An Interview With… Louise Cullen

Hi everyone, and this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Louise Cullen.

Louise is a publishing director for Canelo, a London based independent publisher. I was intrigued by the role so was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to her.

Over to you, Louise…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you wanted to do when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I worked in a number of different roles before I started in the publishing industry, including jobs in travel, project management and administration. A career as an editor wasn’t something I realised was a possibility in my school days. Once I decided it was the career I wanted, I studied part time for a BA in English and applied for internships when I graduated. My first internship was in an editorial department, and it resulted in my first permanent job in trade publishing as an editorial assistant. That was around ten years ago.

2) What books grab you instantly when you’re in Waterstones, WHSmiths or browsing Amazon online? What is it about them that makes you think ‘I’ll buy that!’?

Despite the adage about never judging books by their covers, it is often the look of a book that first captures my attention. I think the quality of designs is better than ever! My taste is varied, so I find things that appeal to me in many sections of a bookshop. That said, I frequently gravitate towards the crime fiction section and may be drawn in by the design, a clever tagline on the front cover or a description of the contents that sound compelling.

I may seek out titles from publishers that I admire, or have heard of from prize nominations or publicity. It’s nice to revisit authors whose work I have enjoyed, however, my reading time is precious so I often try new voices. Amazon, and shopping online in general, is a less instinctive experience. I check reader reviews but aim to keep a balanced view; poor reviews can be down to personal taste rather than the quality of a book. The algorithms do work as I often look at the suggestions of books that are similar, and have discovered some interesting authors as a result.

3) On the other hand, what book doesn’t grab you? Are there any genres that you wouldn’t read? If so, why?

There isn’t a specific genre that I would not read, but it is less likely that I’d pick up science fiction or fantasy novels. I am also not a huge fan of children’s voices in fiction aimed at adults, so I don’t often read novels with a very young protagonist. I do not read many biographies – they’re usually a little too long-winded for my liking – though I like memoirs that tell a story of an ordinary person who overcame something unimaginable, or found themselves in a situation that they did not imagine and had to rise to the challenge.

4) What makes Canelo stand out as a publisher? What is the package that you offer prospective authors? Do you offer advances?

I hope what makes us stand out is our focus on readers rather than trends. Though we do publish books that reflect the zeitgeist, we also publish a lot of novels that may be considered ‘dated’ or less relevant, but we believe that good stories ought to be readily available to all who may enjoy them.

Canelo is proud of the fact that we have made successes of books in under-represented genres, whether that be sea-faring adventures, or crypto thrillers that other publishers may view as unfashionable. We aim to be a broad church with the genres we offer. We also seek to provide a fair, transparent and collaborative experience for our authors and to work with them in a meaningful way.

We do not offer advances, and that is irrespective of whether you are a debut or already a bestselling author. Our model is to offer an industry-leading ebook royalty rate that comes into force from the moment the book is published, and very fair terms on matters such as royalties for other formats, and rights. We are a small company, but with a lot of experience in the industry and a track record of working with successful authors. We are great at spotting opportunities and reacting to them, and we put a lot of work into aspects of publication that we believe make a key difference to an author’s sales and readership.

I absolutely love working directly with the authors to shape their novels and ensure they have the best likelihood of success, and growing their audience over time. There is always more to learn and a lot more for us to do as a company, but I’m proud of the team we have and how many authors we have been able to put on the path to becoming established novelists with career longevity.

5) How do you find your current role as Canelo’s Publishing Director? Can you tell me a little about your role in the publishing process for the manuscript?

As publishing director, I have a range of responsibilities and my days are rather varied. One aspect of the role is to work closely with commissioning editors who acquire books in the genres under my remit. This includes psychological thriller, romance, saga, contemporary fiction and crime.

Making the success of a book is always a team effort, so I attend various meetings with Canelo colleagues throughout the day to discuss new opportunities to acquire books, or perhaps the cover design for books we have rights to publish. There are frequent reviews of sales, marketing and publicity plans.

I am part of Canelo’s senior management team and that involves working closely with the other senior managers to consider matters that impact on our short, medium and long term plans, our ways of working and ensuring we’re heading in the right direction as a company. The other major aspect of my role is to steer the Canelo Crime list. That means looking closely at the crime fiction market and bringing focus to plans for the imprint.

