Interviewing a Writer – Cari Hunter

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Cari Hunter, author of Snowbound, has kindly agreed to answer some questions for this blog.

Cari Hunter, can you introduce yourself in a few words/lines?

I live near Manchester in north-west England with my partner and two cats. I’ve been a paramedic for eleven years and, more recently, an author with Bold Strokes Books. I like hiking, baking, running, writing, catching up on sleep, and frogs – though not necessarily in that order and certainly not at the same time.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

Growing up, I read voraciously. Sending me to my room as a punishment never worked, as that was where all my books were. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword shaped a lot of my summer holiday playtime, then later I developed a big crush on Nancy Drew. And if anyone knows the twist at the end of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler you’ll understand why that was another one of my favourites.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

I’m a fan of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, the first three of which are my regular comfort rereads. More recently, I’ve raced my way through all of Karin Slaughter’s novels. Occasionally her plots are a little shaky, but her character development and story arcs just keep you coming back. She’s also very funny, which is unexpected given the gruesome nature of her themes. Last year, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein stopped me in my tracks and then broke my heart. It’s a long time since a book has done that to me and I’ll recommend it to anyone and everyone till I’m blue in the face. I’m not sure about these authors influencing me, but I’d love to be half as good as them.

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

I’ve only recently got back into reading ‘LesFic’ – the local lesbian book shop closed its doors a few years ago and I fell out of the habit of keeping up with new releases. Sarah Dreher was my first LesFic experience and remains one of my favourite authors. I love her snappy dialogue, her sense of humour and her supporting characters. There’s a real nostalgia to picking up her books these days, which also adds to their charm.

How many books have you written so far? Have you written anything else?

I’ve had two novels published with BSB – Snowbound and Desolation Point – and my third, Tumbledown, is due out in 2014. I’m currently working on a new story; it’s not contracted at the moment, but I live in hope.

I wrote a whole series of fan fiction for the Terminator TV show (Sarah Connor and I have a long-abiding love affair) plus some shorter pieces for Rizzoli & Isles, which is a crappy show but very fun to fic. I haven’t written any fanfic for a while, but it makes for a nice change of pace so I’ll almost certainly get back to it at some point.

What inspired you to write your first novel?

It’s more “who” than “what”: my partner. She wanted a story for Christmas, so I set about writing Snowbound for her. I never imagined it would turn out to be a novel; it was certainly never conceived as such, which explains its rather unconventional structure. Unfortunately for my partner, once I got the writing bug I went off on a tangent and ended up writing a couple of novels’ worth of Sarah Connor fic while she waited for her Christmas present. I did buy her something in the meantime though – I’m not a total cheapskate.

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

I would say I write lesbian fiction. There are tropes and conventions in the genre that I think Snowbound and Desolation Point make use of. Even though Snowbound wasn’t written for publication, I knew of BSB and LesFic in general and I’d read a lot of online fic, so their influence was there in the background.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this kind of novel?

With Snowbound, I knew what kind of story I wanted to write, but I genuinely wrote it for an audience of one, hence setting it close to home (no research necessary!) and focussing on a medical scenario (not much research necessary). It was only after BSB contracted it that I thought, “Bugger, better go and check some of this stuff out.”

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

It definitely makes a difference. Snowbound wears its Englishness on its sleeve. It’s set just down the road from me and it’s chockfull of northern colloquialisms, cups of tea and local foodstuffs. Its police are armed with nothing but batons and a sense of humour, and the plot revolves around that good old-fashioned British obsession: a spell of terrible weather. When I sent it to an American publisher, I was sure it would be rejected for being too damn English, but they wanted it and they kept it exactly as it was, and I love them very much for that.

Desolation Point is a different kettle of fish in that it takes place in the USA, but I knew I wanted to play with the UK/US cultural divide and I had already chosen a mixed pairing for my central characters. While Alex is from Boston, Sarah’s from up here near Manchester, so I could still write a story where someone got to say “bloody hell-fire” and “bollocks”, which suits me just fine.

