The Word is Murder: interview with Anthony Horowitz

Today, I am delighted to bring you my interview with the fantastic author Anthony Horowitz, about his latest novel, The Word is Murder. Anthony’s books, whether for adults or kids, are always gripping and elegantly written, but this one is particularly accomplished, a bold and brilliant tour de force that takes big risks with literary conventions and reader expectations, and pulls it all off triumphantly. It’s one of the most interesting and memorable novels I’ve read all year.

First of all, Anthony, congratulations on The Word is Murder, a daring and playful blend of metafiction and crime fiction.  In Magpie Murders, your novel published last year, you use metafiction elements–such as a book within a book–but The Word is Murder goes a lot further. How did the idea first come to you?

Thank you for your kind words! TWIM (as we all know it) began when I met my new publisher, Random House, and they asked me to concentrate on a series of murder mysteries. My first thought was that I wanted to do something that would completely shake up the format. It wasn’t enough just to have a fat detective, a drunk detective, a Russian detective or whatever. I wondered if could alter the entire template so that we would look at the crime and the solution in a new way.

 To be honest, the idea sort of fell into my lap as I was walking home from that initial meeting. Drop the author into the action. Take him off the mountain, as it were, and into the valley. Turn him into the sidekick. I knew at once it was what I wanted to write.

There are other novels in which the author has a walk-on part–such as for instance, Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and Paul Auster’s A City of Glass–but yours is I think the first one I’ve read in which the author is both one of the main characters and the narrator, being bossed around by the other main (fictional) character! And yet, despite the extraordinary literary conceit and dazzling sleight of hand, the story never loses its narrative power and drive. What is it like to imagine yourself as a fictional character? How did you manage to juggle all the different elements, and what were the challenges along the way?

Again, you are very kind. I was quite nervous about putting myself center stage – and so, actually, were the publishers. I didn’t want the book to turn into an ego trip. But although I appear rather more than I would really like (I’ll take more of a back seat in future adventures) the book is more about my writing life rather than me personally – the focus is on Hawthorne!

 When I was writing TWIM, I simply had to imagine that it was all really happening. Writers do this anyway, of course – but I had to consciously ignore the fact that I was making it up. The AH character is seldom named…and this helps me distance myself from him. You might think of him as an avatar. Yes he is me but he’s also my creation and what I think makes it fun is that Hawthorne is as much in control of him as I am!

In The Word is Murder, you incarnate the creative process through literal dialogue and interaction between the author and his characters, brilliantly illuminating the way in which writers conjure characters that feel not only real to them, but also the reader. The novel is deftly ironic yet never falls into the trap of over-signalling. How did you go about it without becoming too self-conscious?

I think I’ve answered this above. I’ve often said that writing is about immersion. I can only write Alex Rider if I totally believe in him…even when some of the action is quite fantastical. The same was absolutely true of TWIM. I had to imagine myself into it but then wrote with 100% belief.

 How have readers been responding to TWIM? Do most people enter into the spirit of it, or are some people confused and think you are writing true crime(as the lady in Hay on Wye suggested in the book)?

I think it’s true to say that audiences have received TWIM more warmly than anything I’ve ever done. This is particularly true of the book blogs and the Amazon reviews. I’m really happy. People tell me that they’ve been Googling to find out what’s true and what isn’t (not that Google necessarily helps). And everyone seems to have grasped the concept.

Will there be more ‘true crime’ novels featuring the ‘real fictional’ Anthony Horowitz as the sidekick to detective Hawthorne?

Absolutely. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book (to write) was the realization that something had happened to Hawthorne when he was young. To some extent, I turn into a detective as I try to find out more. The idea is to write about nine or ten books in the series and gradually to work out the mystery of Hawthorne’s past. As I sit here now, I have a fairly good idea what that might be but I won’t know for sure until I get to the end.

