Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Chapter One

For the past six weeks I have been interviewing a variety of flavoursome writers for my Literary Smorgasbord. The Smorgasbord began as a vague idea one Friday evening. By the following Thursday the first interview had been posted and it has rolled from there.

The only thing I decided on from the start was that I wanted to feature a really great mix of writers. So far, I’d say that’s a mission accomplished.  But before moving on to the next set of interviews, I thought I’d have a bit of fun looking back at what has become Chapter One of the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My first guest was poet, Stephen Keeler. I met Stephen when I attended one of his classes here in Ullapool – The Thrill of the Thriller. I don’t think we ever really got to the nub of what that class was about but it was a lot of fun. In his interview, I asked Stephen at what moment he had first defined himself as a writer.

One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.

The ritual humiliation of the young Stephen Keeler by Mrs Butterwick duly followed.

You know that saying about school being the happiest days of your life? I think whoever said it couldn’t have gone to school.  Either that, or they went on to have one truly miserable life.

Stephen introduced me to the local writing group, which was where I met YA author, Cyan Brodie. Cyan, or Phil as I know him, has become a good friend over the years and can always be relied on when I need an honest crit.

I also met Alison Napier through the writing group. We only met a couple of times before she moved to Perth but our friendship has blossomed through the medium of Facebook. Alison’s interview had me howling with laughter, though I had to decline when she offered a photograph of a fish supper as her portrait.

Alison owned up to a chaotic approach to her writing. At the other end of the scale, with a much more measured and defined way of working is Drew Hipson. As Drew works within a framework of deadlines and publishing dates for his magazine, All Mod Icon, that’s hardly surprising, but I would hazard a guess that when he is working on his memoir, Le Depart, he does so in the same disciplined way.

I take a similarly disciplined approach, mainly because it’s the only way I can be sure of writing anything. As it turned out, Drew and I have a few other things in common, including a love of great graphic design, Charles Bukowski’s writing, and the music of The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

You know how it is when you really get something? When you know it, understand it, feel it? It was like that for me from the moment I first listened to The Jam’s third album, All Mod Cons. The profound anger at the heart of the lyrics resonated with me. There was plenty to be angry about back in 1978. Problem is, while a few things have changed for the better, there is still a lot to be angry about in 2015. All Mod Cons plays as fresh today as it did then, and it resonates still.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

I was a fan of film noir long before I even knew there was a name for the kind of movies I liked.  The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole – I couldn’t get enough of them.  Everything about them, from the moral ambiguity, existential struggle, and cynicism, to the cracking dialogue and often stylised delivery, sang to me, and of course I eventually graduated onto noir books.  It was no surprise then that when I came across the term neo-noir, I immediately wanted to know more.

Neo-noir author, Richard Thomas, does a great job of explaining what it’s all about in his Smorgasbord interview, but for a real taste of it I recommend reading his book, Disintegration. It blew me away.

If ever a person blew me away, it was Orla Broderick. The woman is a force of nature. The kind you meet and then think, what just happened? Earlier this year, an impassioned call for action from Orla resulted in previously empty bookshelves in Women’s Aid shelters across the country groaning under the weight of books sent in by authors and publishers. Way to go, Orla. She also has a good line in nun stories.

In 2014, Orla won a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award. When she performed onstage for the Award Showcase in January, the recipients of the 2015 Awards were in the audience. Stephen Keeler was one of those recipients. And so it comes full circle.

I can’t wait for Chapter Two of the Literary Smorgasbord, which is going to kick off with a very different flavour of writer – a stand-up comedian.

Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Cyan Brodie

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce. Some of the nicest people around are writers, but some of them truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Thrillers With Attitude has undertaken to meet up with a few of these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers, some well-established, others emerging, so that you, dear reader, can find out more about them without endangering body or soul.

Welcome then, to the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My guest this week is author, Cyan Brodie.

Hi Cyan, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My friends and family know me as Phil Jones. I moved from North Wales to Scotland seven years ago. I live in the tiny fishing village of Lochinver where I now lead a simple life, occasionally working beside the shore of Loch Assynt conducting such varied activities as felling trees, constructing outdoor furniture for pine martens, and diverting mountain streams.

When I get a spare hour or two I write. I mostly write Young Adult/New Adult fiction under the assumed name Cyan Brodie. I deliberately chose a non-gender specific name to reach a wider audience. And if you Google Search Cyan Brodie there’s just me.