I consider whether we have done everything possible to make a success of the books on that list, what sort of new books or authors we should seek. I also represent the imprint to the wider industry. A significant amount of my time is spent working directly with Canelo Crime authors to edit their books, and make plans for their next book, and the next, and the next!

I love that part of my job, and communicating with agents about new authors they think may suit my taste and our list.

6) What advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out? Would you recommend a creative writing course?

I wouldn’t feel able to recommend a creative writing course one way or another, because I have not undertaken one. I know some authors seem to benefit from them a great deal, and as an observer it seems that being introduced to other writers and a supportive group is a key benefit.

Potentially, that element is as attractive to attendees as the content of the course itself. Without a direct contact within the industry, it may be hard to work out what is to be expected of you as an author, or how best to ensure your work is handled with care and you are treated fairly.

Literary agents do a huge amount to advocate for their authors, but not every author is going to be able to work with an agent, especially when they are starting out. It seems the shared experience of those on a creative writing course may be useful. Also, some agents or editors have links to courses so will be predisposed to consider authors who take part in them.

For what it is worth, I would not in any way overlook an author because they had not done a creative writing course, but I may note that someone who had done a course could be more likely to grasp the requirements of delivering books to a deadline, and potentially be more familiar with taking feedback on board.

The courses can be expensive and I would not by any means suggest that anyone ought to consider that such a course is a ‘must have’. Without a doubt, the key overriding factor in whether I would seek to work with an author is the quality of the novel. My advice to any author would be to write the novel you want to read, and look at those who are successful in your chosen genre. Try to understand why they have succeeded and apply this to your own work as much as you can. Be aware that publishing is a busy, bustling industry and to gain attention for your work it would be useful to have worked out a ‘hook’ – a short phrase or proposition that immediately engages the reader’s attention and explains who the book is for.

Also pay careful attention to any feedback you receive; whether you choose to act on it is your decision, but if you hear the same thing numerous times that may suggest you should take it on board.

7) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? In your view, is there a sub genre you think is in need of more representation?

I think the crime and thriller market is a really interesting and dynamic area for authors and readers. The overarching theme is giving readers a mystery to solve, and that trait is rather resistant to trends. There are cultural moments, and often tropes and devices that for a while may seem to crop up everywhere, but they always have their roots in something long lasting. Right now, there are any number of novels being published as a new spin on Agatha Christie, and female-led detective series have been extremely popular in British crime fiction for a while now.

It pleases me that many recent crime books offer a broader view of where crimes happen (everywhere), who commits them, and who can solve them. In my teens, I read authors like Jeffery Deaver, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane. Now, rather than recognition for quality crime fiction being dominated by American, often male, authors, there are different voices telling varied stories.

Closer to home, I love how popular it has become to set a novel in a rural community or a smaller city or town; at one time it seemed London was the only place crimes occured! Not to say that I dislike novels by American authors, male authors or set in London – many that fit that bracket are among my favourite books and highly deserving of their success. Greater representation of characters and stories from a variety of cultures, backgrounds and places is crucial in order to connect with readers. It is no secret that a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that readers and authors from a whole host of different communities see that books, and publishing, are for them, about them, and by them.

Regarding subgenre, I would love to see a greater appreciation for mystery fiction series that involve an amateur sleuth. By this I mean things such as private investigators, journalists, or generally nosey and clever characters! Though police procedurals are a subgenre I adore there is less immediate recognition of novels that don’t feature a police detective, and I think that is a shame. Working to solve a mystery or pursue justice can be brilliantly told with characters who are not constrained by upholding the law. Gristly detail is something I rather like, so I’d be interested in more books featuring characters in forensic pathology, which are less common at the moment. Also books with a pair of detectives working closely together – it’s fascinating to me when this dynamic is explored, and the resulting bonds, tension and dependence on one another that can result.

8) Do you have a genre that you read for pleasure? Is there any genre of book that you wouldn’t read?

Despite the vast amount of crime fiction that I read for work, I do love to read crime novels for pleasure. There are just so many incredible authors and I cannot get enough of mysteries to solve, or flawed characters, and I like being scared! Anything to get my heart pounding is fun, and I am not averse to gore or violence. The other books I tend to read for pleasure would probably be broadly categorised as literary fiction, though I am not a fan of that term. For me, this probably means a standalone novel, offering a unique character perspective and tackling complex relationships against the backdrop of a moment of change.

