Sunday, March 18, 2018

Q&A with Christopher J. Yates

Christopher J. Yates is the author of the new novel Grist Mill Road. He also has written the novel Black Chalk. Born in London and raised in the UK, he lives in New York City.

Q: You've written about how the New York Post inspired your character Hannah. Were there particular inspirations for your other two main characters, Patrick and Matthew?

A: Patrick is very much based on me, in many ways—although, at the same time, not really me at all, if that makes any sense.

However, he has very similar experiences to me. I really did have a spear thrown at me by a best friend when I was young (I write the experience almost word for word in the first chapter of Grist Mill Road) and I learned to cook, just like Patch, when my parents got divorced and I got bored of microwave meals.

Matthew is a whole different kettle of fish, however. I don't know exactly where he came from, but his section is the last third of the novel, so I had a few years for my subconscious to work on him before I had to write him down.

Q: Do you know the endings of your books before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I had absolutely no idea about the ending—or many other of the important details in the novel. I think I like to come up with an interesting beginning to a novel and then work out how and why that beginning happened later on. But that's just me. I think knowing the ending is another very valid way to write a novel. Valid, but just doesn't interest me at all.

Q: Some sections of the book are in first person while others are in third person. Why did you choose to write it that way?

A: I write very instinctually. It felt right at the time. I can justify it now, and explain it now, but I prefer the instinctive approach. I like going at it this way—write write write write write write write write... and then throw away the stuff that isn't working, keep the stuff that is.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing, or 10 different things, depending upon the number of minutes past the hour at which you ask me this question. I write, I throw away, I go back to stuff that's 10 years old, and at some point in this process I hope for clarity. It hasn't happened yet. If you never see a third novel from me, it'll be a pretty good sign that this is a very flawed way in which to work.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 18

March 18, 1932: John Updike born.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Q&A with Daria Peoples-Riley

Daria Peoples-Riley is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book This Is It. A former teacher, she lives in Las Vegas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for This Is It?

A: I wrote This Is It after my family’s first trip to New York City. My daughter is an aspiring classical ballerina, and after we visited Juilliard with her, I was inspired to write her a poem to give to her on the day of her first audition.

After I enrolled in an online picture book class, I was asked to illustrate a manuscript. I didn’t have a manuscript, so I pulled out the poem to illustrate, and it became a picture book. I was able to read it to my daughter about a year after I wrote it when she auditioned for admittance into a pre-professional ballet program.  

And, though I thought I was writing a poem for my daughter, it continues to deliver me from some of my biggest fears. And yes, she was accepted into the program! 

Q: Do you tend to work on your illustrations first or the text first, or did you work on them simultaneously?

A: Once This Is It was acquired, my editor and I settled on the text first, and then I revised the illustrations. As far as new projects, illustrations and text come simultaneously. I will illustrate some spreads first, and then only write text for other spreads. Eventually, as I continue the revision process, I add text or illustrations where they are missing in the dummy.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from the book?

A: I hope young readers are encouraged to learn how to speak life into their thoughts, and empower themselves through positive affirmations. It’s important that others believe in us, but it’s most important that we are brave enough to believe in ourselves. 

Q: Who are some children’s book authors and illustrators that have inspired you?

A: Gosh. There are so many, but most recently, I’ve been inspired by the work of Ashley Bryan. His work is rich, deeply rooted in the African Diaspora, authentic, simply profound, hopeful, and important for all generations of readers. I hope to grow into an artist who invokes his freedom of expression in both my art and in my life. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am finishing the art for Gloria Takes a Stand (Bloomsbury, 2019) written by debut author Jessica M. Rinker, and I am also working on my second picture book due to be released during the summer of 2019. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Doing this work is a dream come true for me. Before this happened, I’m not sure I believed dreams came true. Now, I can tell the children I meet, dreams can and will come true. With a lot of hard work, determination to never give up, and a little faith tucked deep down in their heart, dreams definitely come true. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 17

March 17, 1933: Penelope Lively born.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Q&A with L. S. Gardiner

L.S. Gardiner is the author of the new book Tales from an Uncertain World: What Other Assorted Disasters Can Teach Us About Climate Change. She works at the UCAR Center for Science Education, and she lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tales from an Uncertain World?

A: Several years ago I was at a meeting to learn about the latest climate research and what I was hearing was that the catastrophe was looking more insurmountable than ever.

