ZOE Sharp is up there among the thriller writing elite.
International best seller and fellow Lakelander Lee Child is a big fan and recently wrote: “If I were a woman, I'd be Zoe Sharp. If Jack Reacher were a woman, he'd be Zoe’s main character, Charlie Fox.”
Zoe’s just back from Iceland Noir at Reykjavik, the country's first festival of crime fiction.
As captivating as her pacey prose, over a tea cake and ‘naked’ coffee she regales me with fascinating tales of her upbringing, nuggets from the Zoe 'factfile' and how she was encouraged to put pen to paper by her parents: “When I wrote my first novel at 15 my father typed up my handwritten notes - with carbon copies, which dates me horribly. That novel did the rounds of publishers to receive what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’ and still sits in a box in the attic. My father now threatens to get it out and put it on eBay. I warn him that one day I may be the person choosing his nursing home.”
The book that hooked Zoe on all things literary was Black Beauty: “It was a remarkable book, published in 1877, and the only book written by Anna Sewell who died just a few months after it came out. It wasn’t written as a children’s novel, but more to encourage the humane treatment of horses.
Zoe was born in Nottinghamshire, but spent most of her formative years living on a catamaran on the north west coast of England.
She also lived at Lancaster and after a promising start at a private girls' school, opted out of mainstream education at the age of 12 in favour of being taught at home: “Lancaster is a lovely city, filled with elegant Georgian architecture, the River Lune and the wonderful parks,“ she recalls.
“But it also has a split personality and at night it takes on a far darker quality. This was the inspiration for the early books in the Charlie Fox series, where she is living and working there, teaching self-defence classes and trying to stay out of trouble.”
Zoe has a cinematic style: “When I write it’s like watching a movie in my head and I hope people see it the same way.”
She explains that she likes to have a structure when she writes: “The first thing I do is write the jacket copy (the half a page synopsis that you’d find on the inside flap of the hardcover or the rear of the paperback). This keeps me focused on the central theme of the book. Then I work out my writing outline, which includes the main events of the plot but not necessarily the reactions of the characters to those events. I like those to evolve in a more organic way. I don’t write long biographies for my characters before I begin. Until they walk onto the page I don’t know them. They tend to introduce themselves pretty quickly once they arrive.”
Zoe went through a variety of jobs in her teenage years and in 1988, on the strength of one accepted article and a fascination with cars, she changed gear and became a freelance motoring writer.
As a novelist, success first came in 2001 with Killer Instinct − the first book to feature her ex-Special Forces heroine, Charlotte 'Charlie' Fox, a self-defence instructor with a slightly shady military background and a painful past. Zoe says that the character evolved after she received death threat letters in the course of her photo-journalism work.
And like Charlie, Zoe can handle herself: “I decided to look at self defence and cherry picked different disciplines and was taught by a karate black belt.”
So how did Charlie materialise, I ask?
“Some characters form slowly, bit by bit, until you have a clear picture of them,” she explains. “Charlie Fox arrived one day almost fully formed, confronted me and said, ‘I have a story to tell. You’re going to want to write this down.’”
“I always loved thrillers and I read all the classic authors in that genre when I was growing up. But although I loved the action and the stories, I found the female characters somewhat disappointing to me personally. The women seemed to be there as love-interest for the hero, to tend the wounded, cook, scream in a fire-fight, and to trip and either give the game away or twist their ankles at a vital moment in the plot. I wanted to read about female characters who were capable of doing their own rescuing rather than needing to be rescued all the time, and eventually I decided I would simply have to write my own.”
The Charlie Fox series has been optioned for television and there’s plenty of her acclaimed, award-winning works in bookstores far and wide.
Her latest is Die Easy: Charlie Fox book 10, and a standalone short story, Rules Of Engagement with a character Zoe intends to take forwards into a trilogy next year.
She’s also penned a standalone crime thriller The Blood Whisperer that's just been named in Crimesquad's Top Ten Books for 2013 plus Absence of Light, a Charlie Fox novella, which she brought out in summer to fill the gap between Die Easy and the next in the series, which Zoe plans to write in the New Year.
Zoe - who still lives in the Lake District - has a great interest in the derivation of words: “My dictionary is covered in Post-It notes where I’ve been looking something up and come across something else that totally side-tracked me.
“Words like deuteragonist, meaning a secondary character. We have protagonist and antagonist, but the hero’s faithful sidekick is the deuteragonist.”
Zoe’s next step opens another chapter for her as a writer with a supernatural thriller in the pipeline: “I love words, and found a word in the dictionary that fascinated me - Carnifex.
“It means an executioner and has its roots in butchery, from carne meaning meat. I had nothing more than this title kicking around for a long time without a story attached to it, but gradually one emerged about a supernatural assassin whom you summoned with grief but paid with your soul. I’m doing what I hope will be final rewrites to this at the moment. The supernatural elements mean Carnifex will be very different from my usual crime/mystery/thriller genre but at the centre of the story is another strong female protagonist, so I hope it will appeal to existing readers as well as new ones.”