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.
Dave: Well, hi everyone, this is Dave from Scenesandsequels.com, and I’m very excited to chat with my guest today. J.F. Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thriller and crime novels. She’s amassing an impressive catalog of fiction and non-fiction titles, including the ARKANE series and the recently released “Desecration,” which is the first book in a darker crime mystery series. Joanna’s a professional speaker and entrepreneur and was voted one of the Guardian UK Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013. She’s also the creator of the Creative Penn podcast and blog, which provides emerging writers with advice about writing, self-publishing, marketing, and the business of writing.
It’s through The Creative Penn that Joanna has inspired me, as a writer, and certainly with the creation of the Scenes and Sequels podcast, so I couldn’t be happier to have you on the show, today, mate, so welcome to Scenes and Sequels!
Joanna: Thanks so much for having me, it’s lovely to be asked on the show!
Dave: OK, great.
Now, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about yourself, your writing career and “Desecration.”
Joanna: Yes, sure. So, I was living in Australia, near you, and I was an IT consultant for 13 years, and I started to write fiction in NaNoWriMo in 2009, actually, and that was the spark for my first novel, “Pentecost.” I didn’t really know that I was going to write fiction more seriously when I did that first NaNoWriMo, and since then it’s just sort of turned into what I love and, increasingly, my income. So, now probably 80 percent of my income is from fiction. I’ve got the fifth book in the ARKANE series coming out this week, which is “Day of the Vikings,” and “Desecration” is the first in the London Mystery series, so I’m just working on “Delirium” right now.
So, “Desecration,” a bit about that one. Well, I went to visit the Hunterian, which is a medical specimen museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and it’s one of those scary kind of places where there’s all these jars everywhere, and when you start to look inside the jars, you realize that there’s a baby in there, and it’s got some hideous deformity, or it’s some body part that you can’t recognize. And when I went there the first time, I was just so shocked, I guess in one way quite physically disturbed, it had a visceral effect on me to see these medical specimens, and to learn about the history of medicine, which, you know, only a hundred years ago, with no anesthetic, no knowledge of any of this type of thing, no real knowledge of proper anatomy, it was people like John Hunter who starting dissecting bodies again, that essentially educated surgeons.
But then, of course, I thought that it would be cool to have a murder set within the Hunterian, and to really investigate some of the history of medicine and delve into that kind of darker side of London. And as I went into it, I discovered corpse art, which is people actually using bodies in exhibitions, so there is an exhibition called Bodies in New York where they plastinate corpses, and I just started to learn more about that, and about body modification, which is people doing stuff to their bodies while they’re still alive, and so in the end I ended up with this sort of murder mystery based on all of these dark things. Yes, it’s kind of interesting!
Dave: Absolutely. I think, having just finished reading the novel over the weekend, yes, some of the descriptions and the scenes and the things that you talk about, even just reading it on the page, I guess, was quite confronting as a reader, and created quite a visceral reaction, just from reading about it, so I can only imagine what it would be like wandering through the Hunterian Museum and seeing it all right in front of you.
And it’s a really cool premise for a story, it’s very interesting and the themes underpinning it are interesting, as well, and that’s something I’d like to chat with you a bit more about later on.
Now, I’d like to talk a bit about reading now, if we could. And specifically what you like to read, what your reading habits are.
Joanna: I don’t have a TV, so I read all the time. I probably read between four and seven books a week: I just devour books. So one I read yesterday is called “Bird Box,” just came out in the UK, by Josh Malerman, and I guess you’d call it post-apocalyptic with an edge of horror. I don’t like torture porn horror, you know, really bloody for the sake of bloody, but I like horror, like Stephen King is probably one of my biggest writers that I admire and want to be like, Stephen King would be up there. “The Stand” is probably my favorite Stephen King book, although I obviously re-read “The Shining” when “Doctor Sleep” came out; really enjoyed getting back into that.
So, “Bird Box” I just finished, I mentioned John Connolly, who I really love. I guess John Connolly influenced “Desecration” and the London Mystery series. For the ARKANE series, I’m heavily influenced by James Rollins, who is a US action-adventure writer, Matthew Reilly, who’s Australian, whose books I really love. Basically, with Matt Reilly’s books, there’s no character development really – it’s very much about action, action, action, blow stuff up, it’s really good fun and I enjoy those a lot. Jeremy Robinson I like a lot.