It’s part of my job to help people understand this science, and I’m aware that it can fill people with worry. Realizing that climate change is a problem comes with a possible side effect of feeling helpless and uncertain about what to do.

This meeting was in San Francisco and it struck me that that city was no stranger to environmental catastrophe. In 1906 a massive earthquake and fires decimated San Francisco. I wondered what people in the city did then, whether they felt helpless and uncertain, and whether there was a parallel to our current situation with climate change.

I wanted to write this book because I wanted to know how people handle other sorts of environmental change. In some ways, climate change is unique, but, when it comes to coping with environmental change, this is not our first rodeo.

We have experience with change on earth and it can be helpful to understand our strengths, blind spots, and emotions when it comes to dealing with catastrophe. I wanted to learn from these other experiences to understand why we are slow to act on climate change.

Q: You describe climate change as "the catastrophe of our time." What do you see looking ahead, and what role do you see the Trump administration playing?

A: Looking ahead I see more strife in the short term - more weird weather, more failing crops, more challenges.

But I see better news in the long term, a paradigm shift in the way we create and use energy that stops adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere - new ways to live. It might feel a bit painful but, like pulling off a bandage, it has to happen and we’ll feel better once it does.

In the meantime, we will need to find better ways to deal with the disasters that are caused by the impacts of climate change. We’ll need to find ways to adapt.

The Trump administration has been making decisions that will make climate change worse. Thankfully, the rest of the world and many people in the United States are making smart decisions that are helping quell the catastrophe.

Individuals and organizations are divesting from fossil fuels, solar panels now cover roofs in many areas, and hundreds of cities in the U.S. have adopted the Paris Climate Accord and are planning ways to limit carbon emissions. I hope that momentum keeps increasing. It’s all about the decisions we make.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I searched for examples of different types of environmental change - slow and fast, caused by humans and not, geologic, atmospheric and biologic. I found locations to make observations of phenomena or their aftermath and perused published research from various disciplines and history archives.

So many things surprised me as I researched the book. I was surprised how many of the historic stories of individuals I found were humorous and heartwarming. Even in scary times, people can be very amusing.

But I was most surprised to find myself in a catastrophe. Right about when I thought I was finished with my book research, flash floods plowed through my city. I took this as a sign that one more chapter was needed and it was time for more observations and research.

Q: What are some lessons you took away from the other disasters you studied?

A: Looking into other disasters helped me understand why we aren’t all reacting to climate change in the same way. That in no way excuses people for making bad decisions when it comes to climate change, but it is an explanation of why it’s so hard for us to get on the same page about what to do.

None of us are immune to making decisions that turn out to be unhelpful. For example, in the research for this book, I found one person who ran towards an erupting volcano and another who leisurely enjoyed a glass of wine as his city lay in ruins.

But all of us alive today have the ability to learn from decisions and improve. By being aware of how we are living on earth and the impact we have, we can do our best to minimize climate change by making decisions that add less greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, by choosing products and services that have a low carbon impact, and by voting for candidates who recognize the climate catastrophe and are ready to take action.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book in the early stages that will weave together science, history, humanity, geography, and first-person narrative in a way that’s similar to Tales from an Uncertain World.

In addition to writing books, I create educational resources at the UCAR Center for Science Education to help people of all ages better understand how the earth works.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 16

March 16, 1920: Sid Fleischman born.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Q&A with Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens is the author of the new novel The Deep Dark Descending. His other books include The Heavens May Fall and The Guise of Another. He worked as a criminal defense attorney for 25 years, and he lives in Minnesota.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Deep Dark Descending, and how do you think your character Max Rupert has changed over the course of the novels you’ve written about him?

A: The Deep Dark Descending is the third book in a three-book arc for the character of Max Rupert. The three books, The Guise of Another, The Heavens May Fall, and The Deep Dark Descending are stand-alone novels, but they chart a change in Max Rupert. The Guise of Another is a good-brother, bad-brother story in which Max is the good brother. He is a man with a strong moral code.

In The Heavens May Fall, Max is faced with a decision of whether to follow his conscience or follow the rules. This is the first break from Max’s Boy-Scout nature, and is the first step in opening the door to his dark side. This theme, and the title of the novel, comes from an adage “let justice be done though the heavens may fall.”

The Deep Dark Descending is a revenge novel and is the logical end of Max’s journey. In this novel, he is struggling with his darkest nature. It is a novel written to explore whether Max, a man who has had a strong moral compass his whole life, will follow through on his desire to kill the man who killed his wife.