That’s not the most eloquent answer but it’s quite hard to define – perhaps that is why ‘literary’ fiction is used! Some stories don’t sit easily in a genre, but I don’t like any implication that ‘genre’ or ‘commercial’ fiction is easier to write, or a poorer standard or in any way less skilful or meaningful. This is far from the case, and labels like ‘literary’ don’t help readers, they’re industry terms. I don’t read as many romance books these days but I have enjoyed many a good rom com.

I sometimes seek out books published long ago that come highly recommended. As mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t rule out any genre, but I don’t think I’d read YA fiction without a very compelling reason, and not much sci-fi or fantasy.

9) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you finding that your reading habits are changing at all?

As a commissioning editor, I am constantly reading manuscripts. That may be the new novels my existing authors have completed, or ones on offer from the literary agents I am in touch with. This means I read a lot of crime fiction, though I do also read the things my team are keen to acquire too, so I dip into all sorts of genres as a result. I always take a break from work reading at Christmas and was able to read a lot of fantastic books this time – the silver lining of a festive break when we weren’t able to spend the occasion with friends and family. I enjoyed We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker a great deal, also The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, which is non-fiction but explores the aftermath of a crime, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell for something moving and highly absorbing.

My reading-for-pleasure opportunities are usually from audiobooks, and I download these via the BorrowBox and Libby library apps. It’s a brilliant way to read while doing something else, such as walking or commuting. Due to working from home now, I have fewer hours in the day to listen so my main change in habit is that I read more slowly. Most recently in audiobook I enjoyed The Survivors by Jane Harper. It is wonderfully tense, as well as being tightly plotted and moving. I felt transported to Tasmania, which was rather nice!

Also recently I listened to Girl A by Abigail Dean, which was wonderfully narrated by Holliday Grainger, and Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore; not an easy tale with it’s exploration of violence against women, mysogyny, racism and neglect, but a powerful story.

10) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Are you finding that your habits are changing? Do you have a favourite drama that you enjoy religiously?

I’m sporadic with my television viewing and not very good at committing to a recurring series. Like many people, I find streaming works well so I can watch at a time that suits me.

I enjoy gritty dramas, often crime (a theme is emerging with these answers), and true crime series. I also like documentaries about things I know little about, such as the financial crash. The most recent series that I have watched are The Queen’s Gambit, The Fall, Line of Duty and It’s a Sin. In documentaries and true crime, I have watched The Night Stalker (it is terrifying but very well made) and Dirty Money.

Bloodlands is also good so far, and I watched Schitt’s Creekthough – controversially – I didn’t like the latter series as much. I tend to find characters less interesting when they achieve their goals of happiness or redemption!

Thank you very much for your time today Louise. It has been a pleasure to interview you and find out more about your job role! I wish Canelo all the best!

Bio: Louise Cullen is publishing director at Canelo, a London-based independent publisher founded in 2015 and nominated for Independent Publisher of the Year by the British Book Awards in 2021.

She heads the Canelo Crime imprint, and publishes bestselling authors including Rachel Lynch and Marion Todd. In the past, she has worked with authors including C. D. Major, Michael Ridpath, Anne Holt, Holly Seddon and Mario Reading. Louise is originally from the Wirral, and now lives in Walthamstow, London.

An Interview With…. Alastair Natkiel

Hi everyone! Today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Alastair Natkiel. Alastair is an actor and singer and has most recently been on screen in BBC’s Line of Duty as OCG member Lee Banks.

I was very pleased that he was able to accommodate an interview. Read on for how he started out in the industry and his advice for aspiring creatives (actors and writers).

Over to you, Alastair…

1) How did you first become involved in the industry? Was it something that you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

I either wanted to be a cricketer or an actor. I wasn’t good enough at cricket so acting it was. Clearly I never considered a “proper” job!
I had been performing from a young age and both my parents were involved in the industry (Dad was a theatre/tv director and producer and Mum trained as an actress) so it was always in the family. I saw Les Miserables in the West End when I was 8 in the and thought “I’d like to be up there doing that”.

2) When you read a script, what do you pay attention to in particular? Does the character leap off the page for you? What makes you think ‘Yes, I want to play this role!’

