Welcome to Dark Factory! You may experience strobe effects, Y reality, DJ beats, love, sex, betrayal, triple shot espresso, broken bones, broken dreams, ecstasy, self-knowledge, and the void.
Dark Factory is a dance club: three floors of DJs, drinks, and customizable reality, everything you see and hear and feel. Ari Regon is the club’s wild card floor manager, Max Caspar is a stubborn DIY artist, both chasing a vision of true reality. And rogue journalist Marfa Carpenter is there to write it all down. Then a rooftop rave sets in motion a fathomless energy that may drive Ari and Max to the edge of the ultimate experience.
Dark Factory is Kathe Koja’s wholly original new novel from Meerkat Press, that combines her award-winning writing and her skill directing immersive events, to create a story that unfolds on the page, online, and in the reader’s creative mind.
Thanks to publishing house Meerkat Press, I got the chance to interview Kathe Koja about her latest book.
INTERVIEW WITH KATHE KOJA
1) Hi Kathe, Congratulations on the release of your newest book. How did the idea for Dark Factory come about? What was your inspiration for the club?
All my novels begin with a character, and for Dark Factory that’s Ari: the club’s wild card floor manager, the bright heart of the party. Ari is the first one we meet in the novel, the one who introduces us to the club and the world of the story. Once I met Ari, Dark Factory was good to go.
2) Unlike your other novels, Dark Factory is interactive – the ebook provides the reader with links to follow and engage, the website is filled with activities to explore. How challenging was it to create a multidimensional novel that goes beyond a story?
It took a minute – a long minute – for me to really understand what I was making, writing the main narrative and a lot of bonus material, about the characters and their world, and the ways that all the material could mesh. It was my experience as an immersive event creator, where the task is blending many elements together to create one event, that helped me to understand how to make it all happen.
3) What challenges, if any, did you or your publishers face while bringing this book to fruition. What reader audience did you have in mind, considering the final product moves beyond reading?
The fun and challenge for Tricia Reeks of Meerkat Press, and for me, was, How do we present to readers this complete experience that’s operating on multiple levels? We wanted to make sure readers could engage at every step, so whether you choose to read the print book, bonus content, the DarkFactory.club site content, you’ll get a satisfying narrative, and if you want to add your song to the playlist, or participate in one of the fan art contests, you can do that too. If you want more, there’s always more.
4) Your writing is known for being experimental. Who are your literary influences? Any favorite authors or books?
Shirley Jackson was a great influence on me, her insistence on narrative economy, and she taught me to always trust the reader to be able to keep pace with the story. Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson taught me about honoring the story’s own intensity, and never being afraid to tell it your own way.
Two new writers whose work I love and recommend are Maryse Meijer (Heartbreaker) and Lindsay Lerman (What Are You). I read for voice, and these are two very strong, very different, voices that readers should meet if they haven’t already.
5) The mask-making contest was an interesting build-up to the book’s release. Do you have any other hobbies or creative pursuits besides writing?
I’m always open to new disciplines and new ways of telling a story – who knows what might be next (VR)?
6) The storyline talks about the creative bonding between the main characters. And another central character is the club itself. How do you conceive your characters, situations and themes while working on a new novel? What sort of research does it entail, or do you rely more on imagination?
The story grows from, and flowers through, the characters and their feelings, conflicts, interactions – the same way we experience our own lives. So it’s a very organic process, and sometimes surprises me with the directions it takes along the way. As far as research, I took a deep dive into club culture, specifically techno clubs like Berghain in Berlin, and learned about mushrooms, and performance philosophy, and current VR/AR trends, and. . . . Basically it’s everything that the DF world needed to come alive. And all of that was immense fun.
7) With such an immersive and interactive novel, how did the cover come about – to include all these multi layers and present the story you wanted to tell?
Tricia and I went over cover concepts together, and we both fell in love with our cover boy dancer, who became the Dark Factory paper doll. She has a superb eye for design, and an intuitive sense of what makes an image come alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her books have won awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. She is based in Detroit and thinks globally. She can be found at kathekoja.com.
DARK FACTORY by Kathe Koja
RELEASE DATE: May 10, 2022
GENRE: Speculative Fiction / SciFi / LGBT / Literary
Amy wrote a love letter… a note to the love of her life. Only Molly never read it. Even if she’d been alive when it was written, failing eyesight would’ve prevented her from making out the words. Besides which, she was a cat. And cats can’t read. No ordinary feline, Molly lived a life full of challenge and adventure, determined not to let gradual blindness hold her back. This is that letter and – against all the odds – Molly’s long-lost memoirs.
Soulcat is a delightful furrytail of a unique friendship, filled with amusing anecdotes and touching moments. The first half is Molly’s story told from the author’s perspective, including a glimpse into the life of a touring theatrical stage manager. Each chapter is punctuated with a photo of Molly and an apt cat quote. Part 2 is life through Molly’s fading eyes, told in her own words (translated into English). Beautiful illustrations by Ellypop accompany the text.
Thanks to Random Things Tours, I got the chance to interview author Amy-Vaughan Spencer about her feline memoir.
Hi Amy, Congratulations on the release of your latest book. What made you decide to write a ‘feline memoir’, interspersing Molly’s story with your own? Why not a biography about Molly, or a memoir of yourself?
Thank you! The decision to write a feline memoir was made for me really, when my letter to Molly developed into something more than a brief note. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but hadn’t considered myself brave enough, or good enough, to write a book. Soulcat just kind of grew organically out of that letter.
It’s all thanks to Molly and her uniqueness really! Writing about someone or something you know so well feels easier than writing about yourself, although I did include some autobiographical content, to provide background to Molly’s story. Having lacked confidence when I was younger, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be very interested in reading about my life. The memoir developed out of the letter and I just decided to keep writing in that style as it felt authentic, and a little different.
2. In the book you mention writing a letter to Molly after her death. How did the letter transform into a book? When did you realize you wanted to write more to her and about her?
The letter grew longer as I remembered more anecdotes. I was drafting it in a notebook, and as it got longer and longer it developed into a something more akin to a record of my memories. I don’t have a brilliant memory, so I was genuinely worried I might forget how much she meant to me and how much I loved her, so I wanted to try to capture as much as I could – not really for anyone else’s benefit, but for my own, and for my future self to take a trip down memory lane. I started writing it very soon after her death, which had come about so suddenly I felt the need to do something to say goodbye to her. Putting pen to paper was a way for me to process my feelings and work through my grief.
3. Molly lived with you for 9 years, and she was already 5 years old when she came to you. How challenging was it to compile this memoir – remembering things long gone by, small anecdotes, peculiar events and specific quirks?
It was all very fresh when I started writing, so the memories came easily. But I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could remember, and the more I did, the more my brain was prompted to recall. My relationship with Molly was pretty intense, as we spent so much time together and she was very dependent on me, so my time with her was very precious, and I think that helps it stick in my mind.