This novel also springs from the notion that people find it easy to say. “If anyone ever hurt my loved one, I would have no problems hitting the switch on their electric chair. But I wanted to explore that notion up close, with a character who has to look his victim in the eye and deliberate the final outcome.

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I tend to draw my titles from the themes of my novels. The Deep Dark Descending represents Max being drawn to his dark side. It also has a more palpable tie to the novel as one third of the novel takes place on the surface of a frozen lake on the Minnesota/Canadian border.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I outline all of my novels and know the endings before I start to write. But with The Deep Dark Descending, I went back and forth as I worked my way deeper into that first draft. The book ultimately ended as I had planned, but I had doubts about it at times.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently editing The Shadows We Hide, the sequel for my debut novel, The Life We Bury. It is six years later and there are old ghosts that need to be dealt with—and some new ones as well.

My protagonist in The Life We Bury, Joe Talbert, never met his father, although he was named for the man. The Shadows We Hide begins with Joe learning of a man named Joe Talbert being found dead in southern Minnesota. Joe goes to that town to figure out if that was his father, and if so what happened to the man?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will be writing my sixth novel later this year which will be a story that I began writing 25 years ago. In a way, it is the story that I became an author to write. It is the backstory of Boady Sanden, the law professor and attorney who featured prominently in both The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall. This story will take my readers back to 1976 and the events of a summer that made Boady Sanden who he is. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Allen Eskens.

Q&A with Francis Levy

Francis Levy, photo by Hallie Cohen
Francis Levy is the author of the new novel Tombstone: (Not a Western). He also has written the novels Erotomania and Seven Days in Rio. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tombstone: (Not a Western)?

A: I have always been obsessed with death and the notion of the way that life and matter comes into being and then falls into oblivion. It’s the old philosophical question of something out of nothing and the reverse. 

Birth and death are both inexplicable mysteries that it’s impossible to fathom. The other is divinity and whether from a teleological point of view there is a first cause and prime mover.

I’m a rationalist and have trouble with the notion of an anthropomorphic conception of God—God as some cosmic telephone operator fielding requests. On the other hand the notion of the indifference of the universe, of the cosmic yawn is a little difficult to countenance for a weak and fearful creature like myself.

On a more pragmatic basis I simply had to deal with what my survivors would do with my remains, as everyone does. And before I knew it I had a novel.

Q: Did you know from the beginning how the novel would end, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I always think of Dante, but that didn’t lead me to the notion of an ending. The paradigm of paradise, hell and purgatory, however, present signposts and provide a map, along with way stations, particularly when it comes to suffering.

And so I envisioned a whole journey beginning on a lower level of pragmatic considerations, which I tended to dispose with humorously and then proceeding to other levels. Along the way, there would be obstacles, like the financial crisis and there would be teachers like the gurus you meet at the all-inclusive resort whose guests deal with death related matters.

I glommed onto the notion of the retreat, the sanitarium, a la Mann and The Magic Mountain, and that led me closer to the idea of the kind of ascendance you see at the end of the novel when the characters cross over into the afterlife.

Q: You've noted that you wrote about death before, including writing your own New Yorker obituary and a parody of Sherwin Nuland's book How We Die. Are there similarities in the approach you take to writing about death in Tombstone?

A: Yes, it’s very similar. I have a tendency to use humor to deal with issues that I actually take quite seriously. I can’t make a joke out of something unless I'm truly attracted to it. Again the resort dealing with afterlife issues exemplifies this.

On the one hand all the characters are imposters and frauds modeled on Moliere’s Tartuffe. On the other, I take them totally seriously. Just like my most deluded characters, I’m a seeker. The difference is that I’m a trifle more defended and that’s reflected in my use of parody.

Q: You describe the funeral industry as "a total rip-off." Why?

A: I was rather young when I arranged my first funeral. By the way, the original title for this book was “The Arrangements.” I guess I was kind of traumatized by what a business it turned out to be. You pick out caskets the way you do cars, only there are no trade-ins and you can’t buy a used one.

Jumping to the chase, I have a deep aversion to memorial services, the chapel, the sacrosanct speaker who receives his or her gratuity, the whole commodification of something which is ineffable. It’s more expensive to be buried than cremated since you have more paraphernalia and you have to buy real estate, i.e., a grave.

