In Conversation With Zoë Markham

A while back I did a two way interview with the ace Zoë Markham. We compared her novel Under My Skin to my Wye and we discussed lots of other bookish things too. The interview was originally posted on Zoë’s blog but it was so much fun I thought I’d share it here as well!

Zoë: Do you think that when the apocalypse comes there’ll be a natural subdivide in the surviving civilisation? Will the ones who’ve read it, lived it so many times through their favourite novels, find it familiar ground in some ways and have a genuine head start on the jocks and outdoorsy types who you’d kind of expect to kill it? Will it be the post-apocalyptic YA addicts’ time to shine? One of my favourite things about Wye is the way it made me think about how what we read translates into how we think, how we see certain situations and envisage ourselves within them; it shapes us in so many ways, and I just wonder how far that would go if it ever came down to it …

Jack: Cracking question! My personal viewpoint is that reading dystopian novels would absolutely help with surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, at least up to a point. One example I like from Wye is how Wye herself uses a stream as a means of disguising her scent when she’s scared she’s being hunted by The Monster, and how she credits that tactic to a novel she once read. I guess reading post-apocalyptic fiction is a bit like getting to grips with the theory of surviving the end of the world. A survivor would have to feed themselves as well as evade danger though, and so I spent a lot of time thinking about the exact challenges a hungry person would face if society had collapsed. I do think outdoorsy skills would be necessary – you can’t just scavenge tins forever – and Wye is lucky because she’s travelling with Emmerich, a guy who knows how to fish for food.

Zoë: I’ve been thinking as well about what made you make Wye female – whether the book would’ve worked equally well with a male lead or whether there’s something individual to the female, teen psyche that makes it work so beautifully.

Jack: Confession! I actually much prefer writing from a female perspective. It’s really weird because I obviously know much more about being a teenage boy (seeing as I once was one) than being a teenage girl. Maybe it’s just because the grass is always greener on the other side, but I knew from the start that Wye had to be a girl. Everything she does is so considered, and she is forever observing and applying her own experience and philosophy to what she sees. She asks so many smart questions and most of the people I have known like that in real life were female!

Actually, that brings me nicely onto my first question. Obviously Chloe (Under My Skin‘s fabby protagonist) and Wye are both teenage girls, but I noticed many more similarities about them too. Particularly that they both adore books, and retreat to them in times of crisis. They both learn from what they read and, I wondered as I was reading Under My Skin, has literature ever helped you through a difficult period in your life? Is that what inspired Chloe’s bookish leanings?

Zoë: I can channel my inner teen to answer this one: TOTALLY! Literature never fails to help me through difficult periods, although if I’m honest probably not in the healthiest of ways. I don’t tend to learn practical or emotional life skills from what I read, but I do get a complete immersive escape from whatever’s troubling me, and sometimes that’s enough. I’m quite a socially awkward person, and full-on Mr Norrell when it comes to preferring books over parties. When I get stressed or upset, you’ll find me quietly shutting the bedroom door and choosing a favourite book for a re-read. I never tend to read new stuff when things are tough, always old favourites, because I suppose they feel like friends. The only exception to this was when Mum got diagnosed with cancer and I discovered Patrick Ness, who both broke my heart and helped me cope in equal measure.

I guess this has spilled over to Chlo in a massive way, but she’s a much stronger, tougher character than I am. If I’d been in her shoes, with the attic, and the bacon, I doubt I would ever have felt the urge to leave the house … that’s my two basic life needs covered right there …

Thinking about the social aspect of Wye, I wanted to ask how you feel about the kind of ‘imaginary friend’ thing. I guess all writers have made up people in their heads by definition, but when it comes to children and teens, do you see it as a healthy sign of an active imagination and vivid sense of creativity, or is it something darker and more worrying by nature?

Jack: It’s so much fun to make up your own people/characters and to disappear amongst them, to be the evil master (mwahahah) of all that they do. But if you’re not doing it for creative reasons, I imagine it’s difficult to know where to draw the line at which you say, this side is healthy and this side is not. I think children having imaginary friends is fine, probably a lot of fun. I think seeing fictional characters as friends and as role models is great too. In Wye, right from the first line (Not everyone in our group is real, but we all have a thing), it’s abundantly clear that something is off, but, after finishing the book, different readers seem to have interpreted Wye’s admission in different ways. Is Wye schizophrenic? Is she lying? Does she just have an over-active imagination? I think the variety of responses shows that her situation divides opinion, and I kind of like that.

