[Interview] Jeanette McCarthy

Jeanette McCarthy lives in the village of Newbold Verdon and works for a solicitor in the small town of Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire.

An extract from her first novel, Abandoned (Lulu, 2008), can be read on the Leicester Review of Books.

In this interview, McCarthy talks about her foray into self-publishing.

When did you start writing?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. As a kid I used to read girls comics like Bunty (showing my age now, I suppose) and re-write the stories in them, changing them to suit myself. Soon after that I started making my own stories up. As I recall, they usually involved ponies!

Once, running for the school bus I got run over by a car. The very first thing I did (after picking myself up and checking for anything broken) was get out my jotter and write it all down. I was totally unhurt, but by the time I got into school after being checked out, all the kids who had been on the bus had spread the story that I was dead, and that there was blood and body parts all over the street. There were children in tears, teachers frantic, it was brilliant!

I tore up my factual story and wrote the horror tale everyone wanted to read. Taught me a lesson, that did.

How would you describe your writing?

My writing is very character driven, as I believe readers have to engage with a character before they can care what happens to them. Although my present novel is effectively a chase, I like to add subplots and asides that show my characters in a slightly different light.

I don’t really have a target audience, as I tend to write across different genres. I have tried my hand at romance, sci-fi and horror, as well as crime, and I am presently working on a novel based on historical fact.

Who influenced you most?

I am a huge fan of crime novels, particularly American writers such as Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Joseph Wambaugh. I love the moody, sombre feel to these novels, the way humour and tragedy are intertwined, and the way the characters feel absolutely real.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Writing for me has often been a cathartic experience. I have found that writing about sad or unpleasant events helps me deal with them. My parents died when I was a child, and their loss affected me so deeply that for many years afterwards I failed to fully come to terms with it. Nowadays, I would have received counselling, but of course that was unheard of then, and all I had to fall back on was pen and paper.

I am aware that in many of my stories my characters have to deal with sudden traumatic events and the struggle to carry on, and I know this all comes from my past.

When did decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I had been writing stories, mainly for my own enjoyment, for a long time, and in 2002 I won a short story competition run by the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust. This small success gave me enough confidence to believe that people might want to read my stories, and I decided to think about publishing. Of course, thinking about it and actually becoming a published author are two very different things.

Do you write everyday?

I do try to write every day, but it doesn’t always work. We all have busy lives, and of course there are those times when you find yourself in front of the empty screen with no idea what to say.

I don’t have a set time when I sit down to write. Quite often I will log on to the internet, visit a couple of writer’s circle websites, then hopefully get back to writing. Sometimes I can get on a roll and write a thousand or so words. Other times, I’m lucky if I write ten.

However, one thing I do every day without fail is take my three border collies for a long run, and it’s during those times that ideas tend to float into my head, or problems manage to unknot themselves. I have actually dedicated my present book to my dogs, for that very reason.

How many books have you written so far?

My book Abandoned was published in May 2008 through Lulu.com.

Abandoned is the story of Mike Dole, an ex-soldier struggling to come to terms with the horrors of his past. Mike’s girlfriend Tess, a timid shop assistant, is afraid of him, but when she finally plucks up the courage to dump him, it sends him into freefall. He kidnaps her and abandons her on a remote island to die.

Detective Cal Fisher is the Leicester detective investigating Tess’s disappearance. Cal has his own problems, and is inclined to write Tess off as a runaway. Meanwhile, Tess struggles to survive. Close to starvation, she digs deep inside herself and somehow finds the inner strength to carry on.

And as Cal delves deeper into Mike’s life, the terrible realisation dawns that the hunt is no longer just for a missing woman. Now he’s hunting a serial killer

My previous book, The Dragon’s Promise is under revision, and hopefully will be published soon. This is a tragic-comic romance which segues between a Scottish island and the city of Los Angeles.

How long did it take you to write Abandoned?

The idea for Abandoned was born a few years ago during a walk in the Inverpolly nature reserve. This is a landscape as remote and spectacular as any to be found in Britain, and it was while pausing by the side of a still loch that I began to wonder what it would be like to live here, a long way from civilisation, and whether the beauty of the landscape would be enough to sustain me.

So I began work on the story of Tess and her battle for survival. I was determined to show Tess growing from a feeble, terrified victim into a strong and determined survivor.

Sadly, on my return to England, work and other everyday pressures got in the way, and the project was put to one side.

On my next trip north, I was browsing in the general store when I came across The Collins ‘Little Gem’ Guide to SAS Survival Training. After I’d stopped laughing, I bought the book, and what a fund of information it turned out to be. I was galvanised into resurrecting the story of Tess, and I began to find out for myself what it would be like to try and survive in the wild places.

This set me back, as jeans and a thin rainjacket are poor preparation for the often savage climate of the Highlands. And I found out by uncomfortable experiment that training shoes last all of three minutes before they are soaked through in the boggy Scottish ground, leaving your feet frozen blocks. Maybe I was expecting too much of my little shop girl.

And Mike, the bad guy, didn’t seem real. Once again, I put the idea to one side and got to work on other things.

It was the next Christmas when the idea reared its ugly head again.

There is a saying in the Highlands: if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.

On Boxing day I was walking with my dogs on Achnahaird beach, dressed only in a jumper and jeans.

