Just James! Fascinating in-depth interview with the bestselling author – James Fahy

My Meet the Author spot this month is focused on bestselling traditionally published author, James Fahy. Creator of the The Changeling fantasy trilogy and the Urban Gothic vampire series Phoebe Harkness. James is also a major influencer on Instagram, where he shares snapshots of his life and family shenanigans, as well as featuring amazing recipes and cooking tips. Although an extremely busy man, James is a keen advocate of authors from all walks of life supporting each other – be they newbies or seasoned writers, traditionally published or indies.

First of all, thank you so much James, for taking the time to come onto A Little Bit of Blake this week, and I’d like to start by congratulating you on the launch of the latest book in the Phoebe Harkness series, “Paper Children”.

Thanks, Julia. It’s been a while coming since Phoebe 2, for enough reasons to fill a whole interview all on its own.  I wrote Changeling 3 after the second Phoebe book, then, due to my own clumsiness, got into a bit of a traffic accident which led to a fun year of operations and physio. Once everything was back off hold though, I wanted to get Phoebe 3 out there asap. Excited that it’s finally here!

As an author myself, I know what a crazy head-rush launching a book is, so, how do you feel it went? And do you have any traditions or routines you like to follow when publishing a new book?

Book Launch time is one of my favourite times. All the solitary slogging away behind the scenes, where it’s just you and the screen finally come to fruition. I spend most of my time in the run up weeks to launch in a whirlwind of emails and phone conversations with the Publishers, my Agent, the art dept who are dealing with the cover, the marketing guys who are telling me where and how they’ll be pushing the book… it’s an odd sensation really, as writing itself is so solitary, but then at the ‘birth’ there are suddenly so many people involved and it turns into a bit of a circus. I also have great fun running teaser campaigns on Social Media, promos, booktrailers and giveways. I think any author would agree it’s a little bit like a personal Christmas when you have a new book out. Great fun but a bit exhausting.

You’ve probably been asked this before, but can you pinpoint what or even who inspired the character of Phoebe Harkness within your imagination, and was the fact that Oxford appears to be one of your favourite places a contributing factor to basing Phoebe’s world in a dystopian version of this city?

My decision to write Phoebe largely stemmed from my frustration at how a lot of male writers seemed to handle female characters. I read a lot of Urban Gothic and paranormal, and while there are some great ones out there, there are also so many books where it seems the only way a woman can be portrayed in a book as ‘strong’ is either to make her a completely stone-cold b***h, or have her be this perfect and unrealistic goddess. In my life, I’m surrounded by strong women, in my family and friends, and I wanted to write a female lead hero who was badass AND human. Phoebe is sarcastic, resilient and tough. She’s also socially awkward, clumsy and makes mistakes. I didn’t want to shy away from presenting a fully rounded person, and that’s where Phoebe came from. It seems to have worked well, I get so much feedback, especially from female readers, either telling me they ARE Phoebe, or they want to be her best friend. That’s pretty gratifying to me as a writer. One of the oddest questions I get asked is ‘as a man, how do you write women so well?’. Which I think is odd, because I’m fairly sure no one ever asked JK Rowling ‘as a woman, how do you write teenage boys so well?’.

As for choosing Oxford, well it’s my hometown, so it’s where my heart lives, and I know it inside out.

 It’s such an amazing city, and there’s so much history and architecture to mine there as a writer. Phoebe’s world is a closed in walled city, so I had to choose one that was interesting enough and had enough substance for me to play in for more than one book. I can’t imagine Phoebe being set anywhere else now.

Phoebe Harkness is now a trilogy, do you intend for it to remain so? Or can fans expect more from her? If you’ve truly written the end on that story, which direction will your writing take you in now and can you give any hints as to what your readers can look forward to?

Will there be more Phoebe after Paper Children? Hmm… readers will have to read the last page if they want to know. (evil cackle).

The next book I will be releasing will be book four of the Changeling series, which my Erlking readers have actually started baying for blood for now. I think if I moved to anything else before putting that one out there in the world, they would actually come for me with torches. It will be hot on the heels of Paper children though, promise!

After that, I have more than one project I’m working on. Two standalone novels, both of which hopefully will surprise readers familiar with my work, as neither of them are quite like what I’ve written before. My Changeling series is radically different in tone and voice to the Harkness books, and I really enjoy singing in different notes that way, so you can expect something a little chilling, and something a little historical. I’m keeping details under my hat for now though.

I know as writers we’re not allowed to pick a favourite book – as parents are not allowed to have a favourite child – but is there one of yours that holds a special place within your heart?

Book? Or child?

There’s more than one book that’s special to me, for different reasons. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner contains the spark that lit a fire in my younger mind that would one day spread into the Changeling series. I’m not sure I would ever have come to Erlking or the Netherworlde without Garner. Likewise, there’s a little-known book by Thomas Burnett Swan called Day of the Minotaur. I read it when I was around thirteen, and it started my obsession with mythology and faerie tales. It’s probably the reason I studied classics at college and later at Uni, and these themes still flavour a lot of my writing, so I owe a lot to that book.

Are you one of those authors who wrote as a child? Or is it something that came later in life?

Oh, I’ve always written. I think it was a bit of an outlet for me when I was a child. I was very solitary. I wasn’t one of the popular kids and I think I had a bit of a reputation of being a weirdo. My childhood was a strange and quite lonely one. Most friends I had were adults. I could hold better conversations with them and none of them ever tried to push me down the stairs at school. I was bullied at both primary and High school and hated both. I didn’t really start making friends or become comfortable in my own skin until I left high school and went to college. I met good people there and started to realise that the world was bigger than school, and I could carve a place in it, even if only through sheer bloody-minded determination. So, writing as a child was escapism for me. I could be anyone, I could go anyway. I could get away from my own life. I think you need that spark, that need to explore other places than your own life, in order to start to be a writer. Everything that comes after that is just practise, trial and error as you hone your skills and find your voice.

I’ve seen it stated many times that unless you write every day you cannot consider yourself a proper writer. Now, I have my own views about that statement, but was wondering what your take on it is?

I get that some people say that, and I can see the sense in it, in that, like exercise, if you fall out of the habit, you can get flabby and it can be difficult to get back into your stride. But I also think that, like exercise, sometimes you just need a rest day. Everyone is different. Some people have to write every day, others won’t stop until they’ve written a self-appointed ‘words per day’ target.

That doesn’t work for me. I can go a couple of days without writing. Sometimes I just need to switch off. I do get antsy though if I go longer than a week, as I write full time, so I really have no excuse not to. Although I give myself a mental break, as I have other things in my life too. I’m father and main carer to my family, two of which have special needs, so I have a lot of adult responsibilities, a house to run like clockwork, and everything else to manage too. A burned-out writer is a bad writer, that’s what I think anyway.

I know from your Instagram page that your hobbies and interests are broad and far ranging, but when you’re not writing, what is your favourite thing to do?

I can’t ever really sit still. I’m a very fidgety person, so I get very antsy (and no doubt irritating to everyone around me) if I have nothing to do. Even if I’m reading, it’s usually in a multitasking way, book propped up in the kitchen while I’m cooking, or balanced on the bike at the gym.

I love cooking and baking and am a self-confessed foodie, as anyone who follows me online already knows. I’m the only one who cooks in my house. My other half isn’t allowed in the kitchen, it’s my realm. There’s something very relaxing to me about cooking, all the stages of preparation, method and ingredients. It’s almost meditative. And the fact that it all comes together in the end into something delicious is like alchemy. Plus, I get huge satisfaction from seeing people enjoying things I create. Whether that’s my books or the food I put in front of my family. Maybe I still get a dopamine hit from pleasing people and feeling appreciated, blame my childhood!