It took me around five years to write the first draft of the book. I would work on it for a few days, writing a couple of thousand words, but then I’d put the notebook down and come back to it a few months later to write some more. In the meantime, I kept a list of things that popped into my head – memories that came out of nowhere, that I knew I’d want to include in my record.
Throughout my life I’ve moved around and worked different jobs, for different companies, so if I want to recall a particular time in my life I think about where I was living, who I was socializing with and what work I was doing at the time. I take myself back to that location, and cross-reference with the people who were around me, to help jog my memory about events that occurred. I worked my way chronologically through all the places Molly and I lived, all the housemates I had and all the people she met, to piece together all the anecdotes that surfaced. I also asked people, like my Mum, who she stayed with for a few months, and my ex, who adopted her with me in the first place.
I’m a perfectionist, so I was determined to get all my facts accurate, although even after finishing it, I’ve learned things that I’d mis-remembered or forgotten about.
4. Books written in second person are hard to come by. You haven’t written as Molly in the first person, and neither about her in the third person. Was it a conscious decision to adopt this format in the narrative?
Since Part 1 was the letter, it made sense for me to stick to the second person narrative. Once I’d decided to share it, I liked the quirkiness and the authenticity it added to the story. Someone did suggest I re-write it in third person, but the idea just didn’t sit right with me, because the whole point was that it was my letter written to Molly. When I had the idea for Part 2, I knew I wanted it to be different. It would be boring if I just re-hashed the first half from a slightly different view-point, so I wanted to ring the changes. One of the most obvious was to write it in first person narrative rather than second.
5. While epistolary novels are common, epistolary memoirs not so much. What was your writing experience in penning down Soulcat?
I just wrote from the heart. This is my first book, so I although I have since drafted a couple of fiction novels (in first and third person), I hadn’t written anything on this scale before, so I didn’t really have anything to compare it with. My focus was going down memory lane with Molly, and sharing those memories with her, so I didn’t find it too challenging. The idea for Part 2 only came about last year, when I decided the letter wouldn’t be long enough on its own, and I’m so glad I chose to write Molly’s story from her own perspective. There was a light-bulb moment when I realized she had five whole years before I met her that I didn’t have a clue about, so I got to invent her back-story and come up with plausible reasons for her quirks, which was really fun.
6. Soulcat belongs to a distinctive genre of nonfiction books about cats. What readership did you envision while working on this book?
Honestly, I didn’t. I know that’s a cardinal sin for a writer – not to have their audience in mind while they’re writing, and perhaps it was a mistake, but I just wrote something I thought I would enjoy reading. I shared a draft with my book club when I was thinking about publishing or sharing it in some way, and they loved it so much it gave me huge encouragement to put it out into the world. I was probably considering my readership more when I was writing Part 2, which spurred to me into trying to make it entertaining and funny. I had a lot more artistic license with Part 2 though, as I got to merge fiction into the facts.
7. Any favorite memoirists or books about animals you would recommend to readers?
Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman was quite revolutionary to me when I was younger. Having always been a very self-conscious, shy, introverted child, she made me realize that underneath I was actually quite normal, and it was a really refreshing read!
More recently I’ve been very moved by Ruth Coker’s All The Young Men, about her experiences helping men with Aids in the 80s. I encourage everyone to read it. It’s funny, honest, beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.
In terms of books about animals, I’ve only recently read Charlotte’s Web and I wish I’d read it when I was young! It’s a wonderful book and should be essential reading for children! There are several cat-themed novels that are lovely, gentle reads, like Jennie by Paul Gallico, and The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Arikawa. Personally, I prefer something a little more gritty. My run-away favourite book last year has a wonderful feline narrator: The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward. I don’t want to give anything else away, but it’s a really great read.
Thank you, Amy, for taking the time for this interview.
Thanks to Random Things Tours, I got the chance to interview Hanna Powell about her book, The Cactus Surgeon.
INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH POWELL
Hi Hannah, Congratulations on the release of your new book. What made you decide to write a book about nature, that isn’t wholly about nature?
Nature has been such a big part of my life, that it was always going to feature. I grew up living next to a garden centre (where I now work) and studied for a degree in horticulture. Nature has been the backdrop to my life, and my health journey, and the two together made for an interesting memoir.
2. You have grown up around flowers, and plants have always been a part of your life. What’s the story behind the title, The Cactus Surgeon? Why did you choose the cactus instead of any other plant?
I fleetingly wanted to be a Cactus Surgeon, when I was six years old! I used to gouge out rotten pieces of cactus, or try to reattach fallen limbs with cocktail sticks. Whilst writing the book I was part of a writing group and they all said I had to go with that title – because it is so unique!
3. How challenging is it to write about nature? Do you write about the things you see and perceive, or do you study specific plants in detail? How do you strike a balance between personal experience and research?
The majority of my writing comes from personal experience, from memories or by revisiting photos of the nature I want to talk about. Normally I talk about plants or animals which have either had an impact on me, or which are the backdrop to a significant event. I generally find the writing flows onto the page, but then I have to come back and work hard to add in the additional language, the metaphors, to ‘show not tell’. I had some great feedback from beta readers and from my editor which helped me to improve this aspect of my writing.
4. A nonfiction book about plants is a very distinctive genre. What kind of readership did you have in mind for this book?
Nature writing has exploded in the UK in the last five years, and accounts of health experiences are also popular. I particularly wanted to reach readers who were struggling with their own health, because my story is one of hope and recovery. I’ve been pleased that it has been described as very relatable by a wide range of readers.
5. As a reader, who are your favorite writers? Any books you would recommend, about plants or otherwise?
I love non-fiction, and I read a lot of nature and health memoirs whilst writing mine. I would highly recommend Wintering by Katherine May, Still Life by Josie George and Seed To Dust by Marc Hamer. They all tell stories about life, discovery and the healing power of nature.
6. What advice would you give to city dwellers in high rises who are disconnected from nature?
Buy a houseplant (or several!). They are wonderfully calming, and it’s good for your mental health to have something to care for. Outside of your high rise, seek out routes which take you past nature. Become friends with the local trees or wildlife. Enjoy the changing seasons. Find a botanic garden, park or community garden. Don’t wait to be invited, seek out the green spots.
7. If you were a plant – any variety of flower, herb, fruit-bearing, or cactus – which one would you choose to be?
It would have to be the sunflower. From a tiny seed grows a very tall stem, bearing a flower which brings smiles and joy to all, and keeps on stretching, up, up, up to the blue sky.
Thank you, Hannah, for taking the time for this interview.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Powell (née Bourne) is Communications and HR Director for the Perrywood Garden Centres she runs with her dad and two brothers. When she was six years old, she wanted to be a cactus surgeon.
Before coming back into the family business, she had a successful career in PR and marketing, running high-profile campaigns for clients, including Barclaycard and Domino’s Pizza. She was part of the team that launched Global Entrepreneurship Week, an annual campaign to encourage young people to set up businesses worldwide.
