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‘Hidden’ gem no more – Meet award-winning author, Jo Chumas

Jane: Today, I’m interviewing the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 (Thriller/Suspense) winner, Jo Chumas. Firstly, Jo, can I offer you a very warm welcome. I know that you’re having a very hectic but exciting time, so thank you so much for interrupting the celebrations for your book launch and agreeing to answer a few questions.  

Jo: Thanks for the invitation to be part of your blog Jane. I feel honoured to be interviewed by a fellow author and award winner.

Book day

Jane: I see that The Hidden had already earned a fabulous review from Publishers Weekly who called it “a sophisticated, first-rate mystery novel/political thriller……an excellent, well-written, and forceful work of fiction.” I’m very intrigued. Is there anything else you can tell me about it?

Jo: On the subject of the PW review, I was thrilled when I read it. As part of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) semi-finalist selection, authors’ manuscripts are read by reviewers at Publishers Weekly in the US. This, in itself, is a huge honour, and it’s a wonderful ‘gift’ which Amazon factored into the Award this year for authors who had advanced to that stage. I had no idea that this was part of the ‘prize’ for getting so far, so seeing it was a bit of a shock at first. The PW review of my novel was the type most authors dream about getting, and for me to read a review of my work written by a complete stranger, who had absolutely no vested interest in saying anything other than what they truly felt about my manuscript, left me on a high for weeks. Getting reviews is the hard part of being an author, so PW’s review, very intelligently written and showing a complete understanding of my story, just blew me away. To know that a PW reviewer read my manuscript and loved it enough to review it so positively was a highlight of getting to the semi-finalist stage.

The Hidden is a historical spy thriller set over two time periods, but in one country – Egypt. The two narratives cover the 1919 Nationalist riots in Egypt (real life events) and the pre-Italian invasion of North Africa – in 1940 Cairo (another important historical era). It’s a story about the ‘sins’ of our ancestors; how the actions and motivations of one generation can and does have devastating consequences further down the track. I am fascinated by the spy game, by military manoeuvres, by politics and by history. I took two periods of time I love and drilled down into them to see what I could come up with. My starting point was the day-to-day life of the harem of royal palaces in the Ottoman Empire. As a former journalist, research is my thing. I am an obsessive researcher and I love researching scandal, dirty dealings, war, spying and the evil that human beings are capable of. The Hidden is about cross-generational ‘sins’ and the secrets that are kept from us, a subject I believe you write about too Jane.

Jane: I think it’s very fair to say that secrets, or, if you prefer, the ‘sin’ of omission, is a theme I find myself returning to time and again. It’s very interesting that you mention the historical aspect of your novel. I have recently been interviewed by Evie Woolmore about the difference between historical novels and novels of other genres with historical settings. The Hidden seems to fall into the latter category and it sounds as if it would be an excellent choice for readers who love historical fiction but who do not normally experiment with political thrillers. How long did it take you to write?

Jo: I spent two years researching it; every aspect of the economic, cultural and political life of Egypt, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire from the mid-18th century through to the 1950s. While I was researching I was writing a first draft of the novel. I then rewrote the story many, many times and researched further. The research was absolutely crucial.  Without it there would be no novel. Because while the characters go through very human, very contemporary dilemmas, the environment they lived in was vastly different from any other time in history. As I said, I adore history and find it endlessly interesting, so the researching was pure joy, as well as the collecting of a huge library of non-fiction books on 19th and 20th century Egypt, books I still own and enjoy rereading today.

Jane: You’ve already mentioned the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and I’d like to return to that as I’m very interested to know if your emotions were similar to mine, when I heard that I’d won the Daily Mail First Novel Award. The word I have used most often is ‘gobsmacked.’ I wonder, where were you when you heard The Hidden had won the Thriller/suspense category in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) 2013? What went through your head? Who did you tell first? And, most importantly, how did you celebrate?

