A different kind of writing blog: Roz DeKett

head-shot-cropHello, and welcome to my blog. It’s mostly conversations with writersauthors, poets, and playwrights. I also post writing tips from authors and agents at writer’s conferences I attend.

When I started this blog, I decided to make it a continuation of what I’d done for years as a journalist–interview people and tell their stories.

You can follow me on Facebook here and follow me on Twitter here

Thank you for taking a look. And if you like what you see, please share it.

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Focusing on unique perspectives: Gina Mulligan

By Roz DeKett


Gina Mulligan

Gina Mulligan’s novel Remember the Ladies is about Amelia Cook, a congressional lobbyist … in 1877.

“I was researching for another project when I ran across the fact that there were women who were lobbyists in that era,” Gina says. “And I did not know that.”

In the novel, Amelia is hired to lobby on behalf of a proposed 16th Amendment to grant voting rights for women.

And while Gina places her fictional characters in history, the history itself is fact: Senator Aaron Sargent of California introduced the proposed 16th Amendment for woman’s suffrage, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

“Amelia’s biggest opponent is Senator Edward Stillman, who’s kind of your quintessential politician,” Gina says.

“Very charismatic, very greedy, very political and ambitious, and he really wants to crush the woman’s vote for his own personal agenda.

“Also a part of that is that Amelia and Stillman, ten years earlier, had a brief liaison and it ended very badly, so he’s very bitter about that and he wants to crush Amelia personally.

“It’s a political chess game as to how to get that vote passed or not passed.”BookCover4

But Gina, who was an established writer of short stories and articles, didn’t set out to write historical fiction.

“It’s funny, I was not a huge historical fiction reader before this project,” she says.

“I find the golden age fascinating. There’s such so much fodder for a writer. There are so many interesting characters, and greed and corruption and bribery and all these great story lines, so I think it just really got my attention.

“I try to focus on unique perspectives in that era without judgment.”

For Gina, writing the novel was a way to explore the question of what gives a woman power or a voice in the world. Then or now, she believes, it’s the same. She wanted to ask the question because, she notes, it took 130 years for women to get the vote and 100 years more for a woman to be running for president.

“I’ve since read more historical fiction,” she says.

“I think there’s a sense as I’m getting older of wanting to remember our past, and seeing how much of today is really in the history.

“As you get a little older, you start to realize a lot of things that happened then are happening now.”

Wanting people to remember
Gina doesn’t have children of her own, but she has six nieces in their teens and early twenties.

“They have this sense that they’re the first generation of powerful young women,” she says. “And I just laugh at them, I say, ‘Hey you guys, really? There are so many women before you who are powerful.’”

So for Gina, part of the reason for her stories is the continuity of history. Even the novel’s title, Remember the Ladies, comes from a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, then a future President of the United States, on March 31, 1776.

In the letter, Abigail urged him not to forget about the nation’s women during the fight for American independence from Great Britain.


Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” Abigail wrote. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

Connecting her nieces to history is one reason Gina writes the novels she does.

“I want people to remember,” she says.

“I tell my nieces all the time that, ‘I want you to remember the women of our history and what they did and the accomplishments and then go out and become the next generation of women to remember.’

The importance of letters
However, Gina isn’t just trying to inspire others. She is a doer herself.

Her second novel will be out in October. It’s also historical fiction, and is inspired by personal experience leading to a charity that Gina founded, called Girls Love Mail.

“We collect handwritten letters of encouragement for women going through breast cancer treatment,” Gina says. “I’m a survivor myself, 2009.

“I was researching the second book with letters and writing historical fiction letters and reading them when I got diagnosed, and I received over two hundred letters myself in the mail that came from people I didn’t know.

“It was very strange and they were so healing. And I started this charity of getting letters to other people.”

So Gina’s second book, also historical fiction, is an epistolary novel.

“It’s set in the same era,” she says.

“It’s about a young writer who falls in love with the daughter of a railroad tycoon, and it explores the business aspects in the railroad industry and how corrupt it was in that era.

“It was all told through letters, which is really challenging!” She laughs. “I don’t want to do that again.”

But whether it’s her writing or her work with Girls Love Mail, for which she was recognized on The Steve Harvey Show, it seems to Gina it’s all connected.