Yes there are definitely characters you quickly connect with, which can be for a number of reasons. Maybe they feel close to you or have similar experiences. Or it might be you just know they will be great fun and/or a wonderful challenge to play.

I like delving into dark and difficult roles that allow me to move far away from myself, ie playing a vicious criminal like Lee Banks in Line of Duty, or Simon – my character from the play Muswell Hill – who was affected by severe Aspergers.

3) Your career has varied between film, television and theatre. Which of the three would you say is your favourite and why?

They are all rewarding in their own way. I love screen work – the subtlety that the proximity and strength of the camera allows. And being in such a hyped show as Line of Duty is incredible, especially with how it’s gripped the nation.

But then there’s something very special in the immediacy of theatre – being part of a company of actors and experiencing the audience’s reaction there and then. For example, at the end of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (a very special show I did at the Sheffield Crucible) we had 1000 people on their feet, giving us a standing ovation every night. There’s not a lot that can beat that.

4) You run an acting workshop for up and coming actors. Where did the idea for this start and what does the process involve?

I love teaching and have taught group classes for years.

I had been thinking of starting 1-1 sessions for some time and when Covid hit, it was the perfect incentive to get them off the ground.

Everything is done on Zoom and actors of all experience come to me to work on screen acting and audition skills/preparations. I’ve really got a lot out of it myself and is a venture that has kept me busy (and sane!) through lockdown.

It’s going to be something I continue over Zoom but will also be introducing in-person sessions when I’m allowed to.

5) How did you find your current agent? Would you say that the process is the same for a writer seeking representation? For example, a submission reel and cover letter or show invite is the equivalent of sample chapters from a manuscript?

I have known my agent for a long time and when it wasn’t going well with my previous representation, we went out for lunch and chatted about me making a move to her.

However that’s not necessarily a normal process and I’m sure it’s very much the same as for a writer. You email with your Spotlight profile (which includes headshots and showreel etc) and hope you might be what they’re looking for.

I’ve had times where I’ve written out and had absolutely nothing back, then other times when I’ve had lots of interest. You need a bit of luck for your submission to land in their inbox at the right time.

6) How have you been coping during lockdown? As an actor, how has lockdown affected you?

Well as I said, The Actor’s Coach venture I set up has kept me busy.

And I’ve kept up with partaking in acting classes myself – a weekly screen workshop with Mixing Networks (who I also teach for) and more recently restarting sessions with Scott Williams at The Impulse Company, who teaches the Meisner Technique, and is someone I love working with and have done so for the last 15 years.

And I was lucky to have a couple of acting jobs, including Line of Duty, and some voiceover work through the lockdown period too.
I also run a Saturday stage school for kids where we took the lessons online and had the idea for “Gig in the Garden” where I went directly to people’s homes to sing and entertain. I launched that over Christmas and am doing so again for the summer.

So I’ve definitely kept myself occupied!

7) I am currently really enjoying Line of Duty. You play Lee Banks, one of the OCG members. How did your part in LoD come about?

I did a casting director workshop with Gordon Cowell – one of the casting associates for the show – who encouraged me to write to Jed Mercurio, who created the show. I had recently done a police based feature film so had some very relevant footage.

Jed very kindly replied and said they’d bear me in mind. My agent then submitted me for Lee, pushed for me be to considered, and got me a self tape. I sent that in and the rest is history! I actually heard back two days after I’d submitted my tape, which was a much quicker outcome than I expected. I was subsequently told I was very quickly everyone’s first choice for the role, which was lovely to hear.

8) During the pandemic, what have you missed most about the day to day routine of your job?

I’ve missed the variety it brings. I’ve loved keeping busy with online ventures, but my work is normally so different from week to week that it’s been hard to not have that element to it.

And I miss being part of a company. I was due to do a big theatre job from November last year through to April this year, in a theatre I’ve always dreamed of working at, so to have not been able to do that was gut-wrenching. Hopefully it will still happen at some point soon.

9) Are you currently reading any books? Between fiction and non fiction, do you have a favourite? Do you have a favourite genre?

I’m terrible for reading fiction. I should be much better but start novels and never finish them.