I really like Gillian Flynn – people might have heard of her from “Gone Girl,” but I particularly enjoyed her “Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places” actually more than “Gone Girl,” I didn’t think “Gone Girl” was her best book at all. “Sharp Objects” is a very disturbing book.
So I think I like those books that make you think, that you remember afterwards: and that’s what I wanted to do with “Desecration.”
Like you said, you had a visceral response, and that’s my aim. I don’t want you to just put down the book and then forget about it. In a way, my ARKANE series is probably more like that: it’s meant to take you out of your commute and make you go to a different place, and to blow stuff up, but with “Desecration” and those books, I do want you to think.
And the other author I’ve liked recently, “The Shining Girls,” by Lauren Beukes: I really enjoyed that in terms of a time traveling serial killer, it was pretty awesome.
So that’s a few of the fiction I read. Oh – another series I liked recently, Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor, I don’t know if you’ve heard of those, they’re awesome. Do you know, I read a lot of different books, but I also read non-fiction. I read a lot of business books, because I’m an entrepreneur, so yes, I mainly read genre fiction and literary fiction, as well as non-fiction, business, some travel books, that type of thing.
Dave: OK, that’s a pretty diverse range of stuff. Now, I’ve heard some authors say that they find it really difficult to read for enjoyment because they’re always looking at other books with an analytical or critical kind of eye. Do you find this is the case when you’re reading, or…
Can you sort of switch off that inner analyst and just enjoy a book for what it is?
Joanna: No, I don’t really have that problem at all. I read so widely – I might take an idea, well, not take an idea, but it might spark an idea for me. Like this “Bird Box” was interesting, because you never see the evil, and one of the things I like to do is describe evil! So it’s an interesting kind of concept, I say, “OK, that’s interesting, could I potentially use that idea,” as in don’t show it, which is a suspense technique, basically, it’s a page-turner of an effect.
So I do think of it in that way, but most of the time when I’m reading, it is a relaxation, escape kind of mechanism for me as well. So no, I’m a huge reader, I never stop!
Dave: Fair enough. Now, you said that you don’t have a TV before.
So, do you draw inspiration from other media, and how do other forms of storytelling influence your writing?
Joanna: I haven’t had a TV itself for six years now, but we do download shows on iTunes, Google Play and that kind of thing, so we do watch boxsets of stuff. So I have watched Game of Thrones, the first three series—awesome, absolutely brilliant—and then I went on to read the books, and anyone who’s actually read the books as well will probably agree that the first three books are brilliant, and then it kind of starts to fall apart a little bit.
So what was interesting for me, watching that series, and reading the books as well, was to see how a story can be transferred to the screen, because I’m very interested in that as well, myself. So “Desecration” is written as a TV series, basically, a TV miniseries: the scope is very small, the budget would be reasonably small. So I definitely learn from watching some TV series. And I learn about story structure, as well, especially when they’re solving a crime. I generally can guess who did it pretty soon, or I’ll say, “I know they're going to do this next” in the story, and I like kind of testing myself that way.
And I really like big films, as well. I like blockbuster movies, entirely Hollywood, I really enjoy exploding things, like I really enjoyed Wolverine, I love Hugh Jackman. That film: a totally brainless film, but really good kind of action and very dark.
So I definitely watch films and download shows and stuff, but I probably read more than anything.
Dave: Fair enough.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you visualize your novel in terms of like it’s a TV show or a movie. Has that been the case with all of your writing, or is that something that’s developed as you’ve gone along, or is it something that you’d obviously probably like to see a story translated onto the screen, big or small?
Joanna: Oh, yes. So, when I decided to start writing some fiction for that NaNoWriMo, never with the intention of it going anywhere, I wanted to write a kind of Lara Croft style character, and I call the ARKANE series “Dan Brown meets Lara Croft,” because it’s got a kick-ass female, and that’s kind of what it is.
So there was always that high-concept thing. But then, of course, when Morgan Sierra in the ARKANE books goes around the world, and there are lots and lots of global locations, and I have explosions in famous buildings: I’m in Jerusalem at the Western Wall, and then I’m in America, blowing up some building, and then I’m in London, blowing up something else, and when I got to the point of starting to learn about film adaptation, what I realized is that the ARKANE series would be very expensive to film, and it would basically be like a Lara Croft franchise. And although I think many authors would love that, I then saw a series called Broadchurch, I don’t know if it made it to Australia, it’s a UK detective miniseries, and the way that was filmed, it was very self-contained, only a couple of characters, a couple of locations, and so I wanted to challenge myself, instead of writing a kind of global world-hopping action-adventure novel, to write a smaller mystery, smaller in terms of scope, but still, I think, bigger in terms of the themes that it covers around the physical body and the spiritual realm and all of that type of stuff.