“I want the next generation to be the doers of the world,” she says. “So that’s part of the charity, and obviously I write about strong women for strong women.

“Part of my passion is to inspire people to go do other things.”

© Roz DeKett

You can follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Gina L. Mulligan began her writing career over twenty years ago as a freelance journalist for national magazines. Her short stories have appeared in Star 82 Review and Storyacious, were performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento, and were included in the anthologies Tudor Close: A Collection of Mystery Stories and Not Your Mother’s Book …on Dogs. She’s won awards from the Abilene Writers Guild, San Francisco LitQuake, and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition.

After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a charity that collects handwritten letters of encouragement for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She was honored for her charitable work on the nationally syndicated talk show The Steve Harvey Show.

Remember the Ladies was published in May 2016 by Five Star Publishing.

You can learn more about Gina Mulligan on her web site here.

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Something exciting and engaging: Dharma Kelleher

By Roz DeKett


Dharma Kelleher. Photo copyright the author.

A quote from the great American novelist Toni Morrison circulates often on the internet, at least among writers: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And writing the book she wanted to read is how Dharma Kelleher achieved her first published novel, Iron Goddess.

The thriller, just released by the Random House digital imprint Alibi, is set in the gritty world of outlaw biker gangs. And there’s a twist: Shea Stevens, the main character, is a lesbian.

But the point of the story is not that she’s gay; it’s simply part of who she is.

“You read a Jack Reacher novel, it’s not centered around his romances,” Dharma says, with a grin.

“I wanted something that wasn’t centered around the main character’s sexuality, something exciting and engaging, where the most interesting thing about the main character was not the fact that she was gay.”

Dharma came out of the closet many years ago and read a lot of lesbian fiction. She found it fell into just a few categories.

“So much of lesbian fiction is coming out stories, and once you’ve read a few of those you’re like okay, I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, I don’t need to go there again,” she says. “And [there are] romances, which are great; erotica; and then there’s lesbian murder mysteries.

“There wasn’t really anything beyond that in scope. Straight fiction runs the whole gamut, all kinds of different stories.

“I couldn’t find the stories I wanted to read, so I decided to write one myself.”

The result is a story with diverse characters (sexually and racially) headed by Shea Stevens, “biker royalty” with a prison record and an investigative mission that she doesn’t trust to the police.kell_IronGoddess_cvr_all_r5b1

So how did Dharma arrive here, winding her way through a succession of careers from journalism (“I hated it”) to programming to being a goldsmith to writing a thriller?

She’d always been a writer, and almost ten years ago took part in NaNoWriMo, the annual one-month national event to give writers the inspiration to finish a 50,000 word manuscript.

With that under her belt, she started to work at learning the craft of writing, and over the years she’s written a few “practice novels.”

Falling for the culture
Serendipity brought bikers into Dharma’s life.

“I discovered motorcycles about seven years ago,” she says. “My wife had motorcycles long before and for the first time in our relationship, she got a new motorcycle.

“I rode on the back a few times and after I got over the initial shock and fear, I really enjoyed it. And then I decided I wanted a bike of my own, because being on the back, the seats are uncomfortable and it’s hard to see what’s up ahead.

“So I took a class and got my certification. And I fell in love with the culture.“

Dharma mentions the darker elements, familiar to many through Kurt Sutter’s crime drama television series Sons of Anarchy.

“There’s so many different aspects of the culture that I love,” she says. “Sons of Anarchy is really popular and I think it’s really well-written. Kurt Sutter does a beautiful job bringing out the humanity of the characters even though they’re basically outlaw bikers.

“So part of it was I wanted to show the outlaw biker world from a female point of view. And not even from the point of view of what’s called an old lady, which is the partner of an outlaw biker, but someone who’s a little more removed from that.

“That was the inspiration for the main character, Shea Stevens.”

Absolutely determined
But it’s one thing to write something different from what’s already out there, and another to get it published.

Dharma began the long slog through querying agents. She estimates she contacted around ninety.

“Which sounds daunting,” she says. “Four of them asked for more. But that also means eighty-six of them said no, it’s not right for us.

“After a while, I got to a point where I was sending out one query a day. Just one a day, and not worrying about the results.

“I was just determined to get it out there. I was absolutely determined. I really believed in the story.”


