Interview

Star of the North – read an extract from the book everyone’s talking about

Published on 10th May Star of the North is an incredibly timely thriller set in North Korea during 2010. I thought the book was fascinating on two counts. Firstly it offers an insight into the lives of those living under the North Korean regime – the ‘cult of personality’, the contrast between the lives of the poor majority and the wealth of the leader, as well as dealing with some of the larger macro political issues that face the countries trying to negotiate with the increase in nuclear threat.

I reviewed the book last month and you can read my full review here.

To whet your appetite the publishers have suppled the extract below where you can read an early encounter between Mrs Moon and the delights of the decadence found outside North Korea – and the risks associated with it.


Baekam County 

Ryanggang Province

North Korea

Mrs Moon was foraging for pine mushrooms when the balloon came down. She watched it glide between the trees and land on a fox-trail without a sound. Its body shimmered and the light shone straight through it, but she knew it wasn’t a spirit. When she got closer she saw that it was a deflating polythene cylinder about two meters in length, carrying a small plastic sack attached by strings. Strange, she thought, kneeling down with difficulty. And yet she had been half expecting something. For the past three nights there had been a comet in the sky to the west, though what it signified, good or ill, she could not decide. 

She listened to make sure she was alone. Nothing. Just the creaking of the forest and a turtle dove flapping suddenly upward. She slit open the plastic sack with her foraging knife, and felt inside. To her astonishment she pulled out two pairs of new warm woolen socks, then a small electric flashlight with a wind-up handle, then a packet of plastic lighters. And something else: a red carton with a picture of a chocolate cookie on the lid. Inside it were twelve cookies, sealed in garish red and white wrappers. She held one to the light and squinted. Choco Pie, she read, moving her lips. Made in South Korea. Mrs Moon turned to peer in the direction the balloon had come from. The wind had carried this thing all the way from the South? A few ri further and it would have landed in China! 

The sky to the east was bleeding red light through the treetops, but she could see no more balloons, just a formation of geese arriving for the winter. Now that was a good omen. The forest whispered and sighed, telling her it was time to leave. She looked at the Choco Pie in her hand. Unable to resist, she opened the wrapper and took a bite. Flavors of chocolate and marshmallow melted on her tongue.

Oh, my dear ancestors.

She clutched it to her chest. This was something valuable. 

Feeling flutters of excitement, she quickly put the items back into the sack and hid the sack in her basket beneath the firewood and fern bracken. Then she hobbled down the forest track, licking her lips. She’d reached the lane that ran along edge of the fields when she heard men shouting. 

Three figures were running across the fields in the direction of the forest—the farm director himself, followed by one of the ox drivers and a soldier with a rifle on his back. 

Goatshit. 

They had seen the balloon go down.

All day she worked the field in silence, uprooting corn stalks with the women of her work unit, moving along the furrows marked by red banners. Enemy balloons were seen in the sky at dawn, one of the women said. The army’s been shooting them down and the radio’s warning everyone not to touch them. 

A biting wind swept down from the mountains. The banners flapped. Mrs Moon’s back ached and her knees were killing her. She kept her basket close and said nothing. At the far edge of the field, she could see only one guard today, bored, smoking. She wondered if the others were searching for balloons.

When the watchtower sounded the siren at six she hurried home. The distant summit of Mount Paektu was turning crimson, its crags etched sharply against the evening sky, but the houses of the village, nestled on a slope of the valley, were in deep shadow. The Party’s face was everywhere—in letters carved on stone plaques; in a mural of colored glass depicting the Dear Leader standing in a field of golden wheat; in the tall obelisk that proclaimed the eternal life of his father, the Great Leader. Coal smoke drifted from the chimneys of the huts, which were neat and white with tiled roofs and small vegetable patches at the rear. It was so quiet she could hear the oxen lowing on the farm. The temperature was dropping fast. Her knees had swollen up painfully.  

She pushed open her door and found Tae-hyon sitting crossed-legged on the floor, smoking a roll-up of black tobacco. Under the exposed bulb his face was as lined and rutted as an exhausted field.

He’d done nothing all day, she could tell. But it was important to her that a husband shouldn’t lose face, so she smiled and said, ‘I’m so happy I married you’.

Tae-hyon looked away. ‘I’m glad one of us is cheerful.’ 

She lowered her basket to the floor and slipped off her rubber boots. The electricity would go off at any minute so she lit a kerosene lantern and placed it on the low table. Her concrete floor was spic and span, the sleeping mats rolled up, her glazed kimchi pots stood in a row next to the iron stove, and the air-brushed faces on the wall, the portraits of the Leaders, Father and Son, were clean and dusted with the special cloth.

Tae-hyon was eyeing the basket. She had not found a single mushroom in the forest, and had nothing but fern bracken and corn stalks to add to the soup, but tonight, at least, he would not be disappointed. She took the plastic sack from her basket and showed it to him. ‘On a balloon,’ she said, dropping her voice. ‘From the village below.’

Tae-hyon’s eyes bulged on hearing the euphemism for the South, and followed her hand as she took out each item and placed it on the floor in front of him. Then she opened the carton of cookies and gave him the uneaten half of her Choco Pie. His mouth moved slowly as he ate, savoring the heavenly flavors, and in a gesture that broke her heart he reached out and held her hand. 

