I recently did a wide-ranging and fun interview on the Genretainment podcast with Marx Pyle and Julie Seaton.
We talked about how I got into writing and why I write supernatural thrillers, the challenges when first starting out, the details of my writing life and how I get ideas and research books.
You can listen to the interview on this page or download the audio mp3 here. Or you can read the transcript below.
Transcript excerpt from the interview: J.F.Penn with Marx Pyle and Julie Seaton on GenreTainment
Julie: Hi, Joanna, welcome to the show!
Joanna: Thanks for having me: it’s good to be here.
Julie: Now, you do have an interesting background, living in London, and once living in Australia and New Zealand, and you have degrees in psychology and theology. You were also an IT consultant for many years.
So what motivated you to move full-time into the world of writing?
Joanna: Wow, that’s a big roundup!
Julie: It’s sort of like exposition on parade: I feel like Giles in the Buffy episodes!
Joanna: That’s a really swift one, it compasses quite a few years! But yes, basically, I guess, taking it way back, I did this degree in theology at Oxford, and when you leave Oxford and you have a student loan, people try to recruit you into these companies. I got recruited into Accenture, which is a large consulting firm, and then essentially spent 13 years implementing IT systems into corporates, specializing in Accounts Payable. I mean, you can’t get more boring than this, right?
Julie: I’m trying to understand how psychology and theology led to that.
Joanna: They don’t! I don’t know if I’m the only person who has a degree in something that doesn’t relate at all, but essentially then I spent those 13 years when I was a consultant trying to get out of my day job. I started a scuba-diving business, and I tried property investment, and I moved around the world: as you say, I lived in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, I’ve worked in a lot of places. Each time, things were just going wrong and wrong and wrong, and eventually I decided—and I’d never written a book before, but I’m a massive reader, always read a lot—I would write a book on how to enjoy your job, because how I could I, an intelligent woman, find myself in a life where I did not enjoy my day job? It just seemed ridiculous to me.
Julie: Very easily.
Joanna: Yes—isn’t that the truth! You take a job when you’re 21 because you want to pay off your debts, and 13 years later, you find yourself still doing the same job because just year after year, the golden handcuffs, blah-blah-blah, and I had a house and a mortgage and all the things, a car. I was questioning my whole life, basically: how come this is what the world says I should do, and I’m not happy? So, writing that first book—it does exist now as a book called “Career Change,” I discovered that I really enjoyed writing books!
I started a blog, as you do, and then I started writing and discovered NaNoWriMo. Your listeners might not know: NaNoWriMo.org is essentially National Novel Writing Month, and the aim is to write 50,000 words in a month, and I managed 20,000. I’d never written fiction before, and I got the bug! So basically that started me off. I’d always read thrillers, and I enjoyed “The Da Vinci Code,” because of my theology degree—I’m not a believer, but I love religion and all that goes into that, and the supernatural: demons and stuff, and Stephen King.
Julie: You’re talking my language!
Joanna: Yes, right—I like lots of that. So I thought, “I’ll just write that: it’ll be great,” and I loved it. I had such a good time. So that was 2009 I started writing fiction, and that pretty much kicked me off, and I was able to leave my day job in September 2011, to be a full-time author-entrepreneur. I combine fiction, non-fiction, professional speaking and other things, really.
Julie: You’re definitely touching on things that we like. Marx actually has a degree in psychology as well.
Marx: I do!
Julie: And I’m just massively interested in theology. I am religious myself, but I’m so interested in other religions and belief systems. What I love about it is the more you study, the more you find out, like how much everyone has in common, more than not!
Joanna: Yes, and what I like about it is it resonates with so much, and as you learn. My latest book, “Gates of Hell,” is based on Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism, and as I researched that, I just found more and more cool stuff that I wanted to learn about. They have the Golem, the monster made out of clay, and I had to have him in there. There’s some cool demonology that you don’t even hear about and a numerological system called Gematria, where all these words have numbers associated, and then other words have the same numbers. It’s all very cool. So, I love all that stuff, too.