Dharma Kelleher. Photo copyright the author.

Eventually Dharma landed an agent, who in turn began pitching the novel to publishers. Feedback was great—they loved the story, the characters, her understanding of the biker world.

But no bites.

“What it came down to is the characters are very diverse racially and sexually,” Dharma says. “The main character is a lesbian, there’s a lot of racial diversity, and despite the fact that publishers keep saying they want more diversity, when it comes down to it they don’t know how to market it.”

Finally, Alibi made an offer of a two-book digital deal.

“And Alibi has been absolutely wonderful,” Dharma says.

Next steps
“I still wish I had a physical book that I could go out and do signings on,” Dharma says.

“We have a really great bookstore in town called the Poisoned Pen, but I can’t go down there and do a signing because I’ve got nothing to sign.”

But print could come later, and meanwhile, she’s thrilled to be a debut author.

“I’m really excited about having the opportunity to get my story out,” she says.

Especially when you’ve written the book you really wanted to read.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

Iron Goddess was published by Alibi on June 28, 2016, and is sold by Random House for Kindle here.

About the author
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty tales about outlaws, renegades, and misfits. A former radio news director, she now works as a freelance editor. Her hobbies include riding motorcycles, getting inked, making snarky comments on Facebook and Twitter, and shocking people with her latest haircut. She lives near Phoenix with her wife. You can learn more about Dharma and her writing here at dharmakelleher.com.

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A little bit of whimsy: Phaedra Patrick

By Roz DeKett


Phaedra Patrick. Photo credit: Sam Ralph

Five unpublished novels in, Phaedra Patrick was beginning to wonder whether she’d ever achieve her childhood ambition of writing for a living.

Then one day she showed her son, now ten, her charm bracelet and tried to remember the stories behind the charms for him.

“As I showed it to him, I thought it would be a really lovely idea,” Phaedra says. “I like writing short stories so I thought it would be an interesting structure, almost like each charm was a short story and it was a bracelet or narrative weaving it all together.”

The result was Phaedra’s first published novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, released in May 2016.

Arthur is a retired Yorkshireman struggling with bereavement. He’s slowly forced out of his shell as he tries to uncover the mysteries hinted at by the charms on a bracelet he finds that belonged to his wife, but that he never knew she had.


Phaedra’s own charm bracelet

“I have a little acorn with a squirrel in it, a piggy bank with a coin, and there’s one for the National Railway Museum in York,” Phaedra says of her own charm bracelet.

“Quite unglamorous compared to Arthur’s. There weren’t any kind of mysterious stories behind any of mine.”

A strategic idea … and a bit of whimsy
Phaedra had an agent for a couple of her earlier novels, but wasn’t able to secure a publishing deal. Other than the idea about the charms, she made a conscious effort to write from a different place.

“My first five books that got rejected were all about young women,” she says.

“So I thought, if I write about an old man, they can’t reject it for that reason.” She laughs. “That was the strategic idea.”

She also felt it would be a challenge to write about an older male character. Women, she feels, have greater support networks and female friends. A female character with a problem or bereavement could pick up the phone and go out for a glass of wine; a man might be facing his problems alone.

“We share it, we talk about it,” Phaedra says. “And I thought, older men probably don’t have that support network.

“I almost thought of him as a bit like an onion. He’s closed up and it’s just peeling back his layers one by one, to take him on this journey so he can really discover himself along the way.”


The UK cover

But there was more to it than the strategic decision to write about an opposite type of character. Phaedra wanted to write something with “that little touch of whimsy.”

“I learned a little bit with each one about what I wanted to write,” she says of her first novels. “And with this one, I felt like I really wrote it from the heart.

“I wrote the one that I wanted to write rather than thinking about what my agents want, what my publishers want.

“If I write something that I really enjoy, that means something to me, then if it gets published that’s brilliant. But if not, I feel like I’ve been true to myself with it.

“And luckily this was the one that worked.”

Nonetheless it’s hard to stay motivated when everything you write is being turned down. Phaedra read a great deal as a child and she knew by the time she was eight that she wanted to be a writer. But she was in her twenties before she decided to “give it a go.”

“I had to teach myself computers and how to touch type,” she says.