Tomorrow she would scatter an offering of salt to the mountain spirits, she said, and travel into Hyesan to sell the cookies. With the money she would make, she could—

Three hard knocks sounded at the door. 

A cold terror passed between them. She swept the items underneath the low table and opened the door. A woman of about fifty was on the doorstep, holding up an electric lamp. Her head was wrapped in a grimy headscarf and she wore a red armband on the sleeve of her overalls. Her face was as plain as a blister. 

‘An enemy balloon was found in the forest with the package removed,’ she said. ‘The Bowibu are warning us not to touch them. They’re carrying poison chemicals.’


D. B. John has lived in South Korea and is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He co-authored The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee’s New York Times bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea.

 

 

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Behind the Scenes – the Awards Judge

This is the another in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the judge in some of the best known crime fiction awards.

IMG_4808Ayo Onatade commentates on all things crime fiction. She writes articles and gives papers on all aspects of the crime and mystery genre. She blogs at Shotsmag Confidential, writes articles for Shotsmag and Crimespree Magazine. She is the Chair for the CWA Short Story Dagger, a judge for the Ngaio Marsh Award (New Zealand crime writers award), the HWA (Historical Writers Association) debut novel and CrimeFest’s Flashbang short stories. She is co-editor of the anthology Bodies in the Bookshop.  She is also a dissertation tutor for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University.  When not doing all of the above she works at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom where she is the Head of Judicial Support and PA to two of the Justices, one of them being the President of the Supreme Court.

As an introduction, which awards have you been involved in judging? 

I have been involved in judging the Crime Writers Association Short Story Dagger, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, Flashbang Contest and the Historical Writers Association Debut Novel.

Can you describe the practical process for judging and does it vary greatly between awards?

It varies, for the CWA Short Story Dagger (which I still Judge and actually Chair) anthologies are submitted and received.  The judges read all the eligible stories and a long list is drawn up followed by a shortlist. The winner is then decided from the shortlist.  With regard to the Ngaio Marsh Awards books are submitted and the judges submit their views on the books in order of preference. The convener then does his magic and calculates the marks from those received and works out who the winner is. The Flashbang Contest we have to read all the submission and submit our list of all the stories marking them from our favourite to our least favourite.  This is done across a number of rounds as the stories are whittled down. For the Historical Writers Debut Novel we actually used a spreadsheet to record our views. The administrator then whittled the stories down and then a meeting is held to decide the winner.

How do you go about ‘rating’ one book or story against another, or is this not the way it’s done?

With difficulty. For me it is all about a matter of taste and which stories you are drawn to and stand out.  Good writing, good storyline and in addition for me how long does the book/ story resonate with me.

Does the judging (and reading) process take place over a limited time and does that pose any particular problems? 

Normally a year. But for a number of the contests it has been shorter.  It can pose particular problems when the judging for the different stories overlap with one another.  In addition I juggle my judging with a full time busy day job and running a blog.

What happens if the process reaches a stalemate, how is that resolved? 

Err, I have only been in that position once and we ended up sharing the award.

Have you been involved in ‘blind’ judging and how do you feel that works? 

The Flashbang contest is done by blind judging and it works incredibly well. I like not knowing the author as it does not give you any pre-conceived ideas about the author’s writing especially if you are used to reading the author’s work.

Do you notice similar themes or trends in submissions each year?

No, but then again I think it is because of the type of books that I judge.

What really makes a submission stand out for you? 

Good writing especially economical writing, (I hate long winded writing) good characters and a plot that makes you think and a

What do you enjoy about being a judge?

The variety of the stories that one gets to read.

What have you learnt from the process?

It is hard work being a judge. It requires dedication, an open mind and a willingness to read  a wide variety of stories.  I have also learnt that my reading has changed depending on whether I am reading a book because I am judging it or reading for pleasure. I am much more critical when judging than when reading for pleasure.

And now the’s time for your pitch – is there any award that you would like to be asked to judge? 

I would love to judge the CWA Historical Dagger or the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. The Historical Dagger having the edge.

What are you reading at the moment?

Grandville – Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot.  This is a cross-genre steampunk/ detective graphic novel where all the characters are animals.

You can find Ayo on twitter under the name @Shotsblog.


I’d like to thank Ayo for taking the time to answer my questions.

Paula Daly and her writing process

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly, her fifth novel, was published on 26 Jan. A mix of domestic / psychological thriller and police procedural, in a similar vein to Eva Dolan’s Watch Her Disappear it explores the internal pressures within a family and the dark side that can be hidden behind a perfect facade.

As part of the blog tour Paula talks about her writing process.

I’m often asked about my writing process. Not so much about where the ideas themselves come from, but how I go about shaping those ideas, how I go about actually writing a novel.

I can understand the curiosity. When I first started writing it was the one thing I wanted to know. I read lots of books on how to write, how to write a novel, how to write a thriller, a crime novel. I watched endless YouTube videos of authors explaining how they went about their work, creative writing teachers extolling their methods, other writers at the same stage as me, sharing what they’d learned so far.

What was clear was that there were many ways to tackle writing a novel. You can come at it from lots of different angles and still arrive at the same end point. Some writers don’t plan at all and are happy to get what Anne Lamott calls the ‘shitty first draft’ down fast, and then revise the manuscript until it’s ready. Others plan meticulously. A lot of writers do both.

