Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sharp Shooter, Part I

I first encountered British author Zoë Sharp--the author now of six novels featuring ex-military enforcer and self-defense instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Fox--at Heffers Bookstore in Cambridge, England, way back in 2003. At the time, she was promoting her third Fox book, Hard Knocks, about which we spoke briefly in relation to a story I was writing for the Webzine Shots. (See details here).

Since then, however, our paths have crossed numerous times. This is due in large part to the fact that she works part-time as press officer for the British Crime Writers’ Association, and I write a column for the CWA’s Red Herrings Magazine and help judge that organization’s annual Short Story Dagger Award. Sharp has leant a hand at Shots on occasion, both as a photographer and a reviewer. Modest, elegant, and extremely erudite, she is a hidden treasure in the field of international thriller writers, and I am rather amazed that she is not as well well-known as she should be.

In her non-novelist life, Sharp is a professional photographer, a biker, and a practiced marksman. In fact, if you scroll down over this page of shots from New York photographer Mary Reagan, you’ll see Sharp and husband, Andy Butler (shown together, above), taking a small assortment of writers out to a firing range in Phoenix, Arizona, where they all enjoyed a break from the hubbub of last year’s ThrillerFest. She is also someone who can take care of herself, not unlike Charlie Fox.

Sharp’s latest novel, Second Shot, is due out in the UK (from Allison & Busby) in August, but won’t be available in the States until September (when it will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne). This will be only her second book to win U.S. publication, after 2005’s First Drop, and it sounds like a doozy. She offers a brief summation of the plot on her Web site:
‘Take it from me, getting yourself shot hurts like hell.’

When the latest assignment of ex-Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, ends in a bloody shoot-out in a frozen forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, she’s left fighting for her life, with her client dead.

Simone had just become a lottery millionairess but she never lived long enough to enjoy her newfound riches. Charlie was supposed to be keeping Simone’s troublesome ex-boyfriend at bay and accompanying her on a trip to New England to track down the father Simone had never really known. A relatively low-risk job.

But Simone’s former
SAS father has secrets in his past that are about to come back and haunt him, and the arrival of his long-lost daughter may be the catalyst that blows his whole world apart. Was the prospect of getting hold of Simone’s money tempting enough to make him engineer her death? And what happens now to Simone’s baby daughter, Ella?

With Simone gone, Ella’s safety becomes Charlie’s main concern. She’s determined, despite her injuries, not to let anything happen to the child. But the closer Charlie gets to the truth, the bigger threat she becomes. Only, this time she’s in no fit state to protect anyone, least of all herself. ...
Her writing peers seem as impressed by Sharp’s work as I have been. For instance, Edgar and Anthony award-winning author S.J. Rozan (In This Rain) said of First Drop: “Zoë Sharp writes with a casual freshness that makes it all seem easy: her fully-fleshed characters, her closely observed settings, her satisfying plot. American readers will be glad for the chance to get to know her.” Meanwhile, Lee Child (Bad Luck and Trouble) said of that same novel: “Ever wished that some of the tough guys were tough women? Well, check out Zoë Sharp’s Charlie Fox--she’s the real deal. Highly recommended.” And Child seems to have been still more taken with Second Shot, which he plugs thusly: “Today’s best action heroine is back with a bang ... Scarily good.”

Ken Bruen (Cross) puts in his own two cents on Sharp’s new novel:
With Second Shot, Zoë Sharp has become the UK answer to Laura Lippman. In a world where the Cornwells, Reichs[es], etc. seem to dominate with their forensic precision, here is a novel that has a superbly paced plot and wondrous characterisation. You need a lot of style, confidence, to shoot a lead series character in the opening pages and make it work--these opening pages contain the best description of what it’s like to be shot. No glamour here, no heroic struggling up. What you get is the sheer agony and fear of desperation.

Charlie Fox is fast becoming the must-read heroine of mystery.
It’s taken years, though, for Zoë Sharp to become an overnight success. Her first Charlie Fox outing--and her debut as a published novelist--was Killer Instinct (2001), a story set in the tough, grim world of northern Britain’s nightclub scene that sends Sharp’s protagonist on the hunt for a homicidal rapist. She followed that up with the topical Riot Act (2002), which built around unrest in a racially divided northern town, and exposed some of the shadows that lurk in Charlie Fox’s former military career. From there, it was on to Germany in Sharp’s third book, Hard Knocks, in which Fox is asked to investigate the mysterious murder of a former colleague. Charlie hitches a ride on the first plane smoking, and finds herself on a snaking trail of gangland murder and kidnapping that leads to the wild frontiers of Eastern Europe. And in this author’s fourth novel, Road Kill (2005), an injured Fox probes the death of a biker that is far from the accident it seems--and far more sinister in nature.

Sharp moved to an American vista with her fifth novel, First Drop--both in terms of her tale’s backdrop and her publisher (as St. Martin’s Minotaur picked up the U.S. distribution rights). Now we look forward to Second Shot, also set in the United States.