So, I definitely do think about adaptation and I’m going to the London Screenwriters’ Festival this year to start to learn about scripts, and I may try and write my own script. Who knows! But I think you’ve got to have some ambition around these things!
Dave: Absolutely. You’ve definitely got plenty of ambition, that’s for sure! Now, you were just talking about some of the themes in “Desecration” a moment ago, and certainly body modification and corpse art and, I guess, the themes that underpin those, sit at the center of the mystery in “Desecration.”
So, you talk about walking through the Hunterian Museum and getting ideas that way, but how did you become interested in this sort of thing, in terms of, certainly, the corpse art type of thing, which is quite confronting?
Joanna: Yes. I think I started to go down a rabbit hole of research. Whenever I write a book, I always have the first scene in my head, and I knew that there would be a murder in the Hunterian, and then it’s OK, well, why would there be a murder in the Hunterian, if you’re surrounded by the history of medicine? I then started to research the history of medicine, and that actually raised things in my head around why is it offensive to have a body part from a dead human in a jar? Why do we find that so weird, when I think most of us—I think all of us—would say, when a person is dead, we know that that person is not there anymore.
So my kind of thought was, why do we get so upset around what happens to a body after somebody has died, because we know they’re gone. It’s not them, it’s a piece of flesh. So I was very interested in challenging my own feelings around why do we have this kind of squeamishness. Is it because we imagine that to be ourselves, do we look at these body parts and think, “If that was me, that’s kind of weird.”
So I went down that rabbit hole, and then I was in New York, and I went to this Bodies exhibition, where they have these plastinated humans, and, as I describe in the book, they’re kind of exploded, and their flesh is peeled back, and the strangest thing was, it was not weird at all. I didn’t find it weird. It was not as weird as the medical specimens. It was an interesting experience.
I wanted to put all of that, the kind of feelings, into the book. And then I ended up thinking about the dichotomy between what we do with bodies after we die and what we do with our body when we’re alive. So, I don’t have a tattoo, I don’t have any body modification, but as I looked into this in London, and I have a scene in the Torture Garden, which is a real nightclub—which I didn’t go to, by the way—people are doing things to their bodies while they’re alive, like implanting horns or forking their tongues or hard-core tattoos, and I was so interested in the use of the body whilst we’re alive, for pain or pleasure, and then the use of the physical body after death.
That’s kind of the deep and meaningful side, but at the end of the day, it’s still a murder mystery!
Dave: It’s definitely a cool premise and makes for some interesting reading, that’s for sure. Now, you said you went to the Body Art exhibition: does seeing in there in that sort of form or environment help you sort of detach a little bit from it, like you see what’s essentially a dead body that’s had skin peeled away and stuff like that: is it because it’s in that form of being displayed as an artistic piece, if you like, creates a level of detachment, and you don’t make that association between art and “Hey, this was a real person”?
Joanna: Yes, I think you’re right, and that’s kind of why, in the book—no spoilers—I link it to a much more personal thing, because you do look at these bodies and go, “Wow, that’s really interesting, that’s how the muscles in the arm look when they’re about to throw a ball,” because all of the humans are posed in different actions, and it is more education or artwork, as you say, than it is something horrible. For example, there’s no blood, there’s nothing, it doesn’t look alive, kind of thing. But then if you think, “What if that person was related to me?” does that make it a lot more weird?
And I think the strange thing about medical history and the medical specimens is that most of them were criminals or the poor whose bodies were sold to the anatomists, or they’re from the Resurrection Men, who would dig up freshly buried corpses and take them round to the houses of these medical guys. And in fact, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is supposedly based on John Hunter’s house, where in the front door, he was a medical doctor, in the front door would come people to ask him about his professional medical opinion on things, and seeking his help as living people, and then in the back door, at night, would come dead bodies, and he would dissect them in his house. I mean, it’s like these two halves. You know, but how can a doctor understand—of course, none of us want a surgeon who has no experience with cutting into a body, so why do we get so upset about thinking about that type of thing?
So, the legal rights around dead people was one of the themes of the book, as well. And I think for me, as a writer, I think it’s the writer’s responsibility to tackle subjects that people find difficult and to examine them from a perspective, a character’s perspective, and embed that in a story that’s worth reading for itself, that you could read at one level, but then hopefully you go away thinking about things at a different level, in general.