But after all is said and done what drives me crazy is the fact of the congregating. It’s supposed to be for the survivors, but every time I attend a funeral, people are in a rush. They're in a rush to get to their yoga and therapy appoints or to their trysts and they’re actually impatient.

I personally don’t want to be responsible for forcing people to come to some event that's going to cost my estate money and that they feel they have to attend to save face.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel is The Wormhole Society. It’s a kind of reversal of classical therapy. Instead of working inside out. I propose the sci fi idea of traveling to a parallel universe in which you can attain a more adaptable mode of living.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 15

March 15, 1933: Ruth Bader Ginsburg born.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Q&A with Brian Castner

Brian Castner is the author of the new book Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage. His other books include The Long Walk and All the Ways We Kill and Die, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Alexander Mackenzie’s 1789 exploration of North America in your new book, and travel the route yourself?

A: Like many of us, I learned in school that the first expedition to cross North America belonged to Lewis and Clark. So when I stumbled upon Alexander Mackenzie's story -- accidentally, in an errant Google search -- and realized that my fourth grade teacher was wrong, that Mackenzie had done it a dozen years before, I had that exciting flash of inspiration that every writer craves.

My first thought was, "How have I never heard of this man?" I looked for a biography of Mackenzie, and discovered the most recent major work was over 80 years old. There seemed potential for a modern retelling. 

Mackenzie took two great journeys: a successful crossing of the continent in 1793, and a 1789 expedition that Mackenzie called a "disappointment."

I focused on that disappointing trip for a few reasons. Despite Mackenzie's opinion at the time, it proved the more lasting geographic contribution. And he was joined by great characters, especially his indigenous guide, a Chipewyan trading chief named Awgeenah, who deserves to be at least as well-known as Sacagawea. 

But most importantly, I knew it was physically possible for me to recreate Mackenzie's 1789 journey, and I thought that the intertwining of the two stories, the modern travelogue with the historical narrative, would be compelling for readers.

Mackenzie was searching for a Northwest Passage, a route to the Pacific, and considered his expedition a failure because it ended at the Arctic Ocean instead. Mackenzie was blocked by summer pack ice. I had a strong suspicion that if I paddled the river, I'd see something else at the end of my journey.

Q: The book includes sections on your own travels and sections on Mackenzie’s. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears?

A: Not even remotely. I've developed the habit of writing the end of the book first, so I know where the story is going, and then constantly reworking the open, to earn that ending I've set up. Maybe that's the habit of a magazine writer, to focus on the lead -- if you don't hook the reader from the start, they'll never get to your compelling finish. 

Once I dove into the meat of the book, I began with Mackenzie's early life, doing the historical research about Scotland in the 1770s, the Revolutionary War in New York, and the establishment of cities like Detroit.

Also, before my canoe trip in the summer of 2016, I learned the history of the Mackenzie valley, so I would understand what I was encountering on my journey. I took Mackenzie's journal along on my trip, to compare his daily routine to mine, and make sure I hit every landmark. 

When I got back from my trip, I immediately wrote up the travelogue, while it was fresh in my mind. Then, as a last step, I could go back and weave in the historical sections, of Mackenzie and Awgeenah.

I spend a lot of time on structure and pacing. It can be a cold process, but if it works, the reader just feels swept along on the journey, and doesn't notice how they got there.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the historical sections of the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: This may sound odd, but I was fortunate in that most of Mackenzie's letters and papers burned in a fire at his estate. All that we have are his expedition journals, and the letters saved by his cousin Roderic and the fur-trading cabal known as the North West Company.

This made my research manageable, as I could read and study in-depth every single surviving word. The same is true for other major figures of that time, and not a single letter from the illiterate voyageurs is known to exist. So while the stack of books I read for background was 10 feet tall, and I had to visit archives in Montreal and Quebec City, it could have been a lot worse.

The surprising thing I discovered in my research, though, is how much is available from the Dene, Gwich'in, and Inuvialuit, the indigenous nations that live in the Mackenzie valley.

I decided from the moment that I began this project, that one thing I could provide, in a contemporary retelling, was a greater focus on Mackenzie's companions.

All the old biographies made it sound like he did all the work himself, when in reality he was accompanied by five voyageurs, two of their wives, and Awgeenah, plus two of his wives and two young Chipewyan hunters, who would supply the expedition with food. Each had an important role to play.

