10 Questions With… Jack Byrne

Hi everyone, and this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome Jack Byrne to the blog. Jack is from Liverpool and has set his debut novel here.

I was delighted when he agreed to an interview, and to find out about his writing journey. Details of how to contact him are below the Q&A.

Over to you, Jack…

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

I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid. No particular favourite, from Sven Hassell to Dickens. I never really read children’s books, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, all came later as a kind of catch up exercise. The books that were available in the house were mum’s Catherine Cookson, and an older brother’s collection of socialist literature, he was a shop steward in a local factory. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was an early book that had a huge impact on me and I would still recommend it today. Maybe even more than ever, as we have multi million pound companies skimming huge profits from kids free school meals.

2) Did you enjoy English at school?

I did, it was probably the only subject I had any time for. After leaving Grammar School part way through and going to the local Secondary Modern I told the English teacher my favourite book was Of Mice and Men. He laughed and said that would be too high a level for the Secondary Modern. I left that school without sitting for a single exam.

3) Do you currently write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before becoming a writer?

Writing full time is still an ambition. Like most working people I had jobs, rather than a career or profession and I have done many things, from car factory to University janitor, including setting up a couple of businesses. I finally settled to teaching English as a foreign language and combine that with writing.

4) How did you develop the idea for Under the Bridge?

The experience of the book is part of my life. All my ancestry was Irish but growing up during ‘The Troubles’ being Irish existed in, to use a more modern phrase, a hostile environment. One narrative in the book follows the adventures of two immigrants to Liverpool through the 50s to the 2000s. The second is set in 2004 and the main characters Anne and Vinny try to uncover the mystery of unidentified human remains found near the docks. Without being biographical, the story is of families like mine, the city they came to and the country they left.

5) Can you briefly describe the publication process?

I had been querying agents and publishers for over six months, with over fifty rejections, I had given myself a year to try the traditional publishing route if nothing happened then I would self publish. A writer friend suggested Northodox, and after submitting through their process they said they liked it, so that’s where we started.

6) How did you find your current agent and publisher? Do you have any ideas for other novels and have you started working on them?

It’s a little bit unusual; I’m a debut author, this is the first book for the publisher, and I think I was the first client of the new agent to get a deal. So a trifector of debuts. I found the publisher then approached the agent, and the agent sorted the the contracts etc. Under The Bridge is the first book in The Liverpool Mystery series, books two and three are written, and I am currently working on book four. The books cover the period from 1920 to 2020s a hundred years of turmoil in Anglo Irish relations, and the consequent crises in the lives of my characters.

7) Can you name one author that you admire, and why you like their style of writing?

There are too many to name a single style or author, some favourite books; A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel. Germinal, Emile Zola, The Black Jacobins CLR James. Reading in The Dark by Seamus Deane. I guess I like a more direct style of writing, luxuriating in the prose seems self indulgent to me.

8) What are you currently reading? Have you found that your reading habits have changed throughout lockdown?

I am researching the last book in the series and while writing most of my reading is background. My current WIP is set in Ireland in 1975 and 2019 so I am reading Dairmud Ferriter’s 800 page tome about Ireland in the 70s.

9) What are you currently watching on television?

I guess like many people TV is no longer the ‘go to’ medium. For casual viewing I tend to surf news on Youtube, and for entertainment there are so many great TV series being produced these days it’s hard to choose.

The Wire is the stand out series of the modern era, then of course the Sopranos. I came across Dirilus Ertugrul recently, a propagandistic Turkish production about the foundation of the Ottoman Empire a bit weird but strangely compelling.

10) When you write, do you prefer music or silence? Do you have a favourite band or artist you like to play when you do write?

It’s silence for me, I don’t want anything competing with the voices in my head.

Thank you for your time today Jack. I wish you all the best with your writing.

Bio: Jack Byrne was born and raised in Speke, Liverpool to an Irish immigrant father and grandparents.

Under the Bridge is his debut novel and follows reporter Anne and student Vinny around Merseyside, as they become involved in a story of unions, crime, and police corruption after human remains are discovered at a construction site.

Follow Jack on Twitter @Jackbyrnewriter

And find him on www.jackbyrne.home.blog

An Interview With… Tom Ashton

Hi everyone, and on the blog this evening I’m delighted to welcome Tom Ashton. Tom is an editor and award winning novelist, currently working for Northodox Press.

He joined me on the blog to chat about his career to date and what he looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Tom…

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

I’ve always been publishing something or other.

At Age 5 I published a school newspaper, called Playground News consisting mostly of size 36 font and blown up clipart. 