Phaedra studied what was in bookshops, read blurbs, learned about agents. With each

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.jpg

The US cover

book that she wrote, she learned more. She started getting feedback from agents and publishers. And with each rejection, she told herself it just meant what she’d written wasn’t yet good enough.

“So, back to it,” she says.

“Between books five and six I did have two or three years out, because I did lose my confidence. But I entered a couple of short story competitions and when I did okay in those competitions, it gave me that little boost to say right, one more.”

“But if this one hadn’t made it, I’m not sure there’d have been a number seven. Because I threw everything into it, and this was the one that I really, really wanted to write, that was probably the closest to my personality.”

Foreign sales and the next novel
Phaedra’s agent pitched her manuscript to foreign publishers as well as in the UK. Before it got picked up in England, five other countries bought it, starting with Italy.

Netherlands Australia Portugal

Some of the other country covers: The Netherlands, Australia, and Portugal

“I just didn’t think at all that anywhere other than the UK would be interested in it, because it is very, very English,” Phaedra says.

“So that was a big surprise.”

When I spoke to Phaedra, shortly before The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper was published in the UK and US, it had just sold in its twentieth country, Serbia.

As well as the surprise and pleasure of foreign sales, Phaedra (who now, having achieved what she dreamed of at the age of eight, writes full time) was thrilled by how collaborative and supportive she has found the publishing industry. Having left her job, she says, gone are the days when your boss might tell you the report you wrote wasn’t quite good enough.

“Once you’ve done all your hard work in writing, you’ve got the support of some great editors and agents who want to help you polish it and make it that bit better,” she says.

Phaedra has been putting the finishing touches on a new novel.

“It’s been a very exciting time,” she says.

© Roz DeKett

You can follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer, and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. Phaedra lives in Saddleworth, UK, with her husband and son, and she enjoys walking, eating chocolate, and arts and crafts. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her first novel and is published by MIRA books in the UK and Harlequin in the US. You’ll find a short YouTube video on the book here.

You can follow Phaedra on Twitter here and learn more about her on her web site here.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are Phaedra Patrick’s.

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Stories have shaped our lives: Rolonda Watts

By Roz DeKett


Rolonda Watts

“I’ve seen the power of stories and how they change people’s lives,” Rolonda Watts says.

“I think that stories are the most powerful thing about human experience. It’s the only thing that we as human beings really own, our story.”

We’re deep into a conversation about her new book, Destiny Lingers, a romance novel that was ten years in the writing. And it’s not just about finding your first love again. Rolonda digs into her personal story—of both prejudice and happiness.

“I wanted to tell this story because I feel as if I’m one of the last generations that actually remembers the two Americas,” she says.

“I remember drinking ‘colored’ water. That was a true story in the book about the teacher pinning the note on my chest, saying I couldn’t go to the park with the class because I was black and they didn’t allow blacks and Jews.

“I remember that. Today, kids can be anything they want—black, white, green, LGBTQ—and it wasn’t that long ago that it was against the law.

“Destiny and Chase, my lead characters, are both coming from families that are very, very, prejudiced. There’s a line in the book where she says ‘he couldn’t play with me because I was black, and I couldn’t play with him because he was poor.’ Classism and racism are such a big deal.”

The inspiration of Maya Angelou—keep the story going
Maya Angelou endorsed Rolonda’s novel, and more than that, she was pivotal in encouraging Rolonda to keep going during the years of writing.

“She was my mother and father’s best friend, and  my auntie, by proxy,” Rolonda says.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (photo: Creative Commons)

“Auntie Maya was really there for me a lot, and she was always my inspiration for writing. She was very excited when she knew I was working on this novel. She was very much there for me, on every level.

“As she would say, she was ‘tickled brown’ that I was working on it—she was like, you’ve got to keep the story going. I want to know what’s going to happen. And that’s what she said in her endorsement for my novel.”

Rolonda and I spoke in the first week of April.

“Monday is [Maya’s] birthday,” Rolonda says. “We spent so many Easters and Thanksgivings and Christmases together, and April 4 is also the date that Martin Luther King was killed, so she didn’t celebrate her birthday on that day.

“But it is her birthday, and I think she would be very proud to know that this book is finally on the store shelves.”

A love for her country
Rolonda wanted to celebrate changing attitudes in her novel, as well as recording memories of prejudice. The book’s North Carolina setting has strong personal significance for her, especially Topsail Island.