So as much as possible, I wanted to be able to tell their stories, and the stories of the people Mackenzie met along the way. In recent years, those nations, the Gwich'in especially, have published extensive oral histories. The Gwich'in are working hard to save their language; there's even a @speakgwichin Twitter account.

And so I was able to include incredible background and context for Mackenzie's journey, that would not have been possible even 10 years ago, before these elders were interviewed and their stories published. 

Q: What would you say is Mackenzie’s legacy today?

A: Mackenzie is central to the history of our continent, but you wouldn't know it from his contemporary legacy; that's one reason I wrote the book, to hopefully remedy that a bit. 

In the United States, Mackenzie is virtually unknown outside of history buff circles. That's unfortunate, as we Americans can certainly claim him -- he was a immigrant to New York City in 1775.

The lands he crossed eventually became part of Canada, but at the time he transited them, they were unmapped and subject to competing claims between the British, French, Spanish, and Americans, often fighting each other, and the indigenous nations whose lands they had usurped. It was an open question of which state or empire would rule North America. 

But even in Canada, Mackenzie is a figure a little like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, a name people know, even if they aren't sure exactly why.

I spoke with a historian at the Fort William Historical Park, the site of the old fur trading rendezvous on Lake Superior. The place is kind of like a Canadian version of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

This historian was part of the bicentennial re-enactment of Mackenzie's 1789 journey, they dressed up in costumes and paddled birchbark canoes, and they gave presentations in schools.

Whenever they trotted out the actor playing Mackenzie, and asked the schoolchildren who it was, he said the kids all gave the same answer: Abraham Lincoln. So even in Canada, Mackenzie's stock is undervalued.

I should say, the obvious answer to this question of legacy is to note that the river Mackenzie paddled is now named for him. The Mackenzie River system is the second longest in North America, and the section I paddled, 1125 miles from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic, is so enormous as to defy comprehension. In many places, you can't even see the other side of the river.

A giant river should be a giant legacy. But having spent 40 days on that river, by the end, I stopped calling it the Mackenzie at all. In my own head, I use the traditional Dene name, the Deh Cho. Many Dene will tell you: "Mackenzie only paddled the river once, why did they name it for him?"

The Deh Cho is an ancient powerful river, and the Dene have lived on its banks for tens of thousands of years, and by the end of my trip, it felt presumptuous to label it with the name of a far away white man.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I love the challenge of narrative nonfiction, combining journals and newspaper stories and interviews and histories into one synthesized thread. My favorite books, like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff or David Grann's Lost City of Z, are stories that take you on a wild ride, and by the end you can't believe it's all factual and real.

So I hesitate to say exactly what the topic of the next book is, but it is historical narrative, involves the frozen north again, and includes every kind of disaster and calamity imaginable. Like Mackenzie, it's another case where I said, "How come I don't already know all about this?"

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The most interesting person I met on my journey was a Sahtu Dene elder named Wilfred Jackson. He has lived most of his life on the land, in a network of camps that spanned hundreds of square miles, hunting and fishing according to the seasons.

I stayed in his home for three days, and he told me the most incredible stories. Nearly all of them were about change. About the snow coming later every year, about his grandchildren moving away, about the young people who would rather watch satellite television than take on his hard life on the land.

Every few hours, completely out of the blue, he would say, "Almost all the old timers are dead." He was so generous and gentle. And if our modern global economy doesn't destroy his nation, climate change will. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Joyce Tyldesley

Joyce Tyldesley is the author of the new book Nefertiti's Face: The Creation of an Icon. Her other books include Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King and Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. She is a senior lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester in the U.K.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the famous bust of Nefertiti in your new book?

A: As I was growing up there was a replica Nefertiti bust in my local museum, and this fascinated me. I thought that it was the “real” Nefertiti bust (I thought that everything in the museum was real!) and it made me wonder about the queen herself. Who was she? Where and when did she live?

As I grew older, and started to study Egypt’s queens in detail, I realised that Nefertiti is an unusual case. We are very familiar with her face, as created by one particular sculptor, but we don’t really know a great deal about her as a person. Much of what has been written about her is based on assumptions, not facts.

It became clear that her bust has had a huge effect on our perception of not just Nefertiti’s history, but of her character as well. I wanted to investigate the influence that the bust has had on our thinking about Nefertiti, her family and her era.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially intrigued you?

