An interview with
Tough, macho, kick-ass women? Not everyone's ideal flight of fancy perhaps—unless you're talking about Charlie Fox; Zoë Sharp's successful, all-action, emotionally-complex heroine first published in 2001.
With seven books under her belt, and another in the pipeline, fast-living Zoë—a motorcyclist, photographer, fencer, and marksman (or markswoman)—takes a little time out to talk about writing, publishing and her literary contemporaries.
Hello Zoë, can you briefly outline your career as a published author?
Yes, I actually wrote my first novel when I was fifteen, which my father, bless him, typed up for me—showing my age, but there were no word processors back then. It did the rounds of all the major publishers, and received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’.
They all said they wanted to see anything else I wrote—it just took me a while to write anything else. I still have that old typescript in the loft somewhere—my father is now threatening to get it out and sell it on eBay. But not if I have anything to do with it ...
After that, I was published in non-fiction long before I was published in fiction. I started out writing magazine articles for the motoring press, covering everything from the latest tweaked and tuned race cars, right back to veteran vehicles from the turn of the 19th century, and I still work as a freelance photographer in that field.
I was always a crime fiction fan, though, right from when my grandmother gave me a copy of an old Leslie Charteris ‘The Saint’ book, THE MISFORTUNES OF MR TEAL, which had been published in the 1930s and given to her in the early 1940s. She gave it to me in ‘79, and I still have it - one of my treasured possessions.
And then, when I was writing a regular column for one of the magazines, I started getting death-threat letters— proper cut-out-of-newspaper jobs, telling me I was scum, my days were numbered, and they knew where I lived. The police never caught the sender, but it refocused my mind on the crime genre. From that, the idea for Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox was born.
It took a number of years to write the first book, KILLER INSTINCT, which eventually came out in 2001. Of course, I made all the classic mistakes, many of which were rectified when I was taken on by my second agent, Jane Gregory of Gregory & Company, just after I’d finished the fifth in the series, ROAD KILL.
How difficult was it? Writing for anything other than your own amusement is a tough, tough business. Writing non-fiction articles taught me a lot about the craft, but I’m never satisfied with my own work. I live by the maxim that if it’s easy, I’m not trying hard enough, so I probably put myself under more pressure than anyone else.
What special difficulties, if any, do women action-thriller writers have either with regard to "voice" or with regard to general acceptance by the trade and book buying public?
Ooh, this is a perennial one, isn’t it? When I first started out, it didn’t occur to me that there was a gender divide. Writing, after all, offers no physical advantages to men or women. If you can put the words on the page, what does it matter?
However, I have discovered a distinct resistance to women in the action-thriller genre and, if I was starting out fresh today, I admit I’d probably pick a pen-name that was non gender-specific. As it is, I think women in this field probably have to try harder to be more convincing, where male thriller authors seem to be given much more leeway on their factual errors.
I’m genuinely into all the technical stuff. That’s one of the reasons I write the kind of books I do. I learned a lot of self-defence after the death-threat business, was a competition target rifle shooter, owned various race-replica motorcycles, have flown light aircraft and a Robinson R22 helicopter. I even learned to sword fight.
I really believe it’s all down to voice, though. As a reader, if the initial premise grabs me, I pick up a book, go to the first chapter, and by the time I’m halfway down the opening paragraph, I just know whether I like the sound of this writer’s voice or not.
After that, it’s up to the characterisation and the plotting to fulfil that promise. If it does, I’m hooked, regardless of the gender of the author.
Getting motivated to write is a problem for many authors. Do you have any strategies or ploys that you use to grease the gears of your craft, or has self-motivation never been an issue?
The first thing I write is the flap copy—that half or two-thirds of a page of short synopsis you’d get on the inside flap of a hardcover, or the back cover of a paperback. That distils the essence of the novel for me, and I keep coming back to that if I ever feel I’m losing my way.
It takes me a long time to get the opening for a novel right. And until I’m happy with that, I can’t go forwards. But once I feel I’ve got the start, I set myself a monthly word target—usually 30,000 words. I can’t always set aside the same time every day to write, so I find this allows me to make real progress and yet not beat myself up if I have an off day. I just add a few extra words onto the daily target for the rest of the month. And if I have a really good day, that daily target comes down a bit.
Which books first inspired you to write?
I’d have to say probably BLACK BEAUTY by Anna Sewell. This is not just an enduring children’s book about horses, but when it was first published in 1877 it had a profound effect on public perception of cruelty to animals, and even brought about a change in the law to better protect them.
How difficult is it to write a world-class action-thriller set in England?
I don’t think it’s hard to set an action-thriller in any country, providing there’s a reason for it to be set there. The more the location for any novel can be integrated into the story, the better, I feel. But, England is a relatively small place, which was one of the reasons why I’ve expanded Charlie’s field of operations to the United States, which is a far wider stage. Plus, Charlie’s a gun-girl, and it was increasingly difficult for her to use firearms in this country without getting locked up. Working as a professional bodyguard in the States, she is allowed to carry guns legally.