Fast forward to university, I published a Creative Writing magazine showcasing the work of unpublished student writers and poets, which is where I met the other members of the Northodox team. 

Publishing’s always been the career path for me, whether it be my own books or other peoples. The world needs more books.

2) You studied Creative Writing at University. What was your experience of the course like and how has it helped you as a writer?

If I hadn’t gone to university, I would never have met the two chaps with whom I created Northodox Press.

The creative writing course at the University of Derby taught me how to critically analyse writing independently and in a workshop situation, and I gained a lot of contacts who’ve helped me throughout my career.

3) You have worked for independent publishers and literary agents. How did you find your experience? Did you find your previous roles were good experience for Northodox?

I’ve done everything from flogging books off a market stall to haggling over rights at London book fair – and frankly I loved doing both.

Working in independent publishing, allowed me to study the publishing process from start to finish, whereas working for a leading literary agency allowed me to communicate with the ‘Big Five’ and see how they do things on a wider scale. 

Both were good experiences for seeing what Northdox needs to be, and what it could be.

4) Why did you choose to specialise in crime fiction? What do you feel Northodox can offer a new writer?

All of the staff at Northdox have a natural fondness for crime fiction – and it sells well! Everybody seems to love a juicy murder.

We offer editorial support, pre and post publication marketing, and quality cover design, along with bags of enthusiasm, tenacity, and regular communication. 

We want to champion your book.  

5) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

We ask for a 5000-word extract or your opening three chapters, along with a blurb and a short author bio of no more than 200 words

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently? Across the crime genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

The fiction market, particularly the crime fiction market, is booming!
Personally, I love an antihero, a dirty cop, a whiskey swigging detective with anger issues. Send me your noir detective stories and anything with a serial killer in it.

7) 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?

I take the dog out for a long walk usually. Then the rest of the evening consists of pizza, Netflix, Fifa, and, of course, books – editing, writing, or reading. The grind never stops.

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

I’ve been trawling through Netflix mainly, watching F is for Family, Gogglebox, and Trailer Park Boys. The best thing to come out of Netflix for a while, in my opinion, is Mindhunter. Seriously check it out!

In terms of stuff I watch religiously… The Sopranos. 

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

Lockdown has been a great opportunity to read all those books I’ve always felt like I should have read, so I’ve been wading through the classics. 

I’m also trying this thing where I read anything a friend recommends, so I read lots of stuff that I might not necessarily pick up whilst browsing Waterstones… it’s been a very hit and miss experience. 

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

I’m an enormous AC/DC fan, but Freddie Mercury… the guy’s elite.

Thank you for your time this evening Tom. It was a pleasure to interview you. I wish Northodox Press all the best for the future!

Bio: Tom is an award-winning novelist, from Cumbria, who holds a degree in Creative Writing. He has worked for independent publishers, literary agencies, and often speaks at universities and literary festivals about his career. Tom is interested in zany characters – send him your weirdos.

An Interview With… Genevieve Pegg

Hi everyone, also this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Genevieve Pegg. Genevieve is the Publishing Director for Harper North, a northern based imprint of HarperCollins.

I was really intrigued by Genevieve’s role so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions on her career to date.

Over to you, Genevieve…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always plan to become involved when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I left university having been told publishing was too competitive, so I signed up with lots of temping agencies while I was working out what to do instead. Luckily, they sent me for an interview at Penguin…

2) You have a background in editing. What was your first editing role at Orion like? How has it helped you in your current role as Publishing Director?

In so many roles right across the business, much of what you learn is on the job training and a key part of that in editorial is learning from a slew of amazing colleagues. I started that process at Penguin and later at Orion – at first as an editorial assistant. Like lots of first and second job roles in the industry it gave me an appreciation for the whole chain of people it takes to create a book – between the talent and hard work of the author and the end experience with the reader, are so many dedicated teams of people. It’s important in editorial to connect those people. And of course, it also gives you a sense of how much a book can evolve from first draft to finished copy.

3) What prompted HarperCollins to set up a northern division? How did you feel about moving from London to Manchester?

Having grown up in North Wales, Manchester always felt like a city of opportunity to me. I moved back north five years ago and started working for myself. But when I first spoke to HarperCollins about their ideas for a northern-based imprint, it really tallied with all the conversations I’d been having with clients about regional diversification, so it seemed the perfect time to join. HarperCollins could see a chance to join the literary scene in the north – publishing from here but for a global audience. And since HarperCollins in the UK is already spread between offices in Glasgow, London and Honley, they welcomed another location.