She now lives in North Essex with her husband, daughter and many plants.
A beautifully crafted, atmospheric and absorbing story with a strong sense of place and a compelling cast of characters. In the years before the war, Sylvie Charlot was a leading light in Paris fashion with many friends among musicians, artists and writers. Now she is largely forgotten. Spending time in Paris during a break in his acting career, Colin Mallory sees a striking portrait of Sylvie. Some think it is a late work by Édouard Vuillard but there is no signature or documentary evidence to support this view.
The picture has some unusual qualities, not least the presence of a shadow of something that cannot be seen. Perhaps the picture was once larger. Colin feels an odd sense of connection with Sylvie, who seems to be looking at him, appealing to him, wanting to tell him something. Despite a warning not to pursue his interest in her portrait, he is determined to find out more about the painting, who painted it, and why it was hidden for many years.
Colin’s search takes him back to the film and theatre worlds of Paris and London in the 1930s – and to a house in present-day Sussex. As he uncovers the secrets of Sylvie’s past, her portrait seems to take on a life of its own.
Hi Christopher, could you tell us about the inspiration behind The Purple Shadow? How did you decide on a painting to occupy centerstage in a novel?
I wanted to write a novel set largely in Paris, a city I have visited many times, and to write one with purple in the title. All my books have colours in the title and it was purple’s turn! But the purple what? I eventually settled on shadow as providing interesting possibilities and decided that the shadow should appear in a painting – found in Paris. My titles always come first and help to shape and drive the story, rather than other way round.
2. Movies, theatre, art galleries – the story is a smorgasbord of art and culture, moving across place and time periods. What sort of research did the story entail?
Paris itself provided a starting point; everywhere my characters go I went myself while I was writing the book. This includes galleries in the Place des Vosges where part of the action takes place. More generally, I drew upon a long-standing interest in art, plays, films, supplemented by internet research into specific aspects (eg 1930s films and double portraits) and reading journals etc published at the time.
3.How did you choose the genre of literary mystery – a hybrid of literary fiction and crime fiction? Was it a conscious decision to blend genre and non-genre writing, or did the narrative lead you?
The books are, in my view, essentially literary fiction that develops and explores character, plot and themes through the setting and solving of mysteries: problems to be solved, things and people to be found, often with unexpected consequences. The Purple Shadow is, in a nutshell, about relationships and their shifting nature and the possibility of reconciliation, as manifested, for example, by the splitting of a double portrait, attempts to re-unite the two halves, and references throughout to shadows and their characteristics, not least the shadow in the title.
4. The Purple Shadow is set across a century, as clues are navigated in a compact storyline. How difficult was it to present a lot of information to the reader in few words? As a mystery writer, how do you strike a balance between giving the reader enough clues to keep them engaged, try and solve the puzzle, and not get bored on the way?
The process is instinctive and organic rather than plotted out in advance. In the first instance, I myself need to be interested and engaged and wanting to find out what happens and how various elements come together. I hope the reader is too.
5. The novel has a hint of supernatural elements, merging the lines of thriller and horror. How do you cater to different reader tastes when plotting a multi-genre story?
There are elements that could be described as supernatural, or unexplained, but they are just hints, as you say, which serve the overall plot and themes. I don’t think they take the book in the direction of thriller or horror or subvert the sort of approach discussed above.
6. Some of your other books are titled, The Amber Maze, The Yellow Room, The Green Door. What role does color play in your life – in books and otherwise? Why did you pick purple for this one?
Yes, as I mention, all the books have colours in the title. The first three addressed the primary colours (blue, yellow, red). I then moved on to the secondaries, of which the first I used was green. That left purple and orange and I ducked orange at the time as less easy in a book title. When it eventually came to orange I opted for amber instead. Sounds much better. The next book (due to be published in the autumn) casts the net a bit wider: it’s called Mr Magenta. More generally, I’d say that colour was central to the way I look at the world, whether paintings on a wall, plants in a garden, or anything else. The books reflect that.
7.What are some of your favorite books and writers in the mystery genre?
Very varied, from the likes of PD James and Colin Dexter to the British Library crime classics, the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, the extensive noir series published by Akashic Books in the US, and the sort of bibliomysteries to be found in the Mysterious Bookshop in New York.
Thank you, Christopher, for taking the time for this interview.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Bowden lives in south London. He is the author of six novels, each with a colour theme. His books have been praised variously by Andrew Marr, Julian Fellowes, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Shena Mackay. Of his third novel, The Red House, Sir Derek said, “Very entertaining, cleverly constructed and expertly paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
As part of the ongoing blog tour of Mage of Fools, I got the chance to interview author Eugen Bacon, thanks to the publishing house Meerkat Press. I have read and loved other books from this publisher that specializes in speculative fiction, and have also interviewed Bacon about her previous books. Here, I get to talk to her about her newest dystopian novel that revolves around storytelling.
Hi Eugen, Congratulations on the release of your latest book. You have written The Road to Woop Woop – a collection of short stories, and Speculate – a co-creation of vignettes with Dominique Hecq. Mage of Fools is a dystopian novel. What’s your experience switching between writing forms and styles?
I’ve always found it natural to switch mid-text across forms and genres, wearing different faces, hats and cloaks. I think it’s because of the immersion I find in writing, and our world is not black and white. I love experimentation, bending boundaries. I tend to resist boundaries that restrict text, and I approach a work with an openness to how a story may morph and shape itself.
One of my recent stories is a blend between a short story and a script. Some of my short stories have prose poetry hidden in them. Some of my novels have short stories hidden in them. Some of my creative nonfiction—like ‘Inhabitation: Genni and I’ (Sydney Review of Books), where I talk to my other self, or ‘The New Seduction of an Old Literary Crime Classic’ (LitHub), where I pay homage to Peter Temple—integrates excerpts of fiction or poetry in it.
I love the fluidity of text, as literary enthusiast Roland Barthes would have it.
2.Your books fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction – alternating science fiction, fantasy and horror. Is there a genre you prefer, both as a reader and writer?
My favourite genre is literary speculative fiction, where imagination is the limit. An introduction to my upcoming collection, Chasing Whispers by Raw Dog Screaming Press, describes my work as ‘towards an Afro-irreality’. Except for a time travel novel (Secondhand Daylight) that I am co-writing with a European slipstream author, Andrew Hook, I never start a story thinking that this is going to be science fiction, fantasy or horror.
3.Stories occupy an important place in Mage of Fools, where reading is banned and characters try to sneak in their daily dose of storytelling. The novel is peppered with names of authors. Who are your favorite authors? Any favorite books you would recommend?
I was only recently talking about Anthony Doerr and look forward to reading his latest historical and speculative fiction Cloud Cuckoo Land. Peter Temple’s dialogue is genius.
And Toni Morrison is subversively in Mage of Fools, where I imagine her language in my stories. Anyone who hasn’t read all this Nobel prize-winning author’s fiction is missing big time.
