I love to read books with strong female characters, and if you like my Morgan Sierra books, you will enjoy the Charlie Fox series by Zoe Sharp.
I met Zoe at Bristol Crimefest earlier this year and in this interview, we discuss how she started writing, how her ideas develop and the themes that resonate in her books.
Watch the video below or here on YouTube. You can also watch the rest of the KillerThriller TV episodes here. The show notes are below.
In the interview, we discuss:
- How Zoe got started in writing after she received death threats for her photo-journalism. It also gave her a keen interest in learning self-defense which has become a key aspect of the Charlie Fox books, and she continues to learn new physical skills.
- How much of Zoe Sharp is in Charlie Fox? The motorbike, the travel, the self-defence … Zoe explains some of the similarities and differences
- On violence in crime/thrillers with a female protagonist, and how the cumulative effort of violence affects Charlie’s life
- Writing in first person and the dark humor that comes through in Charlie’s voice
- The Blood Whisperer is a new stand-alone crime thriller, with a new character, Kelly Jacks, ex-CSI based in London now working as a crime-scene cleaner after a conviction for a murder she has no memory of.
- Die Easy, the 10th Charlie Fox is set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and is Zoe’s homage to Die Hard. As long as Charlie keeps talking, Zoe will continue to tell her story.
- The themes that keep coming back for Zoe are the search for respect and Charlie’s search for redemption
- Zoe does a lot of writing in pencil on scraps of paper. She does plot the structure but then writes the characters and reactions as they happen in a discovery method.
Zoe Sharp Interview Transcription
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author J.F. Penn, and today on Killer Thriller TV, I’m interviewing Zoe Sharp, author of the best-selling and award-nominated thrillers featuring Charlie Fox, ex-Special Forces turned bodyguard, compared by many to Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher, which is brilliant, and I love Zoe’s books, so very excited to have you on the show, Zoe!
Zoe: I’m excited to be here!
Well, first up, tell us a bit more about you and your writing background.
Zoe: One of the first questions I ever got asked when I went onto a panel in the States was what made you start writing crime books, and everybody had their usual, “I always wanted to write and I’ve been a very interested reader for years,” and I said, “Well, when I started getting the death threat letters, that was what set me off writing crime books,” and everybody on the panel kind of turned and looked and went “What?” But I worked as a photojournalist for many years, and when I was doing a regular column for one of the magazines I worked for, I actually got death threat letters, and that’s what originally sparked off with the idea for the first of the Charlie Fox books. And it also gave me a very keen interest in learning a lot of self-defense.
Joanna: Wow, I’ve got to ask, what did you get that for? Did you take some Enron pictures or something?
Zoe: No, that would have been much more understandable. It was a weird thing, it was a long story and I won’t go into it, but it was a really weird thing, and I think it was a guy who had just taken against me for some reason. I’d never met him before, the police never tracked down who exactly was sending them; they never caught him, but eventually they just stopped. So that was great. But they were, you know, cut out of newspaper like a ransom note, and telling me my days were numbered.
Joanna: Wow, so you went and learnt, because of course,
Charlie is really good with self-defense and things. So how much did you really get into all that, how much of that is your learning?
Zoe: Yeah, I had a guy who was a karate black belt instructor, and he was brilliant. He also did a lot of kyusho jitsu, which is pressure points, and a lot of knife work. So, between that, and I’ve since learnt from a friend of mine, she’s another author, she hasn’t published her first book yet, K.D. Kinchin, she studies ninjitsu, so whenever we get together, “Ooh,” she says, “I’ve got this great move you need to learn!” So I’ve learnt a lot of it as I’ve gone along. And I’ve cherry-picked from different disciplines that kind of suit me, and you have to know your limitation, and I try and pick stuff that I know will work for me. And I’ve actually done demonstrations of this at some of the crime-writing events, which is great fun. I do a thing called “You can’t run in high heels,” and that always goes down very well.
