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An interview with
An interview with
An interview with
New York literary agent
fingers and toes that she survives for future adventures
− you definitely want her to.'
"Iím never satisfied
with my own work.
I live by the maxim
that if itís easy,
Iím not trying
- ZoŽ Sharp
Strike hits home
impact of a
jacketed round . . . Nothing hollow-point about this book!
Breathlessly compelling and utterly real, this novel will
keep you turning
Fox is simply
. . .'
"I set out to create
a character I didn't feel I could find elsewhere. I wrote
the person I
wanted to read."
- ZoŽ Sharp
Back to the top
Tough, macho, kick-ass
women? Not everyone's ideal flight of fancy perhaps - unless
you're talking about Charlie Fox; ZoŽ Sharp's successful,
all-action, emotionally-complex heroine first published
With 7 books under her
belt, and another in the pipeline, fast-living ZoŽ - a motorcyclist,
photographer, fencer, and marksman - takes a little time
out to talk about writing, publishing and her literary contemporaries.
ZoŽ, can you briefly outline your career as a published author?
Yes, I actually wrote my first novel when I was fifteen,
which my father, bless him, typed up for me - showing my
age, but no word processors back then! It did the rounds
of all the major publishers, and received whatís known in
the trade as Ďrave rejectionsí. They all said they wanted
to see anything else I wrote - it just took me a while to
write anything else. I still have that old typescript in
the loft somewhere - my father is now threatening to get
it out and sell it on eBay. But not if I have anything to
do with it ...
After that, I was published in non-fiction long before I was published in
fiction. I started out writing magazine articles for the
motoring press, covering everything from the latest tweaked
and tuned race cars, right back to veteran vehicles from
the turn of the 19th century, and I still work as a freelance
photographer in that field.
I was always a crime fiction fan, though, right from when my grandmother
gave me a copy of an old Leslie Charteris ĎThe Saintí book
- THE MISFORTUNES OF MR TEAL, which had been published in
the 1930s and given to her in the early 1940s. She gave
it to me in Ď79, and I still have it - one of my treasured
And then, when I was writing a regular column for one of the magazines, I
started getting death-threat letters - proper cut-out-of-newspaper
jobs, telling me I was scum, my days were numbered, and
they knew where I lived. The police never caught the sender,
but it refocused my mind on the crime genre. From that,
the idea for
ĎCharlieí Fox was born.
It took a number of years to write the first book, KILLER INSTINCT, which
eventually came out in 2001. Of course, I made all the classic
mistakes, many of which were rectified when I was taken
on by my second agent, Jane Gregory of Gregory & Company,
just after Iíd finished the fifth in the series, ROAD KILL.
How difficult was it? Writing for anything other than your
own amusement is a tough, tough business. Writing non-fiction
articles taught me a lot about the craft, but Iím never
satisfied with my own work. I live by the maxim that if
itís easy, Iím not trying hard enough, so I probably put
myself under more pressure than anyone else.
What special difficulties, if any, do women action-thriller
writers have either with regard to "voice" or with regard
to general acceptance by the trade and book buying public?
Ooh, this is a perennial one, isnít it? When I first started
out, it didnít occur to me that there was a gender
divide. Writing, after all, offers no physical advantages
to men or women. If you can put the words on the page, what
does it matter? However, I have discovered a distinct resistance
to women in the action-thriller genre and, if I was starting
out fresh today, I admit Iíd probably pick a pen-name that
was non gender-specific. As it is, I think women in this
field probably have to try harder to be more convincing,
where male thriller authors seem to be given much more leeway
on their factual errors.
Iím genuinely into all the technical stuff. Thatís one of the reasons I write
the kind of books I do. I learned a lot of self-defence
after the death-threat business, was a competition target
rifle shooter, owned various race-replica motorcycles, have
flown light aircraft and a Robinson R22 helicopter. I even
learned to sword fight.
I really believe itís all down to voice, though. As a reader, if the initial
premise grabs me, I pick up a book, go to the first chapter,
and by the time Iím halfway down the opening paragraph,
I just know whether I like the sound of this writerís
voice or not. After that, itís up to the characterisation
and the plotting to fulfil that promise. If it does, Iím
hooked, regardless of the gender of the author.