I am inspired by selfless people, like Nelson Mandela, who give of themselves so generously.
4. When writing speculative fiction, what goes into world building? How do you balance imaginary scenarios with real world issues; the new with the familiar?
The reader must find familiarity in the worlds we create, however strange, through the nature of our worldbuilding, whose intent is to demystify. Credibility is a necessity in any imaginary world.
It all depends on the size of the story, its nature or setting, where it wants to take me, to determine whether it is a primary world (that resembles our real world) or a secondary world (mostly invented and dissimilar from our real world).
But even in a secondary world, an author may want to introduce themes and issues pertinent in our world today, and how the protagonists in those invented worlds deal with them. This is the author as an agent of change.
5. Your writing is often poetic and lyrical, starkly contrasting the dark themes explored. Is this merging of prose and poetry deliberate, or does the narrative lead you?
The narrative talks itself, the characters guiding it. Language is important and, in my mind’s eye, is always the musicality of the text.
6. The cover of Mage of Fools mixes the traditional with the futuristic. Could you tell us about the story behind the cover?
Ask the publisher, Tricia Reeks of Meerkat Press! She’s the closet designer, discovering herself. She asked for my art preference, and I said something African, maybe a mask.
Thank you, Eugen, for taking out time for this interview. We wish you all the very best with Mage of Fools, and other books that follow.
The pleasure is entirely mine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eugen Bacon is African Australian—her books Ivory’s Story, Danged Black Thing and Saving Shadows are finalists in the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards. Eugen was announced in the honor list of the 2022 Otherwise Fellowships. She has won, been longlisted or commended in international awards, including the Foreword Indies Awards, Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Horror Writers Association Diversity Grant, Otherwise, Rhysling, Australian Shadows, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Eugen’s creative work has appeared in literary and speculative fiction publications worldwide, including Award Winning Australian Writing, BSFA, Fantasy Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Bloomsbury Publishing and Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction. New releases: Danged Black Thing (collection), Saving Shadows (illustrated prose poetry). In 2022: Mage of Fools (Meerkat Press), Chasing Whispers (Raw Dog Screaming Press) and An Earnest Blackness(Anti-Oedipus Press).
“Hang on a minute, I need to take a photograph of this.”
We all have that one holiday that stands out in our minds, that one break or vacation we will never forget. Whether it is a childhood ‘bucket and spade’ family holiday, the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ dream destination, your first trip abroad or the city where you first fell in love, the memories are still there today.
In this interview feature, I speak to editor Alyson Sheldrake about bringing together award-winning and top travel memoir authors, in an anthology that pays tribute to postcards and photo albums, as they invite you to join them on their travel reminiscences.
Maybe they will inspire you to book your next holiday too.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Alyson Sheldrake was born in Birmingham in 1968. She has always loved art and painting, although she found little time for such pleasures, working full time after graduation. She joined the Devon and Cornwall Police in 1992 and served for thirteen years, before leaving to work in the field of education. She became the Director of Education for the Church of England in Devon in 2008.
Once her husband Dave retired from the Police, their long-held dream of living in the sun could become a reality. Alyson handed in her notice, and with her dusty easel and set of acrylic paints packed and ready to move, they started their new adventure living in the beautiful Algarve in Portugal in 2011.
Alyson Sheldrake is the author of the award-winning Algarve Blog, and she is also a feature writer for the Tomorrow Magazine in the Algarve.
She is now an accomplished and sought-after artist working alongside her husband, Dave, a professional photographer. She has published three books about their Algarve Adventures: Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal; Living the Quieter Algarve Dream; and an anthology of expat stories entitled A New Life in the Algarve, Portugal.
Her next writing adventure took her into the world of anthologies, with her Travel Stories Series. The first book, Chasing the Dream – A new life abroad, was released in June 2021. This was followed in September 2021 by Itchy Feet – Tales of travel and adventure.
Wish You Were Here – Holiday Memories, is the third book in the series.
When she is not painting or writing, you can find her walking their rescued Spanish water dog called Kat along the riverbank in Aljezur, Portugal.
INTERVIEW WITH ALYSON SHELDRAKE
Hi Alyson, Congratulations on the release of your latest book. How would you describe the experience of working on a project with other writers, versus individually writing for a blog or magazine?
First, can I say thank you so much for inviting me to be a guest on your wonderful travel and books blog. It is a pleasure to be here.
I really enjoyed working with the other authors in my anthology. Across all three books in the series and the box set, I worked with 48 different authors in the space of one year. I was both a police officer and a teacher before we moved out to live here in the Algarve, so I guess I am used to organising people! I learnt so much from each author. We all have our own unique style in our writing, and I was amazed at how varied the contributions were—and how well they all fitted together!
2. As a writer and painter, your life is filled with art. How do you balance different creative activities—personally and professionally? What advice would you give artists to bring more creativity into their lives?
My art and writing feed off each other. Although they are different disciplines, both infuse me with a sense of energy and purpose, and give me a genuine thrill when I see what I have created. With my writing, I find it helps that I am an avid reader. Other authors’ books always give me ideas and feed my creative writing juices. With my paintings, I just have to see a view to know instantly if it will work in my ‘New Wave’ unique style of painting. I can envisage the finished piece before I even start drawing it out or open the cap on a tube of paints.
My advice would be twofold – go out and find things that inspire you, that warm your heart or stir up your creative side. And then just go do it! Start that painting, begin writing that book, and learn as you go along. Don’t be too precious about things, make mistakes and have fun!
3. You have written three books in the Algarve Dream Series, and are also compiling another travel anthology. What made you choose travel as a subject for your books?
My husband, Dave and I fell in love with the Algarve in Portugal almost twenty years ago. We moved out here to live almost eleven years ago, and I started a blog about our adventures. That led to my first book about our lives out here and the rest, as they say, is history. I love reading other travel memoirs as well; you get to peep inside the authors’ lives, with all the ups and downs that inevitably come with travelling abroad. That’s where the idea for the Travel Stories Series came from. I met so many other travel memoir authors online that I decided to bring all their stories together.
4. While travelling and capturing moments are usually associated with photography, where does the significance of the written word come into play? Why opt for words over pictures? Your thoughts as a reader and writer of travel memoirs?
Well, I am married to a photographer, so you can imagine that we have fun debating the virtues of each discipline! I have used his photos in all my Algarve books, along with my paintings, as they complement each other so well. But I think that words, used well, draw you in deeper than a photograph. They engage with a part of your brain that encourages you to think and feel and imagine a journey for yourself, enticing you to paint your own pictures in your mind.
5. As a travel writer, what guidance would you give writers who aspire to capture their travels and adventures through the written word?
Try to picture just one person who you are writing for. It could be a friend, relative, or a complete stranger. Imagine they are sitting opposite you and you are curled up on the sofa chatting to them about your adventures with a cup of tea or coffee in your hands. What stories would you tell them?