Yours is the second new metafiction/crime fiction novel I’ve read this year–Sulari Gentill’s Crossing the Lines is the other–which brilliantly illuminates the creative process in a highly original way. There have been other earlier works which play with those elements, such as French author Guillaume Musso’s La fille de papier (Girl on Paper) and Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden(which was made into the film Secret Window) but though they are gripping psychological mysteries, they both ultimately ‘explain’ the apparent boundary-crossing in a way that disappointed me as a reader(and writer). Not so with your book, and Sulari’s, which stay most satisfyingly within that narrative world. Can you expand on that, and whether you think the crime fiction lens helps to make that more effective?

I don’t know these books and must check them out. I think the short answer to your question is that I don’t really perceive any boundaries between truth and fiction. In Magpie Murders there were three distinct worlds which related to each other like Russian dolls. There was the fake world of Saxby-on-Avon where the murders took place. There was the “real” (but actually fake) world of Alan Conway, the author of the murders. And although it was only hinted at, there was my own real world – with references to Crete, Orford, the Ivy Club and real people including the radio DJ, Simon Mayo and Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard. TWIM simply blends them all together so there is no distinction between me working on Foyle’s War, for example, and me being attacked by a psychotic killer. So the crime fiction is not so much a lens as a landscape!

 Thank you for these extremely interesting and generous questions.

Thank you very much, Anthony!

 

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A unique book project: an interview with romance writer Jan O’Hara

jan-ohara-writers-digestOnce a family doctor who prided herself on providing her patients with birth-to-death healthcare, Canadian writer Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. She writes for the popular blog, Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children.

And today I’m interviewing her about her first novel, Opposite of Frozen, which has just been released and which is part of a unique and most intriguing series, the Thurston Hotel Books.

First of all, Jan, congratulations on the release of your novel, Opposite of Frozen! It’s the second in a unique, multi-author series. Can you tell us about that? How did it come about? And how did it develop?

Thank you for having me, Sophie. I’m honored.

My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (https://www.calgaryrwa.com/) has a reputation for facilitating independent publishing and hybrid careers within its membership. In December of 2015, word went out that our treasurer, Brenda Sinclair, was looking to launch a group project, for which she had a very clear vision. I was interested because Brenda had participated in a similar project before, and had internalized many of the lessons learned during that time. Also, romance is a digital-friendly genre, and I was leaning toward independent publishing.

Accordingly, in a somewhat cloak-and-daggerish moment, the interested parties met secretly in a Calgary restaurant. Brenda loosely outlined the series idea: 12 standalone contemporary romances set in a fictitious town in the Alberta Rockies, revolving around the Thurston Hotel, its employees and long-term residents. Each author would take ownership of one month in the town’s life to tell their story. In addition to writing our own story arc, each book would tell a portion of a long-running series romance.

Brenda had already begun construction of a series bible—which she maintained throughout the entirety of the project. She had thought through the project deadlines, the cover artist, and the series editor. Her level of professionalism was vastly reassuring to this writer!

When all was said and done, 11 authors signed on, and Brenda, herself, agreed to write the first and last installments in the series. coverfinalmedwithgreyoof

Writing as part of such a unique series must have presented its own unique challenges! Tell us about how you constructed your story. And did the writing of your novel differ to other fictions you’ve written?

Though I have been writing a long time, I have never completed a piece of long-form fiction to what I consider publishable standards. As you might imagine, I was nervous about my abilities to do so while adapting my story to the requirements of 10 other writers. So from the first, I looked for a way to keep my story somewhat self-contained within the Thurston world. I wanted to limit the number of moving parts.

That was the impetus for having my characters arrive on a tour bus and depart from Harmony within the month I claimed. Also, for claiming an early month in the year, when I’d have to adapt to the fewest changes possible due to other author’s requirements. (In my case, I volunteered for February.)

Happily, those constraints ended up creating some of the story elements of which I’m most proud. For example, I needed a tour group to populate the bus, and who would most logically have the time for a prolonged multinational tour, but seniors? (I so enjoyed writing my seniors!) What unexpected event could complicate their February trip, but a hypothermic stowaway? What elements about the seniors’ lives could bring my co-protagonists together, and facilitate their healing? Etc.

I must say, it was thrilling and confidence-inducing to see how my brain could come up with story ideas to match the project’s requirements.