Julie: And even besides the demons, I’ve done the Dances of Universal Peace, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. The first time I went, the first chanting and dancing we did was based on Muslim beliefs of compassion and all this stuff, and right after that, we go right into something based on the teachings of Mother Teresa, and it was just like, “OK, so these are the same ideas, it was just packaged a little differently!”
Julie: And then, we ended with a Buddhist blessing, and the words were different and the tune was different, but it was the same ideas behind all of them. It was just so interesting. So, I think what’s neat is that you can use that with the psychology to make all of the themes in your books so universal.
Joanna: Yes, and what I find, coming back to the psychology, Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity I find absolutely amazing. I have on my wall this line that said, “Trust emergence,” because when I get an idea for a story and then I start researching, it’s like I find the things that will feed the story. And I assume, “This is going to happen,” and then I find things that really happened that support the story.
The first book, “Pentecost,” I wrote just before Carl Jung’s “Red Book” came out, which is his journal and paintings from his nervous breakdown. It’s never been published before, and it came out just as I’d already written this “Pentecost” book. In it is a painting that precisely matched one of my scenes in the book! It was just like, “Wow, that’s synchronicity.” Things that just come out of that kind of Collective Subconscious. Anyway: really exciting.
Julie: I like that idea!
Marx: So, when you started writing, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced starting out?
Julie: Besides never having done it before!
Joanna: I was going to say! Do you mean fiction or non-fiction specifically?
Julie: I’d say fiction. I mean, obviously you did a lot of writing non-fiction for papers at Oxford, I’m assuming. If I had to do it here, I’m guessing you had to do it there.
Joanna: Exactly, so I think most people could probably structure a non-fiction book: you give some information. But fiction, probably the thing that you realize first up is that what’s in your head doesn’t necessarily come out on the page like you expected! And that also, even if you’ve read thousands of books, which I have, you try and construct a story and you suddenly realize that you might not necessarily know how to structure a story.
So even basic things, the same thing as TV has a point of view or a film—I know you have a lot of directors and people on the show—a camera angle, for example, could be considered a point of view, and you see things with certain characters, it’s a scene in a certain place, something has to happen, you have to evoke emotion. For me, I love big explosion movies, Con Air is probably my favorite movie, but then you try and portray that in a book, it’s very different to portraying that in a film.
Julie: They move a little slower, don’t they!
Joanna: Yes, you can’t just say—well, you can say, “Then everything blew up,” but that’s not really good enough!
Julie: The end! It all blew up: the end!
Joanna: Yes, so you have to go a bit deeper, and that’s what I like. It’s difficult, but it’s what I like about writing novels, as well. Like we’re saying, the psychology of religion: I can go into a character’s thoughts as to what they think. I’ve got a guy in one of my books about eugenics: he believes that breeding out the ‘bad people’ in the world will make for a better humanity. Now, he believes in making humanity better, but the way he believes in doing it is not necessarily a way that you and I would agree with. So, it’s interesting putting yourself into the head of somebody like that.
I think when you start writing fiction, you realize so much that you don’t know, and then you have to learn that stuff. I learned this: I’ve done courses, I’ve read all the books, I’ve paid for a lot of professional editors and learned the craft. This is another thing I love about writing—I’m sure you guys agree: you never stop having to learn. I mean, the moment you master one thing, you move onto something else, and that’s part of the joy of it.
Julie: Yes, and I love that you’re talking about it being the way he goes about it. Because, you know, villains are always heroes in their own minds, really. They think they’ve got it all figured out: they’re not the bad guy in the black hat, twisting the handlebar mustache going “Mwahahah”! I guess they could, that might be fun!
Joanna: Except in Austin Powers, Doctor Evil.
Julie: Yes, he just knew: he was upfront about it. He was very on the nose: he’s evil.
Marx: Let’s talk a little bit about your fiction books. Now, you have your thriller ARKANE series: tell our listeners about that.
Joanna: I knew I wanted to write a series that basically I could use to investigate religious thriller mysteries around the world. The original idea stemmed when I went to Varanasi in India and saw the burning ghats where they burn the bodies on the banks of the Ganges and then sweep their ashes in, and then those people escape the cycle of life and reach nirvana. I was like, “That’s amazing, I’ve got to have that in a book,” and that’s actually the opening of one of my books.