Other than cooking, I’ve gotten back into exercise and being healthy in a big way. (yes, I’ve become one of those horrible people who actually enjoys going to the gym). It’s so good for clearing the mind, releasing stress and tension, and just making you feel better about yourself. I treat it like therapy, it gets me out of my own head for a while. After my stupid accident where I nearly died, I think I’ve scared myself a bit, and realised how fragile we are. Bodies are not disposable; I feel the urge to look after it now. I’d like to be around for a while longer!

When I do make myself relax, I adore horror movies. I will watch anything as long as its not torture-porn, (boring). Very few movies actually scare me. The ones that do impress me are those that don’t rely on lazy jump-scares, but the ones that unsettle and get under your skin. The ones you find yourself thinking about days later.

Like me, you are very careful to maintain your family’s privacy online, but how do you feel about those authors who share every tiny detail of their lives on social media?

It’s not for me to tell other people how to police their own social media. Some people are clearly happy enough to have their whole lives on show, but for me personally, it’s an area I’m very wary of.

The nature of my job means that I consider myself (to some degree) to be available and approachable. I’m happy splashing my own face everywhere and being public property, but when it comes to my family, they didn’t sign up for this. I don’t mind being in the public eye, but my OH is a very private person, and my kids are kids. They have a right not to be constantly exposed to however many followers I have. I’m fair game, I’m happy with that, but they all know and live with ‘dad’ and ‘husband’ me, not ‘jamesfahyauthor’ me. There’s so much danger online with security these days, if you’re in any even semi-public profession. You might see the odd, very occasional family photo on my feed, if it’s a special occasion and I have everyone’s agreement, but otherwise I don’t even give my other half or children’s names out, simply because out of the people who follow me on social media, a heck of a lot of them are people I don’t know. You never know if there are stalkers or oddballs out there. (judging from some of the more random Direct Messages I get on Insta from total strangers, quite a few, it seems.)

You seem to have struck a happy balance on Instagram, posting a lot of non-book related posts and stories, and of course as a traditionally published author with the backing and promoting of a publishing house there is less need for you to promote your own books. But I was wondering how you felt the unsupported indie author should best try to promote themselves and their books on social media? And is there anything you feel they really should avoid doing? (Sorry, that’s a lot of questions within a question)

That is a many levelled question! Okay, I’ll try to answer each bit of it.

Firstly, yes, I’m pretty happy with what I call the ‘casserole of nonsense’ that makes up my little insta-world. I see some accounts where it’s a writer and EVERY single post is about either their books or writing, and I fully understand why they might do that, and if it works for them, then great. But nobody is just one two-dimensional thing. I think it’s far more interesting and varied to your followers for them to actually get to know you, through sharing your other interests, your sense of humour or oddities. Open up a little to people instead of just being a rolling infomercial, that’s what I say. My feed is a blend of writing and promo pieces, whatever I’m reading, lots of landscape and nature photography, food, and many a silly selfie when I have some random topic on my mind I want to chat to people about. It works well for me, it might not for others.

You’re right in saying it’s a benefit to have a publisher when traditional to help with marketing, promoting etc. (and I should hope so too, they do, after all, take a cut of what you’re books make, so any writer would expect them to work as hard as they do themselves to make the book a success) – in my case they do. My publishers are wonderful and always enthusiastic.

I’m not sure I self-promote any less than an ‘indie’ writer though. I do all the same things on Social Media, teasers, giveaways and competitions, book trailers etc. mainly because I genuinely enjoy that side of things, its just another way to be creative and play with the world you’ve created in your books, but in a different format. I love image and video editing, so it never feels a chore to me.

As for what people should avoid doing? Well, I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re traditionally published or indie, or self-published, (I actually don’t like people hanging on the distinction as though it has any real bearing on the writing. A book is a book.) I have a lot of writer friends, both traditionally published and self-published, and the ONLY advice I would ever feel qualified to give if they asked, would be to be genuine. If you follow or interact with other people online, do it because you want to, and you find them interesting, not for the fact that they might be ‘useful’ to you further down the line, or that you think they might buy or review your book if you’re nice to them.

People are very, very, good at sniffing out insincerity that way I think. I chat on a regular basis to a lot of my followers, and for most of them I have no idea at all if they’ve read my books, or if they just like talking to me and following my posts. And I don’t ask. I don’t push my books onto people. If you make a genuine connection with someone, it’s been my experience that at some point you get a message saying, ‘oh btw I just bought your book and I’m loving it’. That’s far more satisfying to me.

My only other never-do rule (that I stick to myself as well) is never plug your own book uninvited in someone else’s comments section. I just think that’s such terrible manners, and always so awkward. Online friends are not each-others free advertising space. If that person wants to shout your book out, they will, (and if you’ve made a genuine connection, they really will). Shoehorning a ‘great pic of your pet budgie, Laura. It reminds me of a scene in my bestselling new novel soon available at amazon and other outlets’ just makes me absolutely cringe! I’d never do it, and when I have it done to me it makes my cynical mind wonder if that person is only my ‘friend’ online because I’m a handy soapbox.

I’m always more than happy to support and shout out other writers, (and I do all the time, we’re all in the same business after all, and attention is not cake. Someone else getting a shout out does not mean less love for me) but I know a couple of traditionally published writers who would never shout out an indie writer, and equally, I know indie writers who only shout out indie books, or create closed (to me) posts asking indie discussion questions I cant contribute to. It’s a bit sad that the division even exists. I think it’s self-defeating and I tend to ignore it and just do my own thing.

I know you avoid Facebook and have been quite vocal about your dislike of it, can you tell us why you think Facebook and Instagram are such different beasties when they are owned by the same company and are basically the same concept?

They operate very differently, (for me) Facebook works like a town hall noticeboard, where I can hang a post with some info about my writing, or what’s going on, and maybe people will see it, maybe they won’t, but it feels much less immediate and less like a conversation than Insta does. What I like about Insta is that there is this sense of a cohesive Bookstagram community, and it’s a bit of a false picture. Everybody doesn’t know everyone else, and we’re not all standing in a big circle holding hands. It’s more like countless smaller circles that are always moving and interlocking, little sub-pockets of people, and each of us is in (and moves in and out of) several of these shoals at any given time. That’s fun for me to explore.

I like that I can fill my grid with my posts, (which I think of almost as a blog) whereas on IG stories, I probably do most of my interaction with people, as it’s silly, disposable and very light. You can put whatever you like on there. I follow certain peoples IG stories much more than I follow their grid, because their stories are so entertaining. Largely on Insta, I live in DM’s, where I normally have a ton of conversations going at any given time. Its like texting a ton of friends at once, and some of these conversations you could scroll up a year. Its wonderful for me, as a writer, to make that connection and to build that kind of long-term relationship with a reader.

Autumn is here and the endless posts of falling leaves and pumpkin spice with everything are once more upon us. Do you have a favourite season? Or do you find something different to enjoy in each one, and can you sum up in a few words what each season means to you?

I don’t have a favourite. I love them all for different reasons. (I know a lot of people hate winter for the horrible weather if they have to commute, but I work from home so I get to escape that – but I did it for years before I was able to write full time, and the horror is still in my memory)

Okay, in a few words then:

Spring always feels hopeful to me. Winters are long and dark here, and there’s something about seeing that first fuzz of green on the bare trees and the days starting to get lighter that makes me feel I can breathe again. I love blossom, spring always feels like a celebration.