Also, I was dealing with time constraints and a gargantuan case of the Impostor Syndrome. Without a commitment to the other writers in the group, I’m not sure I’d have pushed through to completion. I do know OoF would not exist in its present form if not for the project’s boundaries and invitations.

The books are all set in the same town, although around different stories and characters. How did you all plan the background of the books–and will that evolve over time, or will you all keep to the same basic framework?

Between our first and second in-person meeting, each author wrote a story synopsis and shared it with the group, via private Facebook page. We also found avatars for our characters and constructed one-sheets, when applicable, so that other authors could use our characters in cameo appearances without much difficulty.

For more intensive cross-pollination, when using another writer’s characters, we sent relevant passages to one another, to ensure we weren’t violating a character’s personality or mannerisms. The same held true for micro-environments. For example, I borrowed Ellen Jorgy’ creation—a bar known as the Wobbly Dog—for several scenes in my book.

We made a good many decisions together, in-person, like the décor of the hotel, the final design of the cover art, the name of the town. Other decisions were made individually, and then coordinated with the group via Facebook.

For instance, I needed a store that sold computers, so I constructed the Tech and Tock, and invented its proprietors. One of the series continuity editors, Suzanne Stengl, then added it to the map of the town, which she maintained throughout the project.

I should mention that various authors contributed their skillset to make the project work on the whole. Win Day, for instance, used her technical background to construct the Thurston Hotel Books website. Sheila Seabrook helped with formatting issues. Everyone helped with title selection.

Without their direction, Opposite of Frozen would have been called Hypothermia and the Hottie. (A title which still makes me laugh, and would have been great for SEO, but doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel.)

Do authors in the group have input into each other other’s stories? Who edits the novels?

Beyond the planning I’ve mentioned, the group also benefited from the hard work of two continuity editors: Brenda Sinclair, who wore about five hats during this project, and Suzanne Stengl. They both read my book for continuity errors. Twice.

Then we all used the same editor, Ted Williams, for a final appraisal. He used the series bible for guidance and reportedly enjoyed seeing how Harmony came to life within different stories, told by different voices.

Tell us about the publication journey for the series. Will the books be available internationally?

We intend to put out a print version of the series in the near future. At present, the books are available exclusively in ebook via Amazon and the Kindle Lending Library, wherever Amazon exists.

The first installment was released September 29, 2016, and will be followed by another novel on each of the following 11 consecutive Thursdays. (We are using the hashtag #ThurstonThursday on Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to follow along.)

 

 

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More about Opposite of Frozen:

Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recovery from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/janoharabooks/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/

For more on the series itself: http://thurstonhotelbooks.com/

Interview with Kristel Thornell, author of On The Blue Train

on-the-blue-trainIn December 1926, Agatha Christie, already the famous author of several detective novels, disappeared for eleven days. The press and the public were agog as a massive investigation employing more than a thousand police officers was mounted, and after her car was found abandoned, great fears were held for her safety. As titillating details emerged about the traumatic events surrounding her disappearance–her husband’s demand for a divorce on top of his infidelity, and her beloved mother’s death–the public joined in the hunt, with hundreds of amateur detectives combing for clues. Even other mystery writers joined in the hunt, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers! Eleven days after she first went missing, Agatha was discovered in a spa hotel in Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she was staying under the name of Teresa Neele–poignantly, the surname of her husband’s mistress.

There have been many speculations, then as now, as to what really happened. Agatha herself never explained those missing eleven days. An intensely private, even shy woman, the trauma of the time when she was in the full glare of remorseless publicity never left her, even though she went on to become a mega-selling ‘Queen of Crime’. Even today she is the most best-selling novelist of all time, with literally billions of books sold.