But I thought I want to write something that’s not just a standalone, so that I can have a character go around the world doing cool stuff, so I came up with ARKANE, which is the ARKANE Agency: it’s a secret government agency that’s under Trafalgar Square in London. It’s kind of a bit Torchwood style—I was quite influenced by Torchwood—but ARKANE investigate religious mysteries, not alien ones.
My main character, Dr Morgan Sierra, just happened to do psychology and worked for the Israeli military, so she’s brought up Jewish but mixed heritage, and mixed race, and basically goes around the world, solving these mysteries and finding objects like the Devil’s Bible. Pretty much 95% of what’s in my books is based on true locations, true historical objects, real research, and then what I do is, I just twist it a little bit. So “Pentecost” is based on the Pentecost Stones, which I made up, but they are with the bodies of the Twelve Apostles, and their bodies are around the world, basically. So that’s very cool.
Julie: So basically someone can take a trip around the world and go to the tourist sites that you have in your books.
Joanna: Yes. And what I enjoy about it, I put at the end of my books an Author’s Note, and it tells people what is real and what I basically made up, and I love getting emails from my readers. One reader, for example, got “One Day in Budapest,” which is based in Budapest, and they actually went and did a tour of Budapest based on my novel, which was so cool.
Because all the places are there, the House of Horror from the Communist time, and there’s a labyrinth and all this different stuff. Also, it means I get to indulge my big passion, which is travelling. For example, I love Israel, I love Jerusalem, and pretty much every book I have set in Jerusalem, something’s in Israel!
Julie: That was going to be my next question: have you tried setting anything in a city or county you’ve not been in? You at least have kind of dipped your toes in the waters?
Joanna: Yes, I do both. For “Pentecost,” where I had to go to where the bodies of the Apostles are, I was looking for one in Iran, and I haven’t been to Iran. I would love to go; there’s some amazing cultural stuff in Iran, so I didn’t go there, I had to write that chapter from Wikipedia and Flickr and things like that. It’s amazing what you can find online, though. So, yes, there’s some chapters where I make stuff up. For example, in “Gates of Hell,” I have a scene scuba-diving in the Dead Sea. I am a scuba-diver, and you can scuba-dive in the Dead Sea, but I haven’t been, and I don’t want to go: it sounds blooming awful!
Julie: It sounds first of all, a little hot, a little salty.
Marx: Well, anything called “Dead Sea” I wouldn’t be keen.
Julie: You’ve got to tie weights to yourself to make yourself sink enough to scuba-dive, don’t you!
Joanna: You have to wear serious amounts of weights—but I went and researched it: you can dive, and it’s actually one of the proposed locations for the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, so I had to go there. That was really cool. That, again, is written from research. There’s a video online of diving in the Dead Sea. So I do both research. But one of the big things I love doing in my research process is I do get my ideas from trips, basically. The first thing I do is generally try and go somewhere and come up with an idea from that environment.
Julie: OK. Now, also, you have another series, the London Psychic series. Would you be able to explain that one to our readers – our listeners?
Marx: Our listeners, hope your readers!
Joanna: Basically, everything I write is supernatural in some way, and I thought, “I’m just going to write a straight crime novel: British detective, crime novel, and then what was classic is I just can’t write something that doesn’t have a supernatural edge.
I have a British detective, Jamie Brooke, and then her partner in solving these mysteries is actually a psychic who is an academic who works at the British Museum. He gets pulled into this mystery. Again, they’re all based in London: there’s two, I’m just starting the third one. The first one is “Desecration,” and it opens in the Hunterian Museum, which is amazing. Again, this stems from a visit there. It is a medical specimen museum, and when I first went there, I really viscerally felt in my stomach my reaction to the exhibits there, the stuff in jars.
Julie: It’s kind of hard not to!
Joanna: Well, it’s amazing. Then I went to the Bodies exhibition in New York, I don’t know if you know about that: the plastination of the corpses, and I just became utterly fascinated with this kind of thing, if you read the research about John Hunter, and the body-snatching and the Resurrection Men and that history.