I read plays, books on acting and both actors’ and sporting autobiographies. I also read a lot of personal development books to keep working on a positive mindset, which I find key to the development of my career and my overall mental health.

10) In preparation for a role, do you sometimes listen to music to get you in your character’s mindset? I find certain pieces of music very helpful. Have you been missing live music during lockdown? Do you have a favourite band or artist you like to listen to?

Yeah sometimes. I do a lot of visualisation work to really get into the world of the character and music is often a part of that.

I actually don’t go to that many live music gigs but that’s one of those things that I’m keen to rectify once life gets back to normal.

My brother has been a huge influence on my musical taste. He used to be a full time DJ and music producer and still writes tunes along side his “proper” job (he eventually got one, whereas I didn’t!).

So anything from techno to Oasis, to swing music (Frank Sinatra is one of my idols) and whatever else in between. I’ll kind of listen to anything!

Thank you for your time this afternoon Alastair, it has been a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Alastair trained at the Manchester School of Theatre and continues in further training with the Impulse Theatre Company.He is best known for his role as Lee Banks in the BBC’s hit drama, Line of Duty.

Other television credits include: Casualty, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street, Machines That Built American, Basil Brush and The Marchioness Disaster.

Theatre credits include: The Merchant of Venice (Stafford Shakespeare Festival), Standing At The Sky’s Edge (Crucible Theatre), Our Boys (Edinburgh Fringe 2018), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Playhouse, West End), Strangers on a Train (Gielgud Theatre), Shrek the Musical (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), The Go-Between (Trafalgar Studios).

After the Blue (Jermyn St Theatre), Muswell Hill (White Bear – nominated for Best Actor, 2014 Off West End Awards), Laughter in the Rain – The Neil Sedaka Story (UK No.1 Tour), What Every Woman Knows (Manchester Royal Exchange), The Importance of Being Earnest (Baron’s Court Theatre), Dangerous Corner (Landor Theatre).

Films include: Mad To Be Normal (Gizmo Films), The Innocent (White Jacket Productions), Make Aliens Dance(Annex Films), and Two Sides (Mixing Networks Productions).

Alastair also works regularly as a voice over artist, including recording a number of episodes of Silver Street – a radio soap opera for the BBC, and as a singer, which has led to him performing in prestigious venues all over the UK and Europe.

An Interview With… Sinead Matthews

Hi everyone, and today on the blog, I’m delighted to welcome Sinead Matthews.

Sinead is a fantastic actress and I was really pleased when she agreed to an interview about her career highlights. She also chats about how the pandemic has affected her job.

Over to you, Sinead…

1) How did you first become to be involved in the industry? Was it something you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

Becoming an actor for me seemed like such a no go area, as I had a stammer growing up so I was more into dancing which I loved and for a long time I thought that is what I wanted to do with my life.

I wasn’t particularly academic and was a bit of a day dreamer at school. It was my very brilliant ballet teacher who recommended to me at 15 yrs old to go to Stratford-Upon- Avon college to do a drama A Level package and being young and impressionable I did exactly that.

It’s there that I met like minded people who were into the same things as me that I discovered I wanted to audition for drama school. I did and thankfully I got into RADA and on graduating got the most brilliant agent and managed to get work straight away.

2) Your career has varied between television, film and theatre. Which of the three would you say is your favourite and why?

I feel very lucky that I have been able to work in theatre, TV and film. Film will probably be my first love as I was obsessed with films from an early age and would watch them over and over again . But theatre.. is truly where my heart is now. There is nothing like it. From the minute you get cast to the minute you take your final bow in your final show . It’s such a ride , to be a part of the company , the rehearsals ( one of my favourite places to be in the world ) I love putting scenes and characters under a microscope and in rehearsals you really get to do that.

You go on such a journey with it all… and then equally another journey from show number 1 to the end . The live experience is so unique both for the actor and the audience.

I do also love doing independent films. It’s a very similar experience to theatre as it’s very often a passion project for the people who are doing it. I have life long friends from doing films and theatre. You feel part of a community and I guess that’s all we want.

3) When you read a script, what do you pay attention to in particular? Does the character leap off the page for you? What makes you think ‘Yes, I want to play this role!’?