What were you like at school?

Studious rather than athletic – having two left feet and poor coordination didn’t help.  In junior school I was the only one who looked forward to our weekly spelling test and I loved writing essays. Fortunately my sense of humour made up for my perceived ‘braininess’. I was also an avid reader – by all accounts I taught myself to read within days of starting school aged 5 even though English was my second language (Welsh being my first).

I did reasonably well with my ‘O’ levels, but once I entered the 6th form, growing long hair, listening to inappropriate music and being totally embarrassed in the company of girls became more important than my studies and I trashed my ‘A’ levels. Yet somehow I still went on to get a degree in Geography.

What has been the evolution of Cyan Brodie, the author?

I probably peaked too soon as ‘Phil Jones the writer’.

When I was 16 one of my school essays was chosen for publication in the first issue of a Welsh Arts magazine called Mabon. Crwydro (Wandering) – a slab of purple prose – was the only splash of colour in an otherwise grey and tediously drab publication. Thumbing through my free copy several years later I recognised the name of another contributor – some guy called Philip Larkin. He’d written an article about the poet Vernon Watkins. I hadn’t even realised Mr Larkin, a fellow Welshman, was also Mr Larkin the renowned poet and so I missed the opportunity to name drop. But it’s never too late to make up for lost time.

University, career and the real world took over and I barely wrote another word of creative fiction or indeed poetry until shortly before moving to Lochinver more than 40 years later. During my last year in North Wales I’d set myself the challenge of setting foot on every peak in Snowdonia above 2000-ft. This transformed into a project to compile a serviceable walkers’ guide to the area complete with photographs and step-by-step directions. Luck must have been having a quiet week at the office because within days of my first approach to a publisher I was invited to deliver the entire manuscript in person to Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in Llanrwst. 80 Hills was published less than a year after I arrived in Lochinver.

Once settled in my new home, purely by chance, I enrolled in a Creative Writing course run by local poet Mandy Haggith – an attempt to get to know my new neighbours (or at least those who could read and write). And within three months it dawned on me that I might have some talent for stringing words together.

I went through a poetry phase – over 100 poems within less than 12 months. Then I experimented with short fiction – stories, monologues, dialogue exercises – and finally decided to have a go at my first Young Adult novel – Dreamgirl set in Edinburgh. After a couple of failed attempts at finding a publisher I entered it in a competition organised by Manchester-based publishers Red Telephone Books for ‘the Young Adult Novel of the Year’ and Dreamgirl came joint winner and was published two years later.

In the meantime I’d self-published a collection of short stories, a poetry anthology, and another YA novel set in Inverness. All were published long before Dreamgirl finally saw light of day in October 2014.

The Scottish theme continues with my latest self-published YA novel – Dark Sky. A crime thriller which came out February 2015 – the first of the Lochinver Trilogy and touted as Tartan Noir for Teens.

At what moment did you first define yourself as a writer?

Probably when my first royalties cheque for 80 Hills arrived in the post – the magnificent sum of £36.

People still ask ‘Are you working tomorrow?’ and by that I assume they mean ‘Are you cutting down trees or desecrating the landscape tomorrow?’ and I’ll sometimes reply ‘No. I’m taking a day off to do some writing (so feel free to drop by and interrupt me).’ Obviously what I should be saying is – ‘Yes. I’ll be writing all day (so don’t bother calling round).’

 What genre do you write in?

Primarily YA and NA (New Adult) now. I enjoy reading thrillers so although Dreamgirl involved a certain amount of paranormal activity you’ll find no vampires or wizards or dystopian societies in my work. . . but who knows what lies around the corner?

What draws you to this genre?

I think writing with a slightly younger audience in mind gives the author freedom to look at life with a fresh set of eyes. – to show things from a different, almost anarchistic perspective. I enjoy challenging the reader – creating an unexpected, even discomforting response – and this genre gives me ample opportunity. Most of my characters are still at that stage in their lives when everything is new, when no risk is too great because it’s not been properly thought through, when everything is being experienced at a more intense level and when surgically precise sarcasm is just one more way of appearing cool rather than of being cynical.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

To my shame I’ve read very few YA novels. John Marsden’s award-winning debut So Much To Tell You probably inspired me to begin writing Dreamgirl. And some would maintain that my victim, Caddy, in Dark Sky is named in homage to the heroine of my all-time favourite novel The Sound and the Fury. I’m inspired as much by watching movies and listening to people blethering as by reading other writers’ work. The only thing my competitors might inspire me to do is to write better.

