Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Interview with Gail Williams

15) Someone has a book launch coming up! And it’s the latest chapter of the Locked series of thrillers. Tell us a bit about it, please.

Locked Down releases on 18th Feb. This is the third of a trilogy of novels that follow what happens to Detective Sergeant Charlie Bell, after he’s been expelled from the police force and rightfully convicted of a murder he did commit. The three books also focus on Ariadne Teddington, a prison officer, and Detective Chief Inspector Mathew Piper, Charlie’s old boss.

Locked Down is largely driven by the actions of DCI Mathew Piper. He’s been slapped on the wrist for what he allowed to happen in previous books and told to concentrate on cold cases, so he does. The case he focuses on is that of Terrance Whittaker who went missing twenty years ago when he was 9. The fact that Terry happens to be Ariadne Teddington’s younger brother has nothing to do with it, no, of course not. Then naturally, there’s what’s going on with Charlie, who isn’t getting on with his life in quite the way that he should be, after all, how do you carry on after a murder conviction when you’ve lost the only job you ever wanted? And, finally, we get an answer to the will they/won’t they between Charlie and Ari.

14) I don’t know if you’ve read either book but based on your description of him on your author website, Charlie Bell sounds a bit like Red Metcalfe, the rogue cop in Boris Starling’s Messiah and Storm. Without repeating your website too much, tell us a bit about him.

Well, I’ve never heard of Red Metcalfe, but I just added him to my to be read list! Charlie is a man who basically has an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to him as to most, he doesn’t confuse right and wrong with legal and illegal. In his heart he wants the hearth and home scenario, a wife and kids to love, but never found a way to get those given he also has the taste for chasing villains and he doesn’t want to risk people he loves to the people he chases. What most people miss about Charlie is that he is a great reader. He loves books, really loves them. He’s always read copious amounts even before he was locked in a cell with little else to do. There’s not a genre he won’t read, though he frequently gets annoyed at the unrealistic portrayal of men and masculinity he reads in romances. He sees a lot of people as Eloi, mindlessly following the rules (for anyone who doesn’t get it that a reference to The Time Machine by H G Wells). And every now and then, he sees the heroes and angels, readers may recognize them more readily as Piper and Ariadne.

13) Who were your biggest literary influences growing up and what made you decide to write crime fiction, among other things?

Growing up? Oh, that’s hard to tell, back then I was reading so much different stuff. The ones I remember most clearly were Rosemary Sutcliffe, Paul Zindel, Jane Austin, James Herbert, Stephen King, Dean R Kootz, David Eddings and Steve Jackson/Ian Livingston. Which is a bit of a motley crew when you think about it. I also have to admit that there were a lot of Mills & Boons read back then, and when the Intrigue series started coming out – enjoyed a fair few of them.

I don’t know when or why I decided to write, I just always wanted to write, have always written. I have story books from when I was so young, I could barely string a coherent sentence together but they are my stories told my way, not anyone else's. If I cut back all the noise, I think the thing that’s driven me on most is the authors I can’t now name. The ones that I only read one book from, or couldn’t read a full book from, because they weren’t good enough. It was the, possibly arrogant, internal voice that just said “I write better than this”, so I did. 

Actually, the decision to move to crime came from the many rejections I had (and still have somewhere in my not very “efficient” filing system) from Mills & Boon. In essence, they all said the same thing; great writing, but too much plot not enough romance. And since they were all intended for the Intrigue imprint, the move to crime writing was easy. Since growing up however, one of my biggest influence has been Simon Kernick. Love his books. Now I read Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre, and many others. Of late I’ve started reading a lot of Wales-based fiction, Harry Bingham, Cathy Ace, Thorne Moore, and Alis Hawkins to name a few. This is also because I’m now starting to write a new series based in Wales, but that’s next years reveal.

12) Unlike several of my previous Authors of the Month (such as Christine Lyden, Laurel Heidtman and Dana Ridenour), you don’t have a background in law enforcement. So, do you do your research strictly online, or talk to professionals in the field or a mixture of both?