I used to write freely. As in, I had no idea where I was going and I let the plot take me where it wanted it to. Trouble was, I ended up with three unpublished novels as a result. So I decided to try planning instead and I’ve stuck with that process ever since. I realise now that I need to know what I’m writing towards or I’ll go off at crazy tangents and waste a lot of time. And I find writing hard. Getting the words down on paper is not easy for me. So I don’t want to have to delete whole chapters when I’ve got it wrong.

So, once I’ve got an idea for a book, I sit on it for a while. I know when it’s a good idea because I get excited about it. And other ideas seem to start flooding in and ‘sticking’ to that original idea, making it better, more interesting, adding layers.

Then I research. Researching is great because it throws up more ideas for your plot. Often, I can actually begin to fashion a story out of what I discover during the research period. Then I start to write down ideas for scenes. Nothing concrete, just things that I think would be cool to write about, or would maybe surprise the reader, because they’d not seen something done in that way before. Once that’s done, I organise the scene list, and list of ideas, into something coherent that resembles a proper plot. This again takes practice. Structuring a novel is where most people stumble and it wasn’t until I read lots of books and articles about structure that I finally cracked it.

Eventually I’m ready to write. After around three to four months of planning, I’m ready to write Chapter One. It is the scariest moment for me because so much of what happens in my books is rooted in that first chapter. So I have to get it right.

I write seven hundred words a day (it used to be a thousand but I’m limited by back pain now) until the book is done. I edit as I go along, something that a lot of writers don’t do because it stops them from finishing the book. But I have to edit as I go as it’s the only way I understand what I’m writing about, and it’s how I keep track of my story and my characters. When the thing is finished it doesn’t need much of an edit as I’ve been through it over and over by then. Maybe just a day or two tidying up last bits and pieces before it’s ready to go out to my editors.

Then I send it off and I pray.

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Behind the Scenes – the Cover Designer

This forms part of in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the cover designer and Neil Lang from Macmillan was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Possibly Neil’s most recognisable work is on the covers of Peter James’ Roy Grace series, all of which he redesigned in 2015.

Was being a book cover designer something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

I’m not sure that I even knew that job existed. I think like most kids I had a different career choice every week. Although I still remember being given a class project when I must have been about 7 which was a cover design with the title ‘They rounded the corner and there it was’. I seem to remember I drew some sort of flying saucer and a group of kids peering around a wall. If only I’d kept it!

After finishing my degree at Ravensbourne, I worked in a repro house for a while and then got a job at Macmillan in the text design department as a lot of the course work I had was typographic, posters, logos, even some calligraphy.

It was very different then, I remember we had a mac with a portrait screen (so you could only see a single page) which now seems crazy. Most images would be sized and sent off for scans, and you’d mark up your layouts for position. On four colour books we’d often work on the covers, and then later I’d work on TV tie in books for Channel 4, with a few for BBC and Channel 5.

That was sort of my path into cover design, as once a cover design position became available I went for it and with more confidence and experience I’ve been lucky enough to work on pretty much anything.

9781447277705Can you outline the process of designing a cover?

It varies but usually I get a brief from the editor, with a synopsis or details about the key themes in the book, and who the target audience is. It could be it’s a classic in which case you might know the story, such as American Psycho, they also tend to be books where you can be a little more creative as the target audience tend to know what they are getting.

final-hbIf it’s possible it’s always better to read the manuscript, it’s the best way to get ideas. I tend to have a notepad at the side of me and just scribble ideas as I go. Might be colours, settings, characters, objects or even the weather, most of it won’t be useful and no one else will be able to read anything I’ve written! For the recent Zero K cover design I had pages of barely legible scribbles but luckily I understood enough.

20160504_165656-1


Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

Not all but most cover designs I’ve done before speaking to the author, it would then usually go through a cover meeting which might have up to 20 people expressing opinions, then a revised version would be shown to the author. Most of the time everyone is on the same page so to speak, in that it needs to be a visual with a clear message, which defines the genre, and hopefully stands out amongst all the competition.

What are the factors that you take into account when putting the design together?

Where the book is likely to be sold, the books you’ll find face out in Asda will be very different to those sat on a table in Waterstones. If the sales are mainly online, then you would try and keep the image simple so that it works as a thumbnail. The target audience, is it male or female, also the age of the person buying the book. It could be the book is more of a gift purchase, which usually throws up more problems with finishes and production values. Often the brief will ask for a combination of all the above!

9780230760608If the author has a successful backlist you don’t want to stray too far from that. The redesign of the DCI Grace Peter James covers evolved from what is already a successful brand but I wanted them to have more impact in bookshops but especially with a view to online sales.

One of the key things in the redesign was to make more of the titles, making them much bigger so they can be read easily even as thumbnails online. By desaturating the image it becomes more of a background on which the titles in a bright pantones and fluros have much more impact. Used in combination with a matt finish and spot varnish over the embossed lettering it makes the physical books stand out more. The bright colours also act as a series identifier, which I’ve carried over onto the spines, using Peter James author branding much larger so there can be no doubt when seen on a bookshelf who the author is.

