SJIH: Hi James, welcome to Shots! Your first novel ‘Tenacity’ has just been published – how does it feel?
JSL: Ah, well I’m sure you are used to people gushing all over you at this point and spouting the usual clichés about how amazing it is, and I’m afraid I’m no different and the clichés are clichés for a reason! It feels awesome and not a little surreal. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time and to finally see my book in print and to work with the outstanding teams at Curtis Brown and Headline Publishing has been really special.
It’s a very exciting time! Can you tell us about it in a couple of sentences? No spoilers please…
So, the story follows a female special investigator from the Royal Navy, Danielle ‘Dan’ Lewis. She’s brought in to investigate a murder-suicide on a nuclear submarine and she’s a total outsider in this all-male environment. She’s driven and tenacious, and as she follows the investigation through, she soon has to choose between justice and her own safety – I tell you, when the submarine hatch closes, there’s no ‘locked room’ setting to equal it.
SJIH: It’s a brilliant hook, and I know that readers are going to love it. I know that the Navy is your working background, and it’s fascinating to read about. How ‘real’ is your fictional portrayal?
I used a lot of anecdotes and real experiences to help form elements of the story and the characters, but if twenty years in the Royal Navy taught me one thing, it’s ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. So the accuracy is pretty good, though I obviously had to conform to security rules, but in places I changed what I needed to, to make the story entertaining and hopefully gripping.
I should say that although there are lots of nasty, evil submariners in Tenacity, my true experience of submariners is worlds away from that. Submariners are a close-knit community of some of the best, most generous and committed men and women I’ve ever met, but that wouldn’t make for much of a crime-thriller.
Very true – but great to have such material to draw from. Your main character, Dan, is female. How important was it for you to write this story from a female perspective?
It wasn’t so much important as it just felt right. I’m one of these folk that gets really annoyed at TV programmes and books where females have to be either a ditzy blonde who hilariously bumbles her way through stuff, or a ‘strong’ woman who is part ninja crossed with terminator. Male leads don’t always get that same treatment and I really wanted to write a female lead that worked for me.
I deliberately made Dan quite petite, so that she rarely has physicality on her side, and I made her smart and savvy, so that she’d use brains and ingenuity to solve her way out of the problems in her way. Dan isn’t perfect (who is?), but she draws her strength from all the right places and is determined and driven to do what she feels is right. Some people like her traits and respect her for them, some men (and some women) are intimidated by her and don’t like her – you know, just like real life. When I started writing her I just really enjoyed spending my time doing it and so it stuck. When the idea for Tenacity came along I just thought – wow, a female police investigator on an all-male platform and with a hatch that closes and is watertight…
There’s also the fact that in the UK, Females were qualifying as submariners for the first time and I had heard a lot of talk supporting and condemning it (far more in support, but there’ll always be dissenters). That definitely made me think about how a female might be received on a submarine. However, submarines are a family, and once you earn your coveted ‘dolphins’ (the emblem of the submarine service), male or female,you’re in the family, and I needed Dan to be a complete outcast so for that reason, and because there are a number of other things I want her to do, I made her a Crusher (Military Police) – the ultimate outsider.
And we all love to root for an outsider. What’s Dan like? Tell us about her. Is she your favourite character? If not, who is? You write great villains…
Dan’s great, and really annoying. She’s pig stubborn and she’s sometimes not that great socially. But she likes her own company, values the friends she has, and enjoys her work. She runs, which I hate, but although she says she enjoys it, I think she does it to be anti-social at lunch times. She’s one of those people who can forget to eat (something I could NEVER do!). She’s also oddly selfless and selfish at the same time. I think we’re very different, Dan and I, but I’d take respect over friendship any day, and I definitely respect her and what she stands for. She probably is my favourite character, but I’ve never met an author yet who doesn’t like playing the villain! No rules, pure selfish pursuits – so yeah, I do like writing the baddies, and I’m just getting started on some of those…
Can’t wait for that! So what’s next – this is the first in a series, isn’t it? Can you tell us anything about the next book? I am guessing that’s what you are working on now?
Yeah, I’m definitely working on the next book right now, tirelessly. Making great progress too, barely taking breaks in my pursuit of the finish line (is my editor reading this??).
Well, book 2 is on the way and I am working on it now. I want to let people know more about Dan, her background, her Dad, who is an interesting character in his own right, and I want us to see Dan having to make some really tough choices, to really test her resolve and see what drives her. Other than that, I’ll tell you in a few months.
Excellent. Just to change direction, slightly – I think the readers would be interested to know a bit about how you got here. Tenacity is set to be huge – with an endorsement from Patricia Cornwell, no less. Is it the first novel you’ve written? Or do you have a pile of unused manuscripts under your bed?
Hehe – ‘huge’ – fingers crossed eh?