So basically what the series is, there’s a crime that has a resonance with the past, and Jamie, who’s the detective, and Blake, the psychic, solve these murders, again, that happen now, but Blake can read the emotions of the past and what happened in the past.
For example, in “Day of the Vikings,” Blake has some visions and goes back and sees what happens when the Vikings invaded and stuff like that.
It’s again very much I like using actual places in London. “Delirium,” the second one, is based in mental health—you’ll like the psychology—the opening murder is of a psychiatrist at the historical Bedlam, which is now the Imperial War Museum in London.
That’s pretty exciting, and I love living in London. It is just catnip for writers: there’s so much here, and in fact I do want to write a screenplay of “Desecration” or “Delirium,” because in terms of the budget, it would be smaller, because it’s very constrained in terms of scope, whereas my other books, I go around the world, blowing stuff up! You’ve got to do both, right? It’s fun!
Julie: Yes! You know, if you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, then no one’s going to enjoy reading it.
Marx: Do they exist in the same universe? Will there ever be a cross-over?
Joanna: Oh, well, yes. “Day of the Vikings” is actually a cross-over. Morgan Sierra from ARKANE goes to the British Museum, visits the Viking exhibition and meets Blake, so yes, they do. I don’t know why I ended up doing that. Do you know the British Museum in London at all?
Julie: We’ve not been there.
Joanna: OK. Well, there’s this massive glass roof: it’s beautiful. It’s this whole court that has a huge glass roof. I just looked up one day and thought, “How cool it would be to bring a helicopter through this roof”! And then they had this Viking exhibition, and I got my idea. So that was a lot of fun!
Julie: Movie producers love that kind of thing!
Joanna: This is the thing, and I think because I love action movies, like I said, I love Con Air, I love the John Woo kind of slow motion, the doves—he does a lot of doves in slow-mo shots—and Mr. and Mrs. Smith: I love these action movies with lots of fight scenes and explosions. Marx, aren’t you some kind of choreographer of fight scenes?
Marx: Yes, I’ve done that. I did martial arts for many years and then I do stunt work.
Joanna: See, that’s cool: that’s really cool.
Julie: It is fun. We had one time we actually had Marx and I sword fighting on screen, because we had him play a role where he would do that, because we just didn’t trust someone else. We knew we wouldn’t hurt each other. In the amount of time we had, we didn’t have enough time to really train somebody. So we were like, “We know we won’t really hurt each other, and even if we do, what are we going to do? We’re married!”
Joanna: That’s really cool. Morgan Sierra does Krav Maga, because she’s in the Israeli Defense Force, and so I thought, “I’m one of those research authors: I’m going to go do a Krav Maga class.” I went, and I seriously got my ass kicked, and I went home and I was just kind of crying, going, “That wasn’t fun, I got really hurt,” so I decided that I would just research that on YouTube!
Julie: See, we consider that fun!
Joanna: I really want to. Kind of my dream author photo is going to be me kind of in black leather, fighting like Trinity in The Matrix: that’s what I want to be!
Julie: I want to be able to just look like Trinity in the Matrix.
Joanna: That, too, would be nice!
Julie: Even if I couldn’t move in that suit, I’d be happy!
Joanna: Good point.
Marx: I’ve done some Krav Maga. It’s a cool style.
Julie: I’ve done some other styles, it’s been a while.
Marx: But there are a lot of good books on Krav Maga for research.
Joanna: I’ve got a lot of them!
Julie: There are some other reality-based martial arts that you could use, too.
Marx: So, you said that Torchwood was a little bit of an inspiration with that organization: were there any inspirations, TV or movie-wise—or a book—for London Psychic.
Joanna: Well, also for ARKANE, James Rollins, he’s one of my favorite action-adventure authors, he has a Sigma series which I really enjoyed. For the London Psychic, as I said, I really thought it was going to be a straight detective kind of series: it didn’t really turn out that way. And actually, this does come from a screenplay, because I want to write a screenplay, I looked at ARKANE, the budget is too big, and then Broadchurch came on. Have you seen Broadchurch? Yes, I think there’s an American version now.
