Interview with Ayo Onatade

The following interview first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Mystery Women magazine and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Ayo: For those that do not know much about you would you like to give us some background information?

Zoë: Well, I spent most of my childhood living aboard a catamaran on the northwest coast of England. I opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and went through a variety of jobs in my teenage years before becoming a freelance photojournalist in the motoring industry in 1988. I've been making a living writing about − and photographing − all manner of weird and wonderful vehicles ever since. I wrote my first crime novel after being on the receiving end of death-threat letters in the course of my work. The result was KILLER INSTINCT which introduced my ex-army heroine, Charlie Fox. It was published by Piatkus Books in 2001. The latest in the series, ROAD KILL, came out in October 2005.

Ayo: How were you introduced to the genre of crime fiction?

Zoë When I was still a child, my grandmother gave me a 1930s edition of The Misfortunes of Mr Teal by Leslie Charteris − one of The Saint series. It was the first crime book I ever read and I loved it! I still have it today. I don't think my grandmother quite realised what she was starting!

Ayo: Let us start with your individual characters. Could you give us a brief description of them and their habits?

Zoë: Charlotte 'Charlie' Fox has been described as 'flawed but appealing'. She is a motorbike riding ex Special Forces trainee who was thrown out of the army in disgrace and, before training to be a bodyguard in book three, HARD KNOCKS, was teaching self-defence and working doors in a nightclub. Charlie rides a motorbike, is highly skilled at unarmed combat, and was a first-class shot in the army. She's been likened to a female version of Lee Child's Jack Reacher (but a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter!). It's a very flattering comparison, as far as I'm concerned. Charlie does have that matter-of-fact familiarity with violence about her. She may not like what she's capable of, but put her in danger and she'll react almost automatically. Tough, but not too hard-faced, I hope.

Sean Meyer was a sergeant in the army, one of Charlie's instructors on the Special Forces training course. They had an ill-advised affair and for a long time after her disgrace, they both believed the other had betrayed them. It's only after they get together again that they discover the truth about what happened and can start to build any kind of a future. Of course, Sean is not your standard hero. He has a killer instinct even more developed than Charlie's, and she has her concerns about getting caught up with him again. Sean now runs a close protection agency and, after Charlie agrees to go undercover into a bodyguard school in Germany for him, she ends up working for him as a bodyguard herself. Charlie discovers very early on in the series that she has the ability and the instinct to kill, and this makes her a fascinating character to keep going back to.

Her parents − a successful orthopaedic surgeon and a magistrate − are horrified by her choice of career and the conflict between them and Charlie is an ongoing theme. Charlie's evolved as she's gone on, starting out teaching self-defence to women, and working her way through a variety of jobs before eventually finding her niche as a bodyguard. She has a continuing struggle against her own capacity for violence, which is an aspect of her character that I find intriguing.

Ayo: Where did the character Charlie Fox come from?

Zoë: I've had the idea for Charlie kicking around for a long time. It all originated from the early crime books I read, where the female characters tended to scream a lot and fall over and sprain their ankles and wait to be rescued by the men. I wanted to read about self-sufficient women who could take care of themselves and Charlie grew out of that. Purely selfish reasons!

Ayo: It appears that Charlie has picked up some of your hobbies. Was this intentional or was this just a ruse so that you could spend some time on your favourite hobbies in the guise of research.

Zoë: Erm, I think I've picked up some of Charlie's hobbies rather than the other way around. Actually, the research is great fun, and something I really enjoy doing. The trick is knowing how much of it to leave out!

Ayo: When one initially thinks of Charlie, they do not actually expect her to carry such violent tools on her. They are the type of things that would normally be found on a man. While I believe that women can be just as violent as men when they turn their minds to it. Do you think that they have the same killer instinct?

Zoë: I think anyone, under the right circumstances, with the right provocation, can discover a killer instinct. It took Charlie a while to discover hers but, once she did, she realised she'd let loose something that she might not be able to contain. Her ability to kill frightens her, at times, and is a cause of constant concern to her parents. They don't like her continuing involvement with Sean Meyer, either, feeling that he brings out the worst in their daughter. It's a theme I revisit during the series and in ROAD KILL Charlie comes to terms with this − and with Sean − a little more. I think she starts to accept who and what she is. As for the tools she uses − she trained as a soldier and she was a first-class shot. If you've used guns in the military, you accept them and think of them in a different way to a civilian. Charlie's very matter-of-fact about guns.

Ayo: Are you an adrenaline junkie or is this all done via Charlie?

Zoë: A bit of both, I think! My day job often involves hanging out of moving vehicles to get some of the action shots, dragging my elbows on the road surface. Nevertheless, Charlie's much braver than I am!

Ayo: How would you describe your books to someone who is just about to read them?

Zoë: Tricky one! How about: easy to get into and harder to put down?

Ayo: You have recently been published in the US; however, they started with FIRST DROP. Why did they not start with the first book in the series and will they publish the earlier books?