Joanna: I want to come on one! I want to come on one of your workshops: that would be so fun!
Zoe: You’re on.
Joanna: So, you also ride a bike, a motorbike, right?
Zoe: Yes! Yes.
Joanna: From some pictures that I’ve seen.
Zoe: Yes, I’ve had a bike license for too many years that I really don’t want to count, and I’m just looking longingly at my next bike at the moment, so yes, before the summer gets too far over.
Joanna: And, the travel, I mean, you’ve just come back from Jordan, you’ve traveled a lot.
So, there’s the bikes, there’s the travel, there’s the kind of kick-ass stuff: how much of Charlie is you?
Zoe: I used to deny it completely, you know: she’s just a fictional character, and now I just say, “Oh, it’s all entirely autobiographical.” It’s a lot easier!
Joanna: Yeah, but I mean, we all bring aspects of ourselves, to our characters, I mean like for me, my Morgan Sierra is like a kind of alter ego: I’d love to experience life in that way. But you are a bit more of a daredevil, I think.
Zoe: Well, when I was still doing my day job working as a photojournalist, I specialized a lot in the motoring field, so I used to say that I spent my days hanging out of moving cars, scraping my elbows on the road, taking photographs of other moving cars, which is not the usual kind of picture of a photographer. But, I just like to go and experience a lot of this stuff, because I think it gives you a better standpoint to write about it. Having said that, when I had Charlie shot in one of the books, I didn’t go that far. I went and talked to a guy who’d been shot instead: that was much easier.
Joanna: Yeah, and of course she’s been through some nasty experiences in the military and stuff that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Zoe: No. Well, when I first started the series, there was a military base in the UK called Deepcut that was having a lot of scandal to do with hazing of trainees, and that sort of all went into the back story for the character in that first book.
Joanna: I think, you know, thriller authors, crime writers in particular, and you’re kind of in the middle I think, there’s crime and thriller, we kind of get done for violence against women.
What’s your feelings about portraying violence as a female writer writing a female protagonist?
Zoe: Well, it’s odd, because it’s not as acceptable, I think, coming from a woman. A lot of the time, you find that women are either portrayed as they’re the victims, or if they are a bit more capable of taking care of themselves, they’re either psychopaths or ice-cold assassins. And I wanted somebody who had the capability to react with really great violence, when the situation dictated, but was nevertheless not comfortable with that aspect of her own personality. And, you know, the guys are all expected to shoot the baddies and go and have a beer afterwards, and for women, the female characters, I thought that that just wasn’t quite as credible. So I wanted to show that yes, she can, and does kill people when she has to, but it all leaves a mark, an those marks are having a cumulative effect on the character, I think.
Joanna: And there’s a scene in the first book, where, in the nightclub, there’s a really big guy, and there’s no way any woman is going to beat this massive trunk, and she deflects it with humor, and I think that’s one of the hallmarks of your books, there’s this kind of dry humor throughout.
So is that your humor?
Zoe: Oh, anybody who reads my, my stuff on Twitter or Facebook knows I have a very lowbrow sense of humor normally. But yes, and a lot of the time you do get that kind of quite dark humor from people who are dealing with that kind of situation all the time. And besides which, I think the point Charlie makes in the book is that she’s into self-defense, and anything that allows you to get out of a dangerous situation, be it humor, be it whatever, is effective self-defense.
Joanna: Absolutely. And I think possibly the equating you with the character is also because you write in first person.
Joanna: So that makes it – do you get this a lot? It’s like when you write your first person, it feels like it is the author?
Zoe: Yes, I, I think so, and it is very interesting, because I’ve just written a new, stand-alone mystery thriller called “The Blood Whisperer,” and I’ve done that in third person, and, but quite close third person, so I swap almost into the thoughts of various different characters throughout the book, and that was a very interesting exercise, having done ten books now in the Charlie Fox series, all in first person. To, to suddenly have that wider stage to play on was very interesting.