Dave: That’s great, it just adds an extra dimension to the story, and just makes it believable, which is, I guess, what you're trying to achieve as a writer.
So, you deliberately set out, then, to challenge readers in this way when you sit down to write the story, is that right?
Joanna: Yes, definitely, and the next one, “Delirium,” which I’m editing right now, so “Desecration” was about the physical body versus the kind of spiritual body, or what happens when we die, and “Delirium” is about mental health, so it opens with a murder at the historical Bedlam and basically the book is a murder mystery set against the history of psychiatry, which is really brutal, again, nasty, nasty stuff. And what I am looking at as the theme of that book is what is sanity, what is madness; where do we all sit on the spectrum, and then I’m going into the different aspects of what people consider to be mad.
And I think I write to challenge myself about what I think, and I’m writing the author notes at the moment, because I always write author notes at the back of my books, which talk about the research, and I’m talking a bit about some of the things in my lifetime where I’ve thought things that might be considered mad, if people knew. I mean, you read a book like “Desecration,” you’ll think I probably am a bit mad!
But I think it’s important to challenge ourselves to think about these deeper topics, and I’m incredibly grateful that now I can earn a living by spending time in medical museums and learning all this stuff. And, of course, being in England, I get to actually go there, because the London Mysteries is now going to be a whole series, because London is just full of amazing historical stuff for me to research.
Dave: That’s really cool, I’ll be looking forward to reading “Delirium” then.
So what do you think it is that appeals to you about writing darker stories?
Joanna: Do you know, it’s really funny, I’ve been trying to think about this, and in fact someone interviewed my dad the other week, and asked my dad, “Is there something wrong with your daughter? Did she have a terrible upbringing or something?” and he said, “No, it’s all been quite normal.” I think—and this is another question—for me, I’ve always thought about death, from when I was a little girl. I’m not afraid of death, and I think I’m drawn to these darker topics. The charity I support is Dignity in Dying, which is about the right to die, and these are the things that I spend my life reading about and thinking about.
I don’t know what I believe about God, so most of my books go into a level of the supernatural without saying that it is Jesus or whatever. I have my own beliefs, and I investigate those as well. You know, these are big mysteries in life: death and God, perhaps the ultimate mystery, so these are the things that kind of obsess me.
But interestingly, I’m a really happy person, I am a really happy, positive person, and so what’s weird, is people read my books and wonder how that same kind of happy, jolly girl who laughs a lot writes these dark things.
I’ve done a lot of study in psychology, and Carl Jung talks about the shadow sides of ourselves, and when we can integrate that with our personalities, that’s when we really become whole, and I feel like I’m doing that now with my writing: I’m acknowledging that I think about these things. And what’s starting to happen is people come to me and say, “I’m really glad you wrote about that or talk about that, because I think about that, but I didn’t know it was acceptable to talk about it.”
So, yes, I don’t really know where it comes from, but it’s always been in me, and I’ve always been attracted to darker things.
Dave: OK. It must be cool to get feedback like that from people who’ve read your books and connected with them on that level.
Joanna: Oh, it’s brilliant, and I think what I like particularly is, as I say, I don’t adhere to a particular religion, but I do get emails from people who are very Christian: I have one who is an Orthodox priest, and I was particularly pleased to get an email from him, because I never want to offend people, I want to make people think, but I don’t want to offend their personal beliefs, so I try and walk this line with religion all the time, and if I can make an Orthodox priest interested in my work, as well as an average person on the street who is an atheist or doesn’t think about God, then that’s really cool, I’m really happy about that.
So, yes, I love to hear from people, and increasingly, I think, I used to self-censor a lot around talking about this stuff, and now I just talk about it openly, and you find your people, don’t you, over time.
Dave: Yes, absolutely.
Now, what challenges did writing a crime mystery novel throw up to you as a writer, compared to writing your ARKANE thrillers?
Joanna: That’s a really good question, and it is so much harder to write a mystery. Now, I define the difference between a thriller and a mystery as like in a thriller, you know who the bad guy is, and you’re trying to stop them, and there’s a countdown to something bad happening. So, with the ARKANE series, I often write even scenes from the perspective of the bad guys, and the tension is trying to stop them destroying the world or whatever. With a mystery, it’s mean to be a whodunit, you’re meant to try and guess who did it, so it’s much more challenging in terms of attempting to put in different people who it could be, who could be the murderer. And at the end, of course, you want the reader to go, “Oh, yes, of course,” and it needs to be a satisfying end.