Summer: this is when I escape to my cottage on the island off Wales, so it’s my super happy family time, always full of busy adventure, exploring and outdoor fun. Summer is beaches and cliff walks, my kids covered in ice-cream, and sand all over the car. G & T in the garden in the evenings, and big family BBQ and parties.

Autumn: for some reason I always seem to be releasing a book in autumn, so its always busy! I love the light in this season, and the crisper air. Deer parks and woodland walks, with lots of hot and filling autumn food.

Winter: I do love all the festivities, Christmas, new year, fireworks and bonfires, and of course Halloween is my favourite time of year full stop. Mulled wine and cosy nights snuggled on the sofa reading. Bliss.

As I’ve mentioned before, you feature a lot of recipes and share with us the wonderful looking meals you create on Instagram. You seem to have a strong preference for Asian cooking, and I wondered what your favourite meal is?

I spent time in Japan, which is where my love of all things Japanese comes from. I speak well enough Japanese to get by, and I love the elegant simplicity and artistry of Japanese cooking. For a long time, my favourite dish was Nabeyaki Udon, which is a comforting noodle and egg broth full of smoky dark flavours. More recently, in the last few years, I discovered a love for Korea, and I’m an absolute addict for K-drama. I’ve watched so many, and I love everything about the culture, from the music, the fashion, the food and the cultural atmosphere and social rules. I plan to head to Seoul once I can speak the language well enough (I’m learning Korean at the moment – I love languages) and see it for myself. Korean food is robust and punchy and full of bold flavours and smells. My new favourite thing is Bibimbap, which I have gotten pretty good at making. So tasty!

Did you watch a lot of TV chefs as a child? Growing up, I have vivid memories of a mumsy Delia Smith and a permanently drunk Keith Floyd whom my family watched more for entertainment value than to learn to actually cook from.

No, not really, but everyone in my family cooked growing up. My family is Irish on my fathers’ side, and Italian on my mothers, and both clans are huge, and all foodies. I started cooking when I was very young, and I cook with my own little ones now. I think it’s important you learn young to be self-sufficient. I still remember being shocked when I first went to Uni and one of my flatmates in halls couldn’t iron a shirt or boil an egg. TV Chef wise, I love Mary Berry, as she’s always up for a laugh, and I have the biggest crush on Nigella Lawson. Everything she makes always looks so decadent

What do your family think of your books? I appreciate your daughters are probably too young for Phoebe Harkness, but have they read The Changeling series? Or perhaps you’ve read it to them?

My eldest, who is ten, has read the Changeling Series and loves it. With a writer in the family she’s been reading since she was born, so her reading age, (according to her school anyway) is around fifteen now. She writes as much as I do and told me she wants to be an author like Dad when she grows up. I told her not to wait until she grows up, write now, and she does. Our house is fully of stories. I haven’t read my books aloud to them, (they both like to squirrel themselves away in reading nooks in the playroom and read in peace) but I’ve done readings and talks at quite a few schools, including my daughters, which I think she was equal parts proud and mortified about. Any book talk I’ve done is always fun when it’s with kids. They ask the best questions.

Can you remember a book or series that had the biggest impact on you as child, and maybe were the influence behind your own writing career?

As I’ve said earlier, Garner’s Brisingamen is my mental bedrock, for reasons I can’t really articulate. I think it was my first encounter with the idea of a magical world intersecting with the real world, something I’ve gotten my teeth into with my own writing. I was (and still am) a huge Tolkien nerd, long before there was any whisper of movie versions. I must have read Lord of the Rings countless times. It’s the scope and depth of the world building that gets me, and I think Tolkien laid out the unspoken guide for pretty much every fantasy writer who followed him. Ironically, the vampire nightclub, Sanctum, which lies below the streets of Oxford in my Phoebe Harkness books, is entered by the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien used to meet and chat with CS Lewis and the other inklings. It’s a regular haunt of mine, and one of my favourite pubs to sit and write in in Oxford. It’s hard not to feel inspired when you’re sitting with your notebook in the same spot he used to sit and write in.

Do you have any favourite authors now? And what is it about them that appeals to you?

I’ve always adored Clive Barker. It’s been a thirty-year love affair since I first picked up one of his books, and I think I own everything he’s written. He’s known for horror due to classics like the Hellbound Heart (and the Hellraiser movies that it inspired) but he writes the most original and weird fantasy, he’s just a master storyteller. His writing is always lyrical, almost poetic. I think what I love about Barker is that he never pigeonholed himself or limited himself to one thing. He’s written horror, fantasy, children’s books, he’s a filmmaker, a director, an artist with great work in paint and sculpture. It’s something I aspire to do too.

Neil Gaiman is another, for similar reasons. His seminal Sandman series opened my eyes to graphic novels, and how you can hide stories within other stories. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable or controversial subjects, and his writing is always filled with a kind of quiet, unobtrusive hope.

Of the classic authors, which ones have you read and is there a piece of classic literature you think should be compulsory reading in every school?

I did a BA and MA in English and American Literature, so I’ve probably read most of the classics. Uni was useful for turning me onto them, and writers I might not have explored, and the poets. It really forces you to widen your reading and to read outside of your comfort bubble. There are some amazing minds in the classics, and its rewarding to spend time with them. It would be hard to choose a favourite, but I love Hemmingway and Henry James, Tennyson and Coleridge, and Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is a book that is so beautifully written, I read it once a year.

I’m not sure about compulsory reading in school. My school read ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’, both of which I found drab, grim and depressing. But we also, if I remember right, read Roald Dahl’s autobiography, which was absolutely fascinating.

I think I would suggest that every schoolchild reads Charlottes Web, because there a lot of depth in that book, about friendship, about growing up and rites of passage, and about sacrifice, death and dignity. People pretend to kids that these things don’t exist, but death and struggle are all around us in the real world, and you can arm a child against them if they’re taught to understand things like grief and love, and how to have a conversation about them, and to learn to be brave.

And some quick-fire questions for you:

Favourite ice cream?

I’m not an ice-cream fan. You can have mine.

Marmite, yes or no?

Absolutely yes. On crumpets please.

If you weren’t a writer, what other career would you like?

I’d love to expand into screenwriting and directing, maybe acting, who knows where the path leads in the future.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

More popular, hah! I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve very single-minded

Favourite TV programme as a child?

There was a kid’s show called Knightmare, where kids had to run around CGI dungeons solving riddles and puzzles. I used to run home from school in time to tape it on the VCR. That and the Crystal Maze.

Favourite TV programme as an adult?

I’m a huge American Horror Story nut. Been here since season one. I’m a loyal veteran.

What do you put on your fish and chips?

It used to be cheese on chips when I was down south, but I’m a northerner these days, so salt and vinegar for me, and lots of it. (still not friends with chip-shop gravy though)

Sweet or salty popcorn?

Salty everything. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I could drink soy sauce from the bottle. (don’t do this though, too much can kill you)

Tea or Coffee?

Both. I don’t get people who feel the need to take sides in the tea/coffee war. It’s like the Austen/Bronte divide. I like both. Maybe I’m just greedy.

Should the death penalty apply to people who constantly talk in cinemas?

Maybe not the death penalty, but I do think cinema ushers should be able to take them out with a blow-dart and a horse tranquiliser.

If you could invite one famous person round for dinner, who would it be?