How did you conceive the plot for Desolation Point?

To be honest, I pinched its main premise from one of my own fics. In my fic, someone runs the lead characters off the road and then spends the night hunting them down. At its most basic level, Desolation Point grew out of that. I had the initial parallel scenes – Alex’s assault and Sarah’s car crash – buzzing around in my head when I was finishing the edits on Snowbound, so I had a good idea of what was going to shape the characters. At first I thought about having a flood trap Sarah and Alex in the park, but I couldn’t make that work, so I sent Sarah up a mountain instead, set the storm against her and then had her stumbling across the main villain, which established the chase element. I had the main beats of the plot sketched out from the beginning, but I’m useless at sticking to a plan, so things remained very fluid throughout.

Did you draw your inspiration for the main characters in Desolation Point from real life? Or did you totally invent them?

I invented them from scratch, but there are odds and sods in the dialogue or descriptions that have come from walks my partner and I have done. We play the “I love my love with an A…” game when we’re knackered and trying to get back home. Sarah talks a lot like me and I too have to drink my tea while it’s hot enough to burn my throat, but otherwise she’s her own character.

In both Snowbound and Desolation Point the setting seems to be an integral part of the story. Could they have been set in another environment? Why did you choose the US as the setting for your second novel?

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I regularly walk in the Peak District, which meant I could describe it with confidence in Snowbound. Also, I doubt there are many LesFics set there, so the story has the advantage of novelty in its location as well as in its vernacular dialogue and general Englishness. It was staunchly northern English as well – I’m a proud northerner – and setting it elsewhere would necessarily have diminished that, which would have been a shame.

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I have no personal attachment to the North Cascades but, having spent a year working on Desolation Point, I couldn’t envision that being relocated either. The title would have to be changed, for a start, and I’m rubbish with titles. I’ve never been to that particular part of the States, but I did so much research trying to get everything right that I think I could find my way up Desolation Peak blindfolded!

I agonised about Desolation Point’s location before starting it. I didn’t want people to assume I’d chosen America just to broaden my audience (BSB’s readership is primarily American); in fact, I wondered whether I was shooting myself in the foot by not sticking to the English setting from which a lot of Snowbound’s appeal stemmed. Ultimately, though, I needed a couple of things to make the plot in Desolation Point work: one of my lead characters had to be proficient with a gun, and the location had to be expansive enough to get my central pair well and truly lost. I considered the Scottish Highlands and the Peak and Lake Districts over here but they just weren’t remote enough, so I decided to move things across the pond. That also solved the gun problem – as an American ex-police officer, Alex would know her way around a firearm.

Some readers might be a bit put off by the violence displayed in both books. Why did you think it was necessary to include details and descriptions?

Both stories have involved some genuinely nasty characters and I really do believe that if you’re going to have violence in your plot then it should hurt and it should have consequences. I suspect a lot of that stems from my day job, where I see the effects of brutality and trauma on an all-too regular basis. I’ve always tried to write realistically; the women in my novels are not super-humans, just normal people who get caught up in horrific circumstances, and they do things to survive that they’d never imagined themselves doing. If they get hurt, it takes them a while to get up again; and – because I don’t want to write cartoonish, toothless villains either – they do tend to get hurt. I never want to make the violence gratuitous, but nor do I want to shy away from the details or the after-effects. I hate books where a character gets assaulted in one scene and shows no sign of it in the next; anyone who writes like that has never sat opposite an assault victim and listened to them cry or tried to stop them bleeding.

I hope there’s enough humour and lighter moments scattered through the books to counteract their more brutal aspects, though I appreciate that the violence may be too strong for some people’s taste.

Between Snowbound and Desolation Point do you have a favourite character? Which one and why?

Oh, that’s a difficult one! I do have a bit of a soft spot for Sarah. She comes into her own in the latter stages of Desolation Point and she was a real darling to write. Having said that, most of the fun came from having her bounce off Alex, so they sort of come in a pair. Can I have them both? I’m having them both.

