Death isn’t always the end.
The idea for Desecration came from a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London, where anatomical specimens line the walls. It made me wonder about how the physical body defines us in life … and in death.
Jamie Brooke is a British police detective who struggles against the rules and yet remains passionate about bringing justice to the dead. Jamie’s escape into tango comes from my own obsession with this ‘vertical expression of a horizontal desire.’
The anatomical Venus figures, like the one found at the crime scene, were popular teaching devices as well as pieces of art.
Teratology is the study of ‘monsters,’ abnormalities in physiological development, often caused by genetic or environmental factors. The Victorian ‘freak shows’ were made up of people born misshapen and the medical museums are full of their remains. But what if they were created deliberately?
The Bodies exhibition in New York gave me the idea for Rowan Day-Conti and his macabre corpse art sculptures. Researching that alternative world led me to body modification and the Torture Garden nightclub. It’s fascinating to see how people use the body as a canvas to define themselves.
This tattoo was the inspiration for the exotic dancer, ‘O.’ Seen at the National Gallery, London, Seduced by Art Photography exhibition.
Richard Learoyd's Man with Octopus Tattoo II, 2011
A visit to the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe, rife with rumours of Satanic ritual and sexual depravity, inspired some of the climactic scenes.
Desecration is available in ebook, print and audiobook formats. More images at pinterest.com/jfpenn/desecration/
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This interview transcript is from the Scenes and Sequels Podcast with Dave Kearney, recorded in May 2014. We talk about my research process, obsession with travel and what inspires my stories, as well as discussing my darker side! I also read an excerpt from the Prologue of Desecration which you can listen to below.
Dave: Welcome to the Scenes and Sequels podcast for readers and writers of genre fiction. I’m your host, Dave Kearney, and on today’s show, I chat with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, J.F. Penn about her new book, “Desecration,” the first in her new London Mystery series.
Dave: Hi, all, it’s Episode Seven of the Scenes podcast, and that was the opening passages from “Desecration,” read by the author, and my guest on today’s show, J.F. Penn. Now, it’s just brilliant to be able to chat with Joanna today, because she shares some just amazing insights into her writing process, and in particular, we talk a bit about theme and just the level of research that Joanna does when she’s writing her stories. And I really think it shows in a story like “Desecration,” because as a reader, it really sort of forces you to ask the question of where fact ends and fiction begins, and that’s really cool, because it gives that story a level of believability, which I think is really important.
And, with that in mind, we also talk a little bit about Joanna’s views on challenging readers. And Joanna believes that writers have the responsibility to tackle difficult themes and to examine difficult issues from a character’s perspective, and by doing so, it challenges readers to be thinking about the story long after they’ve finished reading it. And I think that’s really cool as well. Perhaps it doesn’t hold true for every story; it’s definitely something to think about, because, certainly from my perspective, after reading “Desecration,” it definitely had me thinking for some time afterwards, certainly about some of the themes underpinning the story, and that definitely comes through in our conversation today.
Just quickly, one other thing that we chat about today is some of the challenges for writers in switching between genres, and anyone who’s familiar with Joanna’s work would know that she also writes the ARKANE thriller series, and so we chat a little bit about the different approach that she’s taken to writing her ARKANE thrillers, and the London Mystery stories.
I love to talk about the inspiration for my books, so here's a couple of excerpts from an interview on Russell Phillips blog.
You can read the full interview here including who would play Morgan and Jake in the ARKANE movies, plus will there be more coming soon.
Morgan likes storms and enjoys research, as do you. How much of you is in Morgan?
Morgan is my alter-ego and when I want to blow stuff up or go travelling, she gets to do it. Her background is nothing like mine as she is half Israeli and has a Jewish ancestry and upbringing in the Israeli military. I wanted to bring Israel into the mix as Jerusalem is my favorite city in the world and one of my goals is to live there for a time one day, so that was a way to do it! I do have a Masters degree in Theology and another degree in Psychology, so those fascinations also run through Morgan, but I am certainly not a fighter, although I am extremely independent, and I have travelled to most of the places in the books.
How important do you think realism is in thrillers?