Recently I’ve been looking at the David Baldacci brand, images used on the front but also the design of the spines which now have his name much stronger but also identify which series the book belongs to and where it sits in that series.

How much does the growth of ebooks and online sales influence the design of covers? 

There was a trend towards simple graphic, bright covers which I think came from people wanting an image to stand out as a thumbnail. So I think there has been a change, but it’s hard to say it’s down to ebooks and online sales as publishers just want their titles to stand out wherever it’s being sold.

I think it goes back to the earlier comment of the cover giving a clear message, that could be with the lettering or the image, but probably needs to be more obvious at a smaller scale.

On average, how many different designs might you put together before the final one is agreed?

This is an impossible question, sometimes you get one that works, but I’ve also had some with 100 visuals! Or you might work on something for a week, then some crazy idea comes to you 10 minutes before the cover meeting starts and that’s the one everyone picks. Although sometimes you need to work through the ideas that don’t work before you hit on one that does.

Do you have a particular style that means we might recognise a ‘Neil Lang’ book in a bookshop?

9781447263449I think if you worked as a freelancer you’d possibly want to have a style as people would come to you for that, in a sense they would know what they were getting. In the same way I would commission an illustrator, I’d look through their portfolio and get a sense of how they would tackle a brief. You might art direct the illustrator, throw in ideas or things you would like included but ultimately you’ve gone to that illustrator because you like what they do.

I’m lucky enough to work on all genres,  so I think that means I can bring different ideas to different covers. Certainly a poetry cover will look different to a crime cover, and that will look different to a misery memoir although that’s not to say there won’t be crossover.

What do you think makes a really good cover? 

A clever idea executed well. Which is easier said than done, and not always the brief!

You’ve designed covers for a range of different genres, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working on all the genres, but I’d probably say the mass market covers provide the biggest challenge as they have to stand out in a crowded market. Often a publisher has invested a lot of money behind those titles so they are expecting good sales. These are the books that might also have the most outside influence, maybe from the retailers.

What book or series would you love to be asked to design for?

I guess I’ve already had the chance to do some such as the Picador 40ths a few years ago, various Picador Classics I’ve worked on, recently I’ve been working on a series of 24 classics (which is why this has taken me so long to write) which have been great fun. Sometimes what you think would be a great series are the ones with the most restraints, but the challenge of tackling the big names such as a Grisham or Lee Child, or maybe a fantasy author like Michael Moorcock would be fun.

9781509822812 9781509824311What are you reading at the moment?

Usually I’m reading a manuscript, two I’ve recently worked on I can recommend would be The One Man by Andrew Gross which is out now, and What you Don’t Know by Joann Chaney (out next year) as it’s a crime story told from different characters perspectives which I found was really interesting.

I’m way behind everyone here as I’ve just finished the Wool trilogy which was fantastic and not what I expected at all, and by the time you read this I’ve probably moved onto something else.


I’d like to thank Neil for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions, and I’m looking forward to finding out what the series of 24 books is that he’s been working on!

Behind the Scenes – the Independent Publisher

orenda letterhead redThis is the third in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the independent publisher and Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was kind enough to give up her time to answer my questions.

Karen is the powerhouse behind Orenda Books which she launched in late 2014. Renowned for the way she supports her authors Karen is a master of social media, plays football for England in the annual  ‘Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Football Match: Scotland v England’, is a talented baker – providing themed cupcakes at her authors’ launches and even finds time to support authors outside her own list with a section on the Orenda website.

Was being a publisher something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Well, apart from wanting to be a nurse or a fire-fighter, a ‘books’ career has always been on the radar. I remember reading a novel (the name escapes me) when I was about twelve or thirteen, and the protagonist was a young woman who read slush piles for a publisher. I couldn’t believe it. Reading books could be a JOB? I wrote short stories throughout my teenage years, and read voraciously from the moment I could do it myself. I also had a habit of making notes in the margins of books. I think I might have been made for this job! When I moved to the UK from Canada after university, my first ‘real’ job was with a publisher.

What prompted you to start Orenda Books?

I worked at the job above for a few years, moving from secretary to the editorial director to commissioning editor. I then left to become freelance, and ended up writing books about raising children, discipline, emotional health, education, etc., and did some TV and other media. I actually became tired of writing about the same type of thing, and when I was offered a job in a small independent, working a day or so a week writing press releases, jacket copy, etc., I leapt at it. It was an interesting and intensive experience, and I ended up working about seven days a week, not one! When a decision was taken by new shareholders to slash the list, I didn’t feel comfortable being there. After lying on my bed for about 24 hours, I made the decision to start my own publishing company. Towards the end of my former tenure, I was doing almost everything anyhow, so it wasn’t an entire leap. A month later, Orenda Books was born, and I haven’t looked back.

How would you describe the ethos of Orenda Books and the titles you choose to publish?

We publish literary fiction (and I use that word deliberately, because I have a very firm belief that you must never underestimate readers of genre fiction, and assume that they all want the churn-em-out stuff), with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation. There are some exceptionally wonderful aberrations on my list, and it is honestly a huge relief and source of excitement to be able to publish exactly what I want, with no one to whom I have to account!