I hope this is okay Zoë, but I want to throw you a bit of a random question now because I’ve been dying to ask it ever since I finished Under My Skin! Chloe’s scientist father manages to save her from dying in a car crash, but what is your opinion of his work? All that he did for the agency, do you think it was in any way justified? His work is frighteningly plausible given all of the amazing advances in modern medicine.

Zoë: That’s a tough one. When I wrote it I was hoping to keep a certain amount of sympathy there for Chlo’s Dad, trying to convey a sort of helplessness and a need in him, but the vast majority of feedback I get concerning him is pretty hate-filled and vitriolic. I guess when I stop and think about it, that’s a Good Thing, but it kind of wasn’t what I set out to do. When I first started writing the story my son was only a year or so old, and I think parental feelings came into play as much as my inner teen did. Don’t ever ask me if I think what he did for Chlo was justified, I frighten myself thinking about that one! But do I think he was justified in what he did for the agency? I honestly don’t know, but I wanted it to be theoretically justifiable at least, on some level. Common sense would condemn universally, I think, but I was raised on Star Trek and the whole ‘needs of the many’ thing still floats around in my head and I really do struggle with the question.

I actually struggled with Chlo’s dad a lot through the editorial process the novel went through after it was signed, he changed a great deal, which leads me on to something I wanted to ask you about Wye. As a self-published author it must be brilliant to retain complete control over your characters and your plot – they’re 100% yours throughout and no one can touch them. Not only that, your voice remains completely yours and no commercial concessions can weaken it. I had to take a crash course in compromise with Under My Skin, and it was the hardest part of the whole process. How important is that total control to you? Would you ever consider accepting a more traditional approach and risking that control? Or is that too much to put on the line?

Jack: I did give Wye a shot down the traditional route but I soon learned from multiple sources that the book would need to be changed a lot. With Wye, I was always pretty reluctant to change anything major because it’s just so important to me, much more so than anything else I’ve ever written for some strange reason! The big con with keeping it as my own is that it’s so hard to get people to read self-published books these days, the market is utterly saturated! I think in future I’m going to attempt to go down the traditional route for that reason alone, hopefully with something I won’t find so torturous to alter!

And now for my final question, one I’m sure lots of people have already asked you. Will there be more from Chloe? The book ends on such a cliff-hanger!

Zoë: YES! Definitely :) It’s all planned out and I’m working on getting it written. I can’t wait to share the rest of Chloe’s story with everyone. This leads me nicely into throwing the same question back at you – I’m desperate for more from Wye, will there be a sequel? And what’s the deal with X? Do I need to read that one for more post-apocalyptic uber-awesomeness?

Jack: Yay!! Excellent news, I’m counting the days until more Chloe then! As for X, that was a short story I wrote which gave me the idea for Wye, a novel-length and more detailed reworking of the X concept. Wye sequel? Hmm, it might be fun to think about what happened in Dead England after the events of Wye, but there are currently no plans for a sequel. I suppose you should never say never though. Maybe I should give Gilllford the goldfish his own comedy spin off?!

November 12, 2015Leave a comment

Second Wye Bonus Scene

What follows is an entry from Theodosia’s journal. As soon as this page was written Theodosia tore it out of her notebook and fed it to her campfire. Similar to the first discarded entry, the reasons for her actions are unclear.

Zombies are strange creatures. We have no idea where they came from, we only know how you become one. Bodily fluids. If you’re bitten you become infected via a zombie’s saliva and, eventually, you fall ill and die. Sometime afterwards you reanimate, devoid of any aspect of your former self, wildly aggressive and desperate to feed. The same thing happens if you manage to get undead blood in you (*note, in you not on you). To prevail, the infection appears to require immediate transmission into the blood stream. Living skin seems to be an effective barrier for preventing that, but only until it’s cut open by a zombie’s teeth, of course.

Everyone still alive no doubt knows all of that but, before we formed our little group, there were stories of people turning without ever having been bitten, scratched, or even attacked. It happened soon after they’d contracted a different illness, or sustained a significant injury. We’ve discussed all this at length many times and we think it’s possible that some people are infected but that the virus/bacteria/fungus – whatever causes zombie reanimation – has a dormant stage. If someone with the dormant infection experiences severe trauma, from an illness or from an injury for example, then the infection activates and turns them. We learned about this sort of thing in biology. It’s the reason cold sores always pop up during or just after a different illness. They wait for their host to be weakened by something else before they activate.