Last month, during the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger Award presentation in London, I bumped into Sharp and her husband, and we all went out for dinner together. It gave me a chance to ask her some questions about her early experiences as a writer, her plotting technique, her decision to set books in both the UK and the States, and whether Charlie Fox or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher would come out on top in a fight. (Part 1 of our interview appears today, with Part 2 to follow.)

Ali Karim: Like most writers, you appear to have had a varied and eclectic early life. Tell us a bit about your youth.

Zoë Sharp: My family is from Nottingham and I lived there until I was 7. A rather privileged kind of upbringing, in a big house with a big garden and swimming pool. But then my father retired early from his textile PR consultancy and decided he was going to buy a boat and go sailing instead, so we moved onto a 42-foot catamaran in a tiny marina at Glasson on the northwest coast. I went from the rarefied atmosphere of a private all-girls’ school to the rough-and-tough of a little village school, where I was a complete outsider with a funny name and a funny accent, who didn’t even live in a house. I learned the secrets of playground fighting pretty quickly, I can tell you.

Although I passed my exams for the local grammar school, I hated it. Fortunately, my parents were willing to educate me at home, so I opted out of mainstream education when I was 12.

AK: Can you tell us something about your early work, prior to publishing Killer Instinct?

ZS: I wrote my first complete novel when I was 15. I was terribly into horses at the time--about the only thing I’m qualified to do, other than sail boats, is be a horse-riding instructor--so it was a very horsy tale. I wrote the whole thing out in longhand, my father typed it up for me, and it did the rounds of the major publishers. It received some rave rejections. Most [of the publishing houses] said they wanted to see whatever else I wrote--but you tend to take rejection pretty hard at that age, and it was 17 years before I completed another novel.

Instead, I got into writing via a sideways route. My interest in all things car-related got me into producing feature articles for the motoring press. In 1988 I quit my job to turn freelance full-time, quickly adding photography to the writing to make the articles more saleable. There was more work than I could handle, and my husband, Andy, joined me in the business in 1993. Now I concentrate just on the photography side, to give me time to write the Charlie Fox books in between photo shoots. Andy’s written five non-fiction motoring titles as well as numerous feature articles.

AK: How important were books in your youth?

ZS: Very. I particularly remember when we were taken on holiday as kids, my parents would produce paperbacks from a secret stash, feeding them to us one at a time so we wouldn’t gorge ourselves. I recall first reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons while on a sailing holiday, which was very appropriate. A mix of classic stuff like The Wind in the Willows, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World, and rather a lot of books that featured horses, including--of course--Black Beauty. I still get totally lost inside a good book. The building could be on fire around me, and if I was wrapped up in the pages I probably wouldn’t notice until they actually began to smolder.

AK: Did you also have a chance to enjoy crime and thrillers novels when you were younger?

ZS: In 1979 my grandmother gave me a copy of The Misfortunes of Mr. Teal (later republished as The Saint in England), by Leslie Charteris, and I was introduced to the buccaneering world of Simon Templar--The Saint. I loved it and I believe I have since read every book in that series--they’re so much better than any of the TV or the film versions. Then I would raid my parents’ bookshelves for thrillers by Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Peter Benchley, Arthur Hailey, and I absolutely loved the Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt series.

AK: So what attracted you to the crime-thriller genre?

ZS: Not long after I started writing for the motoring magazines, I was doing a regular column in one of them and, every time my picture appeared in print, I got threatening letters. Proper jobs with words made up of letters cut out of different newspapers, calling me “scum,” telling me my days were numbered and that they knew where I lived. I wasn’t even writing anything controversial. (It was much later that I had my kneecaps threatened--but that, as they say, is another story ...) It was only the fact that the letters were being sent to the magazine’s London address, and not dropping onto my own doormat, that kept panic at bay. The police were called, but they never found out who was behind the letters, and eventually [the letters] stopped.

I did have my suspicions, though. Shortly before the letters began, I’d arranged to go and do an interview with a guy about a particular car but, when I turned up, the car I’d come to see did not really exist and he looked somewhat put out that I had Andy with me. At the time I just thought the guy was a bit of a timewaster, but afterwards I started to wonder what might have happened if I’d turned up on my own, as he’d clearly been expecting. This was about the time the London estate agent, Suzy Lamplugh, disappeared after going to show a prospective client around an empty property, and I must admit it made me somewhat nervous. I’ve since taken a very keen interest in self-defense, to the point where I’ve given lighthearted demonstrations, albeit with a serious message, at U.S. conventions. These are with the able assistance of wonderful U.S. mystery author Meg Chittenden. We call our show “You Can’t Run in High Heels.”

AK: Can you tell us a little about your interest in photography. And how does that interact with your writing?

ZS: Er ... it helps pay for it? No, my day-job as a freelance magazine photographer, which I’ve been doing for some years now, is something completely different from my fiction-writing work--and, as they say, a change is as good as a rest. Actually, the two dovetail together quite nicely. We travel approximately 30,000 miles a year by car in the UK, and I discovered a while ago that I can write on the laptop while we’re on the move. And no, not while I’m driving ... It’s good productive time, because you can’t do all the usual procrastination--making cups of coffee or looking at e-mail.

