by Shellie Horst
Shellie Horst pens her first author interview for us, talking to Northern Ireland-based author Jo Zebedee on behalf of House On The Borderland.
After her debut novel was published with Blyth-based Tickety Boo Press you’d think Jo Zebedee would be content with her novel sitting pretty in the Irish SF best seller lists, wouldn’t you?
Off the back of that success she pressed ahead with her novel Inish Carraig released this August, which is already proving to be a hit with the reviewers. An alien invasion on Earth with a Belfast touch, Inish Carraig follows John – