Interview with Chris Adam Smith

The following interview first appeared on bookseller Chris Adam Smith's website and is reproduced here with his kind permission. At the time of this interview (September 2002), I had written the first two books in the Charlie Fox series: KILLER INSTINCT and RIOT ACT.

I have spoken on the telephone with Zoë Sharp on several occasions, e-mailed her often and, in Cambridge recently as guests of Heffers Bookstore, I actually met her, albeit very briefly. Not being bitchy here but, she was the only woman writer in the room who actually looked like her photograph. Some of those pics on the inside back flaps must have been taken a decade or two back now! Vanity and the written word eh? I wonder how much attention readers pay to that photograph, the book is the thing and all of the women writers in the room had written crackers at one time or another, but Zoë seemed to have scored all around − great first book, photograph and charm.

I met her again recently in Brighton where she spirited away some coffee and happily signed copies of her new book RIOT ACT for me. Her first novel, a debut for self defence instructor cum private eye type Charlie Fox, was KILLER INSTINCT and I sold out of that almost before publication (I kept a copy for myself for a while but someone eventually even wangled that off of me!) Ah well, everything and everyone has a price even Charlie Fox I would bet. So how come a Lancastrian VI Warshawski? Seemed like a fair enough question so I asked her.

So, Zoë, how come a Lancastrian VI Warshawski?

A: I've had the character of Charlie Fox hanging around in my subconscious for years. I'm not even entirely sure where the name came from. She's just always been who she is. All the early crime I read or watched on TV had women as peripheral characters only, ones who screamed a lot and inevitably had to be rescued at some point by the men. Charlie was the result of my desire to read about a female character who could take care of herself, who didn't need anyone to fight her battles for her.

When I first set about writing a crime novel, Charlie fitted the bill perfectly as the central character. I didn't want someone who was in the police, and she's not a private eye in the strict sense of the words, either. I know there are limits to the gifted amateur sleuth who trips over bodies every time they turn around − you'd never want to be friends with these people for fear of ending up as the next corpse − but I have plans for the direction Charlie's career is about to take. By the end of RIOT ACT you should have an inkling.

Why Lancaster, it seems an unlikely enough setting until you read the book?

A: Lancaster is a fascinating place, a kind of Bath of the north, with lots of beautiful Georgian sandstone buildings, a historic castle that's still in use as a prison, and a thriving university. It's a very split-personality city − attractive by day, but by night it takes on an altogether darker flavour. A quick glance through a typical week's local paper tells quite a story about the level of crime there. There are a couple of estates you wouldn't want to walk through at night, that's for sure, which is where the idea for RIOT ACT came from.

How much of Charlie Fox is in you − I write westerns and I am all of my heroes?

A: Oh, I'd love to be able to say I am her, absolutely, so don't mess with me! But the truth is, I'm not sure I'd really want to be. Of course there are going to be elements of me in there somewhere. After all, she came out of my head, and I'm the one who lives in there − most of the time, at any rate.

But Charlie's put up with experiences that would crush a lesser spirit, and in among her natural compassion she's discovered a capacity for violence within herself that would frighten most people to death. And in the first two books she hasn't really found a direction for her life, a purpose. I admire her courage, but she would not be an easy person to be.

Was KILLER INSTINCT your first novel?

A: Again, no. I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. I was very into horses at the time and so it was a pony-related story. It went round most of the major publishers, who all said very nice things about it while at the same time declining to actually put it into print. I still have their letters somewhere. Much more kindly than the usual standard 'Unsuitable for our list' rejections!

Still, it took some years and a very roundabout route before I wrote another novel. This time crime had replaced horses as my primary literary subject of choice. KILLER INSTINCT was the result, although this is version 2.1. Version 1.0 had the same main character, one or two similar side characters, and the same ending, although with a completely different killer!

Are you into 'self defence' or is that character driven?

A: I do have a definite interest in self defence and feel that everyone should know the basics at the very least. I took classes with a pair of exceptionally talented instructors − Ian Cottam and Lee Watkin at Lancaster University − who taught me many of the techniques that I went on to describe in KILLER INSTINCT and in RIOT ACT. I wouldn't feel happy walking down a street in the dark without knowing I could defend myself if necessary.

How difficult is it to avoid the stereotyped relationships with men Charlie is bound to have?

A: Ah, I'm not sure I should answer that question before you've read RIOT ACT, because there's a major development in that direction! Charlie's had relationships with men, obviously, as she does in KILLER INSTINCT, but she's only been in love with one, and it all went horribly wrong. Sorting out the mess that left behind is taking some time. Some things are resolved in RIOT ACT, and some more in book three, 'Hard Knocks', which I'm working on at the moment, but other questions are not going to be answered until books four and five. You'll just have to keep reading.

Does panic ever set in when writing?