Zoë: Yes, St Martin's Minotaur brought out FIRST DROP in September 2005 and they have already asked for another two books in the series, the first of which is being written at the moment. My US publisher was particularly keen to see Charlie working more in the States, so the next book, SECOND SHOT, is set partly in Boston and partly in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

As for the earlier books, I'm not sure. It would be great if they decided to go back and start from the beginning of the series, but I have tried to write them almost as standalones, so you can read them out of sequence without missing anything vital. Moreover, at the same time I've tried not to give away anything of the earlier plots. Now, with the US books getting out of step with the UK ones, it's going to be interesting, as a writer, to keep everything flowing in a logical way.

Ayo: You were on tour earlier this year in the United States, how did it go?

Zoë: Oh, that was terrific. Exhausting, but terrific! After Bouchercon in Chicago, we did a mad mini-tour of Arizona, Texas, California, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. There were lots of places we didn't manage to get to, but we simply couldn't fit it all in. I couldn't believe the enthusiastic reception I had from the booksellers and from the people I met who already knew about Charlie. It helped that Deadly Pleasures had nominated FIRST DROP for the Barry award for Best British Crime Novel, and people like Lee Child, Meg Chittenden, SJ Rozan and Julia Spencer-Fleming gave me such great blurbs. I still can't believe how friendly and helpful the mystery community is in the States. They were just wonderful.

Ayo: Your latest book is called ROAD KILL, what sparked the idea for this story?

Zoë: I remember reading a snippet in one of my local newspapers about the number of fatal motorcycle accidents on a particular road that led from the motorway junction to a place called Devil's Bridge, which is the local bikers' weekend hangout. The impression given was that no other vehicles were involved and, therefore, the bikers must have been at fault for riding too fast. I wanted to do something based on an accident that wasn't an accident.

I was also getting a little tired of the myth that all bikers are Hell's Angels, so I wanted to show what happens when you get a group of twenty-something lads, all on modern sports bikes that will run rings round a Ferrari, who go looking for danger − and find it. In addition, I really wanted to set a book partly in Northern Ireland, where I've spent a lot of time working and love the place. You get a very distorted view of it from the news. And finally, this book marks a turning point in Charlie's life − both her professional life and her personal one. Her relationship with her boss, Sean Meyer, becomes more complicated. And simpler, both at the same time.

Ayo: How do your stories normally come about? Do you already have an outline or do you just have an idea at the back of your mind and see where it takes you?

Zoë: I usually plan carefully before I start − and then completely ignore it! No, I do try and follow a plan of sorts, although by the time the book's done it doesn't always follow my original idea. I love it when someone I'd earmarked as being a fairly minor character rewrites their part when I'm not looking and grows into something much larger, and more rounded. Friday, the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog in my second book, RIOT ACT did that. He was supposed to be a very minor player but he grew into an integral character. And the FBI agent, Andrew Till, in FIRST DROP. Andrew Till is actually a librarian in real life, who became a character by special request. I thought he'd have a walk-on role but he expanded it as I wrote and now may even reappear in a later book.

Ayo: What is the most important element for you when you are writing?

Zoë: To care what happens to the characters, and to be absolutely desperate to know what happens next! If you, the writer, are interested enough to find this out, hopefully your readers will be, too!

Ayo: What do you enjoy the most when you are writing?

Zoë: Making progress. And I love it when something unexpected just arrives, out of nowhere. The best ideas are the ones that pounce on you when you're in the midst of writing. Sometimes they turn out to be cul de sacs, but sometimes they really give the story a fresh burst.

Ayo: What is your biggest distraction when you are writing?

Zoë: The day job, probably, although I discovered when I was pushing the deadline on ROAD KILL that I can work quite well with my laptop on my knee in the car on the way to photo shoots − er, that's when I'm the passenger, obviously!

Ayo: What made you decide to write a series and not a standalone novel? Would you write a standalone novel?

Zoë: I don't recall making a conscious decision to write a series. When I wrote KILLER INSTINCT, I knew I was just beginning Charlie's story, and she's continued to develop. If I thought she'd stagnated, I'd stop writing about her, but she continues to interest me, and there are still a lot of places I can take her − or she can take me. Sometimes I'm not entirely sure which way around it goes. But, yes, I'd like to do a standalone or two.

Ayo: Part of being a crime writer is the camaraderie that goes along with it. Do you enjoy attending conferences and book signings?

Zoë: Most of the conferences I've attended have been in the US and everyone's very friendly over there, so I've always really enjoyed them. I'm always amazed by how very generous some of the biggest names in the crime field are. I find book signings a little more nerve-wracking, just in case nobody turns up! I've done events in big stores where there was just me and the tumbleweed, and others in little local libraries where more than sixty people turned up, so you can never tell how it's going to go.

Ayo: Are you a crime/mystery reader yourself? If so, do you still find time to read and what type of book do you prefer?

