Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Fiona Veitch Smith. I’m not as young as I look 😉
Fiona: Where are you from?
I live in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I was born just up the road in Corbridge, Northumberland, but moved to South Africa with my family when I was 10. I returned to the UK with my South African husband in 2002 and have lived here ever since.
Fiona: A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
I have an honours degree in history, journalism and media studies from Rhodes University in South Africa. I worked as a full-time newspaper journalist in Cape Town before returning to the UK. Back here I worked as a freelance magazine journalist until I had my daughter (who is now 13). When she was 8 months old I went back to university and got a MA in Creative Writing. Since then I have been working as a freelance creative writer and doing part-time university lecturing in both journalism and creative writing.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
The fourth book in the Poppy Denby series, The Cairo Brief, is coming out in September! They are murder mysteries set in the 1920s.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I have always had stories swirling around in my head and I just had to get them out. I started writing plays when I was about 8 – to make sure me and my friends all had parts and no one would be left out. My first love was theatre and I did two years of a drama degree before falling ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after being bitten by a tick. After some months off I switched to a journalism major as the hours were not as strenuous. During my twenties I ran a small theatre company then went full-time into journalism. I wrote my first book when I was 30. Although I have had some theatre and film work produced my books have eclipsed them and I now consider myself to be primarily an author.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I had my first play properly produced when I was 15. The play won a competition and I think the affirmation of a ‘professional’ judge saying it was good helped me believe I could be a real writer. Since then I have always considered myself to be a writer, whether it was scriptwriting, journalism or writing books. Being paid to write – which I am – makes me a professional writer, but even if I wasn’t paid, a writer I would be.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book was The Peace Garden – a coming of age literary thriller set partly in Newcastle and partly in South Africa – inspired by a story my great aunt told me about a plant thief in her cul-de-sac. But I would rather tell you about what inspired me to write The Jazz Files, the first book in my Poppy Denby series, as that is what I’m best known for. In 2013 I visited the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, on the 100th anniversary of her death. She was the suffragette who died protesting at the Epsom Derby. When I was there I had an idea for a murder mystery starring a suffragette reporter sleuth, investigating the death of one of her ‘sisters’, seven years later. I proposed it to my publisher, and he loved the idea.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
It was originally called ‘Above the Fold’ with the duel meaning of the top story in a newspaper but also symbolic of women moving up into a position of prominence after being hidden for too long. However, my publisher felt it was too ‘literary’. The series name was going to be The Jazz Files – a fictional name I gave to the clipping files kept by my made-up newspaper. I wanted ‘Jazz’ in the title because it reflected the Jazz Age. Jazz in the 1920s was not just music – something that was ‘jazz’ was trendy, youthful and fashionable. That reflected my character, Poppy, and also suggested the period. So when Above the Fold was ditched, the publisher and I jointly decided to call the first book The Jazz Files. The series name is now Poppy Denby Investigates.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
My style has been described by reviewers as similar to ‘literary journalism’. So I use vivid descriptions, metaphors and sub-text but written in a concise rather than flowery way. This is fairly unusual in the mystery genre. I also mix humour and pathos so you could be laughing on one page and feeling sad on the next. I write stories on multiple levels. On the surface they appear fun, light and playful, but they are underpinned by serious and at times quite dark themes. The challenge with this is that my style of writing is not what most ‘cosy mystery’ readers expect, so my books can be a bit marmite. Some people are delighted by the unexpected style, but others, who perhaps just want a quick, unchallenging read with a good mystery, don’t always know how to take it. On the plus side I am strong on dialogue and visual writing (focusing on what the reader can see in the scene) which comes from my drama background. As such, people always say my books will be good for telly.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
My books mix history and fiction. The actual story is fictional, but it intersects with the lives of real historical characters who come in and out of the story like ‘extras’ in a play. In my latest book, The Death Beat, Poppy briefly meets Carl Jung the psychoanalyst who is travelling to New York in 1921 to give a lecture on personality types. He really did go to New York then – but he didn’t meet Poppy! In the book that is coming out in September, The Cairo Brief, Poppy attends a séance run by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Jean. Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle really did run séances. She also has dinner with Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous suffragette. The challenge with this is to not rewrite history but simply to explore a ‘what if Poppy were to meet’ scenario in a fictional way.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I travel when it is possible to do so – in terms of time and money. I find it invaluable emotional research to walk the streets my characters walked, or travel the bus route they would travel. I have recently been to Cape Town where my next book is partially set. I previously lived in Cape Town so could have written it from memory, but it was important to me to be able to be there as if I were my character and ask myself what would she feel, see or do. Sometimes it’s not possible to go everywhere. When that happens I try to find people who have been there and to talk to them, and to watch films or documentaries set there. The internet, of course, is very useful – particularly Google Earth! The other day I travelled all the way from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town (in Cape Town) without leaving my chair! As I write historical novels it is also useful to travel back in time. What was it like back in 1900, 1921 or 1927? I read books and diaries written at the time. I watch British Pathe news reels. I attend exhibitions and visit museums. I research newspaper archives.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The Poppy Denby covers are designed by Laurence Whitely. They are commissioned by my publisher, Lion Fiction. Laurence specialises in re-creating the distinct 2D style of the Art Deco period.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
