FOX FIVE: An Interview with Zoe Sharp

August 14th, 2011

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.

45 Responses to “FOX FIVE: An Interview with Zoe Sharp”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, Tim and Zoë! I’d never even hear of you (Zoë, that is, I’ve heard of Tim, alas) or Charlie Fox (I live in a dungeon where Tim keeps me locked up), but I’ll have to give her a try. Sounds interesting!

  2. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    How neat to see you both together, as it were. I look forward to each new Charlie Fox, and Fox 5 is residing on my kindle as I write.

  3. LJ Sellers Says:

    Writing strong female characters is definitely harder than writing male protagonists. If you veer off the center, you lose people in either direction. Kind of like real life for women. 🙂
    Thanks for a great Q&A.

  4. Jaden Terrell Says:

    Great interview, Tim and Zoë. I just got FOX FIVE and can’t wait to read it.

  5. Usman Says:

    So here is where I am: trying to write a PI novel. I keep wondering whether I’ll be better off posing it as a thriller or a mystery.
    What is the defining difference between the two.
    Yep, its elementary, but I’m in the dungeon next to Everett’s.
    Thanks Tim and Zoe for a great interview.

  6. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Thanks, Everett. And I hope that if you do give Charlie a whirl, you enjoy the books.

    (And everything I know, I learned from the people I keep locked in my basement …)

  7. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Lil – nice to see you over here! Hope you like FOX FIVE ;-]

  8. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi LJ. Good point. I think female characters in any action/thriller role have credibility issues – just as they do in life. I’ve faced prejudice all my life towards my abilities to do a job, based purely on my gender. Maybe, in fiction, writers try a little too hard to make their heroines tough enough, and go slightly OTT in the process?

  9. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Thanks, Jaden – Tim did all the hard work, though, coming up with some great questions. Hope you enjoy bite-size chunks of Charlie ;-]

  10. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Usman – is it nice down there in the dark? Does Tim treat you well?

    It’s a familiar question about what is a thriller, but from my own experience, a thriller has to have a ticking clock of some kind, a deadline, a countdown. And, as a general rule, a crime novel is about a return to normality – you discover the crime, and you’re trying to set things right by the end of the book. In a thriller, things start out normal, and you’re trying to avert some kind of a catastrophe before the end. Being a page-turner is something completely different. Any book can be a page-turner. Does this help at all?

  11. Neil Plakcy Says:

    Great to see two of my favorite writers hanging out together! I’m halfway through Foxe Five and loving it– all of the “sharp” writing I’ve enjoyed in the novels compressed into jewel-like form.

  12. Larissa Says:

    Great interview! Where do you dig up such talent? (c: I don’t have an ereader but that doesn’t sound like it’s going to keep me from finding a great new read. Thanks again!

  13. EverettK Says:

    Okay, just read A Bridge Too Far from Fox Five, and really enjoyed it. You’ve got a new reader, Zoë! I look forward to the novels.

  14. Bonnie Says:

    Thanks to you both for the interview. Curious if either of you have read the Liza Cody series featuring Eva Wylie, “wrestler and security guard.” The titles say it all: Bucket Nut, Monkey Wrench, and Musclebound. I was sorry she stopped writing them.

    From the reader’s point of view, I can see it’s hard to strike a balance between kick-ass and still human/feminine. Was glad to see Eve Dallas on your list, Zoë. So many folks seem to dismiss Nora Roberts because of the romance connection, but one of the things that keeps me pre-ordering In Death books is the believable characters–not just Eve and Roarke, with all their flaws, but the extended “family” that has grown up around them.

    Just downloaded Fox Five, and I eagerly await the e-appearance of the other Charlie Fox books.

    (So, I take it, Tim, you’re glad Charlie’s one of the good guys, as you’d hesitate to have Poke run up against her?)

  15. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Neil – and great to have one of my favourite writers stopping by. Thank you for the kind words ;-]

  16. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Larissa – Tim just found me on his doorstep in a basket and took pity on me ;-]

    Did you know you can download Kindle Reader for PC for free and read eBooks on your laptop?