Zoë: I'm a voracious reader of crime and thrillers. I always have a book on the go. Lee Child and Robert B Parker are still my favourites, but I'd read Ken Bruen's shopping list and I thought Dennis Lehane's Mystic River was just superb. I still enjoy Dick Francis and Clive Cussler. I think Lesley Horton's Inspector John Handford series is growing in stature with every book, and I've just finished Priscilla Masters' intriguing latest Inspector Joanna Piercy, Wings over The Watcher. Julia Spencer-Fleming's Rev Claire Fergusson series isn't published over here yet, but really ought to be, Carla Banks' The Forest of Souls has been described as her break-out book, and I recently reread Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and was just as enthralled by it now as I remember being when I read it years ago. There are just so many wonderful writers out there − Meg Chittenden, James O Born, Barry Eisler, Michael Connelly, John Harvey, Terry Pratchett. Where do I stop?

Ayo: I understand that you like shooting. Which kind do you prefer and why? When was the last time you had the opportunity to do some?

Zoë: I used to competition shoot with a 7.62mm SLR rifle, at a variety of distances up to 300 metres, with open sights. I was a reasonable shot with a rifle − better than I was with a pistol, although I'm not too bad. I usually try and keep my hand in whenever we go to the States. When we were on the FIRST DROP tour we managed to sneak an hour or so at the Top Gun Training Center Houston and I put in a bit of practice with a 9mm Sig Sauer P226 − my handgun of choice. Coincidentally, it's Charlie's favourite weapon as well.

Ayo: What is your dream car and motorcycle?

Zoë: I would have said the Nissan Skyline GT-R R34, which is the car that played a big part in the closing stages of my third Charlie Fox book, HARD KNOCKS. Well, you can't set a book in Germany and not include some high-speed driving on the unlimited German autobahns, can you? Now though, Nissan have just announced the new GT-R will be launched in 2007. If anybody offered me one on long-term test, I wouldn't turn it down! Either that or a CL55 AMG Mercedes. As for bikes, it would have to be a Honda FireBlade, which is Charlie's bike in ROAD KILL. Either that or a Buell Firebolt XB12R.

Ayo: Are you easily amused and what was the last thing that amused you?

Zoë: Oh yes − I'm not easily shocked but I am very easily amused. The last thing that amused me − I was watching part of the second series of Victoria Wood's comedy series, Dinnerladies, last night. Beautifully observed and laugh-out-loud funny. We also went to see Mark Thomas and Robert Newman doing live stand-up a few weeks ago. Very sly subversive stuff. Right up my street.

Ayo: Your day job is as a photojournalist, does this have any effect on your writing and have you been on a shoot that has inspired an incident in anyone of your books?

Zoë: Well, the death-threat letters were the starting point for my first book. They said, 'we know where you are' but as they were being sent to the magazine's London address and not to my home, they clearly didn't know where I was, which was a comfort! But, it started me wondering what would happen if they did know where I lived? So, that was the situation Charlie finds herself in. There's a guy out there who's attacking local women, including Charlie's self-defence students, and then he comes after her. As for what effect the day job has on my writing, I think the two complement each other. Getting out and about stops me going cross-eyed sitting in front of the computer all day.

Ayo: If you were on a desert island and could take three books and three items of food what would they be and why?

Zoë: Interesting question, Ayo! The books − just about any of the survival guides written by Ray Mears would come in very handy, I think. And if you could wait until next summer before you ship me off to this desert island, I'd like the new Lee Child thriller to take with me. And finally, the most comprehensive dictionary you can find. I love looking up the derivations of words, so that would keep me occupied for hours, as well as improving my vocabulary no end. And could I also have a solar-powered laptop, or a large blank notebook and an equally large supply of pencils? In between foraging for food and building a shelter I could at least be getting on with the next book, couldn't I? As for the three items of food, these would have to be assorted Jelly Beans − but not the cinnamon ones − an endless supply of South African redbush tea (and milk) and a very, very large bar of Lindt cherry chocolate. I had to give up eating chocolate a few years ago after I discovered that it makes me very bad-tempered. But, if I'm going to be on a desert island with nobody to shout at, I could eat as much of it as I wanted!

Ayo: Is there a book out there that you would like to have written?

Zoë: The Da Vinci Code? Any of the Harry Potter books? Only kidding! I'm hoping that my best books are still ahead of me.

Ayo: What are you working on now?

Zoë: I'm currently writing Second Shot, which is book six in the Charlie Fox series, and is due to come out as the follow-up to FIRST DROP in the States.

Ayo: What are you plans for the future?

Zoë: As soon as I've finished SECOND SHOT, I'll be starting a completely different book, set in the English Lake District, with a new set of characters. A police procedural with a much darker edge to it. And after that will be another Charlie Fox book. A new agent took me on at the beginning of 2005, the very highly regarded Jane Gregory. She has encouraged me to try something different to stop me getting stale and the more ideas I'm formulating for this new book, the more excited I am by the prospect of getting stuck in.