Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sharp Shooter, Part II

(This is the second and final part of The Rap Sheet’s interview with British thriller novelist Zoë Sharp. Part I can be found here.)

As I was saying, during last month’s Cartier Diamond Dagger Award presentation in London, I bumped into Zoë Sharp and her husband, Andy Butler, and we all went out for dinner afterwards. It gave me the chance to discover a little more about Sharp’s writing, now that her popularity in the United States seems on the verge of eclipsing her readership in the UK, thanks to the coming publication of Second Shot.

Ali Karim: In your second novel, Riot Act (2002), you delved into the issues surrounding race and the problems of integration as they’re being experienced in the more racially divided former mill towns of Northern England. What drew you to that theme?

Zoë Sharp: At the time I was living near Lancaster [England], which was the setting for both Killer Instinct [2001] and Riot Act. Although Lancaster isn’t as big a city as Manchester, Liverpool, or Newcastle, at one point I believe it had the highest violent-crime rate per head of population in the country. One of the sink estates [British council housing] is a particularly nasty no-go area and there had been endless racially motivated attacks on a guy who ran a corner shop/convenience store there. His store was like a fortress, with barbed wire and security cameras, and he suffered constant abuse. The idea for Riot Act grew out of reading the newspaper reports about his experiences. I think I still have the clippings in the file.

AK: Did you worry at all about dipping you pen into such politically sensitive subject matter?

ZS: At the time I was more worried that nobody would remember the last lot of race riots in the north and therefore wouldn’t find the plot credible. There hadn’t been any for over five years; then, just as the book was finished, everything kicked off in Leeds and Oldham, and Burnley--and suddenly it was topical again.

This has happened several times, actually. Killer Instinct touched on the subject of drug dealing in nightclubs and, just as the book came out, one of the local nightclubs in Lancaster was raided and the owner and the door staff were arrested for drug dealing. And [series protagonist] Charlie Fox’s experiences in the army are echoed in the ongoing reports on the abuse and attacks on trainees at the Deepcut army camp [in Surrey]. So, after much pleading from my husband, I put a lottery winner into Second Shot. It hasn’t yet had the desired effect, though ...

AK: In your third Fox outing, Hard Knocks (2003), you delved into the world of East European gangsters. Can you tell us how the plot came about?

ZS: After the handgun ban in the UK, most of the close-protection training schools moved to Holland, Germany, or France. I chose Germany as the location for Major Gilby’s school [in the novel], because I knew that country better and also because I had a contact there I could e-mail queries to--always very useful. In my head, the exterior of Einsbaden Manor is modeled on [the] Wannsee [Villa], where General Reinhard Heydrich held the infamous meeting to discuss “the Jewish problem” in, I think, 1942. I’d seen pictures, and I thought the dreadful history of that building gave it the right air of menace.

I always knew Charlie was going to end up as a bodyguard and I wanted to show her going through the training without her necessarily knowing that she was embarking on a new career. So, I set out with the knowledge that she agrees to go to Germany as a favor to her former lover, Sean Meyer, to find out what happened to a man he sent to the school for training, but who’s been killed in a suspicious “accident.” I did a lot of research about close-protection training, and the way they try to test students by creating artificially stressful situations seemed so ideal for a crime thriller. Charlie has to disguise her real abilities in order to do her job, and at the same time she has to work out what is real and what isn’t, when failing to react to a genuine emergency could be fatal.

It’s while she’s at Einsbaden Manor that Charlie discovers just how well suited she is to being a bodyguard. As she says, “Perhaps if the army had known what was inside me, what I would eventually turn into, they might not have been so keen to let me go.”

The East European gangsters, Gregor and Ivan Venko, incidentally, may well make a reappearance at some point. I found them too interesting not to return to them. And again, just as I was finishing Hard Knocks, part of the plot of which revolves around the kidnapping of rich people’s children, the news broke of an apparent conspiracy to kidnap David and Victoria Beckham’s two young sons.