How has Desolation Point been welcomed so far?

So far, so good. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback and a fair few people telling me they’re looking forward to the sequel, which is a relief! It’s still early days and I know it’s inevitable that there are folks who won’t like it, possibly for some of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but the majority of people I’ve heard from seem to have enjoyed the heck out of it.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

I finished Tumbledown, the follow-up to Desolation Point, in the year between Snowbound and Desolation Point’s publication dates. It’s my first shot at an all-out twisty thriller and is earmarked for release in 2014. Until the edits for that come back, I’m working on a new story set in England (in the Peak District, again) which is a sort of thriller-mystery in which the two main characters are long-time friends and occasional lovers. I thought it’d be interesting to explore an established friendship rather than the stereotypical two strangers falling rapidly in love. At the moment, its working title (courtesy of my partner) is Aye Up: It’s a New Story! and I have no idea whether it’ll ever reach publication. I’ve got about another 60,000 words before I start worrying about that!

Thank you Cari for your availability and your time!

NB: Both novels have e-book Kindle editions

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Interviewing a Writer – Clare Ashton

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I had never heard about Clare Ashton until I read the following review of her novel After Mrs Hamilton at C-Spot Reviews. I added the book to my Amazon wishlist and downloaded it to my iPad a few weeks later. I was hooked right from the beginning and couldn’t put it down.

Because I had really enjoyed it, I thought I’d contact Clare Ashton about an interview for my blog. She accepted immediately and emailed her answers back within a couple of days. She was also most patient with me when I asked further questions. I hope you will enjoy the interview and that it will encourage you to read her books.

Clare Ashton, can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m a UK writer who writes stories with suspense, romance, intrigue and humour and an awful lot of lesbians. I also add (not always intentionally) a dash of something darker that can make readers feel uncomfortable. I grew up in mid-Wales where sheep outnumber humans, so a significant countryside setting is never far away in my writing.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

I read very widely as a kid from The Hobbit and Lord of Rings, Dune and other sci-fi to (later in my teens) Jane Austen classics and Anna Karenina. I think I had a higher standard of reading back then than I do now! Nothing better than curling up with a good trashy romance these days. I also stole books from my parents’ bookshelves by Tennessee Williams (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone) and Françoise Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse) – wonderfully different tales of love that have stayed with me over the years.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

As an adult, I think the books that made their greatest impression were The Secret History (Donna Tartt), Fingersmith (Sarah Waters), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) and the Tales of the City series (Armistead Maupin) – all books with a great twisting story and that has definitely influenced the kind of story I like to write.

I always seem to add a surprise or two and sometimes have a little bit of an edge and darkness too. On the other hand I still re-read Jane Austen. A review of After Mrs Hamilton has some very un-Austen like elements), I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

Sarah Waters must come top. I usually find books that revel in their descriptive passages a bore, but she just does it sublimely and her writing makes me drool. She also has real, vivid and compelling characters and my favourite novels of hers have a brilliant twisting tale too. It’s wonderful that someone of her calibre writes lesbian novels.

I’m a sucker for a good romance too. And of the books I’ve read recently Chris Paynter’s Survived by Her Longtime Companion definitely had that kick to the gut, choke-you-up element in the Eleanor and Daphne storyline. I also love Diana Simmonds’ light romances written in her expert and witty style. She makes writing look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Is After Mrs Hamilton your first novel?

It’s the first novel for which I completed a first draft. It’s a complex tale and that draft had several problems with it that I didn’t know how to fix back then.

I moved on to a shorter tale (Pennance) to improve my writing skills. Pennance has a much simpler plot although still with a twist and turn. It’s more dominated by the atmosphere of its wintery setting in Cornwall and it’s been described as a modern gothic romance.

After I’d published Pennance I went back to rewrite After Mrs Hamilton. I was also very lucky to work with an editor (Diana Simmonds) and that was crucial for me sorting out that early draft and making it the story that I always wanted it to be.