“I love the island,” she says.


Topsail Island. (Photo: http://www.topsailbeach.org)

“My grandparents founded the first beachfront community for black people in the state of North Carolina. Before 1948, blacks weren’t allowed on the beach.

“For them to create this community in 1948 and for me to have grown up there … this was something I wanted to save forever, because I love Topsail Island. It’s a love for my country, our progress. Time moves on, destiny lingers. Love conquers all.

“I also wanted a character who didn’t give up on people and didn’t give up on love, despite the adversities that she faced. We see a young couple saying ‘we refuse to carry this into a new generation.’ And I think a lot of us have to make those decisions. You can’t say it’s only white people who are prejudiced. Black people are as prejudiced as anybody else.

“And so it was really my ode to the island and to America, and changing times.”

Words can take people away
Of all the things that Rolonda does—journalist, talk show host, actor and more—being a writer strikes the deepest chord for her.

9781491768648_COVER.indd“I think it’s a strong art,” she says.

“It’s an in your face, take it or leave it art. And I just love the idea that words can take people away to places that they wouldn’t dare go alone.

“It’s such a powerful art. Words have so much power to move nations, to move people, to move hearts and souls. I do many different things but the one common thread throughout everything is that I’m a storyteller.

“I think throughout the history of humanity stories have shaped our lives, and given us direction, and given us hope.

“And I hope my story does that.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Rolonda Watts is an Emmy and Cable Ace award–nominated journalist, television and radio talk show host, executive producer, actor, comedienne, voice artist, speaker, humanitarian, and author. She can currently be seen on Dr. Drew on HLN. She can also be heard as Professor Wiseman on “Curious George,” as the announcer for “Divorce Court,” and as warrior priestess Illoai in the latest League of Legends video game. In 2016 she will have a recurring role on the Bounce TV series “In the Cut.” She holds degrees from Spelman College, a master’s degree from Columbia University, and an honorary doctorate from Winston-Salem State University. Rolonda lives in Los Angeles, California. Destiny Lingers is her first novel.

You can learn more about Rolonda on her web site here and on Twitter here.

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Sometimes you need to do something different: Kate Ellis

By Roz DeKett


Kate Ellis. Photo copyright: www.matthewpover.com

Kate Ellis is nothing if not prolific.

The House of Eyes, just published, is the twentieth novel in her Wesley Peterson series of crime novels set in the South West of England. She has five crime novels in another series about Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet, set in Yorkshire. She’s just finished editing the fourth draft of next year’s Wesley novel. The first book in what might be a new trilogy will be out later this year. And she also writes short stories.

“I’m writing one at the moment,” Kate tells me.

The continuing success of Kate’s main longest-running series, the Wesley Peterson novels, lies partly in how she ties in present-day crimes with archeological mysteries. Wesley, a Detective Inspector, has an archeology degree and his best friend Neil Watson is a local archaeologist.

It’s also partly in the development of her characters and their personal stories. Wesley’s marriage isn’t totally perfect and there’s always the suggestion of something with another regular character.

We become familiar with the hopes and disappointments of his friends, colleagues, and family members in the series.

I asked Kate how, as a white woman, she came to create a main character who’s a black man.

“Quite easily I think,” she says. “I’ve got a friend from Trinidad and I think her family are quite similar to Wesley’s, a medical family, very well-educated.

“He almost appeared fully formed. He’s a character I really like. He’s one of the good guys.”

Choosing sand over grit
Wesley and his Liverpudlian boss, Gerry Heffernan, track down their killers in and around the town of Tradmouth. No great leap of the imagination is required to recognize the English town of Dartmouth with its surrounding Devon towns and villages. Totnes becomes Kate’s New Age town of Neston; her Morbay is inspired by Torbay and Torquay, with the addition of a rough housing estate.

So how did a Northern writer (Kate is from Liverpool, studied drama at Manchester University, and lives in the Greater Manchester area) settle on the leafy lanes and beautiful beaches of Devon for her crime novels?


Dartmouth. Photo copyright: Kate Ellis

“I didn’t particularly want to write about the gritty inner city,” Kate says. “And if you write about a northern city, [publishers] want it really gritty.

