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Meet J J Marsh, writer of plots so fiendish they could wear horns

I’m delighted to welcome author JJ Marsh to my blog. Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After graduating in English Literature and Theatre Studies, she worked as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe. Now based in Switzerland, Jill is a founder member of the Triskele Books collective, forms part of the Nuance Words project, co-curates litmag, The Woolf, and is a regular columnist for Words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes.

JJ Marsh

Jane: Jill, you write crime fiction (although your reviewers say that one of its strong points is that it is also literary fiction). Why that genre and have you ever experimented with others?

Jill: Good question. Have you seen that quote – “what we read is not necessarily what we should write?” I read mostly literary fiction, but also enjoy anything with a good story. My decision to write crime was driven by a specific aim – to get better at plotting. My theatre background helps with character, dialogue and structure, but I want to construct plots so fiendish they could wear horns.

Jane: You main character is Beatrice Stubbs. Can you tell us a little about her?

Jill: Metaphor-mixer, serial survivor, bipolar sufferer and lover of good food, she takes her job seriously and believes in justice. Problems arise when justice and the law diverge. Beatrice has been in my head for years, and now I finally found the right vehicle for her. She feels like an old friend.

Jane: You have lived all over the world. Can I ask, how does your environment influence your writing?

Jill: Environment is the foundation stone for the majority of my work. From novels to short stories, they’re rooted in place. It triggers stories, atmospheres and tangents. One of the three key pillars of our writers’ collective, Triskele Books, is a strong sense of location. Our genres differ, but this is one element we share. Place.

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Jane: You described in an interview of your website one of the issues about basing a character, Karl Kalin, on a real person you knew briefly. When you bumped into him again, it was like meeting one of your characters – whose character, I assume, you had developed – in the flesh. I had a similarly eerie experience. I hadn’t based my character Tom Fellows (Half-truths and White Lies) on a real person, but I caught a glimpse of a man at an Elbow gig I was attending and thought, that’s him! I couldn’t take my eyes off him all evening. How did your experience affect the way you treated the person you referred to? And did you tell him?     

Jill: Oh, I love that story! I can imagine the conversation between you two.

Man: Excuse me, do I know you? It’s just you’ve been staring at me all night.

Jane: No, well, yes. You see, you like exactly like someone I made up.

I didn’t tell the guy, no. I couldn’t see a way of doing it without sounding like a stalker or an egomaniac:

Jill: Hello again, you lucky man. Do you know you’ve been living in my head for the last six years? (Boggle eyes and watch him run away screaming.)

But it is weird, as you say, the line between our fiction and our reality. I walk around the city and think, oh yes, that’s where my bike got nicked. And two minutes later, oh yes, that’s where Beatrice saw the drag act. Her world is sometimes as familiar as my own life.

Jane: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?

Creative control. Speed. The chance to write the stories I wanted to write, not to fit the market. And I saw an opportunity. “Take every opportunity in life, even if you have too many opportunities” – John Irving, Hotel New Hampshire


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Jane: With the number of self-published books increasing by 59% last year alone, it is really difficult for authors to make their books stand out. How do you go about this?

Jill: Triskele Books. As mentioned earlier, I’m part of a writers’ collective. We work together on editing, design, marketing, PR and make full use of five pairs of eyes, three different countries and a range of genres. Having five sets of antennae alert to opportunities benefits us all. We achieve so much more than I could do alone. Not just that, but the support network is there to catch you when you collapse in a heap, sobbing incoherently about spoiler reviews or social media.

Jane: As a self-published author, how do you divide your time between writing and marketing?

Jill: That’s the cruncher, isn’t it? I guess I cheated. I had three books pretty much ready before I published the first, so could afford to throw my energy into marketing for a good year. Writing took a back seat, which was fine, as I needed to recharge the writing batteries anyway. Now, in terms of my six day-week, I’m doing 20%/40% (publishing-related work/writing) respectively. One day off to ‘do housework’ aka mess about on the Internet.

Jane: Rather than use your first name, you style yourself as JJ Marsh. Normally this choice is taken so that publishers don’t know if the author is a man or a woman, but having an on-line profile makes gender difficult to conceal. Having had my articles published for years under my boss’s name, it was important for me to see my own name in print. I then discovered that there are three other Jane Davis’s with writing profiles (one of whom runs the Readers’ Organisation, another who writes books on felting and crochet – I am most often confused with her, especially by Amazon –  and, finally, the author of a  military wife’s memoire). Do you think how an author styles themselves makes a difference to an author’s profile?

Jill: Several writer friends have encountered the same problem you mention, but count yourself lucky it’s only felting.

It’s not easy, but I think each author finds their own solution. My choice to use a pseudonym was part practical (I don’t want to use my own name) and part organic. When my sister and I were working together on a story collection, we needed a joint name – she’s Julie, I’m Jill and our stepdad’s name is Marsh. There’s also a respectful nod to Ngaio Marsh in using that name for my crime series.

Yes, names do create an expectation. If the author’s called Jemima Widdershins, I’m not expecting hard-boiled noir. I don’t pick up a book by Clint Thrust looking for a Regency romance. Yet author style is not only about name. It’s how we promote ourselves across the board. And there we need to be very careful. Stories of authors (trad or indie-published) embarrassing themselves online are legion.

Jane: Who is your first reader? (Or perhaps you have a team of beta readers.)

Jill: My Triskele colleagues are my sounding boards. They are brutally honest, always constructive, attentive at both macro and micro level, and invariably make my work better. I also share my work with two other writing friends whose opinions I respect. And always, always repay the favour.

Jane: What are your favourite / least favourite aspects of your writing life?

Jill: Favourite: doing what I love most. Constructing, creating, telling stories, making myself improve, learning from writers and other creatives, and as an indie author, learning a rake of new skills.

Least favourite: backache, RSI and screen fatigue. Yes, many mighty tomes were written in freezing garrets by candlelight while the author faced bleak cityscapes and suffered from bronchitis/syphilis/diphtheria. I have a warm office, two desk lamps and a mild cold. But I do overlook a graveyard, so there’s your angst.

Jane: I am a huge fan of bookshops and always make them my first point of call when I visit a new place. What is your favourite bookshop and why?

Jill: I LOVE bookshops and always seek them out wherever I go. Lello in Porto because it’s beautiful. Shakespeare and Co in Paris, because it’s fascinating. Foyles in London, because it’s huge, and The English Bookshop in Zürich, because of its passionate staff.

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Jane: What do you get up to when you’re not writing?  

Jill: Walking my three pugs. Teaching business English. Doing back exercises (see above). Making patchwork quilts. Learning languages. Attempting to cook something more complex than sausage and mash for long-suffering husband. And my party trick is eating fire – always better received by hosts with high ceilings.

Jane: And, finally, where can readers find out more about you and your work?  

My blog – interviews with David Mitchell, China Miéville, Sarah Waters, Jane Goldman, Paulo Coelho, Judy Blume, Christos Tsiolkas, Joseph O’Connor, Jojo Moyes, Naomi Alderman and so very many more:

Jane: An enviable collection! 

You can read more about my European crime series here.

Triskele Books blog – toolbox, bookclub, news … and our website.

I’m also an intermittent Twitterer @jjmarsh1

Jane: Jill, thank you once again for taking part in this interview – and for your wonderful answers. I’m very grateful that you took time out from your writing to answer these questions and wish you all the best with your future projects.

Jill: Thanks so much for giving me house room and I wish all the same for you. That Guardian piece brought many benefits!

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