AK: What made you decide to take Charlie Fox across the Atlantic for your fourth novel, First Drop?

ZS: As I said, the day job, doing photography work for the motoring press, takes us all over the place--not just in the UK--and one year we were in Daytona Beach [Florida] over the Spring Break weekend in March. It’s not a holiday known much about in the UK, but in the U.S. it’s the first real break from school the kids have, so they tend to really go wild and let their hair down. I remember standing with my camera watching all these customized cars and pickups filled with teenage kids, cruising up and down Atlantic Avenue, which is the main drag in Daytona, and thinking, “If you were on the run, with a teenage kid, and you had to hide, this would be a great place to do it ...” And from that, the idea for First Drop came about. It simply couldn’t have been set anywhere else but in the States, and the amazing annual big-car stereo competition at Daytona--the Spring Break Nationals--fell perfectly into the plot.

AK: You live in the northwest of England, and your work always has a keen sense of place. Why is your story’s location so important to you? And does getting it right entail extensive research?

ZS: I have a tendency to write over length at the best of times, so my style doesn’t leave room for pages of description. I have to try and capture the essence of a place in a word here and a word there--a snapshot rather than a portfolio of images. I like to find out as much as I can, and then leave a lot out.

When it came to writing Second Shot, I decided to use the little town of North Conway, in New Hampshire, where we’d previously spent a lot of time, contrasting that with the big-city atmosphere of Boston. We nipped over to New England early last year just to double-check some of the locations. Like the Boston aquarium, where one of the scenes takes place. They have an excellent Web site, but until you visit the place for real you don’t know that the first thing that hits you when you walk in is the smell of fried fish from the café on the upper level--which I thought was a bit unfortunate for the inmates.

AK: I know you like Lee Child’s work, so let me ask: If Jack Reacher and Charlie Fox were to square up, who do you think would eat the dust?

ZS: That’s a very unfair question! I mean, Charlie Fox knows some dirty tricks and she’s held her own in fights against much bigger opponents in the past, but Reacher is a foot taller and the best part of 100 pounds heavier. He could kill Charlie just by falling on her. On the other hand, she’s a very good shot. ... Actually, in my imaginary world I’d like to think that Charlie and Reacher would be fighting on the same side, so it would never come up. In fact, Lee himself made the comment in an intro he generously did for Crimespree Magazine that Reacher would recognize her as a kindred spirit and would team up with her in a heartbeat.

AK: Charlie Fox appears to have descended from the British tradition of maverick loners, who work on the dividing line that separates official and unofficial investigations. So, why are the British intrigued by these loners?

ZS: Other than these characters who live on the fringe, having a certain moral ambiguity that we find seductive, I’m not sure. Charlie has that obscurity to her makeup. She kills when she has to and doesn’t enjoy what it does to her, but that doesn’t mean that if you push her in the wrong direction, or you step over that line, she won’t drop you without hesitation.

But the bottom line is, the character has to engage you as a reader, no matter if they’re heroes or anti-heroes. Both Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor and his Roberts and Brant series feature characters that are absolute train wrecks when it comes to their personal and professional lives, but you simply can’t stop turning the pages. I’m hooked on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and I’d read Robert B. Parker’s shopping list.

For me, a satisfying novel is as much about the relationship you have with the characters as with the mystery itself. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed books with plot holes you could drive a bus through. And, equally, I’ve been left unimpressed by immensely twisted and convoluted tales. If the main protagonist is just a cipher for the plot, where’s the hook? What keeps you coming back, either to that character, or to that writer? It’s all about balance.

AK: Now, with Second Shot, Charlie Fox is back on U.S. soil, and I know you spend a lot of the year in America. Do you prefer setting your books in the U.S. or the UK?

