Each and every one of you is invited to join in the fun of the Massive Autumn Book Launch Event (#MABLE) organised by my publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing. It began on 17th September and runs to 31st October. And you can sign up to join in the fun here.
I’m posting interviews with the authors here during the event. This is with Penny Grubb.
Penny Grubb is an award-winning crime novelist. For several decades she worked in academia, moving from Engineering to Social Sciences. She set up one of the UK’s first Medical Informatics research groups and was at the forefront of European research for a decade. During a 6-year secondment, she chaired the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society overseeing the distribution of approx. £30 million annually to writers. Returning to academia, she taught and researched teaching and learning techniques for fragile learners in Health Sciences. Her writing in both software engineering and as a crime novelist was recognised by the UK’s research assessment exercises. Following retirement, she concentrates on home life, online blogging, and her novels.
1. Is Horse of the Same Colour your first book?
Not by a long way; in fact it’s a sequel, and it’s not even by me! It’s authored by my alter-ego, Melodie Trudeaux. I’ve had 8 crime novels published under my own name, and a pre-teen fantasy, Horse of a Different Colour, under Melodie’s.
I, or rather Melodie, should have written Horse of the Same Colour sooner, but my writing time has been taken up with the crime series, which hasn’t left any time for Melodie to write. I stand in admiration of those authors with multiple personas who write so many books – it’s a mystery to me how they can be so prolific and have any time at all for life away from the keyboard.
2. Did some specific event trigger the creation of Horse of the Same Colour, and was this a project you’d been considering for some time?
The event that pushed me into writing this long-overdue sequel was being asked to help with a Write2Ride, a Pony Club creative writing competition. As one of the prizes, I offered the opportunity to name a character in the as-yet-unwritten book.
I thought I was safe. The competition was awash with incredible prizes – training days with Olympic gold medallists, holiday weekends, visits to meet the elite of the riding fraternity, etc. Add to this that competitors were asked to state their preferred prizes when they entered.
No one’ll choose mine, I thought. I won’t actually have to write the book. Talk about tempting fate! I ended up with 18 new character names. Bear in mind this was a sequel; the main characters were already set in stone.
Luckily, a revelation had come to me about the premise of this book. I’d been reading stories about magical horses since I was small, and suddenly it came to me – I knew exactly where the magic sat in the real world. It was obvious. It had been staring me in the face since I’d met my first real horse.
No spoilers of course, but because of that insight I was able to feature all 18 new characters in starring roles.
3. Most works of fiction have themes either at their heart or subtly roving beneath the surface for the more analytical reader; what were your themes here, and why do they matter to you?
Even when I know it’s there, I don’t try to push a theme, I just tell a story. However, telling a story often means that a theme gets explored. For example, my crime novel, The Jawbone Gang, was built around vigilantism. My years working as a trade union representative brought me into close contact with the appalling human cost of people deciding – without evidence or due process – that someone was guilty of something. In Buried Deep I looked at discrimination against travellers. The statistics are awful enough on their own, but it’s the underlying human stories that bring home the reality of it. I used my research for Buried Deep when I wrote Horse of the Same Colour.
In many contexts, people accept the awful statistics behind discrimination because they happen to “them” and not to “us” which is of course a false premise. History is littered with people learning that lesson in the worst possible way. When anyone is persuaded to accept as normal that bad things can be done to “them”, they open the door to the same bad things being done to “us” because there’s no objective distinction between “them” and “us”.
Travellers have a central role in Horse of the Same Colour. There are references to the discrimination they suffer but it’s seen through the lens of the 11-year-olds. As an example, when their Gran predicts that one of the children will be bullied when they go to school, the important takeaway for the children is that Gran can see the future. As children do when left to their own devices, they make their own judgements, and accord status based on things like age, strength, or the ability to climb trees. But, as children also do with the adult world always there to prompt them, they set the family apart. They remain “them” and not “us”.
I’ve been tempted sometimes to add an Afterword to a book to give some of the facts and figures behind my research into these sorts of things, but my first publisher wasn’t keen on that sort of thing so it never happened.