Julie: Yes, they based Gracepoint off of it. We didn’t watch Broadchurch. We tried watching Gracepoint: I’m hoping Broadchurch is better!
Joanna: Well, the British Broadchurch, it’s murder in a small town, and it made me think. Story-wise, it’s not really a model, but it was the kind of smaller location, the fact that it was very constrained in location. I also wanted to write something in London, because I moved back here from Australia, which was a kind of cultural wilderness compared to Europe—don’t mention that to the Aussies! I moved back to London, and I was just suddenly surrounded by all this amazing stuff. And also the British people like crime books.
Julie: Yes, and crime shows a lot.
Joanna: And crime shows. So I thought, “You know, I’m going to have a detective, I want to solve just a straight murder.” And then when Blake appeared, he’s half-Swedish, half-Nigerian, kind of mixed race, psychic, and then I go into the psychology of people who have these types of gift. It all became a bit more confusing. So there is no real straight model. I love the John Connolly Charlie Parker books, I don’t know if you know them.
Julie: I know of them, yes.
Joanna: Well, Charlie Parker is a human detective—it’s set in America—but he sees-
Julie: Yes, we are human! Sorry, I couldn’t resist!
Joanna: But he sees dead people and he sees there are other people in the world of these books that are not human, that are demons. So I like mixing the kind of human with the supernatural. Although I wouldn’t say I write fantasy: it’s kind of on the edge. Like Stephen King, being one of my favorite authors, and “The Stand” being probably my favorite book, they’re all kind of good versus evil, and supernatural elements, the levels of good and evil we have inside us, as humans. I mean, all of those things come into my work, really.
Marx: You said before the interview, you mentioned how you’d been playing around with genre more, and you’ve been getting more supernatural with your work. How have you been doing that approach to genre?
Do you find it a delicate balance of trying to fit a certain genre, especially since books often get, unfortunately, lumped into certain genres?
Julie: Sometimes accurately, sometimes not!
Joanna: I think it’s really difficult with books, because I count genre now as ‘Amazon categories.’ When you publish a book, you have to choose the categories where you publish. For example, if you pick Thriller, you have one other choice, so you could pick Horror, it would sit between the two. But that doesn’t really suggest what type of book it is to either audience. So I think until things get more granular, you just have to choose.
My books are set in the real world, pretty much. They’re contemporary thrillers but they have this twist that some would consider to be religious, or Christian; other people would consider to be fantasy, or dark fantasy, and that depends whether you really believe in angels or demons, or whether you think they are a fantasy element. And these things can be quite difficult.
I’ve been a bestseller in Christian Fiction; I’ve been a bestseller in Horror, which implies these things are not real. It’s very difficult. So what I tend to do—as we’re doing now—is I talk about I like Stephen King, I like James Rollins, John Connolly, Jonathan Maberry: these are all authors I like and I real, and their influence on me. If you like these type of books, or these type of films, then you might be interested in my work.
I think it is very difficult, and I know you guys, with the Genretainment—everybody’s cross-genre, aren’t they, really?
Marx: Just about, yes.
Julie: And genre is such a broad term, really. I mean, there are some things that are just set in a completely different universe, and then others that are just like ours, but a few people see some ghosts. That’s a real big spread of difference there!
Joanna: It is. And then also, like we talked about at the beginning, with religion and people of faith, if you believe that these things are real, as in, you know, the Bible says that there are angels and the Devil and that type of thing—if you believe they are real, then these books are not fantasy, and may be offensive. It is a very difficult line to walk, and I generally use quotes from the Bible or things at the front of my books, and some people have said, “You’ve crossed the line with this,” or, “This doesn’t exist,” and I’m, “Well, I do say at the beginning, it is fiction or fictionalized.”
Julie: Like, this isn’t really a how-to manual, OK!
Joanna: Yes, as far as I know, there are not really the gates of hell.
Julie: You can use your imagination: it won’t hurt you.
Marx: This is non-fiction, this is a bio, right? What’s going on?
Julie: You shouldn’t strain anything by using your imagination!
Joanna: No, or have fun along the way.
Julie: Yes, reading and writing can be fun. They need to tell that to more kids and actually prove it to them.