Getting motivated to write is a problem for many authors.
Do you have any strategies or ploys that you use to grease
the gears of your craft, or has self-motivation never been
The first thing I write is the flap copy - that half or
two-thirds of a page of short synopsis youíd get on the
inside flap of a hardcover, or the back cover of a paperback.
That distils the essence of the novel for me, and I keep
coming back to that if I ever feel Iím losing my way.
It takes me a long time to get the opening for a novel right. And until Iím
happy with that, I canít go forwards. But once I feel Iíve
got the start, I set myself a monthly word target - usually
30,000 words. I canít always set aside the same time every
day to write, so I find this allows me to make real progress
and yet not beat myself up if I have an off day. I just
add a few extra words onto the daily target for the rest
of the month. And if I have a really good day, that daily
target comes down a bit.
Which books first inspired you to write?
Iíd have to say probably BLACK BEAUTY by Anna Sewell. This
is not just an enduring childrenís book about horses, but
when it was first published in 1877 it had a profound effect
on public perception of cruelty to animals, and even brought
about a change in the law to better protect them.
How difficult is it to write a world-class action-thriller
set in England?
I donít think itís hard to set an action-thriller in any
country, providing thereís a reason for it to be set there.
The more the location for any novel can be integrated into
the story, the better, I feel. But, England is a relatively
small place, which was one of the reasons why Iíve expanded
Charlieís field of operations to the United States, which
is a far wider stage. Plus, Charlieís a gun-girl, and it
was increasingly difficult for her to use firearms in this
country without getting locked up. Working as a professional
bodyguard in the States, she is allowed to carry legally.
Can you name your top three writers in the action-thriller
genre, and explain why you chose them?
Lee Child has to be at the top of my list. The character
of Jack Reacher is a classic loner hero, and Leeís spare
writing style and well-constructed plots makes his work
a constant pleasure to read. If you want action and thrills,
then Matt Reillyís Scarecrow series is relentless in its
pacing, and Clive Cusslerís Dirk Pitt series, which offers
classic action-adventure on a global scale.
Since beginning your career as a published writer, how has
the publishing industry changed - and would you agree that
the demographics of the industry has made it easier for
women to get published to the detriment of male authors?
Or is the reverse true?
I donít know if itís easier for any would-be author to get
published now than it was a few years ago, and I get a little
tired of the constant gender battle thatís being talked
up all the time. I have always worked in male-dominated
fields, and had interests that might be considered more
Ďguy-stuffí, too. I never expected that there would be this
divide in writing, so I donít automatically look for things
like the demographics of the industry to support any theories
to that effect.
As you develop a novel, what strategies, if any, do you
use to keep your characters and plotlines fresh?
I am a short-attention-span reader. I get bored easily,
so I try not to write the bits Iíd skip over when I was
reading the book. And coming from a photographic background,
I try to create character sketches that are snapshots rather
than formal portraits. I want to give an impression of the
person, rather than their full CV.
Charlie Fox has been described as a unique female action protagonist. I set
out to create a character I didnít feel I could find elsewhere.
I wrote the person I wanted to read. So, sheís tough, yes,
but with a very human edge. Women who kill in fiction are
so often portrayed as psychos or assassins, and I wanted
her to be neither. Cross her and sheíll kill you, without
a doubt, but not without consequences for her on an emotional
and psychological level.
As a writer, I find Charlie is still surprising me with the direction sheís
taking. As long as she continues to do that, and I feel
she still has places to go, I want to keep telling her story.
Also, Iím not writing a conventional whodunit. My books
tend to be more along the lines of, we know whodunit,
but are they going to get away with it, or how is Charlie
going to stop them? I want to write the kind of books that
keep me awake all night because I canít put them down. Itís
a constant drive to improve my craft.
Given that all writers borrow ideas and techniques, are
there any ideas and techniques that you care to admit to
borrowing and making your own?