Sit down at the computer, or with pen and paper, and just start writing. Let all your memories just spill out onto the page and don’t worry about sorting them all out until you have exhausted all your ideas. Then you can look back through your stories and decide whether you want to print them out, publish them on a blog, or even compile them into a book.
6. How did the idea for Wish You Were Here come to you? Why an anthology and not a personal collection?
As I explained, I had discovered so many other travel memoir authors who had similar stories to mine, and the idea of an anthology just seemed like the best way of bringing all those stories to life. I also like the idea of a collection of chapters, each long enough to be a complete story in their own right, all knitted together through a simple overall theme. All the authors share their special holiday memories, covering a wide range of different countries and experiences. Most of the chapters in Wish You Were Here are about 5,000 words in length. The stories also give the reader the chance to discover new authors they may enjoy. Each chapter concludes with a brief bio of the author and details of other books they have written.
7. Wish You Were Here comprises an eclectic set of travel writers, all sharing their experiences around the world, in their personal writing styles and genres. How did you select the stories and writers for this anthology?
I actually had to turn down some authors. I had so many interested in being part of this project. I posted up my idea in a Facebook author’s group I am a member of, and the replies flooded in! Part of my selection process included trying to ensure I had a wide range of different countries and situations covered across the broad overall theme of holiday memories. I was delighted with the final series of stories; I think they all work together really well.
8. The collection includes excerpts from full-fledged memoirs, along with essays and short non-fiction pieces. Any favorite travel books/authors you would recommend to readers?
Oh gosh! That’s a hard question. There are so many wonderful authors and books out there. Check out Victoria Twead, Beth Haslam, Lisa Rose Wright, Valerie Poore, Jules Brown, Lindy Viandier, Stephen Powell, Adrian Sturrock, Kevin J D Kelly, and Simon Michael Prior for contemporary travel memoirs. And, of course, there are classics like Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and any books by Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and Mark Twain.
9. Thank you, Alyson, for taking the time for this interview. Finally, is there any place in the world you haven’t been to, but want to travel to and write about?
We spent a wonderful week in Venice over twenty years ago and I would love to return there with my sketchbook and see where my imagination takes me. Iceland is a country I have never visited but find fascinating. Although I think it might be too cold for me there, I have been spoilt living here in the sunny Algarve!
Thank you again for inviting me to answer your questions.
If you would like to know more about my art or writing, please visit my website:
I finished Generation X-ed earlier this month, and was blown away by the eclectic group of writers and range of stories in the anthology. My review of the book can be found here:
As a follow-up to my wonderful reading experience of the book, I interviewed editor Rebecca Rowland, for an insight into how Generation X-ed was conceived, created and curated.
1. Hi Rebecca, Congratulations on the release of your latest book. How would you describe the experience of working on a project with other writers, versus individually writing a book?
It’s a completely different animal. In the first anthology I edited for Dark Ink Books, I included one of my own stories; I haven’t done that since, despite selecting themes or subgenres for subsequent anthologies that I incorporate most often in my own writing. It’s too difficult wearing both hats: as an editor, you have to see the work through the eyes of the reader while simultaneously having the backs of the authors who have contributed to the project. With my own stuff, I just write what I like and rarely consider how readers might respond: I trust in the editor and the press owner to assess and dress it properly for public view. When I am writing, I am in a vacuum of sorts; as an editor, I am very conscious that how I shape and promote an anthology affects all of those authors involved. It’s much more exhausting to be an editor, unfortunately, but it’s even more rewarding on some levels as long as I know I’ve done right by those who’ve contributed their work.
2. Generation X-ed is a niche genre: horror stories set in the eighties and early nineties. How did the idea for the anthology come about?
A few years ago, I made a conscious effort to read and review more independent dark fiction. I also tried to break out of my (painfully awkward, typical writer-introvert-) shell and get to know some fellow independent horror writers. What I found was that more than three-quarters of those horror authors were my age: we shared the same formative experiences in media and music and culture. I was born smack in the middle of Generation X, a group I didn’t really understand the significance of until I was well into my thirties and forties. I recall being in college and having a house-sitting gig; the homeowners subscribed to Newsweek, and the cover story was “Generalizations X,” a deconstruction of the “slacker generation.” It was the first time that I saw myself as part of a group that was united simply due to birth timeframe, but I couldn’t get behind the analysis the article put forth. Now, I look at my generation and I realize, there are touchstones we share that helped shape us into the people we are as adults: the satanic panic, the latchkey phenomenon, the Challenger explosion (witnessed live in our classrooms), the emergence and disappearance of Mtv, and so forth. The Baby Boomers have theirs; the Millennials will have theirs. I happen to think our formative experiences are the most nefarious, which might explain the wealth of horror fiction that has sprung from Gen Xers!
3. The stories cover a range of horror sub-genres from psychological and paranormal, to comedy and sci-fi. Was this intentional, to feature stories across the horror spectrum?
The Renaissance of the slasher film occurred during Generation X’s childhood/early teens, and the birth of cable television and VCRs (coupled with a looser supervision by our parents), made access to hardcore horror relatively easy. When I first conceived the collection, I did imagine it would be focused on the splatter and gore of that subgenre: the X lends itself so well to that, visually and thematically. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that our influences weren’t limited to slashers. Each of the authors chose an individual (real or fictional) who had an impact on him/her as a horror writer: the list appears at the beginning of the collection. The range makes me realize I did the right thing broadening the parameters of the fiction I wanted to include.
4. All the writers belong to the latchkey generation and have explored their personal experiences with movies, books, music, political and historical events from the era. How did you gather stories and authors for this project?
I wrote up the call for stories, letting writers know the word count range and that we were really only requiring two things: that the writer be a member of Generation X and that the horror story include something (subtly or otherwise) specific to the generation. As the submissions came in, I was pleasantly surprised: the caliber of writing and the uniqueness in story arcs made whittling the final count down to twenty-two very difficult. There were definitely some stories that it pained me to turn away, but the ones I selected all had one thing in common: they were exceptionally well-written, and they stayed in my head hours or even days after I first read them. I wish I could give a more objective analysis of why these twenty-two ended up together, but my best explanation would be it’s part luck that these gifted authors chose to trust me with their creations, and it’s part my own gut reaction.
5. While readers born and growing up in the 70s and 80s would find resonance in the references, the stories are so well written and compiled to be enjoyable for everyone. Did you have a reader audience in mind while conceiving this anthology? As an editor, how challenging is it to cater to different reader tastes when curating a collection?
So far, I’ve been fortunate enough to curate collections where the focus has been something to which I am already drawn, and I know readers are going to choose a book based on whether its nucleus is something that already jives with their preferences. I know putting out a collection that appears age-specific is risky; however, one of the nicest feedbacks I’ve received from reviewers is my commitment to diversity in style and approach, and therefore, I’ve always kept that in mind when I am cutting down the “likely yes” pile to the final lineup.