Ah, well, in this case I’ve been very lucky. Of course, I do check stuff out online, and I have a number of police procedure manuals that I refer to, but where I’m lucky is that I live on a street with four serving and ex police officers. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago I was chatting to my neighbour on a typically boring neighbourhood matter and I got to ask him about police issue boots for a short story I was working on. I also work a day job for a large organisation, and one of my contacts is an ex-copper who put me in touch with higher ranking officers from the local force. So, I have emailed and chatted with everything from police constables to a Detective Superintendent. I’ve also had conversations with pathologists, forensic scientists and prison officers. Not to mention a friend of mine who worked on building a police station and has told me how holding cells are laid out.

11) Meanwhile, under your full name, Gail B. Williams, you’re also in the middle of a series of Steampunk Aether mysteries. Tell us about this mysterious force known as “aether.”

Aether is what is technically known as a McGuffin, a plot device used to drive the achievement of some goal or motivator. In Amethyst Foresters world, Aether is a gaseous material harvested from the higher atmosphere which my Victorians have managed to turn into a power source. Think of it as an adaptable battery pack that emits a rainbow of unharmful waste aether that simply rises and reconstitutes back in the atmosphere, from where it can be re-harvested and reused. It appears to be the ultimate in renewable resources. Of course, appearances can be deceptive. The refining of raw aether into its usable processed state isn’t quite so harmless as the world thinks and there’s a great deal more to aether than anyone yet knows about. But I won’t reveal what until later books.

10) When you’re not writing steampunk as Gail B. Williams or straight up crime as GB Williams, you’re up to other things as Gail Barden, who’s yet to make her debut. What kind of work do you do under that pen name?

Gail Barden is like the embarrassing cousin no one talks about, really interesting, but a bit weird and you won’t want to be seen in public with. As Gail Barden I write horrible stories, genres I like to flirt with. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by these other works, it’s actually about branding, a cynical business ploy if you will. If you pick up a book by GB Williams – it’s crime. If you pick up a book by Gail B Williams – it’s steampunk, if you see Gail Barden in an anthology or magazine (they’re mostly short stories), it could be absolutely anything.

I don’t send out many Gail Barden works, but oddly I have been 100% successful with those which I have sent out. Trust me this doesn’t happen with the rest of it, but I’m not looking that particular gift horse in the mouth. Gail Barden has her debut agreed, but I’m waiting for a publication date, and once I know it, I’ll be plastering it all over.

Oh, and by the way, in family gatherings, I think I am the ‘embarrassing cousin’ no one wants to be seen with.  😉

9) You’ve also written short stories in the horror genre that have been published in anthologies. One of your influences there was obviously HP Lovecraft. Who else do you enjoy in horror?

Oh, Lovecraft has definitely been an influence, though I have an exclusive confession for you – I’ve got a collected work of HP – and I haven’t read of word of it. I actually came across Cthulhu because a fellow writer told me about a publisher looking for Welsh based Cthulhu stories. So, I went and read a bit about the Call of Cthulhu and snippets of Delta Green. Then I wrote the story, then it got published – if only it was always that easy.

I’ve actually already mentioned a few horror writers that I read as a kid, Stephen King and James Herbert chief among them. Fluke is a book I will never forget, made me think a very great deal about a lot of stuff that would never have occurred to be otherwise. Similarly The Rats, especially since my husband told me about a cinema he went to as a kid where you really could feel rats running by your ankles. I’ve also enjoyed Chris Barker, Cabel and Weaveworld were fab. I have shelves full of Dean R Koontz too. The one of his that has stayed with me most was first published in the UK under the name Leigh Nicholls was called The House of Thunder. This is horror, but it’s also very much a thriller/crime novel and one of the ways that I moved into reading the crime genre.

8) Describe your typical writing day. Do you write longhand in notebooks, use a laptop or both?

There is no such thing as a typical writing day for me. I am still work full time, so I can’t devote as much time to writing as I would dearly love to. So basically, I write whenever and wherever I can. I have been known to write sentences between calculations at work (I run some very complicated calculations over large data ranges). I’ve been known to write instead of eat at lunchtimes. I carry a notebook so I’ll basically write anywhere, any time – and if I don’t have the notebook, I’ll type snippets on my phone and email them to myself. If we’re going out as a couple/family and it’s a long drive that my husband is driving, I’ll take a laptop and write in the car. If I’m not completely wiped out after work and the long driven commute, I’ll get the laptop or notebook out in the evening and scribble away. If hubby is on nights, I’ll often go work in bed. I have an old laptop in the bedroom so if I should fall asleep with it on my lap and drop it, I’ve not ruined the expensive laptop I usually work on –by the way this has never happened, but I don’t want it to either. So I suppose, my typical ‘writing day’ is elbowing in writing where I can.