  17. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Everett – Hurrah! Thank you ;-]

  18. Suzanna Says:

    From what Tim has shared about you, Zoe, you have an intriguing life story. I imagine your work is just as compelling, and I would love to download your Charlie Fox series on to my future e reader that I keep begging my husband to get me for my birthday. Tim, your Junior Bender books, and the Japan short story collection also reside at the top of my download list. If hubby ignores my pleas I’ll just have to splurge on my own behalf.

    Do you hear me, Morgan? I am begging here. Geez.

    Thanks for the interview!

  19. EverettK Says:

    Suzanna: I’ve no idea when your birthday is, but be aware that it’s VERY likely that Amazon will be introducing probably a tablet and a new eReader in September or October. Just a “head’s up” in case you were thinking of going the Kindle route.

  20. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Suzanna – to me, it’s all been perfectly normal. It’s only when I get around ‘normal’ people that things seem a little … different. Thank you for your future e-reading! Hey, Morgan – buy the lady an e-reader for her birthday or we’ll send the boys round! Or, worse still, the girls …

    (PS – Bonnie, I posted a reply to your comment earlier, but it didn’t seem to go through. I’m waiting to see if it pops up before I try posting it again, but I’m not ignoring you, honest!)

  21. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Hi Zoë,

    I don’t have an eReader either, but have Kindle software on my PC so will be reading it there.

    Thanks for creating a fascinating character, regardless of gender.

  22. Chester Campbell Says:

    I read at the speed of a molasses drip, but I’ll have to make room for a Zoe Sharp thriller. Great interview, Tim. Really whets our appetites. I’m addicted to Jack Reacher, too (in addition to Poke Rafferty, of course), and Charlie sounds like somebody who should be added to the mix.

  23. Usman Says:

    Thanks Zoe for the answer to my question. So, crime novels are about little things…mostly.
    Thrillers are the big things, ‘catastrophes’ you said. Now, did I read you correct, or is there yet a better distinction?

    As for Tim and us dungeonwalas; no he isn’t treating us fairly. He got Everett a tablet and your story. Me, I’m all on my own, with a bucket, no stories, nothing. (It’s a form of torture to keep me and Everett divided.)

  24. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Bonnie – looks like neither of my attempts to reply to you last night got through, so here it is again:

    I read Liz Cody’s BUCKET NUT years ago and still have it on the shelves somewhere, I think. I enjoyed her PI Anna Lee series, too, which was briefly on TV. Charlie isn’t quite the same as Eva, though!

    I’ve never had a problem with other genres, no matter what they might be and would never dismiss a book on that basis alone. There are good books and bad books, and everything else is just a flavour.

    The five early books in the series will be along shortly, all with gorgeous new covers by the same designer who did FOX FIVE.

  25. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Rebecca – nice to hear from you again. You were terrific on our panel at Tucson Festival of Books in March.

    Thank you for the kind words.

  26. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Chester – it’s not a race ;-] Well, Lee Child did once say that Reacher would team up with Charlie ‘in a heartbeat’, and he did a lovely Foreword for the e-launch of KILLER INSTINCT, if that helps? I’m a Reacher addict, too. Andy and I arm-wrestle over the new Reacher book when it arrives in our house – very undignified.

  27. Chris Knopf Says:

    As another writer with a female protagonist, I like what Zoë has to say about balancing the need for an exciting female hero with the desire to keep her real. Charlie is a model for getting it right.

  28. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’ve laid off of this because it’s really a conversation between Zoe and you guys, but I feel compelled to jump in.

    Usman, first, I’m confiscating your bucket. Second, I think a crime novel can be and often is a thriller. You can call your book whatever you want, but to my way of thinking the main division is between mysteries and thrillers, and the primary difference is that a mystery is about whodunnit and a thriller is about how do you survive it. True-crime novels are a genuinely different genre, but I don’t think you were asking about those. Now hand up that bucket.