Marx: Now, we know every different author has a different method or approach to writing. We were wondering what your writing method is.
How do you go from sparking an idea to the finished book, and what does your normal writing day look like?
Joanna: I get my ideas—this weekend, for example, we’re going to go and start, me and my husband, a little research trip. We’re going to go research-
Julie: I like how she works!
Joanna: Well, Budapest, we spent four days in Budapest. We had to go do that research, you know! But this one’s not quite so far. This is the London Psychic series, the third one’s called “Deviance,” and my idea is that it will be based on the East End of London, Whitechapel, that kind of stuff. So we’re going to go there, I’ll take my diary, we’ll have a look around, I’ll write some notes. Then what I do is I generally come up with some basic ideas.
Because this is a series, I have my characters; I have the basis structure of a murder mystery; so I have to find a setting; I have to have a murder, and then what’s behind the murder, what’s the interesting theme of the book? I tend to write a lot of notes, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. And then what I tend to do is I often have the first scene, which for me is a murder—I have a lot of body count in my books—I have the murder, so I’ll write that. I’ll get started by writing this murder scene.
I’ll probably approximately know about ten scenes in my head—some big points of the book. And then I’ll start writing. I use Scrivener, which is fantastic software. I don’t write in order, so I’ll just write scenes. After I’ve written about 20,000 words, I then actually try and restructure the whole thing, and pick out the issues and consider what the book is really about. And then I will write the rest of the scenes, essentially.
Then I print out the first draft, and I edit the first draft by hand, rewrite, and then I go through an editing process, with a professional editor. Then I have beta readers, and a copyeditor and stuff like that.
In terms of my average day, it will depend on what’s happening in a day, I’m sure like you guys. I try and write something every day, but I mix up fiction and non-fiction. I’ve just finished a draft of a novella which is “One Day in New York,” which is this one with the angel. That draft is finished, that’s resting, so this week I’m actually writing non-fiction.
Next week, I’ll start editing.
So, the days can sometimes be a bit different. I also record audio books; I do professional speaking; I do some other things. But generally I try to write most days on something new, but not necessarily fiction. I do do a lot of research, as I said.
Oh, and just interestingly, on the historical side, I do write a couple of days a week in the London Library: Bram Stoker wrote there, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, a whole load of really famous authors have written in the London Library. I love writing there, it’s very atmospheric.
Julie: You can kind of feel the history there, can’t you.
Joanna: Yes, you can, although I’m in the room with the laptops!
Julie: That might kill the mood a bit!
Joanna: Yes, definitely. But it’s very cool. I think just because you’re surrounded by other people who are writing. Also, when you’ve spent so many years in the corporate world, you almost need the commute, the coffee shop, the working, the lunch hour, you know.
Julie: You need that structure.
Joanna: Yes. Exactly.
Julie: Otherwise, you’ll just find yourself surfing the Web for two hours.
Joanna: Yes. It means I have more of a structure, like you say. Where I’m sitting right now, at my desk, I do podcasting here, I do other marketing stuff: if I want to write just fiction, it’s sometimes easier to do that away from the desk where I do all the other stuff.
Marx: Yes. Well, it looks like we’ve got to start wrapping things up.
Julie: But before we go, we would ask that you let everyone know where they can find you and your books online.
Joanna: Yes, sure. My thrillers and my supernatural stuff are at jfpenn.com or on e-book stores, print, audiobook, etc. If you are interested in the writing, self-publishing, marketing stuff, it’s TheCreativePenn.com or on Twitter @thecreativepenn, where I hang out quite a lot.
Julie: Let me just say how cool it is that you’re a professional writer and your last name is Penn.
Joanna: I know! Isn’t it funny—it’s really cool!
Julie: It’s Kismet!
Joanna: I know. But do you know how long I didn’t believe I was creative? I mean, that’s a whole nother discussion, but I had an affirmation for about four years, which was “I am creative, I am an author.” Four years, I had to say that until it actually happens.
Julie: That’s persistence!
Joanna: Yes, it’s persistence, it’s changing your brain: psychology again! We’re back to that. It’s been really lovely to talk to both of you. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Julie: Thank you.