Now young Australian author Kristel Thornell has written a novel which, with great deftness and sensitivity, imagines what those eleven days might have been like. Foregrounding both Agatha herself and the fictional character of Australian Harry McKenna, similarly bruised by life, she draws a convincing portrait of heartbreak, the beginning of healing, and the challenges and consolations of creativity. It’s a wonderful novel which is also a touching tribute to Agatha’s unique creative gift, informed by a great deal of research. And so today I’m delighted to bring readers a fascinating interview with Kristel Thornell, in which she talks about the creation of her novel, On the Blue Train (Allen and Unwin, out now).  kristel-thornekll-better

How did you first come up with the idea for the novel?

I heard a fragment of a radio program that mentioned Christie’s “disappearance” and I was very taken with the idea of a young writer living under a pseudonym for eleven days. Perhaps because writing itself can resemble living under a pseudonym, and this parallel intrigued me. I was particularly interested in the tension suggested between public and private selves. I found myself vividly picturing a troubled, resourceful woman arriving at a hotel in the north of England in an unusual state of consciousness. I thought it could be an interesting challenge to try to give fictional depth to such an experience, exploring the combination of disorientation and freedom she might have felt. I was attracted to writing a sort of psychological mystery. One that, without being a detective novel, would salute what I most enjoy in that genre – transporting atmosphere, a hypnotic flow, the heightened awareness of details, moments, and buried impulses.

What research did you do, and what were the challenges in researching such a famous, but also mysterious episode in Agatha Christie’s life?

I began with the biographies of Christie by Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, Christie’s autobiography, and her early novels. In the UK, I read newspapers covering her disappearance and the archive of her papers at the University of Exeter. A central part of the process was spending time in Torquay, where she grew up and loved to return, Newlands Corner, the area from which she “disappeared”, and Harrogate, where she lived for those days as Teresa Neele. In Harrogate, I stayed at the hotel she stayed at (which still exists), for the same period of time she was there, absorbing the ambience and learning to inhabit my character.

Agatha Christie in 1926

Agatha Christie in 1926

The blanks in the official record gave me a certain sense of being at liberty to invent, but it was a challenge to avoid preconceived ideas and put aside, as it were, Christie the icon, Christie the phenomenon. I had to avoid anachronistically projecting all of that symbolic weight onto my vision of a young writer. It also felt crucial to allow myself to freely imagine within the biographical contours, and to approach the biographical material itself in my own way.

You have deftly mixed your own imaginings with what’s known about what happened. How did you negotiate the intersection between fact and fiction?

This was somewhat more straightforward with “On the Blue Train” than it was with my previous novel (inspired by the Australian landscape painter Clarice Beckett). With the earlier novel, I worked with biographical facts quite loosely, sometimes purposely altering them. With “On the Blue Train”, I aimed to incorporate the known facts of Christie’s disappearance and life up until that time into the imaginary world of the novel. I didn’t consciously change anything factual that appeared significant to me. Though I was aware, of course, that simply to fictionalize a fact is to reimagine it. To shape it with language, frame and illuminate it in particular ways, give it a tone. So that even the biographical becomes semi-biographical, novelistic.

There have been many theories concerning Christie’s disappearance, ranging from amnesiac fugue to a cynical publicity stunt mixed with revenge against her unfaithful husband. In your version, Agatha is aware that she is not who she is telling the world she is, yet she cannot cope with the fact of who she is and what has happened–a syndrome perhaps like post traumatic shock. How difficult was it to portray the state Agatha is in?

Finding a voice to convey that state was the key to the whole project. Laura Thompson, who wrote the 2007 biography of Christie, sees her mental state during that episode as semi-rational, somehow poetic, and this rang true to me. Such a condition plausibly fit the omission in Christie’s autobiography. I saw the fictional Agatha/Teresa as fluctuating between extreme sensitivity and numbness, and, increasingly, a sort of playful, creative spirit, a reawakening sensuality. She was both guiding herself and drifting. I wanted the novel’s voice to reflect these complexities: to be hypnotic, slightly hallucinatory, and inflected, indeed, with shock, grief, shame, and anxiety. The voice actually came quite intuitively. I identified with it deeply.

The pain of what Agatha is going through as she struggles with the realisation that her world has come crashing down is exacerbated by her inability to write a word of the book she was planning–which of course ended up being Murder on the Blue Train. Was this episode in Agatha’s life a turning point in terms of her art as much as her personal life, and if so in what way?