    LJ, do you think it’s as hard to write a sensitive male as it is a hard-edged female? And do you think either is easier/harder for writers of either sex? And I’ll give a signed copy of the Gideon Bible to anyone who can explain that question.

    Chester, thanks for mentioning Poke, who was sulking. It was making him hard to write.

    Most of sll, thanks to ZOE, for a tremendous interview and for writing such kickass books.

  29. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Usman – I admit to generalisations there, but it was a short answer instead of what could have been a very long answer. I think Tim has it down pat – surviving the problem as much as solving it.

    Hey, you had your OWN bucket? That’s not fair …

  30. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Thanks, Chris. And I can’t wait to read more about Jackie Swaitowski!

  31. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Tim. Thank you so much for inviting me to stop by the blog cabin. It’s kind of cosy, apart from the strange moans and scratching noises coming from the cellar …

    And hey, Maybe Charlie and Poke can go out for a beer, just so there’s no hard feelings?

  32. Bonnie Says:

    Hi, Zoë! I guess sometimes I am too elliptical for my own good (this is how to fail a law school exam, too). I never meant Eva was like Charlie, but that she was an interesting example of a “hard-boiled” female, and even she had her human/feminine side. Another great example is Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard.

    Have now read the short stories and Second Shot. Unfortunately, your old publisher took the lazy way and there are way too many OCR-generated errors in the latter, but you shouldn’t feel too bad–Rex Stout didn’t get treated any better! I hope your e-pub folks will do you right that way.

    As someone who’s been toying with the idea of writing mystery fiction myself, I have to say I like Charlie a lot and look forward to reading the rest of the books (have ordered Killer Instinct from Interlibrary loan, pending its arrival in the eworld). I also realize it’s not a direction I’m going to go. About 10 days ago I read The Informationist by Taylor Stevens, whose (female) protagonist certainly is up in Charlie’s league for toughness. There were some issues with the book, but it was extremely intriguing, not least because it took place in a part of the world (Equatorial Guinea and Camaroon) I’ve never even fictionally visited. But apart from the physical descriptions of the various acts of violence, which alone must take quite a bit of research work to master, I don’t think I’m going to choose to try to take myself into the place–mentally, emotionally–these woman can go in order to do what they do. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy reading about them, and I love me some Reacher, but I doubt that’s where my own strengths will lie.

    Still, I like that, while Charlie can make herself act *almost* instinctively, she still has the power to weigh things up, and not even the most defensible killing leaves her completely unscathed. I find this more credible than, say, V. I. Warshawski, who, much as I love her back story, her cranky neighbor, her various dogs, and her insatiable curiosity, never seems to experience much internal growth from book to book.

    Long story short, eager to learn more about Charlie’s own backstory and read the rest of the books! Thanks for the enthralling reads so far!

  33. Larissa Says:

    I’m a technological luddite-sometimes by choice, sometimes not-and while I had heard that there was a Kindle reader that you could download for free, the information had sort of evaporated from my brain…it might be worth it though just to check out some fun, new reads! (c: Thanks for the refersher and as far as surprises to be left on a doorstep-I can’t think of a better one than a creative spirit! I need to move to his neighborhood.

    Thanks again!

  34. Maryann Miller Says:

    Really enjoyed the interview. I like so many of the same characters and writers that you do, Zoe. I just read Persuader not too long ago, and agree that it is one of the best Reacher novels. Can’t wait to read your books and am happy Tim did the interview to introduce me to you and your work.

  35. EverettK Says:

    Usman’s bucket was a used bucket. Tim took it away from me and gave it to Usman. This is what happens, Usman, when you’re not nice to the Dungeon Master. Something stinks in Denmark (or wherever my cell is located…)

    As for your offer of a signed Gideon Bible, Tim, I thought you swore off religion years ago. What, dumping the library now?