I believe in a lot of things. We publish across many formats, including audiobooks with the wonderful Audible, a few in hardback, all in ebook and in paperback. But I firmly believe that people who choose a physical book over an ebook want something beautiful – something that is a joy to read, to hold! We use great paper, have fantastic jacket designers, truly wonderful typesetting with lots of little details, and I think it makes a real difference. In less than two years we are competing well with the conglomerates, and producing books that certainly match theirs, in both look and feel, not to mention content.

The writing REALLY matters to me, as does a tight, seamless plot. All Orenda authors are exquisite writers – that is essential. And I love the idea of pushing the boundaries of a genre – bringing something new or different to it, upholding its greatest traditions, enlightening, drawing attention to social or other issues while entertaining. It’s a vibrant market and it’s an honour to have the opportunity to bring some truly amazing authors to readers.

I don’t care about becoming rich or famous; I care about doing this job well and doing justice to my increasingly BRILLIANT stable of authors!

What has been the biggest challenge for you and what has been your biggest success to date?

last-days-of-disco_december-with-quotes-copy-2You know what? I would say that EVERY book has been a success in its own way. To date, our runaway bestselling titles are Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout, and Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake, but in Scotland David F. Ross’s books (The Last Days of Disco and The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas) have received unbelievably wonderful critical acclaim and sold both in other countries and (secret) formats! We’ve had rights sold, books optioned for film and the stage. We’ve won prizes, had seven number-one kindles, achieved excellent review coverage in the papers, been incredibly well supported by the all-important blogging community, been shortlisted for the IPG Best Newcomer Award, got a Bookseller Rising Star this year, got authors into over 40 festivals. I could go on! Every author on my list is magnificent, and their achievements never fail to astound and excited me. Having wonderful new authors keen to join is also a success. We have a team that people want to join, and I LOVE that!

Challenges. OK, well it’s hard to make a name for a new company and I also have a LOT of debuts, which means that it can be even harder to persuade booksellers to take us and our authors seriously. We do a lot of translations, so cash flow is always slightly alarming (we spend probably £15K per book for a translated title before it even hits the shelves, which is considerably higher than it would be for a book in English). I am the only employee in this company, and luckily have a brilliant team of freelancers who sort me out with jackets and editorial things (I would be remiss if I did not mention West Camel here, who is my second eye and the best editor I’ve ever met! Plus Mark Swan, who does my jackets and Liz Wilkins and Anne Cater, who have done other magnificent things), but the amount of work is sometimes terrifying! We’ve gone from six books in the first year, to almost triple that this year, with the same again next year. I often feel faint!

Another challenge is an obvious one. The bigger companies tend to be more risk-averse, and often watch smaller companies to see which authors are performing well, before swooping in with a big cheque. This is a frustration, but I suppose that’s business. The irony is, of course, that bigger doesn’t mean better and being published by someone completely passionate about your books can equate to very strong sales. That’s certainly happened here.

How might being an author with an independent publisher differ compared to a major publishing house? 

2016-03-22-18-55-50I think the main thing is the personal approach. I work closely with my authors from the moment they are signed onwards. I attend events  and festivals with them, edit, promote, pitch to the sales teams around the world, and that’s something that I think authors enjoy. Having been an author myself for many, many years, I understand that everyone needs to feel valued and know that they are getting full support. I don’t know about other independents, but we are very much a team here at Orenda. We are growing together. We support each other. Celebrate the successes, and push when things are trickier. It’s just the BEST environment to nurture some incredible talent, and I think we are all happy and home, and all working VERY hard to achieve the best. Being a big fish in a small pond, or even a noticeable fish in a pond, is something that attracts people to small publishers. Plus independents tend to be more nimble, able to take risks and act quickly, and generally do things with authors that might never get past a big acquisitions meeting at a conglomerate. We’ve had a number of very big-name authors interested in joining us, so that probably says something about the ‘small town’ approach.

What impact has the rise of self-publishing had for smaller publishers?

I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I’ve signed two self-published authors and would actively encourage authors who are struggling to get an agent or a deal to consider this approach. There is no shame in doing it yourself, and some very good writers have their roots in the self-published world. It does, of course, mean that the market can become quite saturated, and the quality is, unfortunately, not always there. I worry sometimes that books are devalued by the number of free and very cheap ebooks available, and becoming strongly geared towards disposable reads. After all, if you pay only 99p or get it free, who cares, really? I never lower prices on our ebooks unless they are supported by a major retailer (or they reduce it them themselves) because I am well aware that authors need to earn a living, and we need to survive, too. Having said all that, our ebook sales are increasing month by month, and we know that people are happy to pay full price (not expensive by any means) for wonderful, readable books!