So one of the things I’m definitely doing, and as I am editing “Delirium,” I was doing it this morning, it’s the balance between the scenes that progress the real story, and then the scenes that you have to intersperse that almost are red herrings and take people off in a different direction, plus I am also trying to underlay my theme of madness within the whole thing, so trying to not make it obvious, like, “This book is about madness,” but trying to layer that into all my characters.
And what was funny is there’s a character who is a psychic, Blake Daniel, who’s a psychic, but he’s kind of a reluctant psychic, he’s also an alcoholic, an interesting guy, so I’m writing scenes from his perspective and he’s become a much bigger character in this second book. And in fact, “Day of the Vikings,” which I’ve just written, has Morgan Sierra from ARKANE and Blake Daniel from “Desecration,” and it opens in the British Museum, as a neo-Viking group invade and come to take back one of their objects, and we have Morgan and Blake together, so that’s been quite fun, trying to blend the genres.
Dave: Cool, that sounds really interesting. Sorry, is that a novel or a novella?
Joanna: That is a novella. So, I’m doing a series of novellas with the word “Day” in the title. We’re going to have “One Day in Budapest,” now “Day of the Vikings,” and I’m going to do those in between the longer books, because they’re really, really fun to do, and really good. And “One Day in Budapest” had such a good reaction from readers that I just thought, “I want to do more like that,” you know, really fast-paced, self-contained little stories.
Dave: Cool. Now, we’ve spoken a little bit about the themes underlying “Desecration.”
Is that research and that darker side of you, if you like, what makes “Desecration” a story that only you could have told?
Joanna: I think, yes, it’s a combination of my obsession with research, which drives everything I do, and why I travel so much: I’m going to Barcelona soon to start researching “Inquisition,” which is another one in the ARKANE series—guess what that one’s about! I think what I want my books to be is a real blend between dark thrillers, I always want them, there will always be an edge of darkness, there will always be an edge of supernatural, you will always learn something, so I want people to come away going, “OK, cool,” because I like that as a reader, I always want to learn something about a place or a new topic, as well as having a good story. So that will definitely come into it.
And for me, setting is very important, so obviously I’ll always have a strong setting, at least a strong opening and closing: you should be visualizing this awesome scene going on. I think those are kind of the hallmarks of my type of writing.
Dave: OK, and in terms of travel, you like to travel to all of the locations that you write about. I mean, obviously, “Desecration” is set in London, but the ARKANE novels, there’s a lot of globe-trotting going on.
I think you’ve spoken a bit about your love of travel, so how important is it going to those actual, physical locations, in terms of improving or feeding your writing?
Joanna: Oh, it’s one of the reasons I do this, is for travel! You’re right: I mean, “Pentecost” has several locations in Italy, it has Israel; in “Exodus” I go to Egypt, I go to a specific place in America; all of these places I’ve been to. There’s a couple of places I haven’t, so I have a scene in Iran: I’ve not been to Iran, I’d love to go there, Tabriz, in Iran, but I do get ideas from locations, so what I like about this “Day” series of novellas is it means I can just do kind of focused trips. So I’m in New York for Thriller Fest later this year, and I’m going to do a “One Day in New York” thing and just blow some stuff up over there! And then I’m planning to go to Mexico for “Day of the Dead.”
So, for me, I love the research process, and I’m obsessed with travel, so for me, to be able to write a book about the places I travel to is incredibly important. So Budapest, we spent four days in Budapest, my husband is half-Hungarian, and some of his family are buried in the mass grave in the Synagogue, so that was a really emotional trip for him, and I was able to bring that kind of emotion into “One Day in Budapest,” and talk about the history of the Jews in that kind of area.
So, yes, for me, going to places is the fuel for my imagination, so I will always be looking for new places to go.
Dave: Excellent, that’s really cool. I spoke to an author a few weeks ago who had a similar story, I think. He was saying that being able to get there and see the places is such an important part of his writing process.
Do you count yourself as a planner or a pantser when you write?
Joanna: I think I’m a bit of both. I’m sure a lot of people now would say I’m a bit of both, in that when I say “I’m going to write ‘Inquisition’,” I know approximately the theme that I’m going to tackle, so Morgan Sierra comes from a Sephardi Jewish background, so I’ll be looking at the Jewish history in Spain: that gives me themes, that also gives me places to go and look at, I’m going to go and look at some synagogues, and I know that Granada and Cordoba, for example, will be big places in that book, but then what I do when I go visit and do my research is I actually find the interesting stuff that will spark more ideas.