When reading a script I can usually tell quite quickly if I want to be a part of it, it doesn’t have to be the lead at all. I like to be challenged, I like to play flawed people. I often play people who live on the edge of society. I like finding out what makes the character tick.. what their contradictions are… where they can be hypocritical and what their vulnerabilities are. There is nothing better than being in a well written project as a lot of the work is done.

You have a great foundation to bounce off and of course then you can just focus on acting with the other actors and making that connection.

As soon as I read the script for the film Jellyfish I knew straight away I wanted to play that part. It leapt off the page at me. As did the story… I knew they had a way to go with funding and bringing it all together but I said I don’t care how you do it, where you do it, I’m doing it! I wanted to be part of it no matter what – that’s a nice feeling when that happens.

4) How did you find your current agent? Would you say the process is the same for a writer seeking representation? For example, a submission reel is the same as a sample of a manuscript?

Well I got my agent at drama school as they have showcases and shows where agents producers directors and writers all come to see you in your third year . Without an agent or drama school I don’t know how I would have gotten into the industry.

Often actors if they want to change agents will send their show reels to agents to look at so I guess that’s similar to a manuscript.

5) How have you been coping during lockdown? As an actress, how has lockdown affected you?

Lockdown has been kind of mad from the beginning. I was into my second week of rehearsals for a brilliant play at the Donmar Theatre and I had work pretty much planned for the whole year. And we are now over a year later and still in the same situation . I’ve managed to do bits and bobs of work stuff . I did an online play for the Royal Court called My White Best Friend. I’ve done some online play readings and also an episode of Midsomer Murders which was lots of fun! Ive recorded a few radio plays and also a brilliant radio play for Audible playing Marilyn Monroe.

I’ve missed the theatre community and my friends hugely . I hadn’t realised just how much my social life revolves around theatre so without it this past year my social life has disappeared. I have however enjoyed the down time and taking time out from it all and I’ve truly embraced my inner reclusive.

6) One of your stand out roles, for me, was Rachel Burns in Trial and Retribution: Curriculum Vitae. How did you prepare for the part and what did you enjoy about playing her?

I absolutely loved playing Rachel Burns in Trial and Retribution. What a part! So rich and colourful and spontaneous… It was my first lead on TV and it was so brilliantly written and directed. It really gave me so much confidence in myself and I learned so so much, I read a lot of books on personality disorders and serial killers basically and watched movies. I just tried my best to get inside the mind of someone who would do what she did.

I loved how it really kept the audience on their toes the whole time, them never knowing for sure whether she was a victim or the perpetrator. I have a lot of fond memories from that job.

7) During the pandemic, what have you missed most about the day to day routine of your job?

I would I say the thing I’ve missed most about being in lockdown is the routine of going to rehearsals. I love routine. The going to rehearsals every day and seeing the same people and building relationships and bonds with your company. Also the little victories you have when you feel like you’ve made a big discovery about the character or why a character does something. Even down to where you would go for lunch every day.

I would even say I ALMOST miss the tube rides there and back as it’s often time to think about the days work or think about the day ahead. Prepare for scenes. It also means when you get a day off you have earned it ! Whereas it’s felt like one long year off.

8) Are you currently reading any books? Between fiction and non fiction, what is your favourite? Do you have a favourite genre?

I absolutely love reading but I have to say I have found it very difficult to read this past year and can probably count on one hand how many books I’ve read . I love biographies.. of writes , actors , artists. I recently read a fabulous book called Expectation by Anna Hope . I really felt like I could relate to it and the world of the book is still in my head in little movies.

I have 100’s of movies in my head from books I’ve read over the years… going right back to when I was 10. I don’t really have a favourite genre as they offer such different things. I’m definitely someone who if struggling or going through a particularly emotional time I will turn to poetry books to help me deal with my melancholy.

But I do love a good fiction novel one you can really get lost in and never want to end. I adored the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Novels. They were incredible!

9) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you watch religiously?

I have watched a lot of television this past year .. it’s been my saving grace I think . I adored Schitts Creek. I binged it and was so so sad when it was over . I do love a murder/ crime documentary! Doesn’t everyone . I’ve also watched some really vacuous shows like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills .. it’s total escapism . And can provide brilliant drama when it wants to.
I loved Succession . I watched that last year at the beginning of lockdown and am awaiting the next series . After Life has stayed with me too. So funny and so sad . Also the American Office is absolute genius and I’ve been watching it a lot this past year.