What one piece of advice would you give to an author who is trying to get their first publishing deal?

in-her-wake-hbcover-copy-4I would suggest that you get and take every bit of constructive criticism that you can. Beta readers (first readers) are invaluable, and although it is very painful to cut words, plotlines, characters and even passages of prose, you need to trust the opinions of those who know what they are doing. In particular, agents, or publishers who take the time to point out where there might be weaknesses. There are some incredible mentoring programmes for aspiring authors, courses (sometimes expensive, but possibly worth it) and other authors who run these courses or will do a report for a small fee. I DEFINITELY don’t like to promote anyone in particular, but Amanda Jennings is very involved in the Womentering scheme, and Michael J. Malone actually earns his living sorting out people’s books (around writing his own). If you can’t get a publisher or an agent, and feel that your book is as strong as it can be, then go ahead and self-publish. But get yourself out there, too. Attend fairs, festivals, events where other authors in your genre might be. Make friends. Network. Get some support and help. Use social media wisely – to befriend and let people know your book is there, without repeating messages and becoming annoying. It’s a close and supportive community, this book world, and I think that if you make friends and attract potential readers, you’ll be in with a chance. But don’t forget how important it is to get your book right before you submit it. And learn the art of writing a blurb – a summary of your book, much like what appears on the back of the books you pick up in the bookshops. If you can sell your book in a paragraph, you’ll attract notice.

sealskin-vis-3-copyFinally, I REALLY dislike it when a writer compares themselves to someone on my list. It’s nice to have an idea of the type of reader it might attract (for example, I am publishing a book called Sealskin next year, and a few wonderful comparisons came to mind, such as a book called The Year of Wonders and the author Angela Carter), which is very useful for the sales team. But if you tell me that you write exactly like Amanda Jennings or Michael Malone, chances are you aren’t going to get very far. I HAVE those authors. I don’t want copycats. Every author has to bring something new, special and different to the table.

Without giving away any trade secrets – what are your ambitions for Orenda Books?

My ambitions are to carry on exactly the way we are at the moment. Acquiring authors that fit the list and will add to the company – and the genre and industry in some way – while keeping it small enough to maintain the personal touch I mentioned above. My authors didn’t buy into something grand and big, and I will ensure that we are always a team, and that everyone is important. Having said that, I publish wonderful books, and I expect to win prizes and sell lots of them. These authors are magnificent, and I will be sticking by them as they soar. And I fully expect that all will do so. And that’s also what they bought into. A great future.

Another ambition is to demystify translated literature. While there is a thriving niche market, there is no reason in the world why the average reader wouldn’t enjoy books from other countries. I’ve got some of the MOST amazing translators in the business working with me, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one of our translated titles that feels awkward. We cherry pick the VERY best books from other countries, and that’s something that we want to continue.

Have you ever been tempted to write yourself?

I was a writer for many, many years, and I also ghostwrote a lot of books (for quite famous people, too!). I can write a blurb and a nice advance information sheet. I can pull apart a book and put it back together again in the BEST way. But could I do what my authors are doing? No way! They are imaginative, smart, brilliantly creative and talented, and I never buy a book that doesn’t give me at least four goosebump moments. And that doesn’t mean just plot. It means writing, too. I truly believe that I have some of the best writers in the genre on this list, and the stuff that is happening around them – awards, fresh talent picks, prizes, TV deals, reader and blogger top reads, review coverage, festival and event invitations, bestseller lists – it all confirms that we are on the right track. While I can fix books that need attention, I would be a complete fool to think I could write anything like the books that appear on my list!

What are you reading at the moment?

Ooh, OK! It’s a mix! I am a person who has books all over the place. Beside my bed is Craig Robertson’s Murderabilia, and I am LOVING IT! Today I got a copy of Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, and that is going to be my downstairs, on-the-sofa read. In my handbag, I’ve got more, including the OMG BUY IT Fiona Cummins’ debut Rattle, and, similarly, the new Erin Kelly (He Said; She Said, gasp!), which I should pass on, but can’t bear to. The new Ian Rankin is buzzing in my bag.

Then on my computer, it’s all about submissions and editing. We’ve just finished Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. And for the first time, we’re experimenting with bound proof copies. This is ONE book you won’t forget in a hurry!! But I’m also reading the beautiful, mesmerising Sealskin by Su Bristow, a debut author retelling the Selkie legend. Again, oh WOW! Something always on the go, and fortunately not only are my personal reads all different, but my authors are absolutely different! My last ‘non-crime’ read was Schtum by Jem Lester and it would not hesitate to recommend it. There are LOADS more in the pile.

I do a ‘community blog’ on the Orenda website, and we feature Q&As with ‘other’ authors. So I get sent a WHOLE load of books with a view to doing just that! On the horizon are books by Anya Lipska, Eva Dolan, Michael Wood, Doug Johnstone, Derek B. Miller, Ali Land, Erin Kelly, Mark Hill, Joseph Knox, Luca Veste and more … I am SO busy, so I only read the ones that hook me with the blurb, the jacket or the premise. Aspiring authors, take note!

You can find Karen on twitter under the name @OrendaBooks.


I’d like to thank Karen for taking the time to give such candid answers to my questions.

Behind the Scenes – the Translator

This is the second in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the translator and Frank Wynne was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Frank is an award-winning translator, working from both French and Spanish, with three CWA International Dagger awards, twice winning the Premio Valle-Inclán, as well as winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. If you’re a reader of crime fiction you’ll probably be most familiar with his work through the books by Pierre Lemaitre.

You can find Frank on twitter under the name @Terribleman.

Was being a translator something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Absolutely not! It never occurred to me that I would be ‘allowed’ to translate a novel – it seemed (and still seems) such a huge responsibility to take on the task of recreating the tone and styles of an author. I remember the author’s  note Barbara Trapido wrote in her novel “Brother of the More Famous Jack”, where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previously believed that novels were written by people who were “dead or already famous”; I felt a little like that. I felt as though translators were from some alien world; that one could not simply become a literary translator.