“I knew South Devon really well. We’d been visiting there since the 1980s, and we’d got to know people, got to know the area, and it’s an interesting area. So using different names, I can use my imagination and change things around.

“And also the place has a lot of history. It’s a very interesting area, full of possibilities.”

Those possibilities were very important to Kate in finding a location that would meet her two passions: history and crime.

The first book she wrote was a crime novel set in Tudor Liverpool. But when she began sending that out, agents told her that while they liked it, the market was saturated with Medieval and Tudor crime novels—Kate laughs.

“So, I hit on an idea,” she says. “I’d write a present-day crime, which I’d always intended to do anyway, and have a historical case in the background. The Merchant’s House was the first one that was published.”

That was in 1998, and Wesley Peterson had his first case.

houseofeyesDoing something different
While steadily producing a Wesley Peterson book a year, Kate has also published five novels about Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet. The idea for those was sparked by a visit to York, where Kate’s son was studying for an archaeology degree. (She’s also a member of an archaeology group; apparently it runs in the family.)

During the visit, Kate took a guided tour of York, said to be one of the most haunted  cities in the country. Inspired by one of the ghost stories, Kate wrote her first Joe Plantagenet novel.

“Sometimes you need to do something different,” Kate says. “I got so many ideas.” The ghost stories continue to fuel that series.

Obviously, writing is a full-time job for Kate.

“Routine is very important,” she says. “Making yourself sit down whether you feel like it or not. You have to make yourself sit down and write. I try to do about 2,000 words a day when I’m actually writing.”

Kate writes up to two books a year as well as short stories. Next up is another departure, A High Mortality of Doves, which will be out in November. Kate has returned to historical crime, setting the story in Derbyshire in 1919. It’s a stand-alone novel but she has plans to develop it into a trilogy. And The Devil’s Priest, the Tudor mystery set in Liverpool that was the first novel she wrote, is now available on Kindle.

So will she keep going with Wesley after his twenty-first book next year?

“I’m not sure,” Kate says. “I’m just going to play it by ear.”

Whatever she writes next, Kate always has one goal in mind for her readers.

“That they’ve read a really good book,” she says. “A really good mystery, and the end’s come as a surprise.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and Facebook here.

About the Author
Kate Ellis was born in Liverpool and she studied drama in Manchester. She worked in teaching, marketing and accountancy before first enjoying writing success as a winner of the North West Playwrights competition. Crime and mystery stories have always fascinated her, as have medieval history and archaeology which she likes to incorporate in her books. She is married with two grown up sons and she lives in North Cheshire, England, with her husband.

Kate’s novels feature archaeology graduate Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Wesley Peterson who fights crime in the “mean streets” (or should it be “mean lanes”?) of South Devon. Each story combines an intriguing contemporary murder mystery with a parallel historical case. She has also written five books in the spooky Joe Plantagenet series set up in North Yorkshire as well as many short stories for crime fiction anthologies and magazines. Kate was elected a member of The Detection Club in 2014. She is a member of the Crime Writers Association and Murder Squad. Kate is currently working on her twenty-first Wesley Peterson novel.

The House of Eyes was published in February 2016, by Piatkus.

You can learn more about Kate and her writing on her web site here. Follow her on Twitter here.

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It’s about telling a good story: Maha Gargash

By Roz DeKett


Maha Gargash

As Maha Gargash notes herself, few books come out of the United Arab Emirates that are written by and about Emiratis.

So her second novel, That Other Me, is a rare gem in more ways than one. Beautifully written, meticulously detailed, humorous and warm, it explores Emirati life in the 1990s through the eyes of three characters bound by family ties and struggles.

“You’ll be reading about a very different, much more conservative culture,” Maha says. “A segregated society, a different way of doing things.

“But the feelings are universal. The same emotions, the same kind of worries. So whoever reads it would be able to relate to it.”

The change of pace in Maha’s country is so rapid that some aspects of the society she writes about are alien even to Emiratis.

“This was in the nineties, but I’m sure the youth who read it now would think, oh my goodness, it’s so ancient, did they really do these things at that time?” she says.

Maha is herself an Emirati, born in Dubai where she now lives. She studied in Washington DC and London. For more than twenty years, she worked in television in Dubai, directing and making documentaries. She was also involved in Nights of Dubai, an early singing reality show much like American Idol,  which features in That Other Me as one of her characters, Dalal, tries to become a star in the glamorous Arab showbiz world.