Tell us a bit more about “The Blood Whisperer,” while we’re here, waving it – I think you’ve got a copy there!
Zoe: I have, yes, my trade paperback copies arrived this week: lovely! I still wanted to keep with a very strong female protagonist, because I thought, well, if people do like the Charlie Fox books, then that’s one of the main threads of the books, is the fact that it’s a strong female character. So I ended up with another strong female character, who’s called Kelly Jacks. She’s an ex-CSI, based in London, who is now working as a crime scene cleaner, because six years ago, she woke up with a knife in her hands next to the body of a man, and she was convicted for killing him, but she has no memory of it. So, the book starts when she goes to clean up another crime scene, and gradually she starts to think that maybe this nightmare is starting all over again. And the title came from the fact that she was so good at pulling almost invisible evidence from crime scenes, when she was working as a CSI, that they called her the Blood Whisperer, because she seemed to be able to tease evidence out of those scenes. So, it was great fun to write, I really enjoyed it.
Joanna: And that’s out now?
Zoe: It is just hot off the press, yes.
Joanna: Exciting! So people can go and get that. And you’ve got another, your latest Charlie Fox, I believe, is out as well: “Die Easy,” is that right?
Zoe: “Die Easy” has been out since earlier on in the year.
Joanna: Oh, sorry.
Zoe: That’s alright. But I’ve just finished writing, in the last few days, a novella, a Charlie Fox novella, which kind of bridges the gap between “Die Easy,” which is Book Ten in the series, and what will be the next installment. Basically, I’m getting bullied by fans who keep saying, “When’s the next book out?” so I thought, right, I will fill in a little bit of what’s happening for Charlie between the last book and the next one. But “Die Easy” I set in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. I went there a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by the way that great swathes of the place are still in ruins. And I wanted to really kind of show that contrast.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. And what are the themes? I mean, obviously there’s strong women in your books, but
what are the themes that keep coming back into the stories that you write?
Zoe: I try and work around sort of different themes, but a lot of them are search, people’s search for respect, and latterly, I suppose, Charlie’s search for redemption, for things: she feels she’s heading down a path which, if she’s not very careful, could take her to a place that will probably ruin her. So she’s looking for a way to justify her own abilities.
Joanna: And when you’re thinking of the next book, what is the thing that sparks the idea? Is it, “I want to write a book in New Orleans, so I’ll go and do the trip and then I’ll come up with a plot”? I mean, I’m one of those people; I’m like, “Let’s go to Budapest and then write a book”! I know you’ve just been to Jordan as well.
Or do you come up with the story and then fit it to a place?
Zoe: Well, a little bit of both. It very much depends on the location and the idea for the book. As I said, I knew I wanted to set something in New Orleans; it was such a fascinating place. I’ve also, for a lot of years, wanted to do a sort of my take on one of my all-time favorite movies, which was Die Hard. So, of course, what could I call the book but “Die Easy,” because it’s Die Hard set in The Big Easy. And I wanted to put Charlie in a situation, she ends up in a hostage situation, where she is on the outside, trying to work out how to rescue a lot of people, and also, she is unarmed, so that was her kind of bare feet handicap if you like, that she has to cope without her usual abilities with firearms.
Joanna: Oh, wow!
Zoe: So I like to keep testing her.
Joanna: You do: you really do.
Do you have an end in mind, for Charlie, you know, at ten, the series starts, do you go, “Right, this is going to go forever”?
Zoe: As long as she keeps talking to me – which sounds very strange, I know: the voices in my head and all that. But as long as she keeps talking to me, and has a story to tell, then I will keep telling it. She still has a lot of places to go, and I’ve got most of the plot worked out, I suppose, for the next book, and it’s still another place that interests me that takes her somewhere. I think because I try and make the actual plots of the books more or less stand alone and be self-contained, Charlie’s own personal journey is on-going throughout the series. So she has developed and changed, and evolved, I suppose, as she’s gone on, and that’s what keeps a lot of it interesting for me, is that sort of personal angle to the books, for the character.