What inspired you to write your first book?

After Mrs Hamilton was the kind of book that I wanted to read: a page-tuner, with twists and turns, fascinating lesbian characters and a great dollop of romance and sex. All tastefully done of course!

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

After Mrs Hamilton is unapologetically a lesbian book, just by the sheer number of lesbian characters in there. Pennance I think is more a mainstream book, set in a remote rural setting with a broad range of heterosexual as well as lesbian characters.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this sort of novels?

No, I didn’t. It’s only been recently that someone told me that I was writing intrigue-romances. I only set out to write an interesting story.

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

I love the fantastic differences in regional flavour that you get between continents and indeed between regions in a country. One thing I think UK writers are particularly good at is literary works which appeal to the mainstream and have lesbian main characters (novels by Sarah Waters, Jeannette Winterson, Charlotte Mendelson, etc.).

It’s a pity that there is less lesbian genre publishing in the UK though. Most lesbian writers that I know of tend to be published by US publishers, and although I love their work (Cari Hunter’s excellent and gripping – Snowbound for example), I wonder if there would be more esoteric works available if there were more lesbian publishers here. It’s great to see other indie writers doing well in the UK, such as Kiki Archer and Rachel Dax, and I hope that indie writers extend the range of work available.

(I edit the uklesfic blog with Cari Hunter and you can find a list of all current UK lesbian authors here)

How did you conceive the plot for After Mrs Hamilton?

It started with a character, Clo, who works as a highly paid and sympathetic escort for older women. She was a character who had been kicking around my head for a while, and I’m very fond of her, and I wanted to give her the greatest romance and love.

She had an interesting background, but then I weaved in her best friend Laura’s background too. Laura was adopted and doesn’t know who her parents are and she is also on the cusp of a life-changing relationship. Combining those really made the story very interesting. It evolved from there over several weeks of outlining and living through scenes in my imagination – my favourite part of writing (daydreaming I suppose!)

Did you draw your inspiration for the main characters (i.e.Clo, Fran, Susan) from real life? Or did you totally invent them?

Clo was initially based on a couple of people I know very well, but as with all characters, the more I outlined and wrote the more she changed into a distinct character with her own voice, mannerisms and personality, so much so that I hope the original inspirations do not recognise her.

Fran, a fantasy older love interest, was based on gorgeous French actresses like Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant with a bit of Kristin Scott-Thomas thrown in. But again, to me, she is unrecognisable now and is just Fran

Do you have a favourite character in this novel? Which one?

One of Clo or Fran. They are both real, damaged, attractive and fascinating. I love those two and they have the most deeply romantic history and relationship (albeit a little unconventional).

How has the novel been welcomed so far?

People have really liked the twisting tale, and like me, have found the complex characters of Clo and Fran intriguing. Some loved Fran, as an attractive but real older (mid-fifties) heroine, others liked the damaged, quirky and loving Clo.

Readers have also found the tale of Laura very thought-provoking and made them react very emotionally to her and Susan. After Mrs Hamilton is a very charged tale. It’s a collision of several people who didn’t know they were previously connected and the outcome is emotionally explosive and dramatic.

Most importantly someone said it was just “a bloody good read”. So I’m pretty pleased with that!

I noticed that food is mentioned in both novels and plays an important role in the bonding process between the characters. Is this how you see food?

Yes, I do see food, its preparation and eating together as important for bonding in various social situations. In the books I meant it to reflect the low emotional state of the characters when they eat poorly and then to show the support and love that is introduced into their lives by the character preparing the more nourishing food. Clo in After Mrs Hamilton is a giving and loving character and her expertise with patisserie and other cuisine reflects this. Her ability to choose perfect food for people reflects her versatility as an escort – she satisfies people’s very basic needs in a rich way.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

When I was writing After Mrs Hamilton, I kept having ideas for short stories, which was very distracting. There are a couple of those ideas that are still demanding to be written. No doubt I’ll start having ideas for novels as soon as I try to write them!