“A lot of the things take place in Cairo because I dealt with many people in TV, singing  and the film industry in Egypt, which is the center for Arab cinema and stars,” Maha says.

Getting below the surface in Dubai
I suggested that her novels offer an insight into a slice of Arab life that even frequent visitors, ex-pats, or immigrants in the UAE might never see. Maha agrees, telling me that native Emiratis make up only ten percent of the country’s population. (She asked me to check this figure; I did, and she’s right).

“[Visitors] will definitely not know what’s going on in local society unless they have a good friend who takes them to the house, and that happens less and less,” she says.

“People will come here, they’ll hardly meet any locals, and they would definitely not see something like the societies that are described in here.

“So I had to think about who’s reading this book and make sure they’re not alienated. Whoever is going to read it, whether they know about the society or not, needs to be able to connect to the characters and the story.”that other me 2

So Maha goes to some lengths to explain things that Western readers might find mysterious, without making the reader feel that things are being explained, by bringing a sentence here or there into the flow of the story to shed light where needed.

“Which is a tricky business,” she says. “But I always think about that when I write my novels.”

Perhaps most important of all, Maha’s deep and detailed research means that her novels also preserve rapidly vanishing features of Arab life—from the dramatically changing infrastructure of Dubai to the eclipsing of aspects of Emirati culture and society.

Her first novel, The Sand Fish, is set in the fifties and was an international bestseller, praised for its pure, poetic language as it tells the story of three wives in one household.

“I think it’s important to have kind of a record,” Maha says.

“I did a lot of research [for The Sand Fish] to find out what life was like in the fifties, the kind of social structure, the kind of lifestyle, which the younger generations don’t know anything about.

“So that was really important to me, to get that out in a descriptive way so that a reader can open the book and enjoy it, and feel like they’re there. And with the second book, again it’s nice to see the mechanics of the society, how people interact, what’s important.

“But at the end of the day it’s about telling a good story.”

Betrayals and secrets
And a good story depends on the characters.

“I’m always interested in people and what motivates them,” Maha says. “What gets their blood flowing, and especially families. There’s a lot more at stake when you’re talking about families.

“I put the three characters in this situation where there are betrayals and secrets. Each one of them sees themselves in a way, or would like to be a certain way, but there are things always holding them back.

“All three characters don’t really know who they are. They’re not exactly the way they see themselves. But we as readers understand what they are.”

Whereas The Sand Fish told the story from one point of view in third person, Maha pushed herself in That Other Me to take on, in first person, the voices of three very different characters.

“At the beginning I had two girls, and then I thought I need to put the man too. And then I regretted it because it was much more difficult,” Maha says, and laughs.

The male character, Majed, was the hardest for her to get to grips with and to understand, to see from his point of view what was important for him.

“Not just as a male: as an Emirati male, as an Arab male, from a culture that’s very conservative,” Maha says.

“This was very difficult for me because you have to get into his head and think like a male, on issues such as shame, your place in society. How important are these things? And they’re very important for both males and females, but I think more so for males because if they fail at that, then they would be looked upon as failures in society.

Sand Fish“Our society is a very closed society. It’s one that judges, it’s one that even if it doesn’t judge, you’re always judging yourself. And as a male you’re doing it doubly so, so the females of the family do reflect upon you.”

As she was writing, she had male friends review her drafts.

“And they’re like, no, no, no … he’d never be like that,” Maha says. “I had to change him, make him more gruff, more tough, and it was a very alien thing for me to do, because women express themselves much more.

“But for males, and especially in this society, a lot of these feelings have to be hidden very, very deep, and even when he discusses his problems with his male friends, really he doesn’t discuss anything.”

Which, as Maha says, doesn’t sound that alien in any society. Universal feelings indeed.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and Facebook here

That other meAbout the author
Maha Gargash, an Emirati born in Dubai to a prominent business family, has studied in Washington DC and London. With her degree in radio and television, she joined Dubai Television to pursue her interest in documentaries. Through directing television programs that deal mainly with Arab societies, she became involved in research and scriptwriting. Her first novel, The Sand Fish (HarperCollins, 2009) was an international bestseller. That Other Me was published by the HarperCollins imprint Harper Perennial in 2016.