A: Hell, yes. I should say so. More often than not, really. I go through horrible 'oh-my-god-this-is-such-rubbish-that-nobody's-ever-going-to-want-to-read' phases that I thought would have subsided by book three, but they currently show no signs of doing so.

Mind you, my day job is as a photographer, which I've been doing it for fourteen years and I still get stressed on every shoot. I worry that the day I don't get stressed is the day I'll turn out less than my best work. I suppose it's the same with writing a book, except that the feeling lasts for months instead of hours.

PC or typewriter?

A: PC. Definitely. I learned to touch-type years ago and I'm pretty quick now, plus I don't have to look at my hands so I can just watch the words forming on the screen. I use one of these curved keyboards because I've still got wrist problems courtesy of my first motorbike. The rest of the time I make notes on an A4 pad in pencil − I don't think well in biro. If I'm stuck on a particular bit, a long car journey − as passenger rather than driver − usually gives me the time to think it through. I never travel without that notebook.

Motorcycles. Do you still feel safe on the roads?

A: No, but then if you ride a motorbike on the road today, you're never safe. I work on the theory that I'm invisible and everyone else is an idiot, and that usually works. Car drivers can be too insulated from the elements and too divorced from what's going on around them. Having said that, some born-again bikers take risks in traffic that makes my hair stand on end.

What kind of shooting. Air, clay pigeon, smallbore or long-barrelled pistol?

A: These days I just do target air pistol, although we go to the States a couple of times a year through work and we usually take the opportunity to find a gun range. The last time out I fired the Sig Sauer P226 9mm, in preparation for 'Hard Knocks'. In the past I've fired pump-action shotguns, 7.62mm self-loading rifles, .22 target rifles, and 9mm submachine guns as well as a selection of pistols. I used to competition shoot with rifles, although I'm a fair shot with a handgun and I prefer a 9mm to anything bigger.

Are you happy signing books and meeting the fans?

A: Yes, of course. It still feels strange that someone wants me to deface a perfectly good book by scrawling my name in the front of it, but I'm more than happy to do so. People keep emailing me at my website to say they've enjoyed the first book and when is the second one out, which is lovely. I even had a mail from someone in Melbourne, Australia, so Charlie's getting out there, slowly. I'm always interested to find out what people make of her.

What movies do you enjoy?

A: Oh dear, I'm going to sound very lowbrow now, I'm afraid. Actioners mainly, I think. I get so into watching a film that weepy ones make me cry buckets, no matter how corny they are. I can't watch horror because they give me nightmares. As a kid I even used to hide behind the sofa when Doctor Who was on.

What do you read for pleasure as opposed to research?

A: Actually, I enjoy my research most of the time, so I don't make much of a distinction. I'm just reading 'Maggots, Murder and Men' − memories and reflections of a forensic entomologist by Dr Zakaria Erzinclioglu. Waiting after that is 'Last Man Down', the story of fire chief Richard 'Pitch' Picciotto, who survived the collapse of the twin towers.

Given free range in the fiction aisles of a bookshop, I'd go for Robert B Parker, whose writing style just grips me from the outset; or JD Robb's 'In Death' series. Along with the rest of the planet I loved the Harry Potter books, I dip into Stephen King and Clive Barker on occasions, and although I wouldn't class myself as a sci-fi fan I read my copy of Peter F Hamilton's 'Mindstar Rising' until it fell apart at the seams.

Apart from that, I read Quentin Jardine's Bob Skinner series, Christopher Brookmyre, classic Dick Francis, and anything by Terry Pratchett that involves the men and women (and others) of the Ankh-Morpork city watch, so I suppose that counts as crime. Sort of.

I also have an entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, but the writer who really introduced me to crime and hooked me from the start was Leslie Charteris and Simon Templar, the Saint. None of the TV series have remotely done justice to the style and charm of the original books.

And the big one. Will you stick with Charlie and a book a year or might you try another character or even another genre?

A: At the moment I have ideas for the first sixteen books in the Charlie Fox series, so she's going to be around for a while yet! I also have four other series characters − two male and two female − and a filing cabinet full of notes and ideas for stand-alone books, including one supernatural, and three science-fiction. I think at last count there were forty in all.

But, if I don't pick up the pace somewhat I'm going to be retired before I finish what I have now, so I'm going to have to start doing two a year at least! Ideally, I'd like to do one Charlie Fox and one other, be it in another series or a stand-alone.

I thanked Zoë for her time, and lugged my book boxes down to the boot of my sedate, green, automatic Renault Laguna all the while wishing I still had my old black and white Triumph Tiger 110, my red corduroy Ivy League flat cap and slim-waisted Wrangler jeans with the one inch turnup. Maybe I could have overtaken Charlie Fox on the straightway of the A3 just down from the old Ace Of Spades cafe. But I doubt I was ever that good!

© Chris Adam Smith, September 2002