JFP: Personally, I think you should believe it could happen within the real world, so I do a lot of research to make the books as ‘real’ as possible and then take that further into fiction. I always have an Author’s Note at the end which explains what is real, for example, ‘One Day In Budapest’ is about a right-wing political party whose anti-Semitism spills into violence with echoes of WWII. It was sparked by being in Budapest in November 2012 as a real political party marched in black shirts around a Roma village, and called for a national registry of Jews. I’ve outlined more of the realities of that book in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5onR9-L5IbU
My aim is always to write a thriller that could be real, because it is so grounded in real places and real historical events. There's an edge of fiction that takes you further, but you should be wondering what that is.
In this video, I explain the research, ideas and inspiration behind Pentecost, an ARKANE thriller (Book 1).
It was originally recorded for a book club, but I think you'll find it fascinating if you enjoy travel and religious places around the world.
There are no spoilers, just some insight into my thought process and the places that inspired me.
- My trip to India back in 2007 and how Varanasi gave me the idea for the opening scene on the burning ghats, where bodies are burned on the edge of the Ganges. How my travels are a source of inspiration for me.
- The original title of the book was ‘Mandala,' based on Carl Jung's Red Book, which at the time had just been released for the first time. It contains Jung's personal diary and paintings, made during a time of breakdown. Some of the images within the book inspired me to think of an idea around a stone and a pillar of fire.
- During a trip to Venice one flooded New Year, I visited St Mark's Basilica which has the amazing Pentecost dome. That mosaic forms an important part of the plot.
- I talk about my MA Theology at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College 1994-1997 when I studied the early church, and how I became fascinated with the Apostles. Where did their bodies end up after they were martyred? The Pitt Rivers and the Bodleian both make it into the book.
- Scenes feature the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which has the bones of St James, and St Peters in Rome, both likely places for adventuring on the hunt for the Apostle's stones.
- I talk about Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. How Israel is my fascination and my addiction, and how it appears in practically all my books. Morgan Sierra was brought up there, and in Pentecost, she visits again as part of the hunt.
- Jung and Freud were in the USA during the 1920s and I was able to use that as part of the plot, taking the hunt to America and into the electric storms of Arizona and the Biosphere.
- Why sense of place is so important to me
The first in the ARKANE series, PENTECOST is a fast-paced thriller that explores the edges of faith against a backdrop of early Christian history, archaeology and psychology.
Full transcription of the video
Hi, everyone, hi Rhonda and the book club, I’m really excited to be here today. I’m Joanna Penn, writing as J.F. Penn, and I’m really excited that you’ve chosen “Pentecost” as your book club read, so I hope you’ve all got your copy or on your e-book reader.
And today, I’m just going to talk a little bit about the ideas and inspiration behind the book, because I love research, and I hope you’ll find some of this interesting. Now, there’ll be no spoilers, I promise, so if you haven’t started the book yet, don’t worry, I will just give you some insight into some of the places and things that you’ll experience along the way.
So, the very first inkling for the ideas for “Pentecost” came when I had a trip to India, back about five years ago now.
And that’s me, sitting at dawn in Varanasi. Now, Varanasi’s on the Ganges, so it’s a holy city, and also, if you die in Varanasi, basically, you get to heaven, you escape the circle of life, as such. And that’s the Burning Ghat there. Now, visiting that was quite confrontational, I guess, those bodies being burnt openly there, and that scene, being there, really inspired me. And if you’ve read the opening of the book, you’ll know that that is the first scene.
And actually just as an aside, whilst you’re doing your book club, at the moment I’m back in India, I’m cycling in South India, so that’s pretty exciting. I love to travel, and my travels are a real source of inspiration for me.
So, when I got the idea, at this point the book was going to be kind of about Eastern stuff, and it was going to be called “Mandala,” because the other thing that was happening at the time was this book. Now, any of you who know a bit about psychology, Carl Jung is obviously huge in psychology, and this book, the “Red Book,” it’s huge, it’s like a huge, huge, oversize, full color, lovely pages book. It’s actually his personal diary of a kind of breakdown that he had, and he did art therapy whilst he was going through this. And this is one of his mandalas.