4. When did you start writing and what prompted you to choose words as your creative medium?
I was writing stories by the time I was 4. I grew up in a storytelling household and both my parents were talented artists. I enjoyed other creative outlets – painting, drawing, sculpting, playing the piano. However, words were always available for satisfying the urge to create. Everything else needed preparation – paints to be found, a space for a canvas, a heap of books and toys to be cleared from the piano lid – but pen and paper was always to hand. It’s hard to know if I chose words or if they chose me, but I’m inclined to think I was set on words as my medium from a very early age.
5. What, if any, input did you have in the design of the book cover, and is such collaboration important to you?
I really don’t have an eye for covers. Sometimes I’ll envisage something and will pass that on. Fantastic Books Publishing is the first publisher I’ve had who asks its authors for their views on the cover, albeit they have the final say. I am very happy with the covers of both Horse of a Different Colour and Horse of the Same Colour.
Previous publishers have come up with a cover that fits their corporate image and that is that. The very first publisher I had was for a textbook I co-wrote with a colleague. We had one stipulation for the cover. No spanners! Do whatever you like with it but please no spanners. They gave us spanners.
6. English is a temperamental language; how important is it for an author to understand its rules?
Novels often break the rules e.g. of grammar, but in my view you have to know what you’re doing or things can come across as unintended. Errors that appear to be unintentional can stand out like beacons and wreck the flow of the prose.
Dialogue is an interesting case. It has to sound real in order to pull readers into a story and make them believe the characters are speaking. We don’t talk in full grammatical sentences and it sounds stilted when characters appear to, but if you put real speech into a novel, with all its ums and ahs and backtracks and diversions, it would kill the story stone dead. Writing realistic dialogue is a skill to be learned.
There’s that saying that everyone has a book in them. It might be true but not everyone has the skills to turn that internal book into readable prose. Towards the end of my academic career, I turned my research skills towards writing techniques. Writing is a skill like any other. People mix it up with having a story to tell. Academic writing, technical writing, creative writing … they’re different things with different requirements. You can be a world-beating academic writer and useless at writing a novel or vice versa – it’s a different skill set and needs to be learnt.
I’ve mentored people trying new types of writing. It’s always a buzz to see them succeed. And as so often in life, the most difficult cases are those who don’t know what they don’t know; people who have a story to tell, but no idea how to tell it. It lands on the page just the way they told it in the pub, and they can’t see what’s wrong. As they read their flat, uninteresting, and often incomprehensible words, they see themselves telling the tale with extravagant gestures, mimicked accents, exaggerated facial expressions, to an appreciative audience of friends who already have the history behind the tale and who know them well.
Interestingly, the example of an academic writing a novel is a much easier proposition. The initial problem is failure to switch out of academic writing mode – thus, not only is the drama flattened by precise and accurate full sentences, the potentially gripping whodunit starts with an abstract that gives away the whole plot and says who did it – but good academics understand how different skill sets work and they know how to learn.
The structure of the narrative is a key part of making a book come alive. There is so much more to it than simply stringing together the words. So, yes, if you know what the component parts are and how they work together you give yourself the best starting point for constructing great prose.
7. Finally, bearing in mind the wide choice of self-publishing platforms now available, what made you choose Fantastic Books Publishing as your route to the reading public?
My books were with other publishers before Fantastic Books Publishing existed. It was when my main crime publisher closed down that I approached Fantastic Books.
I was first published before self-publishing was a thing, and I’ve never been inspired to learn the technicalities, I’d far rather someone else did it for me, but there are other pluses to working with a publisher. One of the people who won the prize of naming a character in Horse of the Same Colour chose a name that’s a well-known registered Trademark. Fantastic Books helped me to get the relevant permission to use it. And quite apart from convenience and protection from lawsuits, I get the benefits of the bigger promotional events they can run.
This book and author will be spotlighted at 20:00BST 21st September 2022 using the link that will appear here.