Just one? That’s tough. Maybe Tilda Swinton. I’d love to cook for her and just have her talk at me while I’m cooking.

After your family and pets, the next thing you’d rescue if your house was on fire?

I have a box in a cupboard under the stairs full of old photos, from my grandparent’s generation. I haven’t had any of them digitised yet, so I’d grab that because they’re irreplaceable. Everything else is insured.

And finally, the biggie – Pineapple on pizza, yes or no?

Sure, why not? In a world where people are smearing mushed avocado on bagels and roasting Kale, we need a little anarchy.

And on the subject of anarchy, I’d like to again wish you every success with the latest Phoebe Harkness book – and I’m sure that Paper Children will be a worthy successor to books one and two in the series – Hell’s Teeth and Crescent Moon

I’d like to say a big thank you to James Fahy for giving up his time to come and talk to us. He’s a very talented writer and all-round nice guy and if you’d like to follow his Instagram page yourself or find out where to buy his books, then all his links are below.

Ginny Stone – Superwoman! An In-Depth Interview with the Wonderful Author, Mum and Cancer Survivor, Ginny Stone

This week, I am thrilled to be interviewing the lovely Ginny Stone. A busy mum and author living in South Africa, Ginny was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and her book, Out Damned Spot, tells of her terrifying experience. Bittersweet and achingly funny, it is a real and frank account of those dark days.

Ginny Stone is a hybrid author, with 14 books traditionally published and and 7 indie books with more in the pipe-line. She lives in Pretoria, South Africa in a rambley old house with extended family, and took time from her busy schedule to chat to me about life, cancer, pets and living in a family commune!

I recently read your book “Out Damn Spot” which is in fact a true story about your brush with cancer. The book deals with the situation in a fairly lighthearted and even humorous manner, but I suspect it was far from funny at the time?

True story! I actually had no clue how dangerous melanoma was until I hit Google and saw that it’s the biggest killer as far as skin cancer goes – mainly because it goes undetected so often. I was lucky.

In the book, your family were initially concerned in the first few days, but that concern quickly changed into disinterest and, dare I say it, even annoyance that your illness was inconveniencing them. Is that a fair statement?

Erm… not quite! They were concerned— in fact panic-stricken would be more accurate – but once I got the all clear and they realised I was not going to die, they relaxed and stopped worrying. This happened to be 6 days after the op – I was was still sore, woozy from the meds and post-op ghoulies, had no feeling in my upper arm (still don’t) and was reeling from the fact that I, Mrs Indestructible, was in fact destructible.

You come across in the book – and in your posts on social media – as a powerhouse of energy. Always on the go, you strike me as being the mover and shaker in your family, so do you think it was a bit of a shock when suddenly “Mum couldn’t do it all anymore and they had to help”?

A shock of seismic proportions would be a fairly accurate thing to say. Thing is, mostly mum did continue to do it all.  I am my own worst enemy and never ask for help. I think family members should automatically know when I need somebody to step in and feed the cats, make supper or just do general household stuff. That’s stupid because they don’t even see that I’m floundering. I need to learn to ask.

It must have been a very scary time for you, and I can only imagine what you must have felt, but did you ever believe that you wouldn’t recover? That the treatment wouldn’t work?

Okay – so I knew that they would be able to cut out the cancer from my arm easily because it was only stage 1. I wasn’t sure if it had spread though. I kept asking what the treatment would be if it had, and nobody would tell me. “Let’s wait and see,” they infuriatingly said. I guess it’s because if it had spread throughout my entire body, I would up been up shit creek. Luckily, the sentinel node was clear. But let me tell you – having that sucker out was much worse than having the cancer removed. That’s why I still have no feeling in my arm. The doctor never said a word – it was the biggest shock ever that first day when I showered. Why don’t they tell you what might happen, so you can expect things?

And what we all want to know is are you completely healed? Has the cancer gone for good?

Lol – fat joke – who knows! I am covered in speckles and freckles.  I just keep an eye on the ones that I can see. For the time being, yes.

At the time or perhaps since, did you seek the help and guidance of any cancer sufferers’ organisations or websites? Did they help, and can you recommend any for anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar situation?

Hah! It boils down to me and that help thing that I talked about above. I didn’t even think about counselling until long afterwards. It would have been so incredibly beneficial. All I wanted to do was talk about it, and nobody wanted to listen. “Yes, yes, but you’re okay!” was the general beginning of the change of subject sentence. My body was was okay, but my head was all screwed up. I blame my doctor for not suggesting some sort of help, but I think if you have not been through something like that yourself, you don’t really realise how much it messes a person up. Must say, my Instagram and Facebook family were fabulous – but I would recommend some sort of therapy. Unless you are a writer and a gardener – writing my book was cathartic on so many different levels.

You live in South Africa. I know this is a very beautiful country, but one that has its troubles. What is it like living there? And is it really as dangerous a place as it seems?

It’s the most fabulous place. The scenery is so diverse from province to province and absolutely to die for. The people are friendly and it’s not half as dangerous as everybody always blabs on about. Yes, it does have its own troubles and you do have to be savvy where you go, especially at night time. But you have to do that in any country. We have electric gates, barbed wire on the fence, bars on the windows, alarms and locks. Shhh… don’t tell anybody but we don’t use half of them. I have no desire to go and live anywhere else – except maybe near the sea. We have malls too – a fact that sometimes seems to astound overseas people. But no, lions and elephants do not roam freely in the streets.

Now “Out Damned Spot” isn’t your only book. I know you have also written the “Sibo” series of books for children. Perhaps you could tell us a little about them?

Sibo is a little girl who wants to help save the world. She wants all the kids to help her. I wrote the first book when we moved to Gauteng (from the Western Cape) in 2007. My writer and journalist friends loved it and suggested I send it to a lady who had publishing connections. OMG! She slated me left right and centre, told me my topic (global warming) was ridiculous and suggested that I take her writing classes at University. I was mortified, so bloody embarrassed that I could have been so bold as to have thought that lowly little I could write a book. I stashed it in my laptop for over six months. Then started chatting to a well-known columnist in one of the larger newspapers and he loved it and said I should send it to his publisher. They said ‘No thank you’, so I bluntly emailed them back – “No thank you because it’s crap or no thank you because it’s not what you are interested in publishing?” Got a really nice letter by return email, giving me the Publishing Association of South Africa’s website, and saying it was not at all crap – they just did not handle children’s books. I picked 5 children’s publishers from the list and emailed them. The very next day two publishers replied. One emailed and Lets Look Publishers called me and enthused.

There are now 14 titles published in the Sibo series. The first four Lets Look Publishers carried the costs for, but because I’d worked in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field before, I had contacts and was used to filling in proposals.  So I got a few pertinent books in the series funded – the first was on the topic of astronomy for International Year of Astronomy (2009). Thereafter I got commissioned to write Sibo stories on various topics like… nanotechnology (true as Bob – if you are not sure what it is – read the book), biodiversity, HIV AIDS, Chemistry.

Peter Sanderson from Lets Look and I are passionate about road safety – so we crowd funded for that title and got a chunk of funding from Nash Nissan. The following year we got more funding from Super Group SA and – this was very cool – we printed Sibo Looks Right in a slightly less robust format (more like a magazine) and gave them out at toll gates over the Easter break – a time when the roads statistics are shocking.

Sibo on the Move was commissioned by the Gautrain (our version of rapid transport) and they sponsored 10,000 copies of this title. That’s a funny story too – but I’ll bore the pants off everybody if I go into all of my funny writing stories. 