Thinking about the vagaries of this fascinating climate, it occurred to me that Tess just needed to be lucky with the weather, and that spawned the further notion that others might not have been so lucky. The story was back on rails, and now Detective Fisher invented himself, and began to nag at me to increase his part.

The story rattled on happily, but there was still a problem with Mike. Why was he doing this to Tess? What was driving him? I decided to do some research into what happens to our soldiers when they return home from battle, and that’s when the novel took a different turn.

I was both surprised and saddened to find that many ex-service personnel get little help for the psychological trauma they bring back with them. These are people who deserve better. After reading some heart-rending stories, I began to understand the forces that might be driving poor Mike. He finally crystallised into a real person, and the rest of the story effectively wrote itself.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

Some months ago, I posted an excerpt from my novel on the My Writers Circle web forum, asking for friendly criticism.

Following on from the comments I got, I happened to mention that I was stuck with my characters, and wasn’t sure where to take them. Others replied to say they had the same trouble; one mentioned that his characters had been stuck in a minibus for six months, another wondered what it must be like for our poor characters, temporarily abandoned while their writers floundered round for ideas…

Well, the idea just sprung into life there and then. What if there was a place, a limbo where characters went when their authors abandoned them? I envisaged an enormous Grand Central Station, filled with everything from starship captains to southern belles. I quickly hammered out a story and posted it, and writers from all corners of the globe picked up the baton and wrote their own stories based in “the Station”. After a time it became clear that the idea had taken on a life of its own, and another writer, Citabria, volunteered to put the stories together in a book and publish it on Lulu .

The book is called Station Shorts, and all proceeds from its sale goes to Amnesty International.

Having seen how easy it seemed to be to self-publish, I decided to have a go with my own novel Abandoned.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

The most important thing for me is that people believe in my characters and care about what happens to them. The only way I can make sure of this is to believe in them myself.

In Abandoned, the character of Detective Cal Fisher did not really exist until I had written almost half the book. Up until that point he was a minor player, but as his part was about to expand, I started to give him messy problems to deal with in his personal life, and as the story progressed, I wrote a diary from his point of view. I find this a good way to get inside a character’s head. By the time I had finished the novel, I was having dreams about some of them!

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge up till now has been to get published, and now that I have self-published, the challenge is to find readers.

The downside of self-publishing is that you have to do all the marketing yourself, and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or you just don’t feel like it. I’ve also found it quite difficult to ‘blow my own trumpet’!

Lulu is a very helpful site, but the onus is on the writer to upload the text of their book, make sure it’s properly formatted, and check for errors. They can provide you with a selection of covers for your book, or you can upload your own, and up to this point, it costs nothing. They will help you all the way, but it is not easy!

Fortunately I have a husband who is a designer and web builder, which was a big help.

When you were working on the book, what did you find most difficult?

I found the police side of the novel quite challenging, as although I read a lot of crime fiction, I had no idea what the procedure would be if someone was reported missing, or how different forces would interact with each other over the search for a criminal.

I also had no idea whether the army would co-operate with the police when it came to one of their own soldiers.

Thankfully I had help from a couple of kind police officers, who were very obliging and were able to put me right. They also filled me in on ‘local’ systems. The novel is partly based in my home town of Leicester, and it is clear that all forces have their own way of doing things. I would recommend anyone writing this type of book to contact their local force. They really are helpful.

I also had help from an ex-squaddie, who not only helped with details, but who also had some hysterically funny anecdotes.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

In the novel, Tess, a shop assistant, is abandoned on a remote Scottish island with nothing but the clothes she is wearing, a knife, and a “survival tin”. This is a little tobacco tin stuffed full of matches, fishing line, and assorted other items designed to help you stay alive. I bought one of these tins, and on my next foray to Scotland, went out to the sea in my jeans, sweater and training shoes, to see if I could ‘survive’.

Although to this day I have not been able to light a fire with a flint striker, I did manage to light one using the matches, dead leaves and twigs. And I discovered first hand how satisfying that is. There’s nothing like first-hand knowledge to help you write with conviction. Tess is such an ineffectual character, that I had to make sure she could survive. That was a lot of fun.

What sets Abandoned apart from other things you've written?

This is my first crime/thriller novel, and in fact, the first story of that type that I have done. But what really makes it different is the way the stories of the three main characters intertwine, and the profound effect each has on each other. It is easily the most complex story I have attempted, and this is due in part to the way it was written.

I am not a disciplined writer; I don’t start at chapter one and go straight through. In fact, a lot of the story is made up as I go along, which makes it very enjoyable for me. There’s nothing better than suddenly having an idea that opens up a whole new avenue of story.

In what way is it similar?

One of the major themes of Abandoned is that we are all capable of far more than we believe we are. I think most people are too inclined to say ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that’, rather than simply have a go. If they did, they would surprise themselves. This is a theme that tends to run through much of my work.

What will your next book be about?

I am presently working on two projects. The first is a sequel to Abandoned, and again features Leicester detective Cal Fisher and his team.

The second is very different, and links the 19th century eradication of the Scottish population during the Highland clearances with the simultaneous decimation of the American Indian peoples. Although based on fact, this will be an action novel.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Someone recently wrote to tell me that they had stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish my book. As far as I’m concerned, that is the best thing anyone could say to me.


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