Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Q & A with Zoë Sharp
We interview British writer Zoë Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thrillers.
Q: What makes Charlie Fox different from other (unofficial) PIs?
A: There are quite a few ex-military main characters out there, but not many female ex-military main characters, so that's the main difference to begin with. After leaving the military under a cloud, she's now working in the close-protection industry, which is another career option for thriller protagonists that has not been widely over-used.
Also, women with the ability to kill in the right (or wrong) circumstances, are not common. Male heroes in crime fiction are expected to be able to shoot the bad guys, shrug it off, and go to the bar at the end of the day. Charlie feels every kill, but she does it anyway, because the alternative is so much worse. As she points out in FOURTH DAY, "I've saved more than I've taken."
Q: How did you come up with the character of Charlie Fox?
A: Charlie was hanging around in the back of my mind for a long time before I wrote the first book, KILLER INSTINCT. She arrived almost fully formed, with her traumatic back story, her love of motorcycles, and her difficult relationship with her distant parents. I think the roots lay in the thrillers I read growing up - the old-fashioned tough-guy books where the role of female characters was usually to fall over and twist their ankles and require rescuing by the hero. I wanted to read about a heroine who could do her own rescuing, and Charlie was the result.
But, the idea for Charlie might have gone no further, had I not received death-threat letters in the course of my work as a photojournalist. That started me really thinking about how someone with Charlie's background, mindset, and training would react to being put under direct threat.
Q: What's next for you and Charlie Fox?
A: FOURTH DAY is just out in the UK from Allison & Busby, and will be published in the States by Pegasus next year. Meanwhile, Busted Flush Press in the States has just begun publishing four of the earlier books which were never available over there, and have been out of print for a while in the UK, starting with KILLER INSTINCT in May, RIOT ACT in July, then HARD KNOCKS towards the end of the year, and ROAD KILL during early 2011. I've already delivered the follow-up book to FOURTH DAY, which sees Charlie tasked with guarding a young woman who is targeted for kidnap among the rich and powerful on Long Island.
Q: How much of your work is inspired by your daily life?
A: Well, I don't work as a bodyguard, so if you're talking about actual daily life, almost nothing... I still work as a photographer, some of which involves hanging out of moving vehicles, taking low-angle action shots of other vehicles, so maybe we have the same relaxed attitude to danger!
But inevitably, when you write a first-person protagonist, she's going to take on something of your personality and thought patterns. Like Charlie, I have a love of motorcycling, and I used to shoot in competition, so there are some vague similarities, I suppose. Actually, why lie? It's entirely autobiographical... ;-]
Q: What would a soundtrack to your latest novel be like?
A: I listen to music all the time when I'm writing, a mix of all kinds of things. Nothing creates the right mood for me faster than putting on an atmospheric track. And FOURTH DAY is partly about Charlie's search for redemption, so it needs soul-searching music to suit. Nickelback, Snow Patrol, Counting Crows, Sarah McLachlan, Stone Sour, Linkin Park, Staind, Evanescence, Audioslave, Pink, AC/DC. My iPod is on permanent shuffle and has about 5500 tracks uploaded so far, but those are the ones that stand out.
Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, MacDonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
A: I'm still influenced by Robert B Parker's beautifully sparse, cut-down prose. I think Lee Child's style is wonderful. Very informative, descriptive without for a moment being flowery, and very, very smooth. And Ken Bruen, whose unique style is almost prose poetry, and darker than a damaged soul.
Q: Steven Gore came up with the following question: Has a lot of graphic violence become necessary to the private investigator genre?
A: That depends on your definition of graphic violence. I'm prepared to be graphic if the story demands it. There's a torture scene towards the end of THIRD STRIKE that some people have told me is pretty horrifying, but a lot of it happens between the lines - the reader's brain fills in the blanks of what's happening. It's necessary to show the development and downfall of one of the major characters in the book - he realises just how far he's prepared to go in order to save someone he loves.
But graphic is very different from gratuitous. You can have a much lower level of violence described, and if it's put in purely to increase the pain-quotient or the shock-factor of the book, it's gratuitous. Violence, like anything else, has to move the story forwards. It has to play a part, or it's just self-indulgence on the part of the writer.
Charlie, when she's in a situation, is very cool and very calm about what she does, so the violence is described in a very matter-of-fact way in my books. I don't glory in it, just as Charlie doesn't glory in it. As Sean tells her in FOURTH DAY, being able to take a life when necessary is one thing - the trouble comes when you start to enjoy it. I think it may be the same for the writer!
One reviewer remarked that he found Charlie had a casual attitude to violence, but that isn't so. Casual implies that it means nothing to her, that what she is capable of under stress leaves no mark behind. That's not so. It's simply her way of dealing with a potentially lethal situation without emotion, keeping calm, almost detached. Only later will she stop to deal with the consequences of what she's had to do.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
A: That's an interesting question! How about: 'Conflict and pressure are two vital elements of any page-turning crime thriller. What do you do as a writer to put your characters under pressure, without stooping to cliche or contrivance?'
My own answer would be that I mix together internal and external stress for Charlie. In FOURTH DAY, for example, she has the internal stress of having reached a crisis point in her life, her career, and her relationship with Sean. She needs to resolve this internal conflict, and sees in Randall Bane, the charismatic leader of the cult calling itself Fourth Day, the means to do this. The only trouble is, she has to reveal more of herself than she is comfortable with, in order to achieve her aim.
The external pressure comes from the fact that Charlie has to lay herself open to physical danger as well as psychological abuse to get inside the cult's California stronghold. By the nature of her job, she puts herself in front of the people in jeopardy, regardless of whether they might be considered the bad guys by everyone else! I think FOURTH DAY presents Charlie's biggest challenge yet. By the end of it, she's really on her own, with her back to the wall.
In SECOND SHOT, I put Charlie under pressure in a slightly different way, by taking away her normal physical self-assurance. I shot her twice on the opening page, and she spends a good deal of the book on crutches. This means that she cannot fight her way out of dangerous situations, and has to rely on other means.
And in THIRD STRIKE, I asked myself what would be Charlie's worst nightmare? Probably a 'bring your parents to work' day. So, in this book she has to protect her own parents, who have never approved of her choice of profession, nor of the person she's chosen to share her life with - Sean. Trying to do her job under those circumstances is extremely difficult, and the emotional tie to her reluctant principals makes the job so much harder than normal for her.
I could go on, but you'll be relieved to hear that I won't ;-]