7) I must say the idea of a former police detective trying to work within the constraints of the British penal system and the creative tension involved sounds wonderfully challenging. How did you meet and overcome those logistical difficulties?

Probably because I’m not as aware as I should be what the difficulties of investigation are. I really appreciate the knowledge that ex-police officers bring to crime fiction, but sometimes a writer has to just use their imagination.

So, for Locked Up, which is set inside the prison where Charlie is serving his sentence and where Ariadne works, I figured, rightly or wrongly, that interviews are really conversations, so Charlie has a lot of conversations. I had to figure out when he’d be able to have those conversations, so exercise and meal times had to be favourite, and there is socialisation time in most prisons for Category C prisoners, which Charlie is. The fact that one of Charlie’s former informants in also in the jail at the same time helps too. While in the book I say that all the prisoners are claim they are actually innocent men, the reality is that most prisoners are happy to brag about how guilty they are, criminals sometimes want to be found out, to demonstrate and be lauded for their brilliance. You also have to realise that the British penal system is very different from the American one. In England and Wales, we have very few murders in prison, if there are five homicides in the whole prison system in a year it’s considered a very bad year, from what American friends have told me, prisoners killing prisoners is pretty much a daily occurrence in the US (don’t know how true this is). So maybe I overcame the difficulties because I just didn’t know they were there. 

6) What is it about history that stimulates and drives you to write historical fiction?

Well, the settings are often historical, but the fiction isn’t exactly. Most of my historical stuff has been either horror or steampunk, so I play fast and loose with the truth, which means that I get away with an awful lot of mistakes that most historical fiction writers wouldn’t. But what draws me back in time is simple stuff, yes there’s a romanticism about the past, and that’s definitely a draw, but there’s also things like, no mobile phones which are a total nightmare for contemporary fiction. And I live in Wales so they can be a total nightmare in reality too, which is one reason for setting stuff here.

I think one of the draws to historical settings is that it’s assumed to be a simpler life. It wasn’t in many respects, but it was very different from now, and I like different. The past has also given me the room to explore themes that I haven’t touched on in my contemporary fiction.  For example, Amethyst Forester (Of the Aether books) rails against the control men have in her life. She got excluded from university just because she’s a woman. She’s going to be faced with a very difficult situation in book four (sorry no spoilers) that she’s only facing because she’s a woman, and in all honesty I’m not sure how I’m going to get her out of that situation yet, but I have to find a way, and the worst thing is, that I have a feeling that way will also have to be the men in her life, so double edged sword ahead.

This means that there’s talk of the suffrage movement in the books (it’s not heavy but it’s there). These are things that I haven’t explored in my contemporary fiction not because they don’t exist, but because the women I write about don’t tend to have to fight them - though that’s not to say I wouldn’t write about it in the future. Equally there are freedoms in the past that we don’t have now. The ability to be forgotten not least of all, or the ability to reinvent oneself. These days if I want to take on a new job I need to show my birth certificate or a passport to prove I’ve the right to work in the only country I’ve ever lived in, I am British born and bred, but to get a job here, I have to prove that, I have to have the right paperwork. No one before 1911 even had to have a national insurance number, and that meant people could move around and change identities much easier than we can today. It’s these differences that draw me back. 

Oh, and corsets. I love a corset. Yes, I wear modern ones based on Victorian designs, but I hear that Tudor corsets are actually much better for you, they’re more like back braces. But the call of a corset definitely has me tied in.

5) Plotter or pantser?


That is, I plot, then I go and elbow a writing session in somewhere I don’t have the plot to hand, and just write what the characters feel like letting me write about them. If I like the result, I keep it and change the plot. In fact, I frequently do that. Then I find that an idea can be echoed through the novel in some other way, and throw that in, change the plot to suit. So, for example, I knew for Shades of Aether, that Amethyst had to have a clash with Violet. For those who haven’t picked up on this (because I had to explain it to a friend of mine a few days ago) Amethyst and Violet are both names of colours, different shades of purple in fact. So, they were the shades in the original idea for Shades of Aether. The lampshades that Amethyst makes from her glass were a much later addition to the tapestry of the book.