Tenacity isn’t my first novel, I have five, count em FIVE, finished and unpublished novels at home. Novels one to four are awful, some aren’t even that good, but they were learning books and I experimented with Fantasy, Horror and even Erotic (yes, really, and no you can’t see it). Novel five got some interest and I think a few agents started to think that I was maybe serious at that point. But I always think that a) I really enjoyed writing them and b) you wouldn’t expect to be a vet just by watching one treat your pet, so why would you expect to be an author without at least some learning and practice. I had to learn how novels work and how to deal with plots and sub-plots and characterisation, so those other novels, which will never see the light of day, were worth every minute I spent on them. There’s also a lot of confidence to be had in knowing that you can finish novels – it can be a bit of a slog and isn’t for the feint of heart.
The Patricia Cornwell quote was something else. I mean Patricia ‘Freaking’ Cornwell!! When I heard about that I was so excited that I think a little bit of wee came out!
I also got some great feedback from bloggers and other superb writers like Eva Dolan, Emlyn Rees and Matt Hilton, so the whole reception of the book has just been phenomenal – did I mention Patricia Cornwell too??
Hmm, a couple of times! So you were writing while you were working as a submariner? I imagine that might’ve raised a few eyebrows?
You know what, no one knew. I kept it a secret until the last two to three years of service, and even then, I only told people because I enrolled in a part time MA in Creative Writing and so I couldn’t hide it. I don’t know why I didn’t tell people as I have good supportive friends, but I didn’t. I guess my persona in the navy was always more associated with rugby and drinking beer and so I kept my love of literature, poetry, reading and writing, a secret – I wish I hadn’t.
So maybe we’ll get a whole load of closet submariner authors appearing now! Who inspired you to start writing? Who do you read?
Like so many authors, I just always have. I love making stories up, telling them, writing them down. I love words. My kids and I always tell daft, made up stories to each other in the car and we sing silly songs using rhymes and stuff. If I had never been published, I’d still have carried on writing books and short stories, no doubt at all in my mind about that as, after family stuff, it’s what I enjoy doing the most.
I’m also a massive audiobook fan and I listen to loads and loads each year. I listen in the car (I drive a lot), in the gym, in bed to relax, during my lunch break and I love nothing more than when a book is so good that I get to work and sit in the car until the end of the chapter – everyone at work knows what’s going on too, so I end up recommending a lot of audiobooks. I think listening to stories is so good at helping you to understand how things should sound. I read my work, and particularly my dialogue, aloud all the time. If you can’t say it one breath, then neither can the character or the reader. I listen to about 80% of the books I ‘read’ and when you get a great author and a great story combined with a superb narrator, the end product is just sublime. I’ll tackle almost anything on audiobook, even ones I found hard to read. For instance, I couldn’t really get into the Millennium Trilogy on paper, but it remains one of my absolute favourites on audiobook. Recommends on audiobook at the moment would be…The Beauty of Murder by AK Benedict was just excellent, The Road by Cormac McCarthy was also outstanding, The Killing Season by Mason Cross, all of The Glasgow Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay and, if you haven’t listened to Laidlaw written and narrated by William McIlvanney, then you’re really missing out!
Oh I love his voice. Maybe that’ll be the first audiobook I ever manage to listen to. I’ve only tried one once before, a long time ago, and I fell asleep. Luckily I wasn’t driving. What’s the most exciting thing about being a new author? Do you have any advice for anyone just starting out?
At the moment being a new author is more about waiting peppered with short splurges of excitement. Getting the proofs and final copies coming through is quite special and, of course, seeing the final book! Also, just seeing how supportive my friends are.
Advice for people starting out, though, well – I’d say write and finish a your book, learn how to take and act on feedback, and figure out who to take the feedback from, and then leave the subjective, emotional writing part behind – writing is subjective and emotional, getting an agent and publisher isn’t, it’s business; I’d recommend treating it as such.
Query and approach the right people, after doing research, and do so in an utterly professional way. You aren’t looking for a friend; you’re looking for a business partner, for me that was an important distinction – it also helps to deal with the searing, but inevitable, pain of rejection. Read them, learn what you can from then, and move on.
That’s great advice. And finally, the question that I ask everyone… What does no one ever ask you that you wish that they would ask you?
Can you sing? No one ever asks that! And you know what? After a few beers if you give me a microphone and a stage I do a mean a capella rendition of Chris De Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper, but oh no, no one’s ever interested in that.
Erm… maybe one for a later night at a writing festival! Thanks, James. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with Tenacity – I am sure it’s going to be massive hit!
Thank you for having me. It’s awesome and a real honour to have followed Shots for a good while and now to be in it, so I’m very grateful.
Read SHOTS' review of Tenacity here
Published July 30, 2015, Headline, Trade Pbk £13.99