4) At HarperCollins, what is a typical day for you? Do you have a particular department that you are attached to?

As I’m sure most of your interviewees say, no two days are the same! Since the pandemic has moved us to remote working, maintaining contact and team collaboration is a big part of what I do. As well as working closely with my colleagues, we’d normally all be seeing lots of authors, agents, booksellers, librarians and readers, so making sure those communications continue online is really important – while trying to make sure no one’s burning out from too many emails, videocalls and meetings. But in terms of the publishing, my role is to oversee the shape of the list – looking at what books my team are hoping to acquire, discussing ideas for new projects and where they sit in the market, and making sure every department within the business shares our vision for how to publish each title and help every book reach its widest readership in all formats. In between that, acquiring, editing my own titles is a key process. And in addition to looking at individual titles, I work on the financials and the strategy of the list – planning how to build authors for the long-term as well as on a book by book basis.

5) If you weren’t working in publishing, what would be your other dream/ideal job?

Growing up, I wanted to either drive the mobile library – I don’t think I’ve quite let go of that ambition! Or if I was to leave the book business entirely, I think I’d still hope to work in a field that touches on the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I think, for example, we all struggle with finding the right words at some points in our life and I really admire the work people like grief counsellors do to help people find their own story to make sense of the hard times we all face on occasion.

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

First of all: start writing. Finding your voice and getting into the habit of words on a page is the basis of everything. After that, whether you should pursue a creative writing course can be quite personality-dependent. If you like structure and input, they’re great for adding accountability and community into your writing process – while other authors flourish by writing in the secret hours of the day and night. Whichever path you choose, I would say it’s useful to think about how you’re going to share to your work. Whether that’s with fellow course members, beta readers or agents, at some point writers make that step towards releasing their words into the wild.

7) 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?

Since remote-working, the first thing I do when I leave my desk is usually feed my ever-hungry children! And to relax, getting outside gives me perspective. Spending so much time reading, it’s great to lift your eyes to the horizon when you can.

8) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found yourself re reading your favourites or starting new books?

I confess I lost my reading mojo in the early stages of the pandemic, and found myself dipping in to lots of books rather than devouring them in long sittings. And after an autumn of being in the lucky position of reading wonderful submissions, I’m treating myself to reading some finished, already-published books for the holidays.

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

Recently, I’ve loved The Queen’s Gambit, Sex Education and Criminal.

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Freddie for me – Queen is often my children’s car music of choice!

Thank you for your time today Genevieve, it was a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Born in Liverpool and raised in North Wales, Gen is delighted to be at the helm of HarperNorth and bringing readers and writers together across the region. Gen has published authors from Kate Mosse to Belle de Jour and has worked at Penguin, Orion and with indie authors and publishers. She is always in search of page-turners, from bookclub stories to historical fiction, and from memoir to crime thrillers.

First Drafts With… Jay Stringer

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Jay Stringer. Jay is the author of the Eoin Miller trilogy, a detective series set in the Black Country, England and the author of the Sam Ireland Glasgow set series.

I was delighted when he took some time to answer my questions on writing his all important first draft.

Over to you, Jay…

1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it?

I’m interested more in character than plot, so there’s usually some trial and error and false starts. I need to find a character who interests me, who I want to hang out with and listen to. Someone with a fun contradiction at heart, and a voice that I’ll enjoy writing. I might start two or three books and abandon them ten thousand words in, on the way to finding the character I most want to work with.

When it comes to the first chapter, this is the part of the book I’ll spend the most time reworking. When I first started out, I liked writing opening lines that grabbed the reader and maybe shocked or challenged them. Now I prefer to write openings that ease the reader in through voice, like the story is being told to them by a friend on the next barstool. So I’ll spend a lot of time working on the opening, finding the right tone.

2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before?

Each book is different. But I don’t know how until I start it, so at first I try and write each new book the same way I wrote the one before. The new book tells me what it needs as I figure out the first act. Each of my books ends up having a different act structure to the one before, a different pace and energy, but those are differences I find along the way, and I’ve learned to embrace them rather than forcing the book to stick to an existing template. It’s like doing stand-up comedy. You write the jokes and go into the gig with a plan, but each crowd and room feels different, and your performance of the joke evolves from gig to gig. You need to roll with that, let the story and characters lead you.

Really the only things I’ve learned to apply to every book are: Aim for clarity, not perfection. Always know what the characters want, and need, at each stage in the story. Good dialogue is about what the characters aren’t saying. Read all the work out loud, because good writing sounds good. That’s it, really. All the other rules change from book to book.