By the way – the other publisher that contacted me – Quali Books – published three other little books I had written and dodgily illustrated on HIV AIDS – and went on to translate them into 8 of the official SA languages. They are still being read.

What kind of writer would you say you are? One who plans and outlines meticulously? Or do you just dive in headfirst, no parachute and no safety net?

Pantser for sure! I get an idea in my head and off I go. But I’m trying hard to change my evil ways.

What do you have planned next? Are you currently working on anything?

My daughter and I write our series “The Imaginaeries” together. She’s the anxious one from Out Damned Spot and has a uniquely weird sense of humour. So, she gives me ideas and I run with them and write the story. So far we have three books in the series – self-published. It’s a modern day fairy story set in a local nature reserve where my husband and I go hiking. It’s a magical place all on its own, named Faerie Glen Nature Reserve. I know, right? Perfect!

Emma had originally created (designed and hand-made) a series of soft dolls with names like Marigold, Ivy Lion and Winona. We wrote them into the first story as some of the Imaginaerie characters – it’s a whimsical tale with some twists, and now we are writing the back, front and sometimes sideways story of each character. It’s going to be an epic series and it’s not only for kids, in fact the last two books are a tad less kiddyfied than the first. The back stories are more novelettes – quick, easy fun reads. There are many more in the pipe-line.

Have also just finished “Wizard of Wigwash – the Adventures of Johnny the Penguin” which I wrote in conjunction with Alastair Kendall in the UK. His dad used to tell him bedtime stories and he always wanted to turn them into a book. Poor dude, he found me just after I’d had my melanoma diagnosed last year, so I was rather straight forward and told him his writing sucked, but his plot was great. I’d write his story for him if I was not going to pop my clogs. I didn’t, so I wrote the story. Of course it turned out a lot bigger than he’d ever been told, and he was great and let me have my way with lots of the story-line. There have been three iterations, but the final version is rather good, if I’m allowed to say so myself.

I’m also busy with the first issue of a “Creative Writers Journal” also at the moment – if anybody wants to submit an entry – please have a look and see what it’s all about. The more the merrier.

I have signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time ever. I plan on writing something about Jack, the hooligan cat and Gemma, the neurotic sausage dog live on the Edge. Bit long for a title hey?

What’s your favourite part about being a writer? And what’s your least favourite part?

Being able to put stories, blogs, whatever into words and have people enjoy reading the end product. I love reading Sibo to kids and knowing that the story has made some sort of an impact. Even when their eyes roll back and you think they are bored, they suddenly perk up and answer all the questions correctly at the end and then fight over who wins a book. I wish I could give them all books. One day when I win the Lotto I’m going to buy loads of my books and give them out free! Oh wait… shit, I better start playing the Lotto then – hey? A friend of mine once called it ‘stupidity tax’ and I’ve stayed away since then.

I effing hate marketing! That’s the yuckiest part of writing – even if you are traditionally published you still need to market. It always feels like you are bragging about your own books, like… buy mine, buy mine!

As well as writing, I know you’re very passionate about your garden. Now to my English eyes it’s a very unusual garden, no less beautiful for that, but I imagine the climate in South Africa can very much dictate the type of plants you can grow?

Succulents rock! They are water-wise and are very rewarding. I love “proper” flowers too though. The weather in Pretoria is great for flowers and plants – they don’t even die in the winter. There’s no frost where we live, although it does get chilly (like  ~2 deg C).

What made you decide to completely restyle the garden? And is it finished yet? Do you have any more exciting plans for it?

When we moved into our house, the back garden was enchanting, shady, tree-filled, cool and green. The front garden was bare red earth with some succulents around the edges.

Whilst I was flirting with cancer last year, I was angry. Really, really angry with the world at large. So I flung myself into sorting out our fugly front yard. We’d tried making a few raised beds when we first moved in (August 2017) but they did not work out that well. Then winter arrived and the front garden was a nice warm place to sit. Albeit ugly as sin.

Chris bought us a divine swinging bench. I used to sit on it (and snivel when I thought I might die) but then I pulled up my big girl panties and started scheming. It went from there. I got fit and toned hefting rocks around the place. I think the family realised that it was an outlet for me and they left me alone. Chris only interfered when I placed the pavers for my long legs – he insisted that I make them closer together.

I still love pottering around in the garden. I appropriate rubble from the side of the road and make cool stuff with it, herb swirls, edgings etc.  The broken plates went up onto the wall in a nice big mosaic. The bench has become a renowned place to sit with friends and family.

Before Mosaic
After Mosaic

We mentioned your family before, and I know you have an eclectic assortment of family members all living in a big house together and I always imagine it to be a bit like The Waltons. Is this true? Or is the reality not quite so rosy?

Chris calls it a commune. I say it’s a mad house. We originally bought the house because it had a pecan nut tree and enough space for everybody. My 85 year old mom has her own granny flat attached to the house. Emma and her significant other have a little garden flatlet, Luan (aka Vetboy – my stepson – 3rd year vet school – no mean feat), Chris and I share the main part of the house. I make supper for six people most nights. Mom cooks the odd one every now and then. It was a rule we made right at the beginning – everybody eats supper together. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the backside, but mostly we manage.

The funny thing was, when I was sick, instead of them all pulling together, everybody went into their own little silo of misery and anxiety and I was left trying to pick up the pieces. Nobody ever talks much about how guilty one feels for putting loved ones through the trauma of your illness.

I have another daughter; she’s married with her own delightful daughter aged 7. We often wish that they lived a bit closer than Cape Town.

I think it would drive me crackers having so many people placing demands on me all the time, so what do you do when it’s all a bit much and you need to escape from it?

Crackers with cheese and pickles on! I go into the garden of course! Or do crafty stuff or hide in the loo with my book. Every now and then Chris and I sneak off for a weekend, but they are few and far between. Luckily I do have my own office. Okay – Chris has a desk in it too, but as he’s at work all day – it’s mine!

Now, as well as sharing your home with your large family, you also have several pets whose antics I and many others enjoy sharing on your social media sites. Can you tell us about them?

I’m quite good at sharing animal stuff hey! It’s because I wrote “A Dog’s Blog” for 8 years as a weekly column in a local newspaper. It was a hysterical look at family life from our SPCA pooch’s point of view. In fact, am still compiling those columns into books. Two down, another three to go!

We inherited Gemma when we bought the house. Her family moved to New Zealand and left her behind. She’s a neurotic sausage dog, had been run over before we got her, so limps like a drunken sailor whenever she thinks she’s not getting enough attention, and is very, very vocal.  Gemma has the best kept toenails in the neighbourhood, thanks to Vetboy.

Then we have Edge – Emma recruited him when we still lived in the complex. She was an abandoned kitten and managed to weasel her presence into the household, much against every reluctant bone in my body to have another animal (we already had Ralph, who had adopted us when he had a perfectly fine home of his own). Edge got fatter and fatter and we thought she was preggy, but kitties never appeared.  Turns out, when we went to have her fixed, that she was a he, about 5 or 6 years old, and had already been neutered. He had just eaten himself into a preggy-looking state, with man-boobs—the whole tootie. Shame, he also has tumours in his throat, and is FIV+. Luckily we have Vetboy in the house – he gives Mr Edge regular injections of cortisone and keeps everything in order.

Then there is Jack aka #Hooligancat.  We got him after Ralphie died. He is the most delightful hooligancat that ever existed. He is also the most wicked. You can read how we got him here.