The book was going to be called “Mandala,” it was going to be an exploration of the kind of unconscious, and having crimes and thriller stuff as well, but in terms of the theme behind the series. Now, Jung’s “Red Book” had been kept secret by his family for many years, and had only just been released to the public, so these drawings were available to the public for the first time, and this sort of burst into my consciousness.
So, the book was going to be “Mandala,” and then, I saw, this image. The one on the right, both of these are within the book, and the snake there, with its gorgeous, gorgeous artwork that he did, all himself, but the one on the right, if you can see at the bottom left there, there’s a man prostrating himself before a small object–could be a stone–and a pillar of fire coming out. Now, that phrase ‘pillar of fire,’ if you’ve read the Bible, is essentially at Pentecost, the pillar of fire in Exodus, with God in the desert, but the tongues of fire coming down on the Apostles at Pentecost is what kind of came into my head, the tongues of flame. And when I looked at this, I thought, “Well, what if, that would be really interesting, if there was some object that could have this effect.”
So, again, another travel, my travels just seem to inform my ideas, and then they all sort of mush up into some kind of crazy thing, but I was in Venice, and you can see there that that’s me in my puffball jacket, because it was freezing, we were there for New Year, and it was flooded, so flooded Venice being beautiful but quite tragic, in a way. But inside St Mark’s Basilica is this tremendous gold dome, and on it, you can see there some of the figures of the Apostles, with the tongue of flame alighting on their heads from the throne of heaven. So it’s the Pentecost Dome.
And when I kind of put all these ideas together and thought about, “OK, well what if each of those Apostles had a stone that they kept in memory of their time with Jesus, and what if they were buried with the bodies of the Apostles,” because, of course, the history of the Early Church, which I studied–I did Theology at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College, which also comes into the book.
Essentially I thought it would be really interesting to look at where did the bodies of the saints end up? And could there be something mysterious, hidden with the bodies?
So, I just mentioned Oxford, but there’s some of the places there that I talk about in the book. That’s the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is amazing, this mad, Victorian explorer went around the world, kind of taking stuff from tribes–terrible, really–but an amazing museum full of interesting things. And the Bodleian, where I used to study, that’s the Radcliffe Camera, where my actual library was, the Theology Library, and once you get into the series, you’ll see later on, that there’s a sort of virtual library with arcana, and that’s modeled on the Bodleian. So that’s quite exciting.
When I was doing my research around where the bones and the relics of the saints ended up, the really famous one and the most obvious one is St James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There’s a brilliant cathedral there, and they have this amazing bottafumeiro, it’s called, it’s an 80kg big incense swinger, and it swings over the congregation, and it’s very famous, and I really wanted to get that into the plot, so, when you get to that bit, I hope you’ll enjoy how I wove that in.
But it was fascinating to me to kind of look at what is real, or at least belief, for a lot of people, and then weaving that in to a thriller, how can I make it so true that you think it could possibly be real? That’s kind of my aim. And what’s quite amazing about many of the things as I researched, was the synchronicity, which is also a Jungian kind of thing, that things happened, more than coincidence, let’s say. Slightly more than coincidence. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
So, obviously St Peter in Rome would be another obvious place, the bones of St Peter lie underneath the cathedral, and there’s some amazing stuff in St Peter’s which I obviously needed to bring into the story, and there’s me outside there. And on the left, that’s actually the Feast of Epiphany, when we managed to get into the Basilica and see the Pope, which was pretty exciting, before he abdicated, of course.
I love Rome, I love Italy, and I love Israel.
So, if you do get into the series, you’ll find that Jerusalem and Israel come into the book over and over again, and Morgan Sierra, my main character, was brought up in Israel–her father’s Jewish. I love to weave that in, and Jerusalem is a very important place to me, it’s probably my spiritual home, I would say. I obsess about it, I read about it all the time, I would love to live there for a while. I’m really fascinated by the place, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is just mad. I couldn’t find any pictures of the stuff on the roof, which is in the book, which is the Ethiopian Coptic church, which is just really interesting, and obviously very poor, but, the church is just a mish-mash of all the different denominations of the Christian religion: it’s fascinating.