Jo: My reaction was that too Jane. I was ‘gobsmacked’. The ABNA competition has a 10,000 person entry limit and so the fact that I had been chosen from that many people (along with four other category winners) was absolutely overwhelming. I never expected it, knew that many, many talented writers would have entered the competition. It was very difficult to take in at first and I didn’t believe it. I had just been to a lovely restaurant in Barcelona and was walking home. I had resigned myself to the fact that I hadn’t gone any further than the semi-finalist stage. I was enormously grateful though for the experience and for making it so far. Plus the PW review seemed to make everything right. My mobile went off. I looked at the number on the phone and saw it was an American number (I recognised the code because of my previous work in journalism and public relations, having to make calls to the US). I didn’t think anything of it. I answered it and it was the people from ABNA. At first I thought it was a joke, a prank call. I told them this too. They thought that was a very funny response. I was on the phone with the lovely people from ABNA for about 20 minutes. I will remember that night forever. I went to a bar and ordered Cava – a very Catalonian drink. I haven’t stopped since then, have been to America twice in three months, have met so many warm and friendly publishing professionals at Amazon Publishing and have lived this dream life, more exciting and unreal than anything I could ever have imagined.

Jane: Well, huge congratulations, and I really hope that your success acts as a springboard for The Hidden. On my travels I met an editor who was offered the manuscript of The Kite Runner and loved it, but didn’t think that a book about Afghanistan would sell. The cover of my copy says that over 8 million copies have proved her wrong. With such strict criteria, it seems obvious that talent is going to slip through the net. This is why competitions are so important. Isabel Ashdown credits her winning the Mail on Sunday Novel Openings competition as the factor that secured her an agent and a huge hit with her novel, Glasshopper. I urge any unpublished writers to enter competitions. Jo, perhaps you can take us back to how you first came to be a writer.

Jo: That’s so interesting you should mention The Kite Runner Jane. I pitched The Hidden to many, many US, UK and Australian agents, and the response was exactly that – that while the story was very interesting they didn’t think a political thriller based on terrorism and Muslim terrorism, at that, would sell. The time wasn’t right. There’s a strong Islamic thread running through the story; the main characters are Muslim. Hezba, the harem girl is a Muslim girl who lives her life in the most anti-Islamic way possible. Her nick-name is Fire, because she lives her life at white heat. The themes are powerful and no one originally wanted it, but the industry professionals behind ABNA totally got the story and wanted to run with it. The irony of it is that I finished the first draft of The Hidden in April 2001 – obviously five months before 9/11. I rewrote it many times from 2001 to 2009, researching it further, then I abandoned it and it lay on a pen drive in my office. I self-published it to Kindle Direct Publishing in November 2012, and because of KDP I saw the ad for the ABNA and decided to enter. In 2012, a few months prior to entering ABNA, I pitched it to a US agent but never received a response.

On the subject of how I came to be a writer, I am English but I grew up in Belgium. My father worked there. I think I was born reading a book. This sounds crazy but reading and writing were hugely important to me from the word go. I was shy as a kid (although I know I probably didn’t appear shy) and I sought out solitude and sanctuary in the pages of a book. Books were my world, a place I felt safe. I started writing a diary when I was about six and then wrote one all the time right up until I went to university. After that my writings were copious notes and random observations on things that disturbed me – less like a diary – more like reporting. I found school boring and didn’t excel in much at all, but loved my friends and loved learning languages, particularly Latin. Again my whole early life (and this probably still applies now) was about trying to communicate. I desperately wanted to communicate with the world, with my family, with my friends, with the people in my life who were making decisions for me (as a child and as a teenager), and writing stories, writing diaries felt like the only way I could communicate.

After school, after university and then out in the working world, writing continued to be my way of communicating, again this came from being a strange mix of introvert and extrovert – but as a woman I had to have a mask, and play the ‘female’ game – be nice to people and ‘act’ like a girl, then a woman. So the writing became the safety valve to diffuse a burning anger at a growing recognition of the double standards of the adult world I was entering. I worked in various awful jobs before I begged the editor of a newspaper to give me a try as a journalist. I knew I’d found my ideal career when I became a journalist. I loved being one, loved the adrenaline rush, the meeting people, the writing of articles. When I was pregnant with my second son I decided to write a novel (that was 16 years ago!) – my first. I was hooked once again. I carried on working as a journalist, then moved into public relations and commercial writing while writing novels. The Hidden was my fourth novel. I wrote another novel after The Hidden and now I am working on another thriller.

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Jane: I don’t believe a writer who says that he hasn’t been rejected – with the exception of Sir Terry Pratchet, that is, who claims that he sent his first manuscript to an agent and received a cheque in return, with which he immediately went out and bought a greenhouse. Otherwise it’s par for the course. So can I ask, how do you deal with rejection? Does it spur you on?