Can you name your top three writers in the action-thriller genre, and explain why you chose them?
Lee Child has to be at the top of my list. The character of Jack Reacher is a classic loner hero, and Lee’s spare writing style and well-constructed plots makes his work a constant pleasure to read. If you want action and thrills, then Matt Reilly’s Scarecrow series is relentless in its pacing, and Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series, which offers classic action-adventure on a global scale.
Since beginning your career as a published writer, how has the publishing industry changed—and would you agree that the demographics of the industry has made it easier for women to get published to the detriment of male authors? Or is the reverse true?
I don’t know if it’s easier for any would-be author to get published today than it was a few years ago, and I get a little tired of the constant gender battle that’s being talked up all the time. I have always worked in male-dominated fields, and had interests that might be considered more ‘guy-stuff’, too. I never expected that there would be this divide in writing, so I don’t automatically look for things like the demographics of the industry to support any theories to that effect.
As you develop a novel, what strategies, if any, do you use to keep your characters and plotlines fresh?
I am a short-attention-span reader. I get bored easily, so I try not to write the bits I’d skip over when I was reading the book. And coming from a photographic background, I try to create character sketches that are snapshots rather than formal portraits. I want to give an impression of the person, rather than their full CV.
Charlie Fox has been described as a unique female action protagonist. I set out to create a character I didn’t feel I could find elsewhere. I wrote the person I wanted to read. So, she’s tough, yes, but with a very human edge.
Women who kill in fiction are so often portrayed as psychos or assassins, and I wanted her to be neither. Cross her and she’ll kill you, without a doubt, but not without consequences for her on an emotional and psychological level.
As a writer, I find Charlie is still surprising me with the direction she’s taking. As long as she continues to do that, and I feel she still has places to go, I want to keep telling her story. Also, I’m not writing a conventional whodunit. My books tend to be more along the lines of, we know whodunit, but are they going to get away with it, or how is Charlie going to stop them?
I want to write the kind of books that keep me awake all night because I can’t put them down. It’s a constant drive to improve my craft.
Given that all writers borrow ideas and techniques, are there any ideas and techniques that you care to admit to borrowing and making your own?
I greatly admire Robert B Parker’s sparse writing style, particularly when it comes to action scenes. And Lee Child, of course. Simple, smooth, matter-of-fact. I now go through every finished typescript and try and remove as many extraneous words as possible without, hopefully, stripping away those nice little touches that give it individuality. A book is a journey and you need to enjoy that as much—if not more—than simply getting the destination.
When it comes to techniques, fellow LadyKiller, Lesley Horton, explained that as she’s writing a book, she summaries each chapter as she’s finished it. Although I work from an outline, inevitably the story dictates certain changes as you’re actually in the process of writing, and keeping a summary means you can keep a track of those changes, especially if you later need to add or amend a subplot. You know exactly where to look. I also make a note in each chapter summary of the day, the weather, and any injuries my character is carrying. All useful little reminders.
How often do you start a novel only to find that you're painting it into a corner? And if so, do you ever abandon work?
The opening for a book is vital. Until I’ve got what I feel is the right start, I can’t go forwards. After all, a book does not start at the beginning of the story—merely at the point where the writer wants to introduce the reader to that story.
Choosing that correct jumping-off point is very difficult, because it’s the foundation on which the whole of the rest of the book is built. I’ve junked a couple of what I thought were great openings for books, simply because they didn’t drop me into the right place in the story.
But nothing is ever wasted. It all goes into a file somewhere that might come in useful at some point. You never know. The very first scene I ever wrote with Charlie Fox in it eventually found its way into book three, HARD KNOCKS, almost unchanged from its original form.
Of all your novels, which one are you most satisfied with, and why?
The next book—the one I have yet to write. Because I will have learned that bit more about my craft, honed and polished my style, improved my plotting technique. If I ever reach the stage where I don’t feel I can make the next book better than the last, that’s the time to stop.
Which of your novels are you least satisfied with, and why?
All of them to varying degrees.
Would you like to collaborate on a novel? And if so, with who?
I would love to do a collaboration. Oh, there are so many great writers out there, but I would be most honoured to do something with Lee Child, who once said that Reacher would team up with Charlie Fox in a heartbeat. Or Ken Bruen, whose unique prose poetry style makes him one of the most individual and talented writers out there. And I’ve just read JT Ellison’s latest Taylor Jackson novel—JT commented that Taylor and Charlie would get on like a house on fire. Or ... Shall I just give you a list?
Is the action-thriller genre in danger of becoming cliché-ridden and stale? Or do you see a “new wave” of writers bringing fresh impetus and expanding the envelope?