What are you working on right now?

I’m a quarter of the way through the sequel to Dark Sky called White Shore. It’s obviously set in the same location and pretty much features the same set of characters.

What is it about?

It deals with Matt and Amy’s attempts to recover from the Dark Sky fallout. The crime they exposed could have had horrific consequences had things worked out differently.

 What made you write a series?

I had three inter-linked plots in mind – each capable of sustaining a stand-alone novel. The setting was perfect for a fresh take on the standard Scottish crime thriller – Tartan Noir. Not the grimy streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh or Aberdeen but the remote, unspoilt paradise of the North-West Highlands where most of us never even bother to lock our doors at night.

How much research do you do?

The series has involved a great deal of on-line research into drugs, human trafficking, more drugs, police procedures, prison conditions, pre-1939 Irish politics… honestly! And of course I got to explore the geography and history of my new home in greater depth and imagine it in a different light. What if it’s not one of those shortbread and picture calendar corners of Bonnie Scotland after all?

How long does it take you to write a book?

I wrote the 70,000 word first draft of Dark Sky in 2013 as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge some writers put themselves through each November. But like most first drafts it needed major rework. I seem to remember one person considered it mostly unreadable [I’m saying nothing – LG]. The final, publishable draft appeared about nine months later. It must be better because it’s still selling.

Best writing moment so far.

Watching a complete stranger sitting in my local pub with their nose buried in Dark Sky becoming visibly engrossed in the plot. Also someone else who read Dark Sky told me the ending gave her goose-bumps. . . and I think it was meant as a compliment.

What are your ambitions, writing wise?

To continue – releasing a minimum of one new book each year. I’m convinced that self-publishing is more conducive to maintaining productivity and momentum than the tedious route traditional publishers put writers through with the obstacle course of pointless delays. Sadly the order for the cabin cruiser is still on hold.

What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?

I’m a night owl. I can often get so absorbed in the act that it’s suddenly stupid o’clock in the morning and I should have been in bed long ago.

Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, words, time…?

I wish I could discipline myself to 2,500 words a day each day (which would equate to a 75,000-word novel within a month). But there are days when I don’t write a word and others when I can rattle off half a dozen chapters without breaking sweat. I stop when I stop.

 How do you write – longhand, laptop, typewriter, quill and ink?

The quill proved too impractical. You can’t get swan feathers for love or money up here.  75% is written in longhand – but I tend to add a great deal when I type it up onto my rusty laptop (hence the other 25%).

Any writing habits – music, particular place to work?

Occasionally music – but it can be distracting. Fortunately I live somewhere relatively quiet – no passing traffic, no 747s taking off close by, no noisy neighbours. Double glazing also helps. I don’t hold with needing a sacred place to write. It can be any room – literally (and I’ll spare your blushes but you probably get the idea).

What inspires you to write?

It’s not inspiration. That sounds too precious. Something will trigger a train of thought and the next thing I know I have an idea for a story that has to be written no matter what.

It can be something as simple as waking with a disturbing thought (the opening sentence to Dreamgirl) or catching sight of a random news report. I saw on STV that my local area had been designated a Dark Sky Discovery Site due to low levels of light pollution – and one idea led to another.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Spend nine hours reading for every hour you write.

Write what you yourself enjoy reading rather than what you think might sell.

Don’t over-plan – if you surprise yourself you’re more likely to surprise the audience as well.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block so get writing.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

To Kill a Mockingbird – a predictable answer but so what?

A few quick questions.  Favourite book?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Author…

Cormac McCarthy

Drink…

Southern Comfort if you’re buying – Birra Moretti if you’re not.

Film…

Jackie Brown (Tarantino)

Television programme…

Breaking Bad closely followed by my one guilty pleasure – Coronation Street

Music…

Where do I start? It’s Bjork today but it could well be Laura Marling or alt-J next week

What are you reading right now?

Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

It’s been a real pleasure meeting you on the Literary Smorgasbord, Cyan.

Cyan Brodie

Cyan Brodie

Cyan Brodie is the author of Dark Sky. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.