My books are all about social justice. The crimes and situations Poppy encounters usually involve someone in authority who is abusing their power at the expense of someone more vulnerable. I look at the rights of women, the treatment of people with disabilities, the plight of refugees etc. In my current book, The Death Beat, I follow a pair of girls who are people trafficked and used as slave labour in a sweat shop. Poppy has a heightened sense of social justice and is always out to right a wrong.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
I have recently come across Ray Celestin. He won the best debut crime novel of the year (the CWA Debut Dagger) the year before my book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger. Ray has written two books so far: The Axeman’s Jazz and Dead Man’s Blues (which I’m currently reading). They are set in America in the 1920s, and like me mix historical and fictional characters (Louis Armstrong appears in The Axeman’s Jazz). Unlike me he has multiple detectives following apparently separate investigations that eventually merge. What I love about his style is the sense of atmosphere he creates. I can see, smell and taste New Orleans and Chicago in his books. He also recreates the historical setting beautifully. Regarding favourite writers, I don’t have just one. But I love the social commentary of Dorothy L. Sayers, the humour of Lindsay Davis, the beauty of style of Philip Pullman and Andrea Levy, the plotting of JK Rowling, the grit of Val McDermid, the incisive prose of Hemingway, the characterisation of Dickens and the insight into human nature of Shakespeare.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
My Cape Town friend Gillian D’Achada. She is an award-winning author of young adult novels. But before either of us were published or had won anything we were part of a small writers’ circle – nearly 20 years ago now. She encouraged me back then that I was good enough to be a published author. She was too, and over the years we have pushed and supported one another to not give up on our dreams.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Nothing specific I can think of. Occasionally though when I do a public reading I think to myself – perhaps I should have phrased that sentence or paragraph slightly differently. But you do the best you can – with your editor’s input – at the time.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned how séances were manipulated and faked back in the 1920s. It’s laughable now, but people were literally fooled by parlour tricks.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Lily James who played Rose in Downton. Abbey. Poppy has the determination of Edith to forge a career, but with the playfulness and style of Rose. Poppy’s editor, Rollo, should be played by Peter Dinklage.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
The first book you write is probably not going to be the first book that is published. It takes a while to learn your craft. Write your first book to learn how to do it. There are of course exceptions, but most authors will tell you the first book they wrote was just a learning curve. Secondly, if you really want to write – and you have been given feedback from someone who knows their stuff that you really can write – you need to stick at it. It took me 15 years of trying before I got my first book contract. Then three years after that I finally got an agent. (yes, I was published before I got an agent).
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
I repeat: The fourth Poppy Denby Book is coming out on 21 September! For lots of background information on the books and the period, don’t forget to visit www.poppydenby.com
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Ray Celestin’s Dead Man’s Blues
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Jesus and the Blind Man (can’t remember the author) was the first book I remember reading cover to cover on my own. I was 4 and I still remember the pride I felt when I got to the end.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
When my dog, Ruby, died in January. I also remember crying while watching Whistle Down the Wind in the theatre; and I cried my heart out reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Each time it was the tragedy of someone’s hopes being raised and dashed. To take hope away from someone is the worst thing you can do. Laughter? I laugh every day. Political cartoons make me chuckle, the antics of my dog, Ricky, my daughter and my husband’s silly jokes. Funny TV: Silicon Valley, The Middle, Modern Family, The Simpsons, Have I Got News for You… The world’s a funny place!
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His faith in God translates into love for other people through action, not just words. Desmond Tutu is a peacemaker and bridge builder. He sees the injustice in the world and says: this is not what God wants for us; we can do better. He knows that forgiveness is the start of healing for individuals and communities. I’d love to talk to him about what’s going on in the world today, and pray with him.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
I love gardening. I also play jazz clarinet. When I have time I enjoy embroidery and sewing. I have been doing Pilates for 20 years. I have also been known to hoolahoop.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
See above for comedy. But I also enjoy epic dramas like Game of Thrones, and Westworld and gritty and quirky detective series like Jorkskod and True Detective. I also loved Babylon Berlin and wish they’d bring it back!
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Cheesecake. Sigh. Orange is my favourite colour because it’s a happy colour. I love jazz but also the music of singer songwriters with stories to tell – Elton John, Carole King, Jamie Cullum. And of course, all musical theatre! I’ve recently been to see Evita again – and I sing along to the soundtrack every night when I’m cooking. My poor, poor neighbours.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
I’d be a musical theatre actress, darling!
Fiona: You only have 24 hours to live how would you spend that time?
With my husband, daughter, dad and dog in a holiday cottage in Rothbury, Northumberland. Just being together.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
Either my general website www.fiona.veitchsmith.com or my dedicated Poppy Denby website www.poppydenby.com Readers can also follow me on Twitter @FionaVeitchSmit or on FB https://www.facebook.com/FionaVeitchSmithAuthor/