Jane: Today I’m delighted to be interviewing J.F.Penn, the bestselling author of Desecration, as well as the ARKANE series of thrillers. Joanna’s site for writers, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers three years running, and I would thoroughly recommend connecting with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn
Welcome, Joanna. Your background was in IT, so please tell us how you came to be a writer.
Joanna: I did a Masters in Theology at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College, but then I was recruited into a management consultancy firm and directed into IT financial systems. So basically I fell into that job and spent 13 years trying to escape it and find what I really wanted to do! I ran a scuba diving business in New Zealand, I tried property investment, but I kept coming back to writing. I’ve always written journals, and in 2007 I started writing a self-help book to try and change my own life – now rewritten and republished as Career Change. In 2008, Amazon launched the Kindle and the publishing world began to change. I started to become involved, learning about the new environment for independent authors and then in 2009, I started writing fiction. So I have always been a writer, but only more recently become a full-time author-entrepreneur.
Jane: I know that home for you is London but that you’ve also travelled extensively. Can I ask how your environment influences your writing?
Joanna: Sense of place is crucial in my writing, and I mostly use my own memories and experiences in the books to make them more real. In Pentecost, Morgan Sierra travels all over the world to find ancient Christian artefacts and the scenes in Jerusalem, Rome, Venice, London as well as Arizona are all based on my travels. I went to school in Malawi, Africa and travelled a lot to the US when I was younger. I worked in Israel several times, and then left the UK in 2000 to go to Australia and New Zealand. I stayed 11 years, returning to London in 2011, so I definitely feel like a citizen of the world. My love of London is evident in Exodus and now Desecration, which takes place in and around some of the lesser-known amazing places in the world’s best city.
Jane: Although you write within a specific genre, you cover a very diverse range of subject matter. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Joanna: I write across genres, with aspects of thriller, crime, mystery and horror, perhaps with a hint of the literary in there as well. My inspiration comes from being a research junkie and my love of delving down the rabbit hole of something new to learn! The ARKANE series is heavily influenced by my studies in theology and psychology of religion. For example, Prophecy is based on Milgram’s obedience to authority research done in the 1950s, equated to Abraham’s obedience to God in the sacrifice of Isaac – but of course, in the guise of a kick-ass action-adventure plot!
For Desecration, I wove in aspects of body modification, corpse art and teratology, the study of genetic monsters. I’m currently researching Delirium, the next crime novel, and investigating the history of mental health and psychiatry. I am endlessly fascinated by the world and as well as telling a story, I always want my readers to learn something new.
Jane: In that case I have a book recommendation for you. Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi tells a history of women and the mind doctors from 1800 to the present. I would let you have my copy, but it is autographed so I’m reluctant to let t go.
Of all of the characters that you have created, which was your favourite and why?
Joanna: That’s a tough one, because I love all my characters, even the evil ones! Morgan Sierra is kind of my alter ego, but she can beat up the bad guys and shoot guns while I sit safe at my desk. I can decide things for her, like Morgan needs a hot car and a killer dress, and she gets it, which is cool. She thinks like me, so I know her and I write the ARKANE adventures for her to experience. But a strange thing happened during the writing of Desecration. A new character emerged, known only as O, with a full body tattoo of an octopus. She’s an exotic dancer and has a small part in the book, but now I want to know more about her. Why did she get that tattoo? What’s her history? So I am a little obsessed with writing her story next year to get to know that character better.
Jane: I love your description of a new character ’emerging’, but it really does feel like that when writing. 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 need silence?
Joanna: I love quiet and even wear earplugs in the library to work. If I do listen to something, it is usually rain or violent storms, which helps me reach some level of concentration for creativity. I used to think I was a bit strange, but there’s a site called RainyMood which is tremendously popular, so I think it’s more common than most admit.
Jane: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Joanna: I don’t show anyone until I have done several drafts myself, and then I have a number of beta readers. My husband is always one of them, and he is brutally honest. I have different readers per book, so for Desecration I had an ex-Police Officer read it for technicality, as well as a coroner, two medical doctors and a dedicated crime reader. Then I have a professional editor as well as a proof-reader, plus all the rewrites. It’s an extensive process!
Jane: I recently heard you speak at the Writers’ & Artists self-publishing onference and you said that ‘Writing is about you; Marketing is about the reader.’ How easy do you find it to make the necessary switch in mind-set from author to promoter?
Joanna: You definitely have to put on a different brain, which is why I split my time between creative time and downtime, and use the latter for marketing. When I had a day-job I would get up super-early and write before work, as I had nothing left at the end of the day. I’m still a morning person so I create before about 2pm and then I focus on marketing and publishing tasks in the afternoons and evenings.
Jane: At the same conference, it was said that ‘The spine is dead.’ Do you agree? How do you see the shift from paperback to digital books? Will the trend continue to go upwards or will it plateau?
Joanna: I’ve seen my own switch in the last four years, and that drives my opinion on this topic. I used to have a library of over 2000 books, many of which I had shipped from the UK to New Zealand, and then to Australia. But in 2009, when I first started reading on the Kindle, I discovered the ease of ebooks and fell in love. I’m a true convert to e-reading and read 95% on the Kindle device or app on the iPhone. But I still buy print books for special editions and gifts, and this is where I see print in the future. Print will become more expensive, a luxury product, with ‘throwaway’ paperbacks replaced by digital. For example, I’ve invested in the oversize full-colour edition of Carl Jung’s Red Book which was nearly £100, but I have hardly any fiction on my bookshelves now as that is all digital. I don’t think I am unusual anymore in these book-buying habits, and now kids are being educated on tablets, the change will only accelerate.
Jane: What do you think the future holds for writers?
Joanna: It’s an incredibly exciting time to be an author! For the first time in history, we can reach readers all over the world easily and cheaply, entertaining them or changing lives, and making a living with our words. The internet and digital publishing, the advent of e-reading, the flattening of connections with social media – all this means the ‘pie’ of readers only gets bigger. I’m now selling books through Amazon and Kobo in 22 countries, some of those are only a trickle of sales right now, but it’s a glimpse of the future. If you own the rights to your creative work, the next few years are going to be amazing in terms of opportunities to find new readers as well as making a great living.
Jane: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Joanna: My fiction site is at JFPenn.com where you can find all the information on the books, as well as get a free short story audio. Pentecost, ARKANE Book 1 is currently available for free if you want to try it.
You can connect with Joanna in the following places:
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