Do you get to see much of the wildlife in South Africa? And what are your favourite of all its wild animals?

Every now and then Chris, who heads up the Physics Department at the University of Pretoria, has an overseas visitor who needs to be entertained. We usually hive off to the nearest (3 hours away) nature reserve, Pilanesburg, where one can spot some of the “big five”. We mostly manage to see elephant, rhino, giraffe, myriads of buck, hippo, warthogs etc etc. The cats – lions and leopard – continue to elude us though. My personal favourite are the giraffe.

Have you travelled much outside of South Africa? If you have, where has been the location in the world you enjoyed the most?

I was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Malawi, went to high school in South Africa and landed up staying here. I’ve also been to Namibia, Mozambique, Cyprus, Rome, Amsterdam, UK, Belgium, Switzerland and have visited my sister in San Francisco, or rather, just outside SF. I loved Belgium.

If you could travel anywhere, money no object, where would you go?

My bucket list is to walk the El Camino, not really for the whole pilgrimmy thing, but I love the thought of having my life on my back for a few weeks and not having to worry about much. Otherwise I’d like to just travel a bit with Chris – he’s a great person to travel with.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Ginny Stone for taking the time to have a chat with us this morning, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed hearing about her busy and exciting life. Below is the link to look up Ginny’s books and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning here on A Little Bit of Blake. I hope you have a wonderful day and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.

Regards

Julia Blake

An Interview with an Author ~ Becky Wright on her latest Gothic novel, vampires & Mr Stoker

There is no denying the fascination we seem to have with Vampires. They have dominated fiction for decades. Most of us if asked to name one, would say Dracula, and of course he is undoubtedly one of the most infamous figures in literature. However, he was not the first blood sucker. During a stay at Lord Byron’s Lake Geneva villa in 1816, it was John Polidori who put pen to paper to create The Vampyre. It was on this same infamous occasion that Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein. It is said that Polidori sculptured his vampire, the suave noblemen Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself; ironically so, as the short work of fiction was first credited to Lord Byron himself by his publishers. Eighty or so years later, there is no doubt that Bram Stoker took inspiration from Polidori’s Vampyre to create what we now see as one of the most iconic characters in horror. What it is about these life sucking, blood thirty villains that we find so fascinating? ~ Becky Wright Author

So, first of all, let me say a big hello to Becky Wright, and congratulations on the publication of your latest book “Mr Stoker & I” which was released just yesterday:

Thank you so much Julia, this book feels like it’s been a long time coming.

Now, I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of the novel, and I absolutely loved it. To me it felt very timeless and had elements of classical novelists such as Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley. Was that intentional?

Honestly, I don’t think it was intentional at all. And it wasn’t until all my beta readers mentioned the same thing that I sat back and thought about it. For it to be described as Gothic literature rather than Gothic fiction, was the best compliment I can get as a writer. I have a true love for the classics, for the lyrical prose, the phrasing; it has a certain kind of timing to it, melodious, like a musical score. I have to admit that I don’t read much contemporary fiction at all, as my heart has always belonged firmly planted in the past. Obviously, it’s rubbed off on me.

In the story, you’ve gone right back to the pre-vampire era, and I think “Mr Stoker & I” could be considered an origin tale. Would you agree?

Right up until the point of marketing; I had never really of Mr Stoker & I as a vampire story. There are no fangs, or bats, no cloaked figures. And that is because you are right, it’s more a tale of vampire incarnation, of how it came to be, of how one family’s desperation finds faith in misguided belief, with catastrophic conciseness. It’s a story of “what if?”

Have you always been fascinated by vampires? Or is this a recent interest inspired by the book?

I’m not a huge vampire fiction reader, for me it’s all about the characters and the emotions they make me feel along their journey. I love horror, whether it’s vampires, ghosts or poor lost souls. Yet saying that, Dracula is without a doubt one of my favourite classics. It sits alongside Wuthering Heights, and for me it’s for about the dark side of human nature. Maybe there is something in Bram’s writing, in his words, that struck a chord in me – fine tuning and orchestrating Mr Stoker & I.

One of the book’s main characters is Mr Bram Stoker himself, the creator of the best-known of all vampires, Dracula. How much research did you do on him, and did you discover any surprising facts about the father of the vampire genre?

I certainly have a passion for Bram Stoker himself, over the past year or so whilst writing I’ve referred to him fondly as my dear Bram. During the whole writing process, I found myself reading biographies, articles, anything I could find about the man behind Dracula. I think the most notable fact was although he was a famed writer in his lifetime – alongside his ‘day jobs’ of  theatre manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, and being manager to Sir Henry Irving – it was not until after his death that Dracula was pulled into the limelight as we know him. As is so often the case with great artists. 

Why do you think Dracula was such an instant hit with the Victorian reader?

Published in May 1897, it wasn’t the immediate success and hit you would imagine with the readers of the time. It wasn’t until after his death that the 20th century readers became more obsessed with Count Dracula. The 1922 movie Nosferatu certainly had something to do with that.

Even though he’s a blood thirsty killer, the appeal of Dracula has never faded from popularity and has spawned a whole vampire culture, what do you think can account for this lasting fascination?

Maybe there is something quite sensual about it. The appeal of immortality, of being devoured. And there is also something quite lustful about vampires. I think that’s how it has developed, that a lot of modern vampire fiction tends to lean towards making death romantic. Although Dracula was not so debonair, or suave, more the desperate blood sucking fiend.

Dracula spawned an entire literary genre, and I wondered what you thought of the recent incarnation of vampires in series such as “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries”?

They are not really my thing. Not to say they don’t have their place; they certainly have their fans and success. They have fulfilled or perhaps fed, an insatiable hunger of the young blood-thirsty readers, who are maybe looking for more romance than actual horror.

A remorseless serial killer or a misunderstood anti-hero? Where do you personally place vampires?

I’m afraid my vampires will always be more blood thirsty killers. Whether they are pretty to look at or grotesque monsters, they thrive on the kill, perhaps with a lingering sense of remorse for the human they once were, but it’s all about their own survival.

Even before Bram Stoker penned the immortal “Dracula” the vampire myth has persisted in folklore, especially in the Transylvania area of Europe, with tales of Vlad the Impaler immediately springing to mind. Do you think there’s any substance to these wild tales? And do you have any theories as to the origins of the vampire legend?

If you look into the history of vampires almost every culture has it’s own origin. Mostly existing in folklore, beings feeding on the vital energy force of the living, which is where blood comes in. And as with most folklore, myths and legends, maybe there is that small seed of fact to begin with.

Now the setting of “Mr Stoker & I” is the quaint British seaside town of Whitby – where Dracula is supposed to have first come ashore. Have you ever visited the town? If you have, can you share your impressions of it.

I adore Whitby. I first visited the town about a decade ago, and without a doubt because of its connection with Bram Stoker feel an affinity with the place. We recently revisited and I didn’t want to come home. Even if you put aside any connection to Bram or Dracula, Whitby Abbey dominates the headland with an open invitation, and the town has a vibe to it, it says – welcome, come sit a while, watch the sea, listen.

“Mr Stoker & I” is such a rich and evocative read and harkens back to a more detailed and sumptuous style of writing. Was this deliberate? Or did this style evolve as you were writing the book?

I had no set-out plan of how the book was going to feel, the style, or even the exactness of its genre. All I knew was Lucy had to tell you her story, and how she was going to do that, well, I left that up to her.