I came to translation by accident. I moved to Paris at the age of 22 (having never been to France) and was surprised that i quickly became fluent in the language. I began to read compulsively. It was while I was reading La Vie devant soi by Émile Ajar (a pseudonym of Romain Gary) that I felt the urge – the need – to translate. But it did not occur to me even then that it was something I might do professionally. It was almost fifteen years later (while I was working for an Internet company, and spending weekends writing “reader’s reports” for publishers) that an editor asked whether I wanted to translate a novel – I was terrified but hugely excited. A couple of years later I gave up the day job so that I could translate full time.

Can you outline the process of translating a novel?

I will usually read a novel twice before beginning a translation. Once for the sheer excitement of the book, to enjoy its pleasures as a reader – whether plot, characterisation or language. The second time, I may slow down and consider the voice(s) in the text, the rhythms of the prose – occasionally I will find myself toying with English phrases as I read the second time.

Different translators approach a first draft in very different ways. I can spend a lot of time wrestling with a sentence / a paragraph to get the sound I feel I need, and I also litter the draft with footnotes to myself – highlighting passages I’m unhappy with, questions I want to ask the author, jokes or puns I think I need to work on. Once I’ve finished the first draft, I will usually write tot he author and explain my approach to the text, ask any questions that are niggling me as a reader and / or translator. In the second draft, I am already beginning to think of the book as English-language text – I find myself reworking phrases and images that seem too ‘lumpen’ in the English. I sometimes read passages – particularly dialogue – aloud to test whether I find them convincing.

Once delivered to an editor, it will usually be several weeks or months (once, more than a year) before I get editorial notes and comments. Coming back to a translation after a long period gives you a fresh eye – suddenly, solutions that were intractable seem obvious. Work on the third draft involves responding to the editor’s comments and suggestions. An insightful editor can flag a translator’s lexical tics and mannerisms, but also highlight phrases that feel literal or literal to his / her year. By this time, I am no longer referring back to the original text, but simply working with the English.

The last piece of tinkering comes when the publisher sends page proofs / galleys. Seeing a text typeset like a ‘proper book’ is another jolt and – while at this stage I am only supposed to correct errors and typos I often find myself reworking sentences and snatches of dialogue. It is almost compulsive, and it is important to know when to stop. I often say “a translation is near finished, only abandoned” (shamelessly paraphrasing W.H.Auden’s paraphrase of Paul Valéry).

Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

By definition a translation is a war of collaboration even if the original author has been dead for centuries. But in practice, the process and one’s relationship with authors can vary enormously. Some are perfunctory and professional, some almost non-existent (I’ve had one author who – despite repeated emails – declined to respond to my queries), most involve discussions that are informative and revealing, a small few are truly personal. I have felt intimately close to authors I have never met, and I have also had good fortune to have one or two relationships with authors evolve into friendships. In the end, however, though translation is an act of collaboration (with author, editor, copy editor  and proof reader) it is the translator who must take responsibility for recreating a work. A musician can endlessly question a composer about the intent behind a piece of music, but when it comes to playing, it is the performer’s interpretation that is heard.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Very rarely – and it is something I can only do if the projects are very different, or are in different languages, otherwise I find that the voice of one book begins to bleed over into the other.

Translating is like an intimate conversation, with the translator listening intently and responding to the writer; it is difficult to do so with multiple authors without sacrificing that intensity.

How much influence can a translator have on the tone or feeling of a book?

In theory, a translator has absolute control over the tone or feeling of the translated work – unless the author is bilingual. In practice, we strive (and should always strive) to recreate a tone and feel which we hear orintit in the original. The process is, of course, profoundly subjective; the voice I hear may differ slightly form what another translator will hear – something that has become clear in the many “Translation Duels” in which I have participated over the years.

Every decision made by a translator – about tone and register, about the cadence or rhythm of a sentence – influences the tone of the work in English. To me, this is most apparent when translating dialogue, wordplay and idiomatic language which can have no direct equivalent in the target language. But if, at such point, a translator is called upon to invent, this is circumscribed by his or her understanding of the intent and impact of the original.

Most importantly, a translator needs an ear for music and for voice, it is this that has allowed me the privilege to ‘(re)write’ novels I could never imagine, to briefly ‘become’ authors from the wide world of Francophone and Hispanophone literature and, through language, to try to recreate narratives I love and admire.

You’ve translated a range of different genres and languages, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working in most genres and do not have a particular favourite, but I think it is true that I enjoy working on novels with a playful or complex relationship to language.

It is often assumed that very “literary” novels, with highly poetic voices are most difficult to translate, but I find that, while it takes time to conjure the right voice for such books, once that voice is found it provides a solution to other spaces of the text.

There are two authors whose books I found both deeply challenging and profoundly rewarding. The first is Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists, whose novels Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and Allah is not Obliged I had the honour of translating. Kourouma’s novels are linguistically dense and his narrators employ the cadences of the West-African griot tradition. The text is peppered with words and expressions in Malinké, and evokes traditions and cultures that are very different form any I have experienced, yet the time I spent trying to recreate Kourouma’s prolix, poetic vernacular was a wonderful and cathartic experience. The second is Andrés Caicedo, whose novel, ¡Que viva la music! took me two years to translate. Cicero’s novel (published in English as Liveforever) is suffused with music, particularly the salsa dura of late 1970s Colombia, and the lyrical, hypnotic voice of the protagonist, Maria Carmen del Huerta, becomes a song on itself. Translating it, involved teasing out the hundreds of allusions to lyrics, song titles and film and literature threaded through the narrative, and weaving them into a new melody.