So, for example, there’s a whole load of illuminated Haggadahs, which are these Jewish prayer books, and I know that there will be one of these books somewhere in the book: what I don’t know is how that looks, until I start writing. And often things appear as I write. In fact, the turning point of “Desecration” I had no idea that was going to happen—no spoilers—but a big change in the middle of the book which changes the whole angle of the investigation. I didn’t know that was going to happen until I was writing the scene, and suddenly I was like, “Oh my goodness, what just happened?”
So I do plan to a point, and then I just write and see what happens, and then I go into re-writes. So, a bit of both.
And how do you come across these artifacts or places that appear in your book? Is it something you just stumble across as part of that research, or are there other ways you come across these sorts of things?
Joanna: Well, if I’m physically there, I often see things, you know, that will go into the book, very much so. For example, in Jerusalem, people have been to Jerusalem, they may not know that on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher are the Ethiopian Coptics, and you wouldn’t know that unless you had been onto the roof of the Holy Sepulcher, which I don’t even know if you can do anymore, but I was first there about 20 years ago, and was taken up there, and that becomes a scene in “Pentecost.”
So that kind of thing, I can see them physically in a location, or I do a lot of research in books, a lot of picture books, because I like the visual imagery, so I’m always looking at books around different objects and history of art and religion and culture. But even like, I was at the Tate Britain art gallery the other day, in London, and I saw a picture on the wall, a John William Waterhouse, and I know I will use that picture in “Inquisition,” on the wall in Director Marietti’s office: he always has a painting on his wall, and I’m going to use that one there. So I didn’t know that until I saw that, and now I know where it will go in the book. It may only be a couple of lines, but I want to bring that level of richness, of culture and history, into my books.
Dave: That’s really cool. Now, mate, you’re a writer, but you’re also a speaker, and a podcaster, and an entrepreneur, and you wear lots of different hats at different times. Obviously, you’re a full-time author now, and a lot of authors talk about not having time to write and things like that.
Having all these different hats that you wear, how do you organize yourself in a way that allows you to do all this stuff and still produce a number of books each year?
Joanna: I’m just a chronic organizer, I still use a paper Filofax, and I make sure that I have the time. So we’re on a Monday afternoon, in London, as I’m recording this, and in the morning, I don’t do interviews, so my morning is very much focused around writing. If I work in the London Library, which I do several times a week, I’ll go in with my husband, he’ll go to work and I’ll go to the library, and then I’ll normally work through to about two or three, and after that I can’t do any more, I’m normally exhausted from that kind of creative energy, and then in the afternoon, like we’re doing, I’ll do interviews, I’ll do blogging, I’ll do all of that type of thing, basically.
Dave: OK, cool.
What are the most important lessons that you’ve learned in your writing career so far?
Joanna: I think not self-censoring is a really big deal, and that has taken me a number of books to get to. As I said, I think “Desecration” was the first book where I really let myself loose in terms of just going, “I’m going to write that, regardless of what people might think of me.” And I mentioned Gillian Flynn earlier: I really credit her, her books, “Sharp Objects,” “Dark Places,” helped me realize that you can do that as a writer, you can really go for it. So that’s probably my biggest thing around writing fiction.
And then also the fact that you need to write more books, and the more you write, the more ideas you have, and it is more like a muscle: the more you do it, the more you love it, the more you want to do it. So, I mean, I have list of twelve different story ideas, one-liners, on my board, and I’m just kind of ticking them off and adding to them and getting new ones every day.
So, yes, I’m very happy to be doing this for the rest of my life!
And so how do you work out which project to tackle next?
Joanna: Kind of the order that the ideas come in. So, I’ve been talking about “Inquisition” for several years now, so I need to write that one: that needs to happen. But the “One Day in New York” which I just mentioned: I only booked the trip to New York for Thriller Fest last week, and then I thought, “Hey, while I’m there, I could come up with a novella in ‘One Day in New York’,” so I may or may not do that this year. But yes, I do often come up with a title first and then make up the rest.
Dave: Sounds like you’ve got plenty to keep you busy, that’s for sure. If you could tell us where we can pick up copies of all your books and where we can connect with you online.
Joanna: Sure. So, my books are all available in ebook and print, and also in audiobook format, these days. And you can find me at jfpenn.com, and the books are obviously at all the online bookstores and my main social network is Twitter, and I’m @thecreativepenn. Thanks for having me, Dave!