I know this is the question that appears in every author interview, but where did the inspiration for the book arise? Was it a germ of an idea that gradually developed? Or did the whole plot come to you complete?

I had planned – I may still plan – to write a collection of macabre short stories, a collection of Penny Dreadfuls – and an image of a piece of carved Whitby jet came to mind, an elaborate mourning piece of jewellery the Victorians were so good at. Whitby has an incredible collection in their museum. This tiny germ of an idea quickly altered into something quite different, as when I really thought about Whitby I didn’t think of jet, but Dracula, and in turn Bram Stoker and his visit in the Summer of 1890. Then the idea of, what if?

If you were suddenly face to face with a vampire how would you react? Would you be afraid and try to escape? Or do you think you’d succumb to his fatal charm?

Do you know, I have no idea? Maybe the Gothic romantic in me would like to think it was a move of seductive charm and gladly succumb to my fate. But in all likelihood, it would be a moment of savage primitive need, and if I didn’t escape my last moments would be having my throat ripped out. Not very romantic after all… I think I’d run for it.

And a question that I know every reader of “Mr Stoker & I” will want answered. Is that it? Or will there be any more tales from the world of the father of vampires?

For me, Mr Stoker & I has a definite ending, as in, there will not be a sequel to the story and Bram will not appear again. Now, having said that, I do plan another book set in Whitby. There will most certainly be some ties to Miss Lucy and her ancestry and Blackthorn Manor itself. Although I can’t promise vampires, I can promise it will be a dark Gothic tale befitting of its era and surroundings.

One of the wonderful things about the book is its striking and mesmerising cover. Now I know you created this yourself, but can you talk us through the process a little. And was this the image you always imagined for the cover, or one that developed after the book was written?

I cannot take credit for the cover. It was most certainly in its entirety the work of my incredible husband. He plays a huge role in my writing process and knew the story very well before he started. I had a completely different vision for the cover, but having total faith in his abilities, I just let him run with it. And just as well I did, my idea was nothing compared the deliciously dark Gothic feel it has.

“Mr Stoker & I” is so detailed and so sumptuously written, that I wondered how long it took you in total to write it?

I am a terribly slow writer. Not that I think it should be seen as a fault, more a way I work. I put a lot of time and effort in my first draft. So much so, that I’m not sure it ever really is a rough first draft. I tend to polish and refine as I go in order to fully uphold the mood of the book as I write. I feel if it was too much of a rough draft, I would lose interest very quickly. Last year, we moved house whilst in the midst of my writing, which brought with it a whole host of time consuming and brain aching issues with it. Taking all that into account, I spent around 18 months on it.

When I was reading the novel, I couldn’t help but picture it as a wonderfully atmospheric film. Would you enjoy seeing it adapted for the big screen? And if it was and you could choose, who would you like to see play the main characters?

I would love to see it on the big screen, or maybe even better on the small screen as a 3-part period drama. As to who would play the main leads, that is a hard one. When I write, I do have a mental picture of the characters, they creep very quickly under my skin, but never in so much physical form, as in their emotions and thoughts, the essence of who they are, not what they look like. I shall have to give this one lots of thought.

And finally, what can Becky Wright fans expect from you next? Is there a plot already bubbling in your imagination, and if so, can you give us a few teasers?

What’s next? More dark, more Gothic, more horror. I’m working on a novella, something short for later in the year. Id love to say Halloween, but I’ve learnt not to give dates as life changes quickly. What I will say is my main character this time is quite a feisty little number, and not sure I’d want to cross her.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy weekend publishing the book to talk to us, Becky. I know I speak for all your readers and fans when I say how thrilled we are that another wonderful book of Becky Wright inspired horror is available to grace our bookshelves.

Should you wish to buy a copy of “Mr Stoker & I” for yourselves or would like to follow Becky, then links are all below.

Do Middle-Aged Woman Become Invisible? Guest interview Toni Kief



Join me and the wonderful
author, Toni Kief, as we
discuss the role of the older
woman in literature and
in life
.

Do women become invisible as they get older? That is certainly the opinion of this week’s guest the fabulously funny author, Toni Kief. Author of five independently published books, she made a conscious decision to have her heroines buck the trend and consequently they are smart, opinionated, determined and are definitely what would be termed – ladies of advanced years. I asked her what first triggered this realization that us older girls become more or less invisible to society, and she responded with the statement below.

“There is nothing more amazing than a four-year-old girl. Confident, cute to the max, all-knowing, and energetic, she can dominate a room. This moment is before the demands of society wrestles her into insecurity.  Doomed to forget that she is more than a reflection and a fractured comparison to photoshopped beauty. By the teen years, she hates her unique perfection and tries to undermine her brilliance.

Often the girl chooses to stifle her genius and dedicates decades to the success of those she loves. Then one day, the shock of fading into the background from the social scene hits. This phenomenon is usually in the mid to late forties. Simply another step is taking her to a trivializing, “cute.” But this time it is the precursor to the dismissive label of elderly.

When I turned sixty, I realized I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. By that recognition, I had already become completely invisible, and any attention felt like charity. So many years dedicated to the success of husbands, children, and maintaining food and shelter, I didn’t make time to dream. After accusing my mother of sneaking around behind my mirrors, I started to look deeper. We crones were everywhere, but you have to search. There’s one carrying a covered dish, another offering aspirin, one more babysitting, or over there sitting quietly in the corner. NO, it’s our turn. I decided to do something, anything to celebrate us.

In an unintentional challenge, never meant to be serious, I started to write. Unlike many who have silently written for entire lives, that wasn’t me. After a couple of hundred short stories, there was the afternoon I saw a woman of an unexpected age. She was walking, no stomping, on the side of the road. She was deep in an animated conversation with the cosmos, and she was angry. That was the moment that birthed my first book, Old Baggage.  Gifted with the realization that all of us have stories to tell, I continued. Women, not girls, face choices and make new beginnings when least expected. Our stories are sometimes shocking, victorious, heartbreaking, and funny. They arise from an unplanned change. However it happens, those twists make us who we were meant to be.

Our confident, beautiful, all-knowing selves from the age of four, are back. So, I decided to make invisibility a superpower, to celebrate my regrets as a tool that brought me to here. I’ll continue to embroider personal stories into legends hoping for a form of immortality.

Today is the beginning. Your assignment is to make art. The art of your choice and move it to primary importance. Right now, form a unique creation with no concern about measuring up to anyone but our four-year-old epic self. Ready, set – go!”   

Toni Kief…

Toni, that’s quite a forceful and poignant statement, but do you really believe that when women reach a certain age, we become invisible?  

It happens quickly along with a particular birthday, between 45 and fifty. One day, we walk in the room, and heads turn and there are greetings. A week later, around the season of menopause, there is no notice at all.  Instead of being asked to dance, I’m now asked to save a chair.

Why do you think that is? Is it because we’re no longer considered attractive to the opposite sex?

The realization that when the Beatles came into popularity, I was too young for Paul McCartney, and now at the age of 70 I’m too old. I agree it has to do with sexuality and a society that has been moulded to worship a glorified idealization of youth and fashion.

As the attention from the opposite sex wanes, I watch the communities of women grow. Little do “they” know that we are coming into our strength. Educational opportunities have grown, and we are no longer considered a victim or frail.  In reality only the exceptions were weak.

Throughout history, we women receive a minimal education and placed in a position of support.   Many of us have been listening, and reading – growing to a greater role. We are asked daily to prove we can not only take care of ourselves, but children and elders too. Today, I hear the mature voices speaking and building in power, but it is slow going.