I am drawn to read anthologies myself because of the variety: I don’t expect to love every entry, and I don’t expect readers of the anthologies I curate to love every story. However, I never want a reader to find s/he doesn’t respond to multiple stories in a row. That’s a death sentence for any collection, so careful arrangement of the tales is key. Even if the stories have a common thread, I take care to either follow one story with another from a completely different subgenre, or, if the subgenres are the same, make certain back-to-back tales utilize different points-of-view, or possess similar narrators who make very different choices. That way, there really is something for everyone. There are sly winks in Generation X-ed that will resonate specifically with those who are a part of the generation, but the heart of the collection, the things that creep and unnerve and scare the bejesus out of us no matter when we grew up, is what gives it life, so I hope everyone who enjoys good storytelling will take a look.
A few months ago, I had the chance of hosting the book Always Never, Rarely Sometimes on its blog tour. I loved the varied tales and their assortment of memorable characters and imaginative dialogue. On reaching out to Welsh-Mexican writer Alexander Raphael, I was thrilled when he agreed to do an interview feature for Tomes and Tales.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER RAPHAEL
1. From journalism to poetry and short stories, your writing career spans the spectrum of genres and forms. How do you navigate the different styles? Do you have any preferences for a particular form?
I think it all starts with a love of language. I’ve always loved the way different words can set a scene or describe a person, whether that’s in fiction or non-fiction, news or creative. And then it all comes down to audience really. In journalism it’s about being informative, accurate and succinct. Whereas when I write my stories it’s about entertaining and being imaginative. There’s no set deadline, word limit or fact check. Instead, it’s all about ensuring each story has two things: flow and crunch. I’m drawn to writing short stories in particular. It’s a genre that fully allows sharp openings and twist endings and tight dialogue.
2. You have Welsh and Mexican heritage, have grown up in London, and have studied American literature at university. How have these different cultural experiences influenced your writing?
I know, quite the mix. It’s been everything really. I learnt Spanish at a young age and regularly visited Mexico growing up, so always had those influences. And living in London and being only a few hours drive from Wales meant another set too. Having such different backgrounds has meant I’ve always had an inquisitive nature and an interest in the world outside of my daily life. I like to think that comes across in my writing.
But influences come in unusual ways. Growing up, I had plenty of bookshops and libraries near me and more books than you could imagine at home, but the one that ultimately inspired me most was given to me by my friend Jorge in Mexico. I discuss it more in my piece “Before the Embryo”, but it was a book that made me want to write. I wanted people to read my work and have the same response I was having to the stories I’d just read. And it was a book I’d never have found at home.
3. Always Never, Rarely Sometimes is your third book, and second collection of short stories. How do you go about compiling stories for collections? Are these stories written over the years and then published together, or do you write them specifically for the book?
I was a huge fan of anthologies growing up, and reading the best works by the best writers in once place was wonderful. That included ones grouped by genre, era or often just the favourites of a group of editors. I would tend to read them out of order, usually choosing by title. Titles have always been important. They’re the first thing you notice about a story and should intrigue you without giving anything away.
When writing my own collection, I do try and have a theme or an overall concept. I think of short story collections like albums. Often, they reflect where you are at that moment in time, the artwork on the front is a part of the work, and you wonder which stories would be “the singles”. Curiously though, it’s never been as simple as a story being written after the previous one was released. One project often overlaps into another, so I was writing some stories for this latest collection when working on my second book Illusions, Delusions. Two of the stories were written at college and “There, Unthere” was the first thing I wrote after my first book The Summer of Madness. And that was before what I’d even thought about what to release next. I believe that gives you more variety and more flexibility. It means only the strongest stories are included, each one has a distinct tone and style and a wide array of characters are covered.
4. The themes and genres are diverse within the collection. What kind of readership did you envision while creating the book?
I never write with a particular person in mind. In fact, it usually takes me a while to think of myself as a reader. When reading back my own work, I read it first as a writer, then an editor and then later on as a reader. What’s been fascinating, and something I take as a big compliment, is that people’s favourite of the seven stories have been different. There’s never been a pattern of certain group of people liking one story and another group dynamic preferring others. It all comes down to their individual preferences and experiences. Stories like “That Beautiful Girl” and “Lies and Secrets” take place within one scene whereas “The Prankster” and “Lucky/Unlucky” take place over a period of time. That same mix applies within Always Never, Rarely Sometimes.Whether a person prefers romantic or dark, funny or sad, hopeful or cynical, I wanted there to be something for every reader.
5. Your writing is known for its blend of powerful dialogue, humor and imagination, ranging from the mundane to the magical. What influences you to decide between prose and poetry, considering you’re adept at both forms?
I started off writing poetry before really getting into short stories and have written a few poems since. My poetry is so different as it’s the only form I still write by hand and the only one where I’ll start writing without a title in mind. I never begin writing a story unless I have a title and it’s extremely rare that I change it.
With my short stories, people that know me well can recognize little parts of me within the text, whereas in my poetry I tend to write in a more distant style. So whereas in my stories there are characters and motives, in my poetry it tends to focus completely on the beauty of language, inspired by something like a sunset, the changing of the seasons or my response to an artwork.
But like with so many creative forms, there can be overlaps. I had this idea of an old man meeting his romantic match at a cemetery. The idea had flow but not enough crunch. I didn’t really know how to run with it, so I decided to make it into a poem. Rather than being a flat story it became “Death = New Life”, a poem full of vibrant energy.
6. The cover of Always Never, Rarely Sometimes is a collage, which doesn’t reveal anything in itself, except that it’s a collection of different ideas. What’s the story behind the cover? Was it intentional not to have it reveal too much about the book?
My first job was in a library so I know all about the power of a strong title and a striking cover in people’s first impressions. And like with music, the artwork should be part of its identity whilst still being symbolic. With The Summer of Madness, the pink sunset worked. It was a gorgeous skyline reflecting the beauty and joy that can be found in summer life where the days are longer and people are more free spirited.
For Illusions, Delusions one image worked too. The story “After Life” was the first one written and that’s what led to the whole book. I’d written this metaphorical story about four old men playing cards whilst reflecting on their lives and I had written nothing else like it. I knew I had to get into that same mindset and write others. It didn’t happen overnight but I was able to get there. A writer talking to his protagonist, a person looking back over their life like a questionnaire, and a story made up entirely of puns were ideas that were encouraged because I wanted to have that same creative energy in other directions.
Whereas with Always Never, Rarely Sometimes, there was never that pivotal story. As mentioned earlier, they were written at different times and at different points in my life. That’s why my initial idea for the cover was far simpler. It was merely going to be the book’s title in purple lettering with a black background. I didn’t want to reveal anything, I wanted readers to be intrigued enough to find out more. But having a very talented (and very patient) designer who was always pushing for more creativity meant a breakthrough was inevitable. When she sent over some images, I noticed the possibility for a montage and from there we both collaborated as to which image to use for each story. Hope did a great job.
7. The collection has a wide range of characters. Are these traits based on people you know? How do you sketch your characters?