10) If you had a choice only listening to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury (Queen) or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

For me it has to be Freddie Mercury – What a performer!! From an early age I would watch my aunty Kathleen dancing round the house to Queen and talk about how sexy and charismatic he was.

When I watch videos of him there is no one like him. I instantly think of the Live Aid concert in 1985 where Queen came out and stole the whole show… no one was expecting it at all. Freddie had thousands of people in the palm of his hand. It sends shivers down my spine just thinking of his talent!

Thank you for your time tonight Sinead – it has been an absolute pleasure to interview you. Thank you for the opportunity!

Bio:

10 Questions With… Ashleigh Nugent

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Ashleigh Nugent, whose debut novel LOCKS, is going to be a book that everyone should read!!

I was delighted when he agreed to answer some questions on his writing journey, how he wrote LOCKS and what he has been up to during lockdown.

Over to you, Ashleigh…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with a book that made you go ‘Wow!’?

Every time I hear an author talk about how they gorged on C. S. Lewis as a child or how they lived in the school library, I am visited by the pangs of imposter syndrome. Because, no, I didn’t have a favourite book as a child. I didn’t read as a child. But the ‘Wow!’ moment, I remember it like yesterday.

It was a book called Where Are You Going by Swami Muktananda. It asked me to question myself, to choose how I live, to acknowledge my purpose in the world. So I did. And that changed everything. 

I’ve asked my mum whether she tried to read with me as a child, though I realise this was not as common back in the 1980s. She assures me that there was little point attempting anything with me that involved sitting still for a minute. I can see her point. It does strike me as strange, however, that I always wrote but didn’t read. 

The school persuaded my parents to take me to the doctor to deal with my unbearable creativity and high energy levels (What kind of child…?). The doctor decided I was a clear case of hyperkinesis, now known as ADHD. My inability to sit still and be told what to think all day led me to believe that I was not one of the clever kids. And, no, I didn’t read books. 

The colonial curriculum — featuring not a single person who looked like me or my dad, my sister or my brother — also turned me off education. Police harassment and a self-fulfilling prophecy soon saw me playing the part of just another scally, a petty criminal hanging round the streets, fighting, selling drugs getting arrested. 

Suddenly I was 21. I had never read a book. And no one knew that I wrote poems. 

2) Did you enjoy English at school? What is your earliest no memory of writing?

That said, English was one of the only things I enjoyed at school, along with running, playing, and being a pain the arse. Still, I do have memories going back to primary school of teachers telling me that I would be a writer when I grew up. Shame I didn’t read.

One of my earliest memories of writing is a piece I did in school about how I loved to lie on the couch with my dad, how he made up daft songs when he was happy, and how he made me pluck the white hairs from his Brillo pad beard and save them because they were priceless. I could see that mum was a bit envious. So, at the next opportunity, I wrote a piece about mum: how she liked a glass of whisky at night, smoked cigarettes, and once had a race with some lads on the M62. 

Mum was more circumspect about sharing her feelings after that. 

3) How did you come up with the idea for your debut novel?

I lived it. Locks is based on a true story.

I didn’t read but I wanted to be a writer. Moreover, I didn’t have a story. What did I know? What story could I tell? My brother was eight years older than me. He had been in the army, he had lived in London, he had a reputation for being cool, tough, clever, handsome, popular, funny. But I was just me. 

I had to make something happen. 

So when I went to Jamaica at sixteen years of age, I was on a mission to make something happen. Yes, I was also in search of roots, identity, and belonging. I was raised in a leafy aspirationalsuburb where no one looked like me. Hence, I had been arrested three times before I’d ever committed any crimes. I knew virtually nothing about Black history and culture despite having a Black identity foisted upon me by others from the day I was born. So, I had a twofold mission: make some mad stuff happen and refine my identity as a Black man. 

I succeeded in the former. 

Within three days of being in Jamaica I had been mugged and stabbed, arrested and banged up. I was held in an underground dungeon with no running water, I watched two friends drown in a river, and I was beaten unconscious while a group of boys chanted, ‘Fuck up da white man.’ Then I was forced to skip bail and flee Jamaica illegally. 

So, yeah, I succeeded in the former. 

4) What normally comes first for you when write? Is it plot or character or the themes you want to explore?