Thank you Clare for your availability and your time.

NB: Both novels have Kindle editions

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Bilbo – the English Hobbit

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For the second year, French pupils who follow the most literary of the three streams of the French General Baccalauréat are now specifically taught literature in a foreign language, often English.

The idea is to instill knowledge and love of literature in English rather than specialise in technical terms, even though my pupils seemed to have fun with the rhyming scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet last week.

In December we did some work on The Hobbit, focusing on the poster above for Peter Jackson’s film, the 1938 New York Times book review and the first pages of the novel.

During the holiday, the pupils were asked to write several paragraphs to answer the following questions:
– Is Bilbo adventurous?
– To what extent can we say that Bilbo is typically English?

I found their answers to the latter both interesting and amusing so I thought I’d share a selection from different essays with you. Their ideas of what English people are supposed to be like are quite sweet.

His home:

We can say that Bilbo is typically English because he has got a very comfortable, cosy and warm house.

His house is a definition of what English houses look like.

His clothes:

Bilbo also likes wearing bright colours.

He also wears bright colours which match the image of the English who wear colourful and original clothes.

His habits:

Bilbo smokes a pipe like English characters such as Sherlock Holmes.

We can say that Bilbo is typically English because he smokes a pipe. Indeed the most popular character who smoked a pipe was Sherlock Holmes, an English fictional character.

He is very fond of flowers and gardens like British people.

Tea:

What is typically English is the fact that he has tea during the afternoon with visitors.

Bilbo invites Gandalf to come to tea which is a very typical thing in Britain. Tea time is at five in the afternoon and to invite someone to tea in Britain is typical.

His manners:

Bilbo Baggins looks typically English because of his way of talking. In fact he uses the words ‘dear sir’ many times to talk to Gandalf, which is a British, especially English, expression which shows a mark of respect.

Bilbo is also English because he doesn’t speak much.

Bilbo, even if he doesn’t want any adventures, is and remains polite. He uses very good and clear language, like a gentleman; something which is typically English.

One of the important things is that Bilbo is very polite. He says: ‘Good morning’ many times to Gandalf. In France people are known to be a little rude whereas English people are always polite, even to strangers.

Moreover some stereotypes say that English people are reserved concerning conversations. For instance, they rarely ask questions to the person they are talking with. That’s what we see with Bilbo and Gandalf. Indeed, the hobbit didn’t ask for Gandalf’s name; he only said ‘Good morning’.

Bilbo is a discreet character who is well educated, this is the idea we have of English people.

An Inland Voyage

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Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in 1850. He was a sickly child who was often confined to his bedroom. As a result he longed to travel and as a young man made frequent visits to France.

In 1876 he undertook a voyage along the Oise River from Belgium through France with his friend Walter Grindlay Simpson. Each man had a wooden canoe rigged with a sail, comparable in style to a modern kayak. The canoes were narrow, decked, and paddled with double-bladed paddles – similar in fact to the photo above.

In 1873 Stevenson published An Inland Voyage a travelogue about his canoeing trip. It was in fact his first published work.

This voyage is still remembered today in the region in a tiny museum near my hometown. This museum opened last summer and mainly contains one person’s collection. Marie-Jeanne Delville was born between the two world wars. Over the years, the former seamstress has collected thousands of every day life objects such as irons, washing machines, sewing machines, children’s toys, postcards and clothes. Recently she gifted her collection to her village and a museum was opened to host it.

Because Stevenson traveled in the area, the people who set up the musem decided to include his voyage in the building. I haven’t read An Inland Voyage, although I would love to now, but I enjoyed Stevenson’s novels when I read them. My favorite is The Master of Ballantrae. What is yours?

For those who wonder why the spelling of Stevenson’s name at the beginning of the post is different from what they read on book covers, here is the explanation: at about 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of ‘Lewis’ to ‘Louis’, and in 1873 he dropped ‘Balfour’. (Wikipedia)