There’s a quote by Horace Walpole. “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those that think”. It’s a quote I take into my writing. Human beings are so flawed and complicated and that’s why they are so entertaining.
When I write, there’s no fixed way of sketching a protagonist. Sometimes it starts with the character itself, other time it starts with the premise and then the character follows. The main thing is whether they have portrayed enough so that the dialogue helps build the character. Whether you like or agree with the beliefs of the character you’re writing, you have to convey the concept that they think a certain way and their words and actions follow on from that.
And no, I don’t use traits on people I know. The world is so big and full of history that’s what interests me more. That’s why I’ve often included a character reading a newspaper or a magazine. There’s a huge world outside of their own filled with all kinds of things going on.
8. Unlike novels and novellas that are extended forms of one story idea, short story collections require the writer to churn out myriad ideas for each story. How has your experience been writing both your books – switching genres, being innovative and impactful within a limited word count?
I’ve never seen a short story as a word count as such. I’ve always said that writing a story is like driving a car. You can have the keys, be at the wheel and know where you’re going, but it’s your passengers who will dictate the flow and the route of your journey.
When I first envisaged The Summer of Madness, it was only going to be a few pages. But the more I wrote the more I had to write. More things had to be explained and more voices of the supporting characters had to be heard. What helps is that I rarely change the beginning or the ending of a story. Even if you take a few scenic routes, if you know where the story is going, you feel you can trust the characters and plot lines.
As for writing itself, I write stories I would want to read, which makes them more fun to write. I know exactly what I’m looking for and what I need to avoid. Switching genres is one of the best bits. It means you get to use a whole different set of words, characters, styles and storylines.
9. Any favorite short story writers or story collections you would recommend we read?
Roald Dahl was probably my favourite. In fact, “Motive, Murder, Method” is the story I would have submitted to him for his TV show Tales of the Unexpected. His writing was so consistent and so funny. He had such a macabre sense of humour and a dark sense of morality. The good guys (usually) win out and the bad guys tend to have all kinds of twisted punishments. Pretty much all his work is worth reading.
I am a big fan of the original series of The Twilight Zone, so any of the writers featured in there (or on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) such as John Collier, Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont. They wrote of such fantastic premises, often filled with imagination and paranoia and foreboding.
Dorothy L Sayers and Dorothy Parker have quite the collection and their work lingers long after you read them. I liked the playfulness that often features in Saki, O Henry and James Thurber’s work. I don’t tend to read collections as such, as I was often introduced to their work though reading them in anthologies or recommended specific stories, so I wouldn’t set one collection as such. And I can’t forget the gothic brilliance of Shirley Jackson.
For more information on Alex Raphael and his works, my book feature on Always Never, Rarely Sometimes can be found here.
Hi James, Congratulations on the release of your latest book. How did Clandestine come about? Since you’ve previously published novels, what made you work on short stories for this collection?
Hi and thanks for having me here today. Clandestine started as a bit of fun. I had just finished the Gorilla Grant series of books with Berlin Reload and didn’t want to commit to my next series of books straight away. So for me this was a palate cleanser, something a bit different but that still kept with the espionage theme.
I have always loved short stories, they are like a guilty pleasure – on a plane or train journey especially – and I thought it would be fun to see how many intelligence/espionage related stories I could come up with. It turned out that it was more than I thought I could!
2. The stories vary in length, from extremely short to lengthier ones. Since you also write novels, including series, what are your experiences or challenges faced while working with different forms? How do you decide which stories to write in the short form and which ones would work better as a series?
I think that is one of the things that I like about short stories, having that ability (if possible) to get a concise amount of information into a limited number of pages but without losing the tension and the flow of the narrative.
For me it always starts with the character, the protagonist or even the antagonist, and see where they lead me. For example one of the stories in Clandestine is titled Vagabond. Its main character is a former spy who is occasionally called back to help out British Intelligence in the post war years. Now the story was meant to be a short detective noir type story, but once the character came to the forefront I began to imagine putting him in any number of adventures, perhaps even in a full novel at some point in the future.
3. Your professional experience in security and intelligence features strongly in your fiction. How do you strike a balance between real-life stories versus fictitious narratives in your writing?
There are elements of real life experiences in all my books. My job as the author is to hopefully disguise them as well as I can so that the reader doesn’t see the join between fact and fiction. So far I think I’ve managed to get away with it, but I always check with the powers that be to ensure that I haven’t breached any confidences.
4. Your interest in world travel stands out in the range of your story settings. What are your other hobbies, besides writing and travelling?
I love the movies and the theatre!! I always have. There is nothing quite like a live performance to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.
My children, at this late stage of my life, have introduced me to the world of football! Both in terms of watching it and helping them train for their matches. I’ve taken some of the tactical and leadership qualities that I’ve been taught from my professional life and applied them to their football matches.
We have a constant debate about who is the best player in the World. They say Ronaldo; I say Lionel Messi.
The debate continues…
5. What are the key elements of creating spy stories? How much of it is personal experience; where does research come in; and when does imagination take over?
For me a good spy story should have an element of risk as well as believability. We all know the Hollywood movies where the hero takes out an army of tactically clad gun ninjas. That is not realistic and I think it insults the reader’s intelligence. After all if the hero can wipe out an army – then where is the risk? The threat? The peril?
From my own point of view the majority of the tactics and operational techniques that are used in my books are things that I have either done for real or been involved in at some level. I hope that this level of insider knowledge gives the reader a taste of what it is like to be operational whether that is running surveillance, meeting with a covert source or protecting a VIP. Again the trick is to blend the fact and the fiction seamlessly so that the reader only sees the character doing these things.
6. Clandestine covers the gauntlet from supernatural occurrences to historical references, international espionage and local cafes, humor and horror. How did you work on this range of genres and subjects, while still maintaining the core elements of intrigue and deception?
Great question!! In short, they weren’t planned. I didn’t sit down and say, “Right I need a comedy, historical and action story.” They were just subjects that interested me and I took it from there, letting them run. The only anomaly in Clandestine is the first story entitled CHIS – which is basically a spooky story.
But my criteria for all the stories were that they had to have a theme of espionage, deception or intrigue. The only other addendum was that there had to be a twist somewhere in the story or as one of my readers called it “Spy Tales of the Unexpected.” I liked that.
7. Do you have any literary influences? Any favorite writers or books you would recommend we read?
Absolutely! The one constant author for me has always been John LeCarre. I started reading his work when I was fifteen and I’m still coming back to them even now. Now LeCarre can be quite heavy at times so sometimes you have to lighten the load and just have a bit of fun with books. So I’m quite eclectic with my reading and can flow back and forth between Graham Greene, Stephen King, Lee Child, James Ellroy, Richard Stark, Frank Herbert, and any number of biographies.
My children have introduced me to David Walliams children’s books and they are just so much fun. I briefly met David Walliams at a taxi queue at Euston Station several years ago. I have dined out on that story for ages, so much so that it’s taken on a size of its own and been blown out of all proportions, much to the annoyance of my kids.