Joanna: And you mentioned the voices there in a joking way, but
what is your writing process like? Your writing routine, I guess.
Zoe: Well, I tend to do an awful lot of my writing in pencil on scrap bits of paper, and I can do that more or less anywhere. I’ve written bits of books on planes, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in the car on the motorway – passenger seat, I have to say, I haven’t quite gone that far! But I do find, if I make notes to myself for the next scene that I’m thinking about, then by the time I come to actually type that up, it’s already got a skeleton; it’s already got a framework, and I find I can work much faster that way. But I do like to outline, I must admit: I’m not a very good seat-of-the-pants writer. I tend to go off in lots of hare-brained directions if I don’t have a fairly good idea of where I’m going. But I tend to plot kind of the structure, and then leave the reactions of the characters a lot more free-form, because I want them to react in a way that feels believable for that character at that time, and therefore I don’t plan that to the nth degree. And sometimes people surprise you: they turn out to react in a completely different way to the way you were expecting! Or they have a sense of humor you didn’t know they’d got until you start writing them–that discovery is always fun.
Joanna: And what about your actual physical place, because we can see all the books behind you.
Do you have a special place, or do you go somewhere?
Zoe: My desk, normally. My morning commute is about ten feet, into the office! I tend to sit, just sit at my desk with one of these ergonomic keyboards, which is very nice for my wrists and everything, and sit and scribble. Listening to music, normally: all sorts of different music. I really do like to have, that going in the background when I’m writing. It creates an instant atmosphere in my head.
Joanna: And you, you live in the Lake District, is that right?
Zoe: I do, yes.
Joanna: So do you go out for walks and hills in between writing?
Zoe: Sometimes. I mean, doing something that’s physical, as opposed to, I suppose, sitting and sedentary and cerebral, gives you so much time for mulling over ideas, and problem-solving and things like that, so I’ll go out and mow the lawn, or weed the drive, or wash the car, do something like that, and that gives me problem-solving time, even, in my subconscious: I almost don’t know I’m doing it.
Joanna: And what do you like to read for pleasure?
Or what are you reading at the moment – I know it’s always a hard question!
Zoe: At the moment, I’m reading some great books, because I’m moderating a panel at Bouchercon later this month, so I’m reading my panelists’ books, which is great, because they’re a really nice, wide selection. I’m also moderating a panel at Iceland Noir in November, so I’ve got a couple of new to me Icelandic authors to read for that. So I’ve always got stuff either for panels I’m doing, or a lot of people will say, “Would you have a read of this book?” and I desperately try and fit them in, but my TBR pile – it should be an MBR pile, really, because it’s a Must Be Read rather than a To Be Read. But for pleasure, I’ll read all sorts of stuff. I read a lot of crime and thrillers, I also read sci fi, I’ll read more or less anything. I love books that are personal journeys. Not quite biographies, but memoirs and travel, travelogues and all sorts of stuff. If it’s well-written, I’ll read it.
Joanna: Fantastic books, you know, I’m a real fan.
Zoe: Thank you very much.
Joanna: Really love Charlie and the series, and I’m going to try your new stuff. So, let everybody know where they can find you and your books online.
Zoe: They can go to my website, which is www.zoesharp.com, there are the Bookshelf pages on there, which have all the links to everywhere the books are available in all the different formats, so large print, audio, e-book and the printed versions. I’m also on Twitter, @authorzoesharp and I’m on Facebook as well, as facebook.com/ZoeSharpAuthor, and, as I think we’ve already mentioned, I have a very lowbrow sense of humor, so don’t go and look at my Facebook pages if you’re easily offended!
Joanna: It’s a lot of fun, just like the books!
Joanna: Alright, so thanks so much, Zoe, that was brilliant.
Zoe: Thank you.