Does it have to be a “new wave”? Can’t existing writers branch out and expand into new territory? I’ve read one or two incredibly clichéd books recently, but not everybody’s content to jump on the same bandwagon. There are also some incredibly brave and fresh writers out there, who are not necessarily first-time authors.
Can you give us some insight into the fundamental differences between British and American thriller writers, and also offer some observations on how well such writers travel?
I did a post on www.Murderati.com recently about differences in language between the UK and the States, and that’s probably one of the fundamental differences. I had a lot of queries from my American copyeditor about English words and phrases, but we tend to get US books over here that have had very little alteration apart from spelling.
The assumption is, with US TV programmes constantly on our screens, that we understand all the nuances without needing them explained. There are also huge differences from one part of America to another, and something that seems obvious in New England is not necessarily understood in Southern California, and vice versa.
Also, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for a certain feel-good factor in some US-written thrillers.
Understandably, America was thoroughly shaken by the tragic events of 9/11. They took dramatic action as a result, which has had ongoing consequences for the rest of the world. Modern thriller fiction offers a reassurance that, no matter how bleak the outlook, justice will prevail—that the right people will win in the end.
Regarding your own writing, are their any literary traps you constantly fall into (and have to climb out of), such as repetitious phrases or situations or dialogue? And if so, what mechanisms do you use to deal with them?
I try very hard not to repeat myself in plot situations, but occasionally it happens. And inevitably there are certain words and phrases that keep cropping up, because that’s how they instinctively form in your mind. Fortunately, my husband, Andy, says he has a very well-developed melodrama filter. He reads everything I write and is great about pointing out the bits that don’t gel.
I did realise recently that Charlie has a tendency to go for guy’s kneecaps in a fight, too. I wondered if this counted as a repetition, but actually, the knees are a good strategic target. No matter how big her opponent, the knee joint is always vulnerable.
Is there a novel in you that you're hoping to write, but are unable to do so due to other writing pressures—or because you feel it might damage your image as a “hard-ball” author?
Where do I start? I always have ideas mulling around in the back of my head. By the time I’m around halfway through writing a book, themes for the next one are usually starting to form. And I’d love to do something different—supernatural, or sci-fi, or a graphic novel.
Something that stretches my writing muscles outside their usual range of motion. I don’t discount any genre, but I might choose to write under another name if I was planning on stepping a long way outside my current field.
Can you tell us some more about your test readers?
These are people I’ve known a long time. They’ve read all the books since the start, and they’re all voracious readers anyway. I know I can rely on them to give it to me straight, and say outright if there’s a plot or character strand that really isn’t working. If nobody tells you where you’re going wrong, how can you avoid making the same mistakes again?
Do you always write in a linear way? Or do you, as it were, sometimes write the choruses before the verse?
I write in a more linear way than I used to, although if an idea for a later scene in a book occurs to me, I’d far sooner break off and get that down while it’s hot, rather than wait until I reach that part of the plot where the scene fits. I do sometimes write the end, or at least the epilogue, before I reach it, and I find that helps concentrate my mind on where the book is heading.
The closing line for SECOND SHOT arrived while I was in the shower, staying at a friend’s house. I had to jump out and write it down, quick, before it escaped me. At that point I was probably only 10,000 words into the book itself. But when I reached the end, that closing line went in exactly as I’d first thought of it.
For THIRD STRIKE, though, I didn’t know the ending until I got there. In fact, I was originally planning to write several alternative endings and run them past my editors, to see which they went for, but the closer I got to the end of the book, the more it became clear that there was only one possible outcome.
I think people get too hung up on the method, though. There are as many different ways of writing a book as there are writers out there. If it works for you, do it, and don’t be put off by someone else telling you they go about it another way.
Published writers are, it seems, under increasing pressure to act as their own publicists. Can you give us some insight into this trend and tell us how it impacts on your ability to get on with the important business of writing your novels?
There is a lot more pressure these days to publicise. I don’t mind that aspect of it at all. I enjoy speaking in public, for instance, but I know some writers who are desperately shy and get terrible attacks of nerves at the prospect. I must admit that I never thought, when I sat down to write my first novel, that I would also have to be a performer, but that’s very much the case these days.
Fortunately, a huge amount can be achieved on the Internet. I know I don’t utilise this medium as much as I could do, but there are only so many hours in the day, and writing is the most important aspect of the job.
When it comes to all the websites and forums out there, I’d rather do a little less, but do it well, than do more, but not have the time to do it properly, and I’m very fortunate to have an excellent web guy.
I visit so many websites that are so far out of date, they’re doing more harm than good.
I write at every opportunity I get, in the cracks of my ongoing photography work, in a notebook or on the laptop when I’m on long car journeys (as a passenger, she adds hastily), in the early hours of the morning and late into the night.
If you really want to write, you beg, steal, or simply make the time to get on with it