So, a fascinating place. Then, talking back again about synchronicity, when I brought Jung into the story in various ways, after starting with the “Red Book” and the mandala, and bringing him in to the story later on, I found some amazing synchronicity in the fact that he was in America, that’s a famous picture, that’s Jung and Freud, at Clark University, and essentially, they launched psychology in America in the 1920s, and this famous meeting, I was able to use in the book. And only kind of found that after I went into the research of where he would have been at different dates and how it would have fitted in with my story, so an amazing piece of synchronicity there.
And this is the Biosphere in Arizona, another place that has been in my mind for many years, and really fascinated with the storms, electric storms that you have in America.
So, I hope you can see that I kind of weave in all of this stuff into the book, and that that adds a kind of layer of intrigue and interest and sense of place to the book. I am an obsessive traveler, so all my books feature interesting locations.
OK, so I hope you found that interesting, and what we can do is if you’ve got any questions, Rhonda will email me those, and I’ll do you another little video, answering any other questions that you will have about anything, whether it’s the book, or the writing life, or being English, whatever else you fancy.
The series is available, “Pentecost” is in print, e-book and audiobook, as are the other ARKANE books. “Prophecy” is about the hunt for the Devil’s Bible, which contains curses that will basically do evil things to mankind, and it has, again, a psychological edge to it, the psychology of obedience, when Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, or when people do things in the name of God. So, I’m really interested in those, the Stanley Milgram experiments from America in the 50s, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in “Prophecy,” in terms of psychological research behind the thriller.
And then “Exodus” is about the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant as the Middle East counts down to a religious war, and in that one I did a lot of research, obviously, about where the Ark of the Covenant might actually be, and that was brilliant, I really enjoyed that, and going to Ethiopia and Jordan and fascinating places like that.
And then “One Day in Budapest,” which has just come out as you watch this, is more of a political thriller: if you like Daniel Silver, you might like this book. It’s got a political edge, it’s kind of a day of terrorism by neo-Nationalists, in Budapest, and Morgan Sierra just happens to be there, delivering some ancient objects back to the Synagogue, as it all kicks off. So it’s a very high-paced novella.
But anyway, those are my books. You can also sign up for my list, if you’d like to get specials or giveaways, that type of thing, at jfpenn.com/list
OK, well, I hope you enjoy the book. I look forward to hearing from you all, and thanks for having me, Rhonda, and thanks to all of you in the book group.
In the video below, I explain the inspiration for the story – both from the political angle as well as the historical. You can also view the video here on YouTube. Below the video is the description and the buy links.
A relic, stolen from the heart of an ancient city.
An echo of nationalist violence not seen since the dark days of the Second World War.
Budapest, Hungary. When a priest is murdered at the Basilica of St Stephen and the Holy Right relic is stolen, the ultra-nationalist Eröszak party calls for retribution and anti-Semitic violence erupts in the city.
Dr Morgan Sierra, psychologist and ARKANE agent, finds herself trapped inside the synagogue with Zoltan Fischer, a Hungarian Jewish security advisor. As the terrorism escalates, Morgan and Zoltan must race against time to find the Holy Right and expose the conspiracy, before blood is spilled again on the streets of Budapest.
One Day In Budapest is a chilling view of a possible future as Eastern Europe embraces right-wing nationalism. A conspiracy thriller for fans of Daniel Silva, where religion and politics intersect.
The novella features Dr Morgan Sierra from the ARKANE thrillers, but is stand-alone and can be read separately from the ARKANE series.
Sample or buy now in ebook, print and audio formats
Full transcript of the video
Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author J.F. Penn, and I’m here today to tell you a bit about my research process and the ideas behind “One Day in Budapest,” my novella, which is out now and available on all e-book platforms. And I promise there’ll be no spoilers, so don’t worry about that if you haven't read the book yet.
So, the story opens as Morgan Sierra is returning some items back to the synagogue, the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the main one in Budapest. Now, these items were taken from the Gold Train which was a train, obviously, that was taken from the Nazis towards the end of the Second World War, so this is actually true, and I love to involve a lot of true stories in my books.