You can learn more about Maha on her website, www.mahagargash.com

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A different kind of book each time: Lisa Lutz

By Roz DeKett

Lisa Lutz credit Morgan Dox

Lisa Lutz. Photo: Morgan Dox

“This book is a blueprint for what I would do if I were running from the law,” Lisa Lutz says.

The Passenger is Lisa’s ninth book, a  crime thriller published on March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

We start with Tanya, stepping over the body of her dead husband whom she assures us she didn’t kill. But we just have to take her word for it.

And before long we realize her name isn’t Tanya, or any other name that she assumes as we get to know her, and we have no idea who she is or what she’s running from.

“I wanted to write a book about identity,” Lisa says. “If you aren’t anyone, if you have no real place in the world, how do you make an identity?

“And if you’re running from your past, what past are you running from? As Tanya, and whatever her subsequent names are, these new identities that she then leaves behind also become problematic.

“So she is a product of all the people she’s been, even the fake ones.”

As Lisa researched the book,  trying to figure out how you acquire a new identity in this day and age, she took the approach of writing it as if she herself were looking for a new identity.

“I don’t know anyone who could give me new papers,” she says.

“I ultimately wrote a book about living off the grid, because it is so impossible to live legally under a fake, an assumed name.

“And that was the most interesting thing about this process.  You can’t become someone new anymore. You just have to hide.”

From comedy to crime
Lisa lived in San Francisco for a number of years and spent some time working for a private investigator. In her New York Times bestselling Spellman Files series, Lisa takes a quirky and comedic approach to crime writing—they are, as she puts it, primarily comedic novels that borrow much from the detective genre.

But as a writer, she pushes the genre boundaries and keeps her readers guessing in more ways than one.

“I think a lot of people tend to stay in a similar genre,” Lisa says. “If they write comedy they stay in comedy, which was never my intention.”

After the Spellman Files series, Lisa wrote How to Start a Fire, a very different novel. She’s also written a children’s book, How to Negotiate Everything, and Heads You Lose with David Hayward.

“I have lived in the world of crime writers for so long and been called a crime writer, even though I hadn’t really written a proper crime novel,” Lisa says.

“I read them abundantly, and always had intended to write something that was very much part of that genre.

“So, arguably The Passenger is the first book I’ve written that can be easily labeled in terms of genre … it’s a crime novel.”

The right way to tell the storyJacket image
Many authors writing in different genres use different names, and that was a consideration for Lisa.

But if you’re shifting genre focus with each new book—Lisa doesn’t plan to write another series, for example, and the book she’s writing now is less a thriller and more a straight crime novel—taking  on a new name each time isn’t practical (despite what Tanya does in The Passenger).

“When I think of a story that I want to tell, I never think in terms of genre,” Lisa says. “I just think, what’s the right way to tell this story?

“The Spellman Files felt like a comedy. And with The Passenger being a crime novel and being about isolation and loneliness, I felt like the writing had to be spare.

“Even though there may be some humorous moments, it’s a much darker novel and it doesn’t make sense to tell it in a comedic way.

“So you have to figure out the right way to tell a story. And it’s always about the story more than it is anything else.”

As readers, we fall in love with certain characters and want to keep reading about them. Or we’re attuned to a certain type of book from an author and we can run through an airport bookstore, see the author’s name, and know what we’re in for.

With The Passenger, Lisa’s Spellman Files readers might be in for a surprise—a good one.

“I know that you disappoint readers who want the same thing,” Lisa says.

“I think you just have to hope that you find the readers who are little bit more flexible with what they like, or open to new things.”

But despite The Passenger being a darker psychological thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end, it still has its moments of humor.

“I couldn’t forsake it completely,” Lisa says, and laughs.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling author of the Spellman Files series, Heads You Lose (with David Hayward), and How to Start a Fire. Lisa won the Alex Award and has been nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel. She lives in upstate New York.

You can learn more on Lisa’s web site, www.lisalutz.com, and follow her on Twitter.

About the book
Simon & Schuster
Publication date: March 1, 2016
Hardcover price: $25.99
Hardcover ISBN: 9781451686630
E-book ISBN: 9781451686654

Also available on audio

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