find that the story becomes driven more by the characters than by the plot itself. I am a great believer in a balance between spontaneity and structure. By this I mean that whilst adhering to the basic framework, I think it is very important as a writer that I constantly surprise myself, because if I didn't surprise myself, then I wouldn't be surprising to my readers.
What's the best advice you've ever been given about writing?
MICHELLE: The best advice I've ever been given is advice I tried to ignore when I was younger: you have to know how to tell a story. It's very obvious, but when I was in grad school, I thought beautiful sentences were more important than plot. That definitely isn't true. Gazillions of people can write a beautiful sentence, but if you don't pair it with an engaging storyline, you'll lose 99 percent of your readers.
SOPHIE: My friend Susan once told me, 'Don't worry because no one's ever done [this particular thing you're doing in your work] before. Be the person who does it first.' That has stuck with me and helped me out a lot.
Jill: This might sound silly, but the best advice I've ever been given is, "Put your butt in a chair and write." No matter how talented a person is or how wonderful a story they have to tell, if that person doesn't sit down and actually do the work of writing and revising, that story won't ever be published.
Do you have a favourite character out of all the ones you've ever created?
MICHELLE: Oooh, yes, I adore Nick Elliot from The Year of Fog.
SOPHIE: I currently love Tarin Fry from Did You See Melody? She is a no nonsense American whom the heroine meets on holiday.
Jill: I really do enjoy aspects of all of the characters I created—which is why I'm interested in writing about them—but I've recently been thinking a lot of about Lucy's brother Jay and what his story would be if it were a whole book. I'm not planning on writing it, but a lot of people ask me about him, and he's always been one of my favorite side characters because he thinks differently than the other characters in the book do.
Peter: Roy Grace is my favourite character because there is a lot of me in him and I'll often use him as a mouthpiece for my views. But I do have a soft spot, as do many of my readers, for Norman Potting.
Who are your favourite authors?
Peter: Since I was a child, I've been addicted to Graham Greene, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John D. McDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Ed McBain to name but a few. Specific books which have most impacted on my writing including The Hound of the Baskervilles - Conan Doyle, The Con Man - Ed McBain, Get Shorty - Elmore Leonard, The Onion Field - Joseph Wambaugh, Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin, The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris, The Shining - Stephen King. In terms of modern contemporary writing, Michael Connelly's The Poet. I've always loved the crime novel genre.
How often do you really write?
Peter: I try to ensure that whatever I'm doing I leave myself time to write 1,000 words six days a week. I have an office at home, but I can write anywhere. Thanks to laptops, my office has long ceased to be a concrete space and I can write on the move. I actually write really well on airplanes, in the back of a car, and in hotel rooms! But my favourite writing time is 6 - 9:30 in the evening. I got used to that when I was working full-time in film and TV, and made this my 'me' time. I have a stiff drink - often a vodka martini, with four olives, put on music and get in a zone. I really love this time of day.
Where can I purchase their books?
You can buy The Year of The Fog by Michelle Richmond here
You can buy The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah here.
You can buy The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo here.
You can buy Dreamer by Peter James here.
And good luck to all of you out there like me who hope to publish a book of your own one day! I hope something in here was useful, and if you'd like to read some more comprehensive interviews, then you can view my previous article here, in which I interviewed Natalie Barelli, Belinda Bauer, Davina Langdale, Laura Marshall, Fiona McBain, Michael Doane, and Peter Swanson. They were also very interesting to speak to, and many of these authors are currently working on new books - so look out for those!
Thank you for reading.