So, the Dohany Street Synagogue is one of the first places that I visited in Budapest, when I went there in November 2012, for partly a research trip, and also partly more of a personal trip. My husband is half-Hungarian, and also Jewish, so we were visiting the synagogue to have a look at his family history. So, it was a personal trip, it was also a deeply moving trip. And what you can see here is the gorgeous Dohany Street Synagogue, which is in the kind of Moorish style, beautiful architecture. And was kind of scary, this window, the rose window there you can see, is actually where Eichmann sat as they decided on who would go to the camps and who would stay in the ghetto, and this was where the Budapest Ghetto was. So, a kind of deeply disturbing historical area.
And the tree there, it’s a weeping willow tree in silver that is a memorial to the Jews killed in the Second World War, and behind there is actually a really amazing memorial to some of the Righteous Among Nations, who were the non-Jews who helped the Jews during that time.
So the Jewish history in Budapest is, is pretty sad, and you can see here a list of names, and the graveyard there–which is actually within the synagogue grounds, very unusual–is a mass grave for those people who died within the Budapest Ghetto, and they are actually buried there, within the synagogue grounds. And this brought home in a much more detailed manner, I guess, the deaths of the Second World War. It’s very hard to imagine millions of people, but you can imagine the thousands that are within these mass graves.
So that was a really deeply moving experience, and also, that memorial there, the shoes you can see, is some shoes cast in metal on the banks of the Danube. And that’s called The Shoes on the Danube, Memorial, which is within the book–I won’t tell you how. But it is basically a memorial to the people who were killed, the Jews who were shot by the Arrow Cross fascist militia, again in the Second World War. And again, they were just shot–told to take their shoes off and then shot, and their bodies fell in the water.
So, obviously, this was not a happy trip as such. Going back into this kind of history is very emotional. And when I was there, I really wanted to tell a story somehow that would bring in this history and would talk about the history of Budapest and this community, as well as the other people who’ve suffered, which I’ll come to in a minute. So, it’s I guess a dark history in Hungary. But what’s kind of interesting is it’s not just the history, and this is where the ideas behind the book come in.
These are some screen prints from The Guardian, which is a newspaper in Britain. And this is 2012, some of the news around Hungary’s right-wing neo-nationalists. And, essentially, in November 2012, which was while I was in Budapest, one of the Hungarian politicians actually called for a register of Jews in the country. And it was just so stark a contrast to me, seeing this synagogue, and the graves, and hearing about what had happened in the 40s, and then hearing news that was essentially what was happening before all of that. And in my head it was just kind of, well, what if this could happen again. And this party could very well become the dominant party in Hungary. It’s not just Jews: in the same way as the fascists in the past, they also target Roma and other kinds of ‘undesirables’ in quotation marks.
So, really interesting, and shocking, that there is this kind of neo-nationalist, anti-Semitic feeling, amongst some people in Hungary–not just Hungary, of course, it’s a worldwide issue. But what I wanted to do with my book was to kind of imagine what could happen, if a party like this got into power: what would happen. And so that’s the kind of political angle. It is also a kind of religious angle, but this is essentially political.
So that was the basis for the story, and then, as I’m a travel junkie, I really love to involve amazing places and interesting bits of history in my books. And here’s some pictures here of the Basilica of St Stephen, or St Istvan, as he’s known in Hungary. And you can just see in that picture of the shrine there, that is called the Holy Right. Amazingly interesting: this is the actually the holy right hand of St Stephen.
Now, the, the story goes that in, in around 1000A.D., St Stephen was the king of the Hungarian Empire at the time, and he was dying without an heir to the throne. And he called to the Virgin Mary, lifted his right hand and said, “Holy Virgin, look after the nation, become Queen of Hungary and look after them for me,” and then he died. But his right hand–this is over 1000 years old–this mummified fist, cut off at the wrist, it’s really, really cool, is there in the Basilica. And again, in the opening scenes of “One Day in Budapest,” you will see what happens with the Holy Right. But I love, relics, I think they’re fascinating, and the church is, is beautiful, so highly recommend a visit there.