Jo: I’ve been rejected many, many times – by publishers and by agents. I collect my rejection letters and emails. They’re good to look at, to remind myself of the journey. I don’t think rejections spur me on. I spur myself on. I have a file of ‘good’ rejection letters and ‘others’. In the beginning I got upset by rejections but then I got hard to them. You have to. Writers ultimately need to write for themselves, not to please others or ‘the market’. You have to write from the heart. One day, a few years ago, those rejection letters/emails stopped meaning anything to me. I stopped caring. I knew I’d always write, and the fact that I have been published in many countries in article form, as a journalist, was proof I could write and was publishable – writing was my career – so eventually I had to console myself with the fact that my novel style or subject matter wasn’t fitting this agent or that agent. You hear it time and time again – the notion that you have to believe in yourself. It sounds corny but it’s so true. As I have said, I love history, so I used to get great comfort from writers like D.H Lawrence, Henry Miller and Anais Nin who used to be rejected on a regular basis and who ended up self-publishing.

Jane: Is Thriller/Suspense the genre you generally write in, or have you considered experimenting with other genres?

Jo: I am a thriller writer and cannot imagine myself ever moving away from this genre now. It’s a genre I love. I have met other writers who write across different genres. I can’t at this stage of my career imagine doing that, but who knows? I read all genres, except Sci Fi and Christian fiction, everything else I read. I learned how to be a novelist by writing three romance novels for Harlequin Mills & Boon. Romance writing was my apprenticeship in novel writing. Harlequin has a very strict policy on what they accept and how they expect their romance writers to write.

 Jane: Romance to thrillers is quite a leap!

Jo: Not as great a leap as one might think. Harlequin novels are short – usually about 55,000 words, and tightly written and it’s a great way to learn technique; dialogue, characterisation, scene setting, plotting and creating page-turning tension. Ditto thrillers. I learned how to write novels by writing romance but after the third I knew it was a genre that would never fully engage me. Although I came close to being published by Harlequin Mills and Boon, it never happened but they were wonderfully supportive of me and nurtured me personally through constant and very deep editorial feedback. I had a relationship with them. I have huge respect for them as a publisher. Looking back I see my apprenticeship with them as absolutely necessary in teaching me how to write novels, and I will be forever grateful for the experience. In retrospect my writing was probably a bit too ‘dark’ for them.

Jane: You’ve mentioned that you grew up in Belgium and I know you’ve lived in a number of different countries. How does this influence your writing? And where is ‘home’?

Jo: I am guarded about the concept of ‘home’. I am a bit of a butterfly and feel happiest when I am travelling. Travel is hugely important to me. I love it and crave it because I love hearing new languages being spoken, love eating different types of food and love being exposed to other cultures, breathing new air.  I travelled a lot as a child. I grew up in Belgium but spent a lot of time going to different countries with my parents when school holidays allowed it. Being in other countries is where I feel most comfortable. I suppose this comes back to childhood – a comfort-zone thing. I was born in England and over time have become quite glad to be English but not overly so. I am not overly patriotic, don’t really believe in it as a concept. I have a home in England, but don’t consider any one place ‘home’, more that I consider everywhere ‘home’.  I’d love to be able to become a national of any country I go to, change and become that nationality, speak the language. I have studied Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Nepali, Dutch and Russian. I am always trying to learn new languages. I love hearing languages being spoken. I find it thrilling, never scary. Again, it’s a comfort-zone thing. My father spoke many languages and he opened my world to the delights of all cultures. My father was a wonderful man who rose to the heights of his career but he was always very humble, a people person. He taught me that no country or culture is better than another, no man or woman better than another, that we are all equal, and his humility was a great example to me, as a kid. I mention this because his legacy has made me feel at home wherever I go in the world.

I think my childhood and upbringing – with its travel – has had a huge effect on my writing. I like to set my novels in interesting places – places I’ve either been to or researched enough to have a feel for life there. Again, I write to understand and to understand I have to research.

Jane: I still live with six miles of the place I was born! I think that probably influences my writing because I have borne witness to how changes that have occurred during my life-time have affected the place I grew up in. I know that some authors are superstitious about talking about their works in progress (I know I am). Am I allowed to ask what you are working on at the moment?

Jo: I am working on another spy thriller called The Strange Girl. I am happy to tell you the title because – although it’s a work-in-progress – I am happy with the title. It’s another historical thriller, set in Europe. It’s dark, it’s sparsely written, but hopefully a very ‘in your guts’ story that readers will enjoy.