Yes, it would appear so. It was at around this time that she came to see herself as a professional author. She had already been working in a determined, focused way, aware that her work could earn money. Earlier in 1926, she had published “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, which had done very well. However, in her autobiography she describes the experience of having to force herself to finish “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (which she was finally able to largely complete in 1928 in Tenerife) as transitional. This was the crossing over into the life of a true working writer, one who writes whether or not she feels like it. And there is the sense that she made something of a fortress of this new role, keeping her private self guarded within it. It was fascinating to me that her intense vulnerability and isolation during that time might ultimately have galvanized her, confirmed her independence and vocation.

The hounding of celebrities, the curiosity of the media and its readers in intimate details of their lives, is very much an element of your book, and also of contemporary relevance. How do you think a similar episode would play out today in the media?christie-paper

Yes, that aspect of the story struck me as extremely fresh and current. I imagine that such attention could feel even more traumatically claustrophobic today. It would certainly be amplified by recent technologies, and quickly become so much more international. And there appears to be an ever-stronger requirement for writers to be public figures. The Elena Ferrante phenomenon is interesting in this light: the novelty of her “hidden” identity, the emphasis on this and speculation over her “true” identity becoming a lucrative part of her brand, and the recent “unmasking”.

In France, Agatha Christie is regarded by critics as a popular fiction genius, with a succint elegance of style, a deftness of characterisation and an extraordinary mastery of plot. Yet in English-speaking countries she is too often dismissed as a mere purveyor of puzzles. I wrote about this disconnect myself some years ago: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/07/writers_choice__2.html

What do you think? Does the disconnect still exist? And why?

I’ve been curious about that discrepancy, too, and I enjoyed Houellebecq’s response to Christie. It does still seem to exist and I would agree with your impression that in English-speaking countries she can be seen to represent an outmoded fairytale Englishness – one that is more attractive and soothing to foreigners. No doubt this involves some discomfort surrounding her perceived conservative upper-middle-class viewpoint. Could it be the case, also, that when a cultural product is such a powerfully popular national symbol, it can provoke a certain embarrassment?

Incidentally, I’ve read several of her novels in French and Italian, as well as in English, to see if I could come at the “essence” of them. Reading her in translation, I found it interesting that the streamlined quality of her prose – the minimally evoked settings, the emphasis on concise, bouncy dialogue, the light movement, and so on – seemed to translate very well, very smoothly.

Has writing the novel made you think of Agatha Christie, and her work, differently to before you started?

It has made me wonder at the intricacies of her inner life, and admire her strength, self-discipline, self-confidence, and forceful creative drive. I often think now of how hugely sustaining writing must have been for her.

What are your favourite Christie novels?

First edition, 1926

First edition, 1926

I think I remember most fondly “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The first has a wonderfully fluid, clean elegance, and an intriguing, chilling mood lightly balanced between clinical and intimate. I am attached to “The Mystery of the Blue Train” partly, perhaps, because it was a triumph for her to finish it, after having struggled with it at that very difficult time. It represents a sort of survival-through-creativity for me. Despite all

First edition, 1928

First edition, 1928

she was going through, she managed to pull off a novel that is amusingly theatrical, evocative, and sprightly.

 

 

 

Kristel Thornell’s debut work of fiction, Night Street, was the co-winner of the Vogel’s award in 2009 and was much acclaimed when published in 2010. On the Blue Train is her second novel.

More about On the Blue Train:

What did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? Mixing fact and fantasy On the Blue Train is an entrancing novel of creativity and grief from a winner of the Vogel Literary Award

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it’s wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha’s lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

Thornell says, “We are drawn to the iconic aura of Agatha Christie, as well as to a sense of her tireless imagination and drive. We continue to find her blend of cozy comforting order and hidden dark forces tantalizing and highly addictive. Her “disappearance” – a brief escape from her public identity – seems such a unique act, unusually creative and psychologically fascinating.”

With verve and sensitivity, Thornell imagines what Christie could not write.