Again, a very important place in Budapest, and quite stunning, because Budapest is really kind of showing this dark history, there’s a museum now, it’s called the House of Terror, and they’ve even got the big word ‘Terror’ over the house, it’s quite amazing. But inside, this is the tank inside, and a wall with all the victims. This building, 60 Andrassy Way, was actually the headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross and the Fascist Party, as well as, then, the Communist Party, and some of the other awful things that happened to Hungary in, in the 50s.
So what was so amazing to me, or so distressing, I guess, was how many layers of suffering there have been in Hungary, in even the last 100 years. It’s a fascinating history to look at, and we think, “Ohthis is historical, this could never happen again,” and that’s why I wanted to write this story. But really, this House of Terror was fascinating. It’s been, sort of recreated and kept in the same way, and you can actually go into the rooms with all the records and a fascinating place to learn about what was happening there.
And then, of course, you have to bring in Castle Hill: that’s a, a view from Castle Hill over to the Parliament, at night, obviously. And that bird there is actually on the castle itself. It’s called a Turul–I’ve probably butchered the pronunciation, but the Turul is this magical bird from Hungarian myth. It represents power and strength. You might think it’s an eagle, but it’s actually a Turul, and it comes from the Magyar history and it can fly between the different worlds. And I wanted to bring in this sort of Magyar myth, it’s really fascinating. So I bring in a bit of shamanism and other things there.
And under Castle Hill is actually a cave system and tunnels, and a labyrinth, which unfortunately was closed to tourists, but I was able to research a lot of that on the Net with videos and pictures and things. So you’ll see how I bring that into the story. But, essentially, the, the whole city of Budapest has got these layers of, of intrigue and historical facts and just a fantastic place. So I wanted to really bring the city alive in the book, as well as try and talk a bit about the kind of political possibilities of the political future.
OK, so that is “One Day in Budapest,” a thriller novella, now available in e-book format everywhere. And you can also check out the ARKANE series, which is in print, audio and e-book. You can also check out my website at www.jfpenn.com, and I have a list, and you can get giveaways and all kinds of things, so yeah, come and check me out.
Thank you, I am thriller author J.F. Penn.
I was born in England, but my parents have Scottish and Irish ancestry. I spent a few years at school in Malawi, Africa. I have a New Zealand passport, swearing my allegiance to the Queen when I became a citizen after seven years in Godzone, and I lived for four years in Australia.
I crave foreign, in language and food and experience.
I lust after new experiences. I've travelled all over the world, under and over the sea and I have an itch for movement that needs scratching several times a year.
Iyer talks about home holding a piece of one's soul, which resonates with me.
Pieces of my soul lie in Jerusalem, Oxford and in Varanasi.
Pieces of my soul lie near a waterfall in the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia and in a kelp forest offshore from Dunedin, New Zealand.
Pieces of my soul lie with my husband and my family, wherever they are, and we Penns are great travellers! My husband is from New Zealand, of Hungarian Jewish ancestry. My sister-in-law is Nigerian, and another soon-to-be-sister-in-law is Canadian. We are a global family, for which I am deeply proud.
In recent years, I have shed ownership of possessions, with the aim of making myself more free, to be location independent. For home to me is not tied to a location, but more to people and memory.
I recently visited Death: A Self-Portrait, an amazing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The collection contains drawings, sculpture, photos, models and other artistic representations of death from different perspectives. I'm immersed in this world right now as I research death and dying for my next book, working title Hunterian.
I find myself increasingly fascinating with the duality between the death of the body and the mind, a theme I will be exploring within the bounds of essentially a crime novel.
The sculpture left is ‘Are you still mad at me?' by John Isaacs (2001), a gory representation of a body that has been hacked apart, presumably in a brutal murder. There is a visceral reaction to looking inside human flesh, and the sculpture is made more real by the foot, still covered in skin.
In the video below, the collector Richard Harris explains his fascination and you get to see some of the art exhibits that focus around death.
I agree with Richard that you can essentially be a happy person but still be interested in death. Certainly, people question my own fascination with the morbid, but I feel it is an essential part of life and I can't help but write about it.
Dying is a part of living, and I want to explore some of these areas that others shy away from. It's also my own curiosity, for however much we study and explore, we can't experience it ourselves until the end. These artworks fascinate because they make us think more deeply about an inevitable future, and help us to live more in the present.