Jane: What is your ‘writing routine’ – if such a thing exists?

I am very deep thinker. To write novels, I believe (but then this is just the way I do it) you have to spend a lot of time thinking very, very deeply about the story you want to tell. I go through a deep-thinking phase, then a note-taking phase, then a research phase, then a writing phase, but once the writing phase starts, all phases done prior to this – the thinking, the note-taking, the researching – all start all over again simultaneously. Once I am onto the writing phase I work on daily word-counts, and plot out the story meticulously before I start writing. I am not very good at maths but use my basic maths skills to work out a schedule of manuscript word count, chapter word count, word written per day, per week etc. etc., and my journalism experience helps. I need a rigid schedule to stick to. I am pretty good at adhering to deadlines.

Jane: Before the process begins, where do you get your inspiration from?

Jo: This is a very good question. I get my inspiration from history and from events that have actually occurred. This doesn’t mean that I will use actual events as part of my novel but I will find some interesting fact or person that catapults me onto further research and brainstorm ideas until I am happy with a plot-line. I have written other novels though that are inspired by events in my own life. My self-published novel After Rafaela was inspired by my best friend at school in Belgium and other events from my life, such as the death of my sister at a very young age.

Jane: You’ve already told us how much work goes in before you begin to write. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?

Jo: I am afraid I am an obsessive rewriter and editor. I adore the editing process. I find it fun and inspiring. I can’t imagine I’ll ever get to the stage in my life where I will say that something I write on a first go is perfect. I am very, very self-critical. That’s what makes it so difficult to let a novel go – finish it – because of my obsession with constant polishing. But you have to let it go in the end. I worked with an exceptional editor on The Hidden. Thomas & Mercer, the publisher, assigned me my own editor. She was an absolute joy to work with, as were all the T & M team. These factors are what have made the experience so incredibly wonderful.

Jane: Do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?

Jo: Ninety per cent of my notes are written in pencil in notebooks. I love writing in pencil and I have hundreds of notebooks filled with my plots for novels. But when it comes to first drafts, I work on my trusty ACER desktop with a 24 inch screen. I used to use a laptop but I was robbed so now use a more basic but very effective system.

Jane: Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you (like me, I’m afraid), need complete silence?

Jo: It depends on my mood. I generally need silence, but occasionally I play some favourite tunes. When I do play music I usually play Christophe Goze’s Sirocco – an album I love.

Jane: So, you’ve finished your novel. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?

Jo: My youngest son is my first reader. He is 16 and very well read. I have a huge respect for his judgement because he says it like it is, without fear!

Jane: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?

Jo: It’s a good question and I think it depends on the novel, the feel, the time, the genre. I like to use a mix of both, but it is something I struggle with, in plotting novels. First person is more white heat; third person can be more measured. In The Hidden there was a mix of both; Aimee’s third person experience and Hezba’s first person diary.

Jane: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?

Jo: Aaah… favourite aspect of my writing life – needs a two-part answer.

Generally, my favourite part of being a writer is building stories, creating something out of nothing. To me, it’s like building a house. It’s massively complicated, hugely thrilling to do, and you’re enormously proud of it when you’ve finished. It’s also a very addictive way to live your life. I love communicating through the written word, reaching out to people with a story, knowing that possibly (hopefully) my words will inspire them, thrill them, soothe them, make them feel not so alone in the world. This is all possible despite the genre. In a thriller there can be emotion and love. In The Hidden my characters were broken people looking for acceptance and salvation, and all this while their own worlds and the world around them were being torn apart.

Specifically, this has been the most exciting year of my life – winning the ABNA in my category, being flown out to Seattle twice, meeting my fellow ABNA winners in the other categories, meeting other Thomas & Mercer authors, working with some of the publishing industry’s most stellar people, being made to feel that my story matters to them and last but not least holding a publishing contract in my hands, something I never thought would happen. There was also the advance, a physical confirmation that Thomas & Mercer believed in me as a writer.

The least favourite part of my writing life… Having to do ‘other’ things when I want to write, when I want to hide away and work on my novel. By this I mean having errands to run, domestic life to attend to.

