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Virtual Book Club: JJ Marsh introduces her new psychological drama, Wolf Tones

I’m delighted to welcome JJ Marsh (Jill) to Virtual Book Club, my author interview series which gives authors the opportunity to pitch their books to your book club, be it virtual or real.  As an English teacher, actor, director and cultural trainer, Jill has lived and worked all over Europe. Now she’s a full-time author, publisher and audiobook narrator.

Her crime novels in the Beatrice Stubbs Series have become international bestsellers.

Psychological dramas Odd Numbers (shortlisted for the 2021 Bookbrunch Selfies Prize) and Wolf Tones dig deep into the world of emotional dependence.

The Run and Hide Thrillers chase a hunted woman around the world.

She lives in Switzerland with her husband and dog, taking advantage of the landscape, languages, Prosecco and cheese.

Welcome Jill. Can I start by asking, did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?

To an extent, yes, but it took some darker twists I hadn’t seen coming. Themes grew clearer as I wrote and I found myself exploring more issues than the main thrust of the story through interactions with other characters. Yet the backbone of this novel was there from the outset.

Tell us a little about the major areas you had to research.

Classical music and how an orchestra operates were the main points. It’s always the case when I dive into a fascinating rabbit warren of information – I want to use it all. But here I gave myself a rule:  every piece of music or element of musicianship must be relevant to plot, theme or character, otherwise it has no place on the page. Thankfully one of my best friends is a classically trained opera singer and her feedback was gold dust.

At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?

Down one of those research rabbit holes. I needed to know more about the cello and what it means to be a cellist. I read Gregor Piatigorsky’s brilliant memoir Mein Cello und ich which is filled with rich and quirky anecdotes. That sent me off in a new direction – the physicality of playing the cello and how it differs to playing the violin. When I came across the concept of a wolf tone, where the instrument starts working against itself, I knew I’d found two powerful words and the essence of the novel. That makes it the perfect title for this book. I was so excited I ran downstairs and told my husband. His eyes lit up too.

Is your writing plot-driven or character-driven?

Very much character, and that goes for my Beatrice Stubbs crime novels too. Plot is important but it’s always driven by character. Wolf Tones is even more heavily weighted towards the people in its pages. It was a departure for me as I tend to write from at least two points-of-view. This book stays firmly in the main character’s head, a limitation yet also a discipline.

What is the central conflict in your novel?

It started as a novel about an abusive relationship, but became more Rolf’s psychological journey to discovering his place in the world. I wanted to explore ‘impostor syndrome’, the influence of others’ expectations, mentorship versus bullying, plus trust and betrayal from the perspective of an easily led mind. He feels structure and safety can be found externally rather than within. The central conflict, at its fundament, is Rolf’s battle with himself.

Was your novel inspired by any real life events? And, if so, how to do deal with the responsibility that comes with this?

Yes. Many years ago, I lost a friend to an abusive relationship. It took me a long time to stop blaming him for what I perceived as weakness, allowing himself to be bullied, cut off and physically abused. Gradually it dawned on me that I would never say the same things about a female victim of coercive behaviour and I was guilty of sexist prejudice. That and a recent high-profile case concerning he-said, she-said accusations of violent or psychological harm made me revisit the subject and explore it from a single perspective. My responsibility is to make the reader believe that in the right combination of circumstances, it can happen to anyone.

Do you feel under pressure to make your main characters likable?

Hell, yeah. Which is why this novel was so tricky. I get daily emails and comments from Beatrice Stubbs readers saying ‘the characters feel like friends’ and that becomes almost an obligation. As someone who sees the world through Pollyanna spectacles, writing a novel where everyone has some pretty ugly features was like climbing a mountain in the dark. I rewrote certain chapters more times than I care to count because I was making excuses rather than letting the characters make mistakes.

Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?

One element of Rolf’s past haunts him and it isn’t pleasant. I tried to show the horrible nature of what happened and why, without unnecessary graphic detail. It’s a formative part of his personality so when he behaves erratically on occasion, the reader understands his reasons.

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Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck has changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects.

All because of her.

‘Without chaos, there’s very little story to tell.’ What is the source of chaos in your story?

Have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? The atmosphere in that film was a touchstone for me while writing. The masks people wear when apparently being friendly or supportive, the growing suspicion that things are not what they seem and an eerie sense of being at the centre of something you know nothing about. That’s the chaos at the heart of this story – who to trust.

Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and why?

All of them. This particular one is dedicated to my sister and her colleagues, who work with victims of domestic abuse. According to recent figures since the pandemic, the number of people calling helplines such as theirs has increased by 65%. As for men seeking help, Mankind has seen calls up by 25% and website visits up by 75%.

For me, this is fiction. For them, it’s reality.

Want to find out more about JJ Marsh and her fiction?

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