Or does it go deeper than that? Perhaps it even has its roots further back in history, to a time when once a woman was no longer able to bear children, she was considered a burden on society?

The historical research I have found genius and accomplishments that were co-opted and demeaned. In earlier times we were witches and hags. Now it is bitches, shrill, and emotional, but things are changing, and it is an exciting time.  There were a few women in positions of power. There are some very respected women in history, but at the time, I’m sure they had to battle the patriarchy. In my research I find names daily that have slipped to the foot notes.

Or maybe it’s simply that many middle-aged women dress for comfort and no longer to impress. I must admit, I have heard the siren call of elasticated waistbands and the colour beige myself, which I am so far resisting.

 I stopped wearing shoes you couldn’t run in during the women’s rights marches in the 80s. I was the President of the Tampa National Organization for Women. I started a movement to mail our shoes to President Reagan. He had been against women’s rights and the transition from the home and subservience. My last pair of high heels were sent along with over 200 pairs of shoes. There was no acknowledgement in the press, but I was rewarded with an FBI file, which I’m sure is paper and in the back of a cabinet.  P.S. the Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified so American women are still not protected on the Constitution.

 Now, I understand that you didn’t start writing yourself until you were a lady of advanced years, what gave you the push to begin?

I didn’t start writing until I was sixty years old. I was in metaphysical group that was disbanding. James Johnson said, “I want to write more.” I’m not sure where the answer came from, but I said, “If you write I’ll write.” Now ten years later we have a total of eight published books between us, and that doesn’t include the cookbooks we never published. (Dangerous Dishes and the Food they Inspire were short biographies of women of history and myth with recipes to go with them.) I have the only printed copy.

What’s your favourite thing that you have written?

Of all my 200 short stories and 5 books. My favourite project is Mildred In Disguise with Diamonds. The first in the Mildred Unchained trilogy. Mildred Petrie is 71, widowed and broke. She walks to a casino, and they offer a job working in security undercover.  She isn’t your usual crime fighter and I’d love to hang out with her.

I really enjoyed reading Mildred in Disguise with Diamonds and admired her strength and determination not to let her age slow her down in any way. How much of you is in Mildred?

I’m noisier and more strident than Mildred. But we do share a drive for justice. I considered her completely separate, but as the further books came along, I can’t deny there are some connections.  

Before our interview, I thought long and hard about whether I could think of any older heroines in literature at all, other than your own of course, but all I could come up with was Miss Marple from the Agatha Christie books. Can you think of any others? And if you can, did they have any influence on your own heroines?  

I’m racking my brain. Most older women in literature are Queens, murderers, or supporting characters. I found The Little Old Lady That Broke All the Rules, by C. Ingelman-Sundberg and found it delightful, but I already had Mildred cooking.  I’m noticing a change creeping into the entertainment industry starting with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I love that the older actresses are refusing to be pushed aside and building their own projects.

Do you read indie books? If so, are they any that have had an impact on you, and why?

The past four years I have read almost exclusively Indie authors. It has been a wild ride into genres I wouldn’t have read before when I was awash in best sellers.  This sounds like a commercial, but one of my favorites was The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ written by you.  The story was complex, the characters were deep and thoroughly real.  There was also Circle of Time by Debra Shiveley Welch, she combined history and time travel in a fascinating way. The Shark God’s Son by Kia Bertrand, this was a modern story into Hawaiian myth and unique read. Last, was another dive into a genre I had avoided before, The Immortality Cure by Tori Centanni, a mystery with a unique vampire twist that is out of the stereotypes.

Did you think about trying for a traditional publishing contract? Or did you go straight to being an indie author? If the latter, why?

 I didn’t even try traditional. Since I started writing so much later in life, I didn’t want to wait for agents to reject me and then publishers all adding more months and years to a book. So, I simply went to work, published and then wrote some more.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a historical fiction about my 8x great grandmother, Susanna Jackson/White/Winslow who was on the Mayflower in 1620. I’m struggling with her book; it is so much more complex that the story that has been given to us in our American history. She also had disappeared for a long time, but was a true foundation to the colonization. Sue Allan from Scrooby Manor has been successful and learning about Susanna.

That sounds fascinating, and of course despite history being mostly told from the male perspective, there are examples of remarkable women doing extraordinary things. Is there any one woman from history whom you particularly admire?  

When asked if there is a person alive or dead that I could meet with, I always chose Mary Magdalene and a translator. Since I have spent some years researching women’s history this could read like the movie credits at the end of The Greatest Story Never Told. I’d like to meet Elizabeth Freeman, AKA Mum Bett, she was a slave in the 1770s and sued for her freedom. She was the reason that there wasn’t slavery in Massachusetts from then on.  I had researched her and couple years later found my family was the bad guys in the story. In my time in politics I have been fortunate to meet several modern women and I would love to spend more time with Maya Angelou. 

What is your pet hate?

Frogs and I don’t know why. I must have seen one with a knife and a sneer when I was a baby. Just thinking about this answer gave me a chill.

Have you ever built it into a character or used it in your writing?

No, it is a silly enough hate it would make a character unbelievable.

What movie can you watch over and over again?

I don’t tend to re-watch movies or reread books. I am embarrassed to say that I’ve seen Grease seven times, but that was accidental – it was on in front of my face.

Grease is the word – if you’d said those seven times were on purpose there’d have been no judgement from this side. Okay, is there one movie you saw and absolutely hated?

I can’t believe how hard it is to answer this question. If I dislike something, I let it go.  I have walked out on films, and if it is in a multiplex simply go to the next theatre. I’ll go with the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care about fast cars and violence once, let alone 8 of them. Ever since seeing The Mummy’s Ghost on late night TV at the age of 10, I have avoided 99% of the horror genre too.

What’s your favourite quote, ever?

Oscar Wilde, “I’m too old to know everything.”

Name two things in life that you wish were easier.

Getting a good education and cleaning the oven.

Totally feeling it on the oven cleaning front, and I’m not ashamed to admit I actually pay a little man to come and clean mine. It’s my guilty secret, sshh, don’t tell my mother. Do you have a guilty secret? And are you prepared to share it with me – I promise I won’t tell anyone.

I have 23 years of community college and no degree. My father was 43 when he was disabled as a firefighter and went to college.  I was a senior in high school, and decided to take the pressure off of him so he could finish. I took classes one at a time and never took math; we can also add 5 years of yoga. I did get a standing ovation in a women’s studies class for the record.   

Apart from your cloak of invisibility, if you could have any other superpower, what would it be?

I have thought about this, and I’ll stick with invisibility. I used to dream I could fly, but it was like swimming, about 5 feet off the ground and was about as fast as running. With invisibility I can catch a commercial flight and sneak a sandwich under my cloak at the same time.  I assume that as I age the desires become more basic.

Finally, what would you like people to know about being an Indie author?

The writing is the joy, editing the equalizer and marketing the battle. Remember commas are Ninjas that creep around into the night trying to make you look bad.  I used to be an insurance investigator called to horrific scenes of destruction in the dead of night. I spend more time and energy writing, but it gives me more reward (well not monetary, but reward none the less).  At least before I didn’t wake up at 2 am trying to craft a scene for three hours then doze off and forget most of it.

Many thanks to the amazing Toni Kief for being my guest on A Little Bit of Blake, and thank you for taking the time to join us. I hope you have a great Sunday and look forward to chatting with you all again next week.

Julia Blake