Today I'm delighted to welcome novelist Ian Skewis to my blog. Ian's first novel, 'A Murder of Crows', was published in 2017. A proud moment for any writer! Let's get going with the questions.
Tell us about 'A Murder of Crows'.
'A Murder Of Crows' is a crime thriller featuring DCI Jack Russell, who is on his final case before retiring. He is led to believe that the case will be relatively simple and it proves to be anything but. A serial killer has emerged and seems to be just getting started and it becomes a race against time to prevent the evolution of this new menace.
Sounds great! What inspired the plot for the book?
It was part inspired by an event that happened to me when I was nine years old. I was out for a walk in the country with my parents and we found a dead man hanging from a tree. My dad called the police and my mum kept me away from the site. But my imagination kind of filled in the gaps and from there a very strange little tale emerged. Needless to say, the countryside has long since taken on a rather more sinister aspect for me and this is very much evident in the book. This was in 1979. Now finally, the story, which I officially started writing in 1989, has taken flight as it were. Pun intended!
What’s next for you? Will A Murder of Crow be the first in a series, and if so, can you give us any hints?
About three years ago I came up with an idea for a sequel of sorts but I was determined that I wouldn't write it unless I could find something really challenging about it - I think I now have a really good follow-up story - one that will take on some very surprising twists and turns. As for hints, it begins six months after A Murder Of Crows ends and will involve a psychic, a female detective and the return of an old enemy...
What is your all-time favourite novel?
Atonement by Ian McEwan is still my favourite. I loved the fact that this character felt so bad about what she had done to what were essentially two innocent people, that she completely rewrote their history in a book - an act of kindness, albeit many years too late. I was surprised at how good the film version was too. Books that comment in some way on writing and its gift to heal always appeal to me - Life Of Pi being another example.
Do you prefer to read e-books or paper books?
I always prefer paper, and in particular, paperbacks. They yield and become old, dog-eared and yellowed with age and there is something very human and comforting about that. Hardbacks are good too but they don't bend easily and are less portable, I feel.
Do you think the cover plays an important part of the buying process?
Absolutely! I had a whale of a time designing my book cover. My publisher actually sent me a three page questionnaire asking things like what font I wanted to use, how I would describe the contents of the story and what images did I reckon would be suitable for the cover. I always knew it would be a lone crow. I actually had some sketches from 2009 that I did when I could only dream of such things as book covers and it was amazing to be able to literally draw on that and see it come to life! I'm thrilled with the end result, and all thanks to Mark Ecob for being very patient and such a good collaborator. The book cover is very stark and haunting and the crow's eye contains other elements such as a blood red moon, and a farmer's scythe - all very symbolic...
What is the hardest thing about writing a book?
For me it was always a lack of confidence. I spent years listening to those doubts in my head telling me that I wasn't all that good, and who did I think I was, deigning to write? I know now that this was just my inner critic, which is healthy and no bad thing. But a healthy balance is what's needed. It goes back to believing in yourself and reaching for the stars but keeping one's feet on the ground.
What is the easiest thing about writing a book?
The freedom to do anything you like. One of the reasons I gave up acting (I was a professional actor) was that I always felt like part of a greater whole and often I had bigger ideas than that. Now as a writer I can conjure up entire worlds. I have the last word on everybody's destiny. That is an incredible palette to be able to work from. However, when you play God, and all writers do to a greater or lesser degree, then that comes with a huge responsibility. So when I have to end someone's life in a story for example, I never take it lightly. When I had to kill someone in 'A Murder Of Crows' I cried as I wrote it because I wrote it not from the point of the gore or the violence but from the memories of that person as they faded away, the ground rushing up towards them, all their regrets, all the things they still could have done, had their life not been cut short. Another character in the book has a tragic and very emotional ending that was really difficult for me to write. I felt I had somehow locked them up and thrown away the key, condemned them to a terrible existence. If these characters were real they would probably slap my face for what I did to them - and deservedly so!
What advice would you give to would-be novelists?
Believe in yourself - but keep your feet on the ground. And beware of who you take advice from. All industries have their charlatans. It's worth stating here that if something feels wrong then it probably is - so above all, trust your instinct!
Thank you, Ian, for your time! It's been a pleasure interviewing you.
If you'd like to know more about Ian and his books, check out his website: www.ianskewis.com.
Blood is thicker than water...
This week's post is a review of the Sunday Times bestseller 'Good Me Bad Me' by author Ali Land. Here's a taster:
Annie's mother is a serial killer.
The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police.
But out of sight is not out of mind.
As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly.
A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be.
But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water.
She is, after all, her mother's daughter...
The old question of nature versus nurture
'Good Me Bad Me' is told entirely in the narrative voice of Milly, formerly known as Annie, a fifteen-year-old in foster care after turning her serial killer mother in to the police. At first I struggled with this; Milly is a confused and very disturbed girl, and the writing reflects her anguish. Short, clipped phrases show her inner turmoil and the book wasn't easy reading at first. Sentences such as 'Shifted in his chair he did. Sat up straight, him and his gut' jarred on me, but after a while I got used to the author's style. Taken from a terrible situation in which she is horribly abused, you'd think Milly's new foster family would offer her some hope for a brighter future. They are wrestling with their own issues, however, and hide dark dysfunctional secrets. Mike, her foster father, is tasked with preparing her for the trial against her mother, which he does as best he can, but Saska, his wife, is a different matter. Remote, emotionally absent, she barely touches Milly's life and in no way provides an adequate maternal substitute. The daughter, Phoebe, bullies Milly and over time the pressure on the vulnerable fifteen-year-old grows. In her head, Milly talks to her mother a lot, seeking to make sense of her fractured life but unable to break free from the woman's stranglehold over her emotions.