A: I started by looking at the bust itself, and then by examining as many replicas of the bust as possible. This included working with a sculptor who was re-creating a limestone Nefertiti by hand. Then I did a lot of reading!

I found the “life” of the bust after its discovery particularly intriguing. Not many people know that this was one of Hitler’s favourite pieces of art!

Q: What role did Nefertiti play during the reign of Akhenaten?

A: We know that Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s consort. This means that she played an important political and religious role during his reign. We also know that she was the mother of at least six of his children.

However, there is no evidence to show that she played any more unusual role. There has been a lot of speculation that Nefertiti actually ruled Egypt either as a co-ruler with Akhenaten, or as a female king after his death, but in my view this is not supported by the evidence.

I think that we have been persuaded by the beauty of the Berlin bust into imagining Nefertiti to have been more influential than she actually was. However, this is not a particularly popular view amongst Egyptologists!

Q: What accounts for the continuing fascination with this image of Nefertiti?

A: The bust is the image of a breathtakingly beautiful woman, whose face seems to speak to people of all ages and cultures. And, because the woman has a very modern look, the bust seems to bridge the gulf between the ancient and modern worlds. We can feel that to look at the bust is to gaze into the eye (she has only one) of the queen herself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am continuing my research into Egypt’s queens: an endlessly fascinating subject.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am also continuing to develop a suite of online Egyptology courses at the University of Manchester: a perfect blend of the ancient world with modern technology.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is the author of the new novel A Different Kind of Evil, the second in his series of mysteries featuring Agatha Christie as a detective. His other books include A Talent for Murder, the first in the series, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your second novel featuring Agatha Christie as a detective? 

A: I wanted to write a sequel to A Talent for Murder, the first in a series of novels featuring Agatha Christie as my central character.

This book, A Different Kind of Evil, starts on an ocean liner, the SS Gelria, journeying between England and Buenos Aires, with stops en route.

The opening scene of the novel came to me in a flash. Agatha is on board the boat — a journey she made in real-life in January 1927 — when she she hears a scream and witnesses a young woman flinging herself from the railings to her death. 

It seemed such a resonant image that I could immediately tell it was the beginning of what I hope is a gripping narrative. There are lots of twists and turns along the way. 

Q: Your novels are based on various episodes from Agatha Christie's real life--how did you blend reality and fiction this time around? 

A: Each of the books is set in a location that Agatha visited at a specific time in her life. We know from the passenger manifest of the SS Gelria, that Agatha Christie set sail on 23 January 1927, bound for the Canary Islands.

She stayed in Tenerife, at the luxurious hotel Taoro in Puerto de la Cruz, with her daughter Rosalind and secretary Carlo for a number of weeks. I travelled out to Tenerife and while I was there my imagination started to work. What if Agatha had been sent to the island to investigate a murder?

The island is famous for its ancient Guanche civilisation, a civilisation that practised mummification. What if a partly mummified body had been found in a cave? And what if that body belonged to an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service?

Agatha has to use her knowledge of the criminal mind to unearth a range of secrets and uncover a different kind of evil.

Q: How do you think your version of Agatha Christie has developed from the first book to this one?

A: In the first book Agatha is placed in the position of a victim. She has to try and outwit the sinister Dr. Kurs, who almost tries to manipulate her as a character in a novel.

In this book - the second in the series - Agatha is much more in control. She is the central investigative figure, driving the novel forward in order to solve a series of murders. 

Q: What do you think Agatha would think of these novels about her?

A: I hope, if she were to read them, that she would take the novels in the spirit they are written - as a kind of homage. I’ve always been a huge fan, but I didn’t want to write a pastiche or a parody.

Although she is the central character, they are written for the sensibilities of a 21st century reader. I hope they have psychological depth of character as well as the kind of gripping narrative that Agatha herself would be proud. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished the third in the series, Death in a Desert Land, which is set in Iraq, a place where Agatha visited in real life, by herself in the autumn of 1928. She is sent out to Iraq to investigate the suspicious death of the famous explorer and writer Gertrude Bell, who died in Baghdad in 1926.

From Baghdad, Agatha travels to Ur, in southern Iraq, a journey we also know Christie took in real life, to visit the archaeological dig in ancient Mesopotamia. That mystery is set for release in the UK and US in spring 2019. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The series has been optioned for TV by Origin Pictures, the company behind Death Comes to Pemberley, Woman in Gold, and The Sense of an Ending.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew Wilson.