Once somebody has turned into a zombie, they wander around in an apparently random direction looking for food. The dead seem to have a wide and varied diet. We know they’ll eat humans, livestock, pets – anything that moves or draws attention to itself. If something is slow enough a zombie will chase it down and eat it alive. They never kill anything before they eat it (at least not deliberately), they just start tearing chunks from anything unlucky enough to get caught.

Zombies seem to be very resilient. They don’t have trouble retaining mobility after sustaining the sort of injury that would ground a person for weeks. We don’t think they heal either. Mr Fryers (my secondary school biology teacher) once told us that, whilst salmon are running up a river, they stop healing. It’s so they can devote all of their available energy to the effort of making it upstream to breed. Maybe that’s the zombie strategy too: devote all available energy to the pursuit of food. We know that they can starve though. We once found a skinny, motionless, zombie carcass without any sign of blade or bullet. That gives me hope that it might be possible to outlast them if we can get to Emm’s cabin. I know there are prey animals in The Wasteland (rabbits, deer, wolves), but surely not in the quantities needed to sustain an army of undead indefinitely?

Wye is available via Amazon UK now.

October 28, 2015Leave a comment

Wye Bonus Scene

What follows is a page from Theodosia’s journal. As soon as this particular entry was written Theodosia ripped it out, screwed it up and discarded it. The reason why is unclear.

I remember an interview I heard on the radio. It was with a man from Sweden who’d wanted to cross the border into Norway when The Spread reached his hometown. But there had been controls in place. Not from the authorities, from panicked Norwegian citizens. The man said that he’d crossed paths with Norwegians who would shoot a potentially infected Swede rather than let them into their country. Maybe Norway was coping better than Sweden because of its smaller population, I don’t know. Anyway, the man (I can’t recall his name) decided to take his family across the North Sea to Britain. Apparently, our island faired a lot better than the countries on the continent. Well, for a time at least. The man was so scared of The Sickness that he left everything in order to take his loved ones to a foreign land where he had no home, no job, no friends, no nothing.

The man was a fisherman by trade and so he had a good boat, but the weather turned rough. He described the waves as though they were sentient, conscious and hell-bent on his family’s destruction. He said that he knew he had to keep his trawler afloat because there would be no help. The coastguard was non-existent in the face of domestic turmoil and, if they capsized, his family would drown. But the scary thing about the interview wasn’t the fury of the elements (I know how destructive storms can be) it was the lack of any safety net. It applies so entirely to our situation. In the old world, if you got into trouble you could phone the emergency services, if you injured yourself you could go to hospital and the NHS would take care of you. You can’t even pay for care now. If you get badly injured or really ill out in The Wasteland you will die. It’s as simple as that.

Wye is available through Amazon UK now.

October 27, 2015Leave a comment

Book Review: The Black Petal by Dan Thompson

The Black Petal is one eagerly anticipated book. Whilst Lincolnshire-based writer Dan Thompson has released a string of other titles in recent years (the excellent Here Lies Love included), The Black Petal is actually his first novel, started when he was just sixteen.

The book, marketed as A Game of Thrones for young-adults, follows a teenager from our present, Jack, and Victorian assassin, Blake, as they find themselves transported to a third plain, a world where myth and fantasy come to life. To get home Jack must search for the mysterious black petal, and avoid all the perils of the strange new realm he’s found himself inhabiting. No easy task when most of those perils come armed with sharp teeth, and, sometimes, much worse.

Thompson is an immensely descriptive writer, and the world he creates for his characters is a rich and varied one indeed. Epic fantasy requires strong world building. If an author does not explain what their characters are seeing, feeling and touching then, without anything to draw from, a reader can become lost and inevitably bored. There are no such problems here though, the fantasy world is as believable as it is intriguing, and the switch from Victorian times to present to fantasy is neither clunky nor difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, the greatest strength of this work is the connection between Jack, a bored but mostly normal teen, and Blake, an extraordinary character, with extraordinary skills. Why them? Why the two time periods? When revealed, the link between both characters is genius, and Thompson has a lot of fun exploring it.

The audiobook is also superb, masterfully performed (especially the character voices) by David Gelkin. A fantastical treat, not to be missed!

The Black Petal is available via Amazon UK now.

October 18, 2015Leave a comment