3) What is your research process, if you have one?

It varies, depending on the book. For my crime novels, my heart beats for Elmore Leonard, and the research is mostly just talking to people and listening to how they talk. Collecting voices and stories out on the street, at work, in bars. This has become trickier since I stopped drinking. I don’t write police procedurals, so I don’t need to worry about police procedure. I write about the kinds of people I live and work around, so I just keep my eyes and ears open, and they give me material.

My deeper research comes if I’m writing one of my Marah Chase books. That’s the action movie/Indiana Jones side of my brain, and I need to dig quite deep into history, archaeology, and mythology. As much as I can I’ll walk around the places I want to use, thinking of cool ways to ‘film’ an action sequence there. I spent two months before the last one reading up on the Fountain of Youth, and volcanoes, and earthquakes, and researching the locations I thought I needed, and how I was going to fit everything together. But, as ever, the minute I started writing the book all the research went out the window. I found different characters and locations on the page, and almost none of my initial research was used. I went into the final act of the book still not knowing how it was all going to tie together, and that was exciting. I have a long-gestating dream project of writing a Robin Hood novel, because there’s a version I want to see that hasn’t been done. And that’s probably the thing I’ve researched the most, on and off, for two years. I could probably earn a history degree with everything I’ve learned about the thirteenth century. And guess what? I just started work on the first chapter, and it ignores all of my research.

4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?

For my non-crime books, like Marah Chase, I’ll tend to take a few months to let ideas gather. My brain likes to throw a million different ideas at me on these books, and after researching I need to take some time to let everything settle, and to see which ideas feel the strongest and clearest. I’m doing that right now with a sci-fi idea, waiting until it’s ready and clear. Then I start my usual process, working and reworking the opening chapter until I find the right voice for that book.

For my crime novels I don’t wait around much at all. Those are based more on dialogue, so my ideas grow from getting a funny conversation in my head, the minute I get one of these I start writing. And that’s where the trial and error comes in, sometimes these small ideas take on bigger shape and I have a book to write, other times they fade away after a few thousand words and I move on to something else.

5) How does the draft form on the screen?

I don’t plot. I have nothing against it, I learned to do it and gave it a go, I have a whiteboard and I know how to layout the beats in all the right places. But I found that it didn’t really work for me. But writing completely without direction didn’t work either. So I have a hybrid approach, and my first draft is written by focusing on one act or movement at a time, nothing beyond that. Each movement has an opening, midpoint, and cliff hanger. These tend to be 60 or 80 pages. And within that, I focus on the characters, what do they want out of each scene? What do they need out of each scene? Why are the two different? Repeating that process four, five, or six times adds up to a book. It also helps avoid writer’s block, because I’m never lost in thinking about the overall book, I only ever need to think about what my character is doing in the moment, and then vaguely think about what they’re doing in the next 30 or 40 pages. I think the biggest compliment I’ve had since adopting this approach is that people think I must put a lot of work into plotting the books, when the truth is the exact opposite. I just keep an eye on the character’s motivations at all times, and the plot takes care of itself.

6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?

This is something that keeps changing. My Eoin Miller books were all written on laptops, and I would fit time in around the day-job, a few hours here and there. Most of the work was done on a sofa or at a desk we put in the kitchen of our old flat. When we moved into this house I finally had an office, and the two Sam Ireland books, as well as the first Marah Chase book, were written at a desk, during set office hours each day. Since then I’ve been back on a laptop, writing when the mood takes me. It feels like the next book wants to be written in the office again, and I’ll be going back to laying out set office hours during the week. Not least because I don’t have a television in the office, so there are less distractions than trying to write on the sofa.

Thank you for your time today Jay, it has been a pleasure to have you on the blog. All the best with your writing.

Bio: Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet.

His crime fiction has been nominated for both Anthony and Derringer awards, longlisted for Not The Booker, and shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. His stand-up comedy has been laughed at by at least three people. He’s English by birth and Scottish by legend; born in the Black Country and claiming Glasgow as his hometown.

Jay is dyslexic, and came to the written word as a second language, via comic books, music, and comedy. Along the way he’s worked as a zoo keeper, a debt collector, a supermarket shelf stacker, and a bike courier. Alongside Russel D. McLean, Jay was the first to bring Noir at the Bar to the UK.

Jay won a gold medal in the Antwerp Olympics of 1920. He did not compete in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952, that was some other guy. 

Jay has led workshops on writing crime fiction for Scottish Book Trust, and mentored creative writing students for City, University of London. He is available for events talking about crime fiction, dyslexia, and Romani issues.

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