When it comes to the rest of the Of Aether series, these were all plotted together in that I knew certain things have to happen, I decided on the themes for each of the books, but individually, they’ve evolved as I wrote them. Inspector Jenson wasn’t even in the first draft of the Shades of Aether, and when he did turn up he was supposed to be in no more than two scenes, but he walked in, I saw him and just knew he had to have more attention. Though in fairness, when Great-Aunt Flora appeared - in the very last edit I should add only five weeks before publication - she really stole the show. And these two are now reader favourites. They were totally unplanned, but I’m so grateful for their appearance and I’ve made sure they have a good place in the rest of the books too. Actually, as I write this I am aware that the scene I should be writing right now is between these two and it’s going to be (I hope) a belter - though Jenson would never ‘belt’ a lady, I can’t give guarantees of non-violence with Great-Aunt Flora, she may be 88 but she is feisty. And has a cane.

Whatever I write, I usually have a destination in mind for my characters, but they don’t always take the route I was expecting. Characters do have a tendency to do what they want, not necessarily what I think they should do. So if you take Locked Downsomething happens at the end of that (no spoilers, but I suspect readers may know it when they read it) that I did not intend to happen until I started writing that part of the book and realised that actually, that was exactly what had to happen so I left it in. There’s also something I intended to put in the end of this book that didn’t happen for two reasons, the first is the thing that wasn’t supposed to happen then did, and the second was that, as the end of a trilogy, it was a bit of a downer, so I changed the end and ended with hope, because that’s sometimes the only thing people have left.

I think, if I look at what my process is, I do a lot of thinking about a story line long, long, long time before I put anything new on paper. So, I actually panster the initial idea, then outline that as a book idea, which I then form into some kind of logical plot, filling in any gaps. Then I write ignoring the finer details of the plot and let whatever happens happen. And hope. There’s a lot of hoping. Whether or not people find hope in my works, I definitely do a lot of hoping while I’m writing them.

4) A little over two years ago, you’d published a collection of crime short stories entitled Last Cut Casebook. Were those 13 short stories written with the intention of collecting them or did you write them willy-nilly then subsequently decide to collect them?

They were among many more shorts that I’d written for various reasons, and never done anything with. These were the ones I liked best and I put them together. Quite often I will write something for a reason, like a competition or something, but never send the piece off. I’m dreadful for not sending stuff off. Nagging suspicion that I’m just not good enough, but that’s the joy of being a writer. I picked 13 because it’s unlucky and so is getting killed.

So, anyway, it’s an eclectic mix of all sorts of shorts. The collection includes and is named for the first and last inclusions. First is a short story that got long listed for the Crime Writers Association’s Margery Allingham Short Story award, Last Shakes. The last is a story that was included in an anthology to raise awareness for endometriosis, “The Cruellest Cut.” Interesting fact about these two stories, I wrote them a year or more apart, Last Shakes was the first, “The Cruellest Cut” came later. What I didn’t realise until I put the collection together, is that they feature the same police officer. And when I checked, that same name appears in several other shorts I’ve written but not included in Last Cut Casebook. This was at no point a conscious decision, but it’s happened, and I guess it means I need to do something with that character that’s a bit more substantial one day.

To be honest there were three other shorts that were originally in the 13 that my editor just went, nope, that’s not good enough. He demanded (okay recommended) that I cut those out and give him something better. So I did. And it worked. I’m very grateful to my editor, he is a good friend, but as an editor, first and foremost he’s a friend to the work before he’s a friend to me.

I’ve had some great reviews on this book, but my favourite was an unwritten one, this happened at a crime writers festival when one guy who’d read it came up to me to say he’d read it and his review consisted of him declaring “You are one sick bunny!” I like that. Probably shouldn’t, but I do.

3) Is there any plan for future installments of the Locked series or will it end as a trilogy?