    But, related to your question, there was a VERY famous science fiction author back in the 1970s who came out of nowhere and started publishing a long string of award-winning short stories and novellas (or novellettes or whatever). No one had ever met James Tiptree, Jr. in person, but famous science fiction author Robert Silverberg posited, in an intro to one of Tiptree’s short story collections, that he was positive that Tiptree was male, “just as Hemingway’s stories could not have been written by a woman,” etc. It’s a fascinating story, and if you’re not aware of it, you can read a good synopsis at:

    Alice’s Alias

  36. Sharai Says:

    Very entertaining as usual, nice to add the educational back in. Thanks for introducing me to another great writer.

    See, I show up even when there’s no prizes!

  37. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Bonnie
    I thought Liza Cody’s Eva Wylie character was great, and I seem to remember that Liza brought Anna Lee into BUCKETNUT, so you saw her from Eva’s perspective, which was a nice twist.

    Thank you for letting me know about the formatting errors in SECOND SHOT. I’ve literally only acquired a Kindle in the last week or so, and haven’t tried downloading a copy, so I’ll check it out and take steps to get corrections made. I really appreciate the heads-up!

    Whatever kind of character you write, if you do a series you have to make a choice early on – do I leave the character almost completely static from book to book, or do I take her (or him) on a personal journey so she is affected by the events of each book and learns/grows accordingly. Sometimes it would be easier to take the static route. Robert B Parker’s Spenser didn’t change throughout the series – he didn’t even get any older despite being described as a veteran of the Korean War in the early books, which would make him really quite elderly by the end. (I still loved that series, btw.)

    Or, you have the character evolve, as I’ve done with Charlie. The only down-side with this is that sometimes people complain about continuing threads of the character’s development, which inevitably spill over from one book to the next. The earlier book in the CF series could be read out of order without too much difficulty, but the later ones are becoming more interwoven. Only a problem if availability is a problem. Still, now with eBooks, this should be solved!

    Glad you’ve enjoyed reading about Charlie so far, and best of luck with your writing!

  38. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Everett
    Sheesh, guys, I’ll bring you a bucket each. Now play nice ;-]

    Very interesting about James Tiptree Jr. I’ve been told I tend to write in a slightly more male style, somehow. In fact, a reviewer once hinted that he thought maybe Andy (my Other Half) actually wrote the books, and I just put my name on the front … It’s not my fault I’m into cars and motorcycles and self-defence and house construction and stuff like that. I had an Action Man (GI Joe?) and a Meccano set as a kid. What can I tell you?

    Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out as soon as I’ve posted here.

  39. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Sharai
    Hey, wait a minute – there are usually prizes?

    Glad you enjoyed the post and if it’s encouraged you to give Charlie Fox a try, my work here is done.

    Tim asks some cool questions, doesn’t he? But I never expected any less of the creator of Poke Raffety ;-]

  40. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Everett

    Just read the NYT piece on Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. Fascinating! Thanks for that.

  41. Jackie King Says:

    Thanks for this opportunity to meet Zoe and learn about her books. I’m a huge fan of strong women protagonists.

  42. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Larissa
    Sorry to be somewhat muddled at answering comments. I think Tim was playing with his spam – actually, it’s quite nice grilled in sandwiches – and some stuff that I thought I’d posted disappeared. Oops.

    I downloaded the free Kindle Reader for PC before I got a Kindle proper. It’s great and works really well, although I spend enough time sitting at my computer reading, and at least the Kindle itself lets you read elsewhere. Now I need a cover for it before it gets scratched …

  43. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Maryann
    Yup, PERSUADER is definitely one of my favourites.

    Thanks to Tim for the introduction, and I hope it works out well for both of us ;-]

  44. Zoë Sharp Says:

    Hi Jackie
    Glad to meet you, too. Charlie’s definitely not a wimp ;-]

  45. Get Sharp | Lee Goldberg Says:

    […] Tim Hallinan has interviewed my friend Zoë Sharp on the release of FOX FIVE, her new collection of stories about […]

Leave a Reply