I greatly admire Robert B Parkerís sparse writing style,
particularly when it comes to action scenes. And Lee Child,
of course. Simple, smooth, matter-of-fact. I now go through
every finished typescript and try and remove as many extraneous
words as possible without, hopefully, stripping away those
nice little touches that give it individuality. A book is
a journey and you need to enjoy that as much - if not more
- than simply getting the destination.
When it comes to techniques, fellow LadyKiller, Lesley Horton, explained
that as sheís writing a book, she summaries each chapter
as sheís finished it. Although I work from an outline, inevitably
the story dictates certain changes as youíre actually in
the process of writing, and keeping a summary means you
can keep a track of those changes, especially if you later
need to add or amend a subplot. You know exactly where to
look. I also make a note in each chapter summary of the
day, the weather, and any injuries my character is carrying.
All useful little reminders.
How often do you start a novel only to find that you're
painting it into a corner? And if so, do you ever abandon
The opening for a book is vital. Until Iíve got what I feel
is the right start, I canít go forwards. After all, a book
does not start at the beginning of the story - merely at
the point where the writer wants to introduce the reader
to that story. Choosing that correct jumping-off point is
very difficult, because itís the foundation on which the
whole of the rest of the book is built. Iíve junked a couple
of what I thought were great openings for books, simply
because they didnít drop me into the right place in the
But, nothing is ever wasted. It all goes into a file somewhere that might
come in useful at some point. You never know. The very first
scene I ever wrote with Charlie Fox in it eventually found
its way into book three, HARD KNOCKS, almost unchanged from
its original form.
Of all your novels, which one are you most satisfied with,
The next book - the one I have yet to write. Because
I will have learned that bit more about my craft, honed
and polished my style, improved my plotting technique. If
I ever reach the stage where I donít feel I can make the
next book better than the last, thatís the time to stop.
Which of your novels are you least satisfied with, and why?
All of them to varying degrees.
Would you like to collaborate on a novel? And if so, with
I would love to do a collaboration. Oh, there are
so many great writers out there, but I would be most honoured
to do something with Lee Child, who once said that Reacher
would team up with Charlie Fox in a heartbeat. Or Ken Bruen,
whose unique prose poetry style makes him one of the most
individual and talented writers out there. And Iíve just
read JT Ellisonís latest Taylor Jackson novel - JT commented
that Taylor and Charlie would get on like a house on fire.
Or ... Shall I just give you a list?
Is the action-thriller genre in danger of becoming clichť-ridden
and stale? Or do you see a ďnew waveĒ of writers bringing
fresh impetus and expanding the envelope?
Does it have to be a ďnew waveĒ? Canít existing writers
branch out and expand into new territory? Iíve read one
or two incredibly clichťd books recently, but not everybodyís
content to jump on the same bandwagon. There are also some
incredibly brave and fresh writers out there, who are not
necessarily first-time authors.
Can you give us some insight into the fundamental differences
between British and American thriller writers, and also
offer some observations on how well such writers travel?
I did a post on
www.Murderati.com recently about differences in language
between the UK and the States, and thatís probably one of
the fundamental differences. I had a lot of queries from
my American copyeditor about English words and phrases,
but we tend to get US books over here that have had very
little alteration apart from spelling. The assumption is,
with US TV programmes constantly on our screens, that we
understand all the nuances without needing them explained.
There are also huge differences from one part of America
to another, and something that seems obvious in New England
is not necessarily understood in Southern California, and
Also, Iíve noticed a trend in recent years for a certain feel-good factor
in some US-written thrillers. Understandably, America was
thoroughly shaken by the tragic events of 9/11. They took
dramatic action as a result, which has had ongoing consequences
for the rest of the world. Modern thriller fiction offers
a reassurance that, no matter how bleak the outlook, justice
will prevail - that the right people will win in the end.
Regarding your own writing, are their any literary traps
you constantly fall into (and have to climb out of), such
as repetitious phrases or situations or dialogue? And if
so, what mechanisms do you use to deal with them?
I try very hard not to repeat myself in plot situations,
but occasionally it happens. And inevitably there are certain
words and phrases that keep cropping up, because thatís
how they instinctively form in your mind. Fortunately, my
husband, Andy, says he has a very well-developed Melodrama
Filter. He reads everything I write and is great about pointing
out the bits that donít gel.