Locked as a trilogy is just a trilogy. However, that said, I have additional ideas for two of the characters, possibly three. I don’t want to give anything away too much, though it’s fairly obvious which two characters I’m thinking about. These are general ideas, they have a destination in terms of how their stories will continue, what I don’t have yet is the journey, so I don’t want to promise anything in case I never figure out a way to deliver it, but at the very least, we will see Charlie again. The possible third comes from a reader telling me that they really want to see more of a particular character. This character also happens to be one of those who sprung up out of nowhere almost fully formed, so there’s a good chance that I’ll get the knock on the noggin and have to write a book for this character one day. At the moment though, that’s the whole seed of the idea, and it has to be better than that to write it, so it may take a while before germination, inspiration and the sweat of writing.

2) Are there any subjects you regard as taboo in the crime/mystery genre or will you put anything into a book where it suits the plot?

Quick answer is no.

A taboo is “a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.” Is that not what all crime is? So, no, I don’t think that for crime, there should be taboos about subject matter. After all, murder is a taboo, it’s against the law in most countries, it’s against the ‘rules’ of most religions. And if you’re going to start talking about religious wars being murder, please allow me to suggest that, in my personal opinion, religious wars might be less about the religion then they are about the manipulation of power hungry religious leaders. On all sides. There is no one without sin in that scenario. There, that’s bound to get me in trouble with someone.

However, while not quite taboo, I am holding onto an idea that I would dearly love to write, but that I’m not writing. This is because I’m not sure that I can do it justice. So does that make it taboo? Maybe. See I have a horrible feeling that if I write about this subject, I’ll get it wrong, possibly so wrong it’ll do a lot of unnecessary harm. The reason for this is that that subject matter is something rather sensitive and also something that is completely outside of my sphere of experience. Now it also has to be said that so is murder. I’ve never killed and I’ve never investigated a killing, but I can write that. I know enough about the general human condition to have a pretty good understanding of how that would feel, the rest I can research. But this particular topic is taboo socially, though not in a literary sense there are a few books out there covering it, and I think it needs writing about, but as much as I want to write it, I’m not sure that I could write it as well as I think it needs to be written. I’m erring on the side of ‘do no harm’ with this. I suspect that this last paragraph makes no sense to anyone but me, but it is the answer to the question.

1) On your website, considering how eclectic your canon is (mystery, sci fi/steampunk, horror, historical nonfiction and even a bit of erotica), is there any genre you wouldn’t touch? (Tweaked this because SciFi fans often shove steampunk aside as not part of their genre. I’ve edited historical non-fiction, but the only non-fiction I’ve had published was a technical guide, so can’t say this.)

No is the short answer, but it would depend on with whom I was collaborating.

I truly believe that any story in any genre is about people (or anthropomorphized animals if someone smart arse is going pointing to Watership Down), which means the best writers can jump genres. See Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl.

So, one genre I wouldn’t write novels in on my own, is actually erotica. I can write a short erotica piece, and have had one published, but don’t have what it takes to write an erotica novel. But if I was collaborating with someone experienced and known in the genre, I’d be more than happy to write with that person. And that goes for any other genre too. 

Now the one genre that I’d have to be really careful in agreeing to is one that I’d dearly love to be able to write, and that’s comedy. If you want to see this in action, read Terry Pratchett or Jasper Ffrode. Now I do try to give lighter moments in my work, it can’t all be darkness, but as the review mentioned above says, I am a sick bunny. What I find funny most people don’t. I think humour is the most difficult thing in the world to write successfully. I hugely admire anyone who can go do stand-up and make people laugh, and never underestimate the intelligence of a comic because they are so smart. Personally, I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I have some great one-liners, but they tend to be sarcastic which means that people don’t laugh. So again, it’s not the genre that puts me off, it’s the fear of my own inability to write it right that means I’d shy away from it. 

Similarly, children’s books. I read the draft a friend’s children’s book and I thought it was utterly brilliant. It was funny and fast paced and everything I would have loved to have read as a child. She can’t sell it because publishers say it’s too dark. I couldn’t agree less, which probably means that I’d be on a hiding to nothing writing for children. So that might well be off limits for me too.

There again, the right collaborator and… well, to misquote Ian Fleming, “Never say never.”

Gail’s Books can be found below:


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