Jane: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Jo: There is so much advice out there for aspiring writers, so I wanted to add something a little bit different into the mix. I think to write you have to leave your ego absolutely behind, in fact I would say that you should take your ego to the furthest corner of the earth and leave it there. Writing is not about gaining celebrity or making lots of money; some lucky authors do, but it’s not a reason to write. It’s about this driven inner desire to tell a story, to understand the world and to share your story with the world. Aspiring writers need to do some very deep soul searching. Being a writer is absolutely one of the hardest, loneliest (and loveliest) jobs in the world. It sounds like a cliché but you have to adore it. If you don’t, you are insulting people by trying and you just shouldn’t bother. A writer who adores writing is obvious to the reader.

I hear so many people say they are writing a novel. In my mind I want to tell them that they cannot call themselves a writer until they have been through the long, hard apprenticeship, faced rejection on a regular basis and are still coming up with stories with a smile on their face, not because they want to be successful or famous, but because they have this deep-seated urge to tell their story. There are lots of wonderful jobs in the world, and I would never recommend writing as a career unless you feel you can do no other job, and that writing is all you love doing.

Jane: I know that writing and family are your reasons for being, but everybody needs a little time out. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?

Jo: I love walking, love nature, love any place where there are hills and mountains to climb and fresh air to breathe. I also love cycling. I gave up my car five years ago for environmental reasons. I like to live very simply. Exploring new places, art galleries and museums, visiting second- hand bookshops, all are glorious. I love talking to people too, to strangers. I am the person who talks to little old ladies at bus stops. I love them. I talk to strangers in cafes, anywhere. I can’t help myself. Again, it’s all about connection. I recently met a wonderful artist in Catalunya who told me what life was like in the area where we met, during Franco’s time. He was in his late 70s. I was hooked, fascinated. I wanted to march him to the nearest bar and ask him a hundred questions over a few wines. He had met Salvador Dali and Picasso. It’s the journalist in me, I suppose. I am fascinated, always intrigued by other people and their stories. Talking to people makes life so interesting. I have flown long-distance many times and have had 12-hour conversations with the stranger in the seat next to me. I don’t usually like talking about myself though. I find other people more interesting. I am also a bit of an extreme person. I am a city girl but need the wilderness like oxygen. So for me, it’s either inner city with all its zip, or remote wilderness with not a soul to see. I would like to get better at cooking. I also want to spend more time going to concerts. I still love music as much as I did when I wanted to be a punk a very long time ago (I still love the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood). One of my favourite pastimes though is watching comedy. I love comedy. My favourite comedian is the Australian Steve Hughes, who now lives in the UK.

Jane: I am with you on the hills and mountains. I can only wish that I was brave enough to talk to strangers. Jo, I’ve really enjoyed meeting you. Thank you again for taking part in this blog interview and I wish you every success with The Hidden. Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

Jo: Thank you Jane. It’s been great talking to you. I wish you the greatest success too with your future novels. My website is – and you’ll find links to all my social media pages there. My website also includes a link to The Hidden and to my other self-published novel After Rafaela.

Jane: The publishing world is undergoing enormous change at the moment so, in closing, I’d like to ask you what you think the future holds for writers?

Jo: I think the future for writers is extremely bright. Digital publishing has changed the game, opening publishing up to writers in such a positive way. There is a general view that because of digital publishing and self-publishing there are a lot of ‘bad’ novels out there – by ‘bad’ I mean badly written novels, but spin this positively and you’ll realise that this provides a golden opportunity for talented writers to make their mark. Of course there are wannabe writers who self-publish ‘bad’ novels, but there are traditional publishers out there who also publish ‘bad’ novels. What’s important is that writers now have huge control over their writing lives and do not have to wait for the tired traditional publishing world to find them. They can reach readers themselves. After all, in the writer-agent-publisher-reader dynamic, it’s the readers who are the most important to the writer.

I feel this huge sense of relief and gratitude that I won the ABNA in my category, that Thomas & Mercer believed in my story enough to invest in me as a writer and publish my novel, that Publishers Weekly endorsed my ability as a novelist with great praise, but if I hadn’t won ABNA, I would have published my novels and any future novels through digital publishing, while writing future ones. I know many writers are doing this and making a good living. The dialogue about the demise of the publishing industry goes on, but I don’t buy it. Traditional models always need to be swept away in the end and new ways of doing things found. At the end of the day, what matters to me is being able to write my stories long-term, and have people read them and love them. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It should be.