Locks is an exploration of race and racial identity, amongst other things. As I lived the story before writing it down, the plot came first. However, interesting themes emerged as I started to construct the narrative: race as social a construct, hegemonic masculinity as a blueprint for barbarity, the potential for self-development through misadventure and so on. 

I am currently researching for a prequel set in Jamaica in the early sixteenth century. I aim to explore the relationships between three characters from the indigenous Taino population, Spain, and the West Coast of Africa. 

So, I suppose I’m starting with theme this time.

5) When do you write? What time of day is best for you? Do you have any writing rituals?

I write when I can. My ritual is simple: Crack on.

The past twenty years have been so busy: working, studying, and raising children. And the nature of my work means that I’m up and down the country, organising new projects at last minute, and sporting numerous hats in any one day. 

To explain in brief, I run a company called RiseUp CiC. We deliver courses in prisons that combine creative arts with mindset development techniques. It’s a beautiful job that has me leaving work elated on most occasions. But it’s not so conducive to writing rituals. 

6) Have you found that your characters have unexpectedly surprised you? Do you let your characters dictate to you at all?

Once I start flowing, characters become unique entities with their own values, drives, and motives. My consciousness becomes a conduit through which the characters express themselves in this dimension. So, yeah, they surprise me.

Sometimes, while reading back what I’ve written, I’m shocked to find that the characters have created situations or solved issues without any conscious input from me. 

Creativity opens your consciousness to the unconscious, super-conscious, and collective conscious dimensions. So, who knows where some of the ideas are coming from? 

7) During lockdown, how have you found your writing process? Has it changed at all?

Yeah! Locks was due to be released in May 2020 in the Everyman Theatre during the Writing on the Wall festival. That never happened. And it’s a good job. If I had attempted to get it finished by then, whilst organising and delivering projects in prisons all over the UK, it would have been substandard. Lockdown allowed me to slow down on final edits and make sure I was as close to a hundred percent happy with it as possible.

Then came the marketing.

Most of my writing since then has been poetry commissions, essays for other people’s blogs, and promotional pieces for Locksand for RiseUp. It’s the first time in twenty years I have been able to write in the daytime rather than squeezing it in once everything else is done. 

8) What are you currently watching on television? Have your television habits changed throughout lockdown?

We never watched boxsets in our house. Then lockdown happened. Line of Duty and Breaking Bad are amazing. They are masterclasses in storytelling (at least, that’s how I justify a three hour binge). And as for The OA. Wow! The OA!

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

Drink Guinness. Prior to lockdown I could have mentioned some other stuff. But now it’s just Guinness, TV, tunes, and chilling with my wonderful wife. 

10) What is your music taste like? Have you been missing live music in lockdown?

Hip-hop and reggae all day. Apart from those, I just like anything that inspires and energises me.

Before lockdown I hadn’t discovered any new music for a long time, I was just too busy. So it’s been beautiful to listen and discover again. I haven’t listened to any live music, but I have fallen in love with a load of new albums. Currently, the things I’m rocking most on Spotify (which I’ve only joined during lockdown) are Don’t Fight Your Demons by Arrested Development, The Amiri Baraka Sessions by Heroes are Gangleaders, and Songs of Our Native Daughters by Our Native Daughters.

Thank you for your time today Ashleigh, it was a pleasure to have you on the blog – I can’t wait to see LOCKS on the shelves in print!!

Bio: Ashleigh Nugent is a writer, performer, and Creative Director at RiseUp CiC. His publishing credits include poetry, academic work, and magazines articles.

His latest work, LOCKS, is a novel based on the time he spent his 17th birthday in a Jamaican detention centre. LOCKS won the 2013 Commonword Memoir Competition, and it is receiving rave reviews in magazines and blogs. Liverpool Literary Agency is currently working to secure mainstream distribution. 

The one-man-show based on LOCKS has received rave audience reviews following showings in theatres and prisons throughout the UK. 

For the past 22 years Ashleigh has used rap, poetry, and literature to help the most vulnerable to develop positive mindsets. Ashleigh’s company, RiseUp CiC, have developed a programme that empowers prisoners to turn their lives aroundby taking control of their own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

LOCKS is available on Amazon at the following link: https://amzn.to/3ryOTir

@LocksBook

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