Often books are translate some time after publication in the original language, does that pose any problems for you?

Not particularly. While I like to be able to address questions to an author, at the end of the day much of what I do is about immersing myself in a text.

Is there a translation or a translator that you particularly admire?

There are many translations and translators I admire. Translations that have thrilled and excited me would include William Weaver’s translation of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Lydia Davis’ version of Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (sadly, not all of the Penguin volumes of Proust are as near-perfect). In a very different register, Christopher Logue’s War Music – an “account” (he did not call it a translation) of several books of Homer’s Iliad is a luminous revelation. More recently, I admire the stunning work done by Anne McClean and Rosalind Harvey in translating Enrique Villa-Matas’ novel Dublinesque.

I admire all translators, they constantly remind me of the joys of what we do. But if I had to choose a living translator, it would be Margaret Jull Costa, whose seemingly effortless poise and mastery of source and target language leave me breathless.

And what book would you love to be asked to translate?

Too many – and most have already been translated. For a long time, my response would have been La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano, but the Nobel Prize and a very supportive editor meant that I got to translate that in 2014.

What are you reading at the moment?

La gazelle s’agenouille pour pleurer – a book of short stories by the Togolese writer Kanji Alem, whose novel La Legend de l’assassin blew me away.


I’d like to thank Frank for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions.

An Interview with Quentin Bates – author of Thin Ice

One of the co-founders of Iceland Noir, and translator of Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland‘ series, Quentin Bates is currently celebrating the publication of Thin Ice, the fifth full length novel in his own ‘Gunnhildur’ series. To mark this he is the focus of perhaps one of the longest blog tours ever – which demonstrates his popularity amongst the crime fiction community. 

Here he talks about one critical aspect of any Icelandic novel – the weather.

‘You don’t like the weather? Then just wait a while and it’ll change. It’s almost an Icelandic cliché that you can expect four different kinds of weather in a single day. With weather fronts rolling across the Atlantic all winter long, it’s never going to be anything but changeable.

‘For me Iceland is less about the magnificent landscape, high mountains and lush green valleys, than about the constantly-changing weatherscape. It becomes ingrained after a while, to the point that for every scene I write, every new chapter and situation, the first thing is to establish what kind of a day it might be, even if it doesn’t rate a mention in whatever I’m writing.

‘Thin Ice is set in the beginning of winter, it’s getting dark early. It’s cold and by the coast it’s windy and wet, but upcountry where part of the action takes place, it has already started to snow, to the consternation of the four fugitives the story revolves around. They find themselves snowed in as both the police and the underworld search and hope to find them first.

‘Winter in Iceland can be harsh. It can rain and snow alternately for days and weeks at a time, although those who hail from the north coast or the Westfjords will snort with disdain at the mention of a heavy snowfall in Reykjavík, where, according to the hardy northerners, it just drizzles with rain all winter long and Reykjavík grinds to a halt as soon as there’s an inch of the white stuff on the ground.

‘Fair enough, in the south it rains more than it snows. Sometimes there can be a whole winter without a significant fall of snow. In the north, where the north-easterly storms regularly batter the coast, a winter without serious snow is a rarity. But it’s not all about snow. Summers can be chilly, damp affairs during which the sun hardly breaks through the cloud cover. Other summers can be brilliantly bright as a clear blue sky, not a breath of wind and scorching sunshine can turn the north into an absolute paradise.

‘Autumn can be a matter of a couple of days between the sunshine and the first howling gale of winter as the anti-cyclones start to queue up out over the deep Atlantic. The same goes for spring. It can be snowing one day, followed by blazing sunshine the next that sets the streets awash with meltwater.

‘Weather is crucial to Icelanders. It’s something people are far more conscious of than we are further south. It’s understandable. Until a generation ago, Iceland was a community of predominantly farmers and fishermen. That’s changed, but that’s another story… For those people, being able to predict the weather in an age before even rudimentary forecasting could be the difference between life an death, the difference between survival and starvation.

‘Letting the livestock out too early in the spring could meaning losing your flock to a sudden snowstorm, while failing to take advantage of a few dry days at the height of summer could mean your sheep starving long before the next spring and your family going the same way. The dangers to fishermen working open boats from a shingle beach are glaringly clear. Will the wind still be in the right quarter to bring you home before nightfall, and will the surge of the swell be enough to help bring the boat clear of the water, or could it have worsened enough to smash it to pieces against the rocks?

‘There’s no doubt it makes a great backdrop to a crime story, or any drama. Maybe that’s the appeal of Nordic crime fiction, the merciless background of rocks and snow contrasted against comfortable, safe societies.

‘Sunny? Windy? A cold wind from the north that brings snow with it, or a warmer wind from the south that ushers in a thaw? Snow is dramatic for a story set in Reykjavík, but rain is more likely to be realistic. But if you don’t like it, just wait an hour or two and it’ll change.’

So if you plan to attend Iceland Noir later this year – you’ve been warned!