The book throws up uncomfortable questions, such as: should she be pitied or feared? Nature versus nurture? On the one hand, Milly is desperate for reassurance that she's not a psychopath like her mother. On the other, how can she escape her terrible start in life? As the blurb says, blood is thicker than water, and Milly has witnessed things no child should ever see. Her turmoil has to find an outlet somehow...
The plot has some frustrating elements, such as some loose ends. For example, a threat to the safety of Miss Kemp, one of Milly's teachers, is hinted at when Milly finds out where she lives. Milly considers herself slighted by this woman, giving rise to the expectation that she will attempt to exact revenge. However, this tantalising glimpse of what might have been never gets resolved, which makes me wonder why it was ever included. In addition, the ending is somewhat odd; it's hard to say much without giving plot spoilers, but I doubt Mike would have capitulated to Milly's manipulations as quickly as he did.
I also suspect Milly's behaviour would have been very different. Most of the time she is well-behaved, polite and strives to fit in with her foster family and at school. Would a girl who has been physically and sexually abused, who has witnessed murder, act this way? Would she not be self-harming, hurting others, trashing her room, etc? Perhaps the 'good me' part of her character is a little too saccharine and unlikely.
Would I recommend 'Good Me Bad Me'? Yes, despite the minor niggles. The story is engrossing and, as a debut novel, it's impressive. Definitely worth a read, in my opinion.
People who see music and taste words...
In October 2016 I discovered I have synaesthesia, which came as a surprise! It seems that many people, myself included, don't realise that they view the world differently.
What is synaesthesia, you may be wondering? It’s when the senses cross over, meaning one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. For example, hearing a sound may result in a synaesthete seeing that sound in colour; musicians such as Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige visualise music this way.
Synaethesthia can combine any of the senses, although the most common types are the ones I have, when letters, numbers and time assume colours and shapes. I find some of the rarer forms, such as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, in which people taste words, fascinating! As a foodie, I’m quite envious of that one, but studies show only 0.2% of people have lexical-gustatory synaesthesia.
To help non-synaesthetes understand, to some extent we all do this anyway. Have you ever talked about warm colours or complained that the weather is bitterly cold? Then you’ll have some idea of what I mean. Think about smell and taste; those senses are linked for almost everyone, meaning we can predict how a food will taste from sniffing it. Synaesthesia takes this process a step further.
It’s a shame some of the articles I read referred to it as an affliction or medical condition. To me, that smacks of the prejudice that existed decades ago against left-handed people, and isn’t helpful.
August is such an orange month...
There are two main forms of synaesthesia – projective and associative. People with the former type actually see the shapes and colours projected into their vision, whereas others, like me, have the associative type – we see the results in our mind’s eye, not in reality. Statistics vary as to how many people are synaesthetes – the most common one indicates that 4.4% of people have it. Some researchers have postulated that everyone is born with synaesthesia, with most people losing the ability early in childhood. Early research linked synaethesia to being left-handed and poor with mathematics, although later studies contradict such findings. As a right-handed ex-accountant, that's definitely not true for me!
I came across the condition a while ago, thought "yeah, I have that - doesn't everyone see letters in colour?" and then didn't think any more about it. After all, we don’t tend to ask people what colour their alphabet is, or how they visualise time; I honestly thought everyone must use some sort of mental map to process numbers and years. It was only when I read something about Vladimir Nabokov, who was a synaesthete, that I chanced on a Wikipedia article on the subject. After reading through it, it was obvious to me that I had synaesthesia and that it took several forms, which apparently is common. I took the long and very detailed online test at http://www.synesthete.org/ and the results confirmed my suspicions.
Tasting of Flora and the country green...
Kandinsky may have been a synaesthete! It appears that synaesthesia may be more prevalent in women than men, and is seven times more likely to occur in artists, musicians and writers. Besides Nabokov, other authors with synaesthesia include Joanne Harris and Orhan Pamuk. In literature, synaesthesia refers to a technique adopted by writers to present fiction so it appeals to more than one sense at a time. Take this quote from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale: 'Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sun burnt mirth!' In this example, music, dance, etc, are described as having taste – very synaesthetic!
What about this quote from Julia Glass’s novel 'The Whole World Over'? 'The word would fill her mind for a few minutes with a single color: not an unpleasant sensation but still an intrusion… Patriarch: Brown, she thought, a temple of a word, a shiny red brown, like the surface of a chestnut.'
I have to disagree – ‘patriarch’ is definitely lemon-coloured! No two synaesthetes view things in quite the same way, it seems. For me, words take on the colour of their first letter, unless we're talking about weekdays or months, and 'P' is pale yellow.
I’m considering ways to use my synaesthesia in my writing, both through my narrative description and as the basis for a novel or series of novels. Now that I’ve discovered I’m a synaesthete, I’m keen to put it to practical use!
What about you?
Are any of you synaesthetes and if so, what types do you have? Leave a comment and let me know!
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