Plus, being a photographer makes me look at things in a slightly different way, I think. Whenever we travel, I’m always unconsciously scouting for possible locations for photo shoots. Often you have to find somewhere very quickly, and somehow you develop the knack of knowing what will work as a background, and what won’t. I’d like to think I carry that through into my writing.

AK: What were your early experiences as a writer like?

ZS: Originally, I wrote purely for my own enjoyment. And I have to admit I still do it for that reason. I write the kind of books I want to read. And I love doing the research--writing a novel gives you a good excuse to ask all sorts of interesting people all sorts of fascinating questions. I’ve just been finding out all about opturation in firearms. And there’s a word that isn’t even in my dictionary ... People tell you to write what you know, but I don’t believe in that at all. I think you should write what you want to know.

AK: Let’s talk a little about your series character, Charlie Fox, and how she emerged in Killer Instinct.

ZS: I’d had Charlotte “Charlie” Fox in the back of my mind for some years before I ever committed her to paper. Fed up with all the weak females in most thrillers, who screamed a lot and twisted their ankles and had to be rescued by the men, I wanted a genuine female action hero, but one who had a convincing reason for wanting to learn to take care of herself. But at the same time, she’s a very human and, I hope, sympathetic character.

An ex-Special Forces soldier who was chucked out of the army in disgrace, Charlie was a first-class shot who, at the beginning of the series is working as a self-defense instructor when she discovers that she has both the instinct and the ability to kill. Dealing with her own capacity for violence when she’s put under threat is a continuing theme throughout the books. It’s not an aspect of her character that Charlie finds easy to live with--a difficulty she might not have if she were a male protagonist, perhaps? Even in these days of rabid politically correct equality, it is still not nearly as acceptable for women to be capable of those extremes of behavior.

Although I’ve tried to write each of the Charlie Fox books so they stand alone, I’m always expanding on her back story--her troubled relationship with her parents and her even more troubled relationship with Sean Meyer, who was once her training instructor in the army and, when she moves into close protection, he then becomes her boss. He brings out the best and the worst in her. I’m looking forward to finding out where they’ll take each other in the future.

AK: Do you plot your books extensively, or do you concentrate on your characters and see where they lead you?

ZS: The first thing I start with is a very short synopsis of less than half a page--what would be the flap copy on the finished book. If the idea doesn’t grab at that stage, there’s almost no point in developing it further. I like to have a fairly comprehensive set of notes before I begin writing, although by the end, this outline is covered with pencil corrections and alterations and bears very little resemblance to the way it started out. I concentrate on the back story--why people are doing what they’re doing--so I know what’s going on under the surface of the plot. I tend to plan the structure of the story more carefully than the reactions of the characters. That way, they develop as real people, so they’re better able to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves, rather than being dictated to. Inevitably, the story changes and grows in the writing, and I’m delighted when things develop in an organic way like this. I like to keep a tight hold of the structure, but characters do have a habit of expanding their parts when I’m not looking.

Often I’ll write specific scenes as they occur to me, just to get them down while they’re fresh. I often write the ending, or the epilogue, way ahead of time, so I know what I’m aiming for when I hit the usual crisis of faith in the middle. For some reason, I often get ideas while I’m in the shower, where it’s not easy to write them down. The closing line for Second Shot arrived this way, and I had to leap out and find a bit of paper and a pen. And I’ll apologize now for putting that image in your head ...

AK: How did you get Killer Instinct accepted for publication?

ZS: When I’d finished messing with the first draft, I trawled through The Writers’ Handbook and looked up UK agents who specialized in crime, then started at “A.” Not a method I’d recommend to anyone else, but it seemed logical at the time. I think the second agent who read the full typescript agreed to take it on, and I was too surprised and too green to keep shopping around after that. We’ve since parted company and I’m now represented by the outstanding London agent Jane Gregory. Jane and her team have been working with me closely on Second Shot and the follow-up to that, Third Strike, and I really feel my work has progressed because of their help and advice.

AK: What were your experiences vis-à-vis the rejection process we all go through?

ZS: One of the most frustrating experiences was to get some rejections for Killer Instinct on the grounds that the particular publisher didn’t see how I could sustain the character’s involvement with crime on an ongoing basis--yet they never asked me what other ideas I’d got in the pipeline for her! I didn’t want to make her a private detective or a police officer, so I knew right from the start that she was going to move into close protection. Ex-military personnel, particularly those who underwent Special Forces training as Charlie did, often move into this line of work, and women are especially valuable because of their ability to blend in.

All the way through the series I’ve tried to weave in strands that I’m going to pick up later. I knew, for instance, that the FireBlade motorcycle she was given at the end of book three, Hard Knocks, was going to come into its own in book five, Road Kill--just as her relationship with her parents and Sean comes to a head in the next book, Third Strike. And the events in that book will have an enormous effect on Charlie’s attitudes and mental state as she goes into the story that comes after.

(Part II of this interview can be found here.)

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