8. Thank you, James, for taking the time for this interview. Finally, any new projects you’re working on?
It’s been my absolute pleasure and thank you for having me here. I’m currently conducting the research for my next book series titled The Fisherman which I hope to have completed sometime in 2022. I’m really excited about this project as it brings the espionage world into modern day and future events.
If readers would like a brief taster of what The Fisherman has to offer (no spoilers here I promise) then might I suggest that they check out the story in Clandestine titled “The Increment Man.”
James Quinn is the author of the ‘Gorilla Grant’ series of spy novels. A professional security consultant and corporate intelligence operative, he currently resides in the UK but likes to travel extensively around the globe.
His latest projects are ‘Clandestine‘ – a short story anthology, based around espionage, deception and intrigue; and ‘The Fisherman’, which introduces a new character to the world of covert intelligence.
In the aftermath of the war, Iona “Sully” Sullivan has lost everything; her job, her friends, her fiancé and even her magic. But when an old friend shows up on her doorstep, offering her the chance to undo one of her long litany of mistakes, there is still enough of the old Sully left to get her on the first boat to Hong Kong. A stranger in a strange land, Sully must navigate alien customs, werebear chefs, the blossoming criminal underworld, religious extremists, Mongol agents, vampire separatists, and every other freak, maniac or cosmic leftover with an iota of power as they all compete for a chance at the most valuable prize in all the world; a little sailor doll named Eugene, and the last wish on earth.
Hi GD, Congratulations on the release of the latest book in the Witch of Empire series. How did the series come about? What’s the story behind Iona Sullivan – a special agent-cum-witch using magic to crack cases?
Hello and thank you! It has been a long road getting here. Witch of Empire actually started off more than a decade back as a series of short stories that I was planning on publishing in serial on this newfangled thing called the internet. I was a big fan of the old hardboiled detective serials you got back in radio’s heyday so the plan was to recreate it in a parallel contemporary earth where magic had risen to prominence instead of technology. For the first story, Sully was the usual cookie-cutter alcoholic down on his luck film noir detective, but by keeping everything else the same and making her a woman, she became infinitely more interesting. Add in just enough self-awareness to realise that the life she was living was prolonged self-destruction and suddenly she became… well, who she is.
2. The Last Days of Hong Kong is primarily fantasy fiction, with elements of speculative fiction and even historical fiction and horror, with a slathering of humor. Was it a conscious decision to blend multiple genres? How did the story take shape?
I’d argue that the story is primarily a hardboiled crime novel like the Maltese Falcon that just happens to feature a cast of magical creatures. Back when Urban Fantasy was first taking off as a genre I got perpetually annoyed by the fact that despite their being vampires and wizards and whatnot roaming around, they had somehow managed to avoid influencing any major historical events in any way. So when I had the opportunity I… well I went a little overboard. I already knew that I wanted historical progress to be a little stagnant to justify the Noir tone of the contemporary setting, but once you’ve introduced magic as an influencing factor it knocks on from one thing to everything.
3. Aliens, vampires, fae, demons, politicians, chefs – the book is a smorgasbord of characters. What would you attribute your creativity as a writer to? Any other creative pursuits besides writing?
This is what happens if you give your kid a library card and ignore any of the worried calls you get from the librarians.
As for other creative pursuits, I designed games for a while, I enjoy painting miniatures for tabletop games too, but my biggest creative outlet beyond my writing is definitely cooking. I love to cook. I love to feed people. I love that moment when they taste something new for the first time and their expression changes.
4. Speaking of the characters, the cuddly doll Eugene is just one among the many we meet, but he steals the show all the way. How did Eugene come into being?
It is funny that you say this right after mentioning how creative I must be, because I straight up stole Eugene. I knew from the outset that I wanted to include some historical figures in my books, but altered by circumstance. When it came time for the captive demon, I turned to Robert, the Haunted Doll from down in the Florida Keys, whose history you can map perfectly to Eugene’s albeit with a little less flair for the dramatic. When it came time to name him, I looked to that story too. Robert the doll took his name from his original owner, Robert Eugene Otto.
That’s right folks, Eugene is real. Sleep well at night knowing that.
5. You have worked as an editor and game designer, among other jobs. How much of an influence do your previous roles have on you as an author?
Being an editor definitely helps a lot when it comes to story structure and the technical side of writing. As for game design, I think that has helped me to stay unpredictable. When you are designing a scenario for players, you have no idea which way they are going to jump. Are they going to talk to the fluffy bunny people? Are they going to slaughter them for their pelts? You have to plan several moves ahead to ensure that the player (or reader) comes to the information they need, no matter which way they go.
6. From the 40s to the 70s and the 21st century, the novel moves back and forth in time and place. While alternating timelines are anyways challenging to create and maintain, how much of a challenge was it to do the same within a fantasy world? Was there any point of reference for these events?
By the time that we arrived at this third book, I had put together a fairly elaborate timeline of the alternate world’s history; accounting for the changes that I’d casually mentioned across all the stories to date, and the hypothetical stuff that I knew would be required for those events to come to pass. The main rule I stuck to with the different time periods was to focus on the events that were right in front of the reader. It didn’t matter if there was a whole load of really interesting stuff happening just to the left of what the reader needed to know. Unless it broke through the wall, it could just stay unknown.
7. Each book of the series stands out for its vibrant cover. Could you share some back stories about the cover designs?
The amazing Tricia Reeks at Meerkat Press personally designed each of the covers for this series, and I could not be happier that she managed to squeeze them into her ridiculously busy schedule because every single one has been gorgeous, eye-catching and given away just a tiny hint to the reader about what they were going to find inside. In terms of the design, we knew we wanted to play up the Film Noir roots of the story, so Tricia went for silhouettes and cityscapes to evoke that art style, then it was just a matter of hinting at the more fantastical elements like rampaging hydras, bosses turning into parrots and punching dragons.
8. As a reader, which are your favorite genres/books/authors?
I feel like this is a tricky question, because it is in a constant state of flux. I still gravitate towards fantasy more than anything else, and I suspect that is where my heart is always going to lie, but obviously I’m drawing from influences across the board for my own work, which means I need to read widely. Some of my recent favorite authors have included Sophie Gonzales, K J Parker, Cass Khaw, Seb Doubinsky, Alex Knight, Madeline Miller, J P Valentine and Tao Wong.
9. Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Finally, any sneak peeks into the next book of Sully’s adventures? Or anything else you’re working on outside of this series?
It is with great regret that I must inform you this is the last Witch of Empire book for the foreseeable future. Sure, if it sells a billion copies, I’ll come running back to my beloved Sully, but for now, Hong Kong is where she remains. If you’re looking for something similar, The Last King trilogy should be out in 2022 and while it an epic fantasy rather than urban, the plot of the first book revolves around solving a series of locked room murders. Something that would have been right up Sully’s alley.