I did realise recently that Charlie has a tendency to go for guyís kneecaps
in a fight, too! I wondered if this counted as a repetition,
but actually, the knees are a good strategic target. No
matter how big her opponent, the knee joint is always vulnerable.
Is there a novel in you that you're hoping to write, but
are unable to do so due to other writing pressures - or
because you feel it might damage your image as a ďhard-ballĒ
Where do I start? I always have ideas mulling around in
the back of my head. By the time Iím around halfway through
writing a book, themes for the next one are usually starting
to form. And Iíd love to do something different - supernatural,
or sci-fi, or a graphic novel. Something that stretches
my writing muscles outside their usual range of motion.
I donít discount any genre, but I might choose to write
under another name if I was planning on stepping a long
way outside my current field.
Can you tell us some more about your test readers?
These are people Iíve known a long time. Theyíve read all
the books since the start, and theyíre all voracious readers
anyway. I know I can rely on them to give it to me straight,
and say outright if thereís a plot or character strand that
really isnít working. If nobody tells you where youíre going
wrong, how can you avoid making the same mistakes again?
Do you always write in a linear way? Or do you, as it were,
sometimes write the choruses before the verse?
I write in a more linear way than I used to, although if
an idea for a later scene in a book occurs to me, Iíd far
sooner break off and get that down while itís hot, rather
than wait until I reach that part of the plot where the
scene fits. I do sometimes write the end, or at least the
epilogue, before I reach it, and I find that helps concentrate
my mind on where the book is heading.
The closing line for SECOND SHOT arrived while I was in the shower, staying
at a friendís house. I had to jump out and write it down,
quick, before it escaped me. At that point I was probably
only 10,000 words into the book itself. But when I reached
the end, that closing line went in exactly as Iíd first
thought of it.
For THIRD STRIKE, though, I didnít know the ending until I got there. In
fact, I was originally planning to write several alternative
endings and run them past my editors, to see which they
went for, but the closer I got to the end of the book, the
more it became clear that there was only one possible outcome.
I think people get too hung up on the method, though. There are as many different
ways of writing a book as there are writers out there. If
it works for you, do it, and donít be put off by someone
else telling you they go about it another way.
Published writers are, it seems, under increasing pressure
to act as their own publicists. Can you give us some insight
into this trend and tell us how it impacts on your ability
to get on with the important business of writing your novels?
There is a lot more pressure these days to publicise. I
donít mind that aspect of it at all. I enjoy speaking in
public, for instance, but I know some writers who are desperately
shy and get terrible attacks of nerves at the prospect.
I must admit that I never thought, when I sat down to write
my first novel, that I would also have to be a performer,
but thatís very much the case these days.
Fortunately, a huge amount can be achieved on the Internet. I know I donít
utilise this medium as much as I could do, but there are
only so many hours in the day, and writing is the
most important aspect of the job. I blog every week on my
www.ZoeSharp.com, and also alternate Thursdays on
www.Murderati.com, which has just been nominated for
an Anthony Award. When it comes to all the websites and
forums out there, Iíd rather do a little less, but do it
well, than do more, but not have the time to do it properly,
and Iím very fortunate to have an excellent web guy. I visit
so many websites that are so far out of date, theyíre doing
more harm than good.
I write at every opportunity I get, in the cracks of my ongoing photography
work, in a notebook or on the laptop when Iím on long car
journeys (as a passenger, she adds hastily), in the early
hours of the morning and late into the night.
If you really want to write, you beg, steal, or simply make the time to get
on with it.
Meanwhile, here are
some of my You Tube videos that might be of interest to you.
Hope you enjoy them.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue
Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary
Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.
Links for writers
& Editors. Here's where you can check out the credentials
of literary agents and publishers. A must for any writer.
Helpful resource for the creative community. Articles, links
Writing Blog. Lots of useful posts on all aspects of writing,
both for print and online, plus a guest post for anyone who
wants to make a contribution. Check it out.
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