English thriller writer Zoë Sharp walked away from school when she was 12, and she’s been doing things her way ever since.
She wrote her first novel at the age of 15 while completing her education at home through a correspondence course. She sold her first Charlie Fox novel, Killer Instinct, in 2001. That was, as they say, just the beginning; there are now nine Charlie Fox novels published on both sides of the Atlantic, and Sharp has also won great reviews and award nominations for her short fiction. Charlie, an ex-Special Forces soldier, self-defense expert, and professional bodyguard, kicks serious ass.
Charlie is also featured in Sharp’s brand-new story collection, Fox Five, now on sale for the Kindle on Amazon and probably for other readers elsewhere. So here’s a Q&A with a writer with whom I would not get into a fight,
Tim Hallinan: In what ways, if any, are the challenges in writing a short story different from those in writing a novel?
Zoë Sharp: I think short stories are far more difficult. Every word has to justify itself. No fluff, no wandering. And the plot has to be cleaner and sharper, with as much of a twist at the end as you can invent without forcing it. But it still has to be a complete story – with a beginning, a middle and an end – and not something that feels like a disconnected scene from a longer work. I also always try to make the end of the story reference the beginning in some way, to close the circle.
TH: Which form do you prefer, and why?
ZS: Oh a novel, definitely! I say that because I never started off writing shorts and then graduated to longer works. I did things backwards (so what else is new?) and had written two novels before Martin Edwards asked me to contribute a story to the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) anthology, GREEN FOR DANGER. I didn’t tell him the resultant Charlie Fox story, ‘A Bridge Too Far’ was my first attempt until after he’d accepted it.
TH: I used to read notes on mystery forums by women looking for books with “strong female characters.” Are such books more common now than they used to be, and why?
ZS: These are great questions, Tim! I think the role of women in crime thrillers has changed a lot, from the sidekick/girlfriend/damsel-in-distress to today’s more independent women. Fiction is merely reflecting life. When I first started reading the classic thrillers, the female characters screamed and fell over and twisted their ankles and waited to be rescued a lot. I wanted to read about a female protag who was more aspirational to me, and when I couldn’t seem to find one that satisfied me, I decided I was simply going to have to write my own. I was told recently that one famous thriller author said the first rule was that the hero must rescue the girl. I thought we’d come on a bit since then. But yes, if I was just becoming interested as a reader today, there are many more excellent female protags to choose from.
TH: Are there now “strong woman” stereotypes, as there are “strong men” stereotypes, and if so, what are they?
ZS: LOL. I suppose there are stereotypes, yes, although for me the strong-woman stereotype is in danger of becoming a caricature. They’re so often either ice-cold assassins or psychos. And the typical strong woman is rarely ugly, or even plain for instance. She’s always brilliant and beautiful (and tall) and preferably troubled as well. And she worries endlessly about her figure, regardless of age.
TH: Speaking of tall.
I’m sorry. You were saying . . .
ZS: I tried to give Charlie a wry sense of humour about most things, her own looks included. Because it’s a first-person narrative, there isn’t a lot of room to talk about how she looks. And when she does look in the mirror, she tends to see her own scars more than anything else. But I have tried hard to keep her both feminine and human, though. She is not, as someone wonderfully put it, ‘a guy in nylons’. (Actually, I can’t see Charlie ever wearing nylons, but there you go . . .)
Heroes are usually ex-Navy SEALs or ex-SAS. They can be dissolute and bad-tempered and drink like fishes with a raging thirst problem, and yet they are irresistible to women even if they rough-handle them a little. And – absolutely without fail – they are good in bed.
TH: And are there problems in writing strong women that don’t apply to writers whose characters are strong men?
ZS: I think they are only the same problems with creating any central character that has to carry the story convincingly over the course of a book. I’ve come across characters of both sexes – written by author of both sexes – that I just wanted to slap by the time I was halfway through the book. Strong women have to be assertive without being strident, and have collected whatever skills and attitude they need to present in an organic way, rather than having it artificially dumped into their backstory.
TH: In what ways are you and Charlie similar and different?
ZS: Oh, now we’re heading into interesting territory . . . I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. But don’t worry, Tim, you’d never see it coming ;-]
OK, like Charlie I’ve always worked in very male-dominated fields, where I know I have to be just that bit better than the blokes in order to be taken at all seriously. That atmosphere is normal to me, so I know how to put Charlie in the same position, and the thoughts that go through her head. Plus I’ve ridden motorcycles and been a target shooter, so I’m familiar with her bike-riding skills and firearms use.
I used to deny the similarities, explaining carefully that because the books are written in first person, seen through Charlie’s eyes and thought-patterns, there was bound to appear to be some cross-over. Now I just tell people they’re entirely autobiographical and leave it at that.
TH: If you could recommend five tough characters and a specific book in which they appear, who would they be? And what about each of them appeals to you?
ZS: Only five? Sheesh. OK, first up has to be Jack Reacher from Lee Child. Probably in PERSUADER, because that’s the book where Reacher most lets his dark side loose, but any of the series, really. Reacher is wonderfully analytical in his violence. He doesn’t just hit someone, he injures them in such a scientific way that they are neutralised as a future threat.
NYPSD Homicide cop Lt Eve Dallas from JD Robb’s futuristic IN DEATH series. Probably the first book – NAKED IN DEATH – is my favourite. Here’s a character who skates the borders of caricature but manages to stay on the right side. She’s very tough, but the fact that her love interest, Roarke, sees through to her vulnerable side makes her constantly appealing.
Stieg Larsson’s disturbed computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, from the second book in the series, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. Salander kicks some serious butt in this book, but not without taking considerable damage in the process. How can you not love a character who digs her way out of her own grave to go after her attackers?
Brett Battles’ professional cleaner, Jonathan Quinn. I’ve just finished Brett’s novella, BECOMING QUINN, which tells the tale of how Jonathan acquired both his name and his profession. An interesting character who has a strong moral compass, but nevertheless isn’t afraid of taking risks to take out the bad guy.
And, just as a curveball, Greg Mandel from Peter F Hamilton’s MINDSTAR RISING. Mandel is a psi-enhanced PI in future-set, post-global warming Britain. A human lie detector, Mandel is an engaging and unique character, as are all the Mindstar veterans in the first of this trilogy. I’m not usually much of a sci-fi reader, but the crossover nature of this book grabbed me and I’ve since read a lot more by this author.
TH: What’s next for Charlie, and when?
ZS: As well as the new Charlie Fox FOX FIVE e-thology, I’m in the process of putting the first five hard-to-get books in the series out for Kindle, all with gorgeous brand new covers. Other e-formats will follow, but it feels great that I’ll soon have all the early titles back out there for readers again.
I’m also currently writing the next Charlie Fox outing, called DIE EASY, which will be out after FIFTH VICTIM next year. The title comes from the fact it’s a riff on the ‘Die Hard’ movie, pitching Charlie improvising against well-armed bad guys in a hostage situation. And as it’s set in The Big Easy – New Orleans – what else could I call it?
TH: Thanks, Zoë (note the umlaut) for a great interview and some tremendous recommendations, and here’s hoping FOX FIVE sails off the virtual shelves.
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