ZS: I go for locations that speak to me, that I feel I can capture accurately in a few broad brushstrokes. The difficulty with [my] being so familiar with the States is that Charlie is still a relative stranger there. I have to pull back her perspective and remember that she’s seeing a lot of these places for the first time. For the moment, though, it looks like Charlie will be spending a lot of time working in the U.S. It certainly provides her with a lot more freedom as far as firearms are concerned. [My next novel] Third Strike takes place largely in New York City itself, which I totally fell in love with when we spent some time there in 2005. I can’t wait to go back for ThrillerFest in July!

AK: So, you are coming to ThrillerFest?

ZS: Oh yes, we’ll be back. I’ve just had my panel assignment through for this year’s ThrillerFest--“Honor Among Thieves: How do bad heroes and heroines live with themselves?”--to be moderated by Barry Eisler. It looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun.

AK: Let me ask about the story premise for Second Shot--where did that come from?

ZS: One of Charlie’s main traits has always been her physical self-confidence. She can handle herself in just about any situation, and she knows it. I wanted to see what happened when I stripped away that sense of invulnerability, and the best way to do that was to have her badly injured in the line of duty, and then provoke a totally visceral response by making her responsible for the safety of a child--4-year-old Ella. Charlie is in a much more basic, pared-down mode in this book. She comes as close to the edge as she’s ever been, in many ways. Ken Bruen summed it up beautifully--much better than I probably could! I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.

AK: So are you planning to release Second Shot simultaneously in the UK and U.S.?

ZS: My terrific new UK publisher, Allison & Busby, is bringing out Second Shot in both hardcover and trade paperback. Early editions should be available in time for the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in mid-July, where I’m appearing ... on a panel moderated by Stuart MacBride. In the U.S., the publication date is September 4, and we’re just working out an extensive tour to launch both the hardcover of Second Shot and the mass-market paperback of First Drop, which is out mid-August. It’s going to be a busy old summer.

AK: I understand you’ve been publishing short stories recently. Do those give you a necessary break from Fox and her problems?

ZS: Not really, when I’ve written one or two short stories that include her! In truth, I’m not a natural short-story writer, but because of my magazine background I respond well to a brief and a deadline--a bit like Pavlov’s dog. I wrote my first story for the Crime Writers’ Association anthology Green for Danger only a couple of years ago, after the editor, Martin Edwards, casually suggested I do so at a Northern Chapter lunch. That was a Charlie Fox tale called “A Bridge Too Far,” about the deadly goings on in a dangerous-sports club. And I’m amazed and delighted to report that that very story is now out in the July edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I’ve done about six [short stories] to date, including two for themed anthologies for Busted Flush Press, which I had a ball writing, and one written specially to go in the mass-market paperback edition of First Drop. One of my stories, “Tell Me,” which originally appeared in another CWA [Crime Writers’ Association] anthology, I.D.: Crimes of Identity, is currently being made into a short film.

AK: You also work as the press officer for the Crime Writers’ Association. Can you tell us exactly what you do in that capacity?

ZS: Field general enquiries from the press as best I can, and also put together all the press pack information on authors shortlisted for the association’s annual Duncan Lawrie Dagger Awards, as well as the Cartier Diamond Dagger, the Ellis Peters, and the Short Story awards. It’s amazing how difficult it is sometimes to prise details out of a publisher on one of their authors and their work!

AK: Finally, what recent books have passed across your reading table?

ZS: Recent reads include Lee Child’s latest, Bad Luck and Trouble; All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming; The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple; Cross, by Ken Bruen; The Protector, by Duncan Falconer; The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy, by James Anderson; Hard Man, by Allan Guthrie; The Hollow Core, by Lesley Horton; The Grave Tattoo, by Val McDermid; Slipknot, by Priscilla Masters; Strangers, by Carla Banks; The Wheelman, by Duane Swierczynski; By a Spider’s Thread, by Laura Lippman; and then oddball stuff like the U.S. Army manuals on “Improvised Munitions” and “Sniper Training and Employment”; and “Crime Scene to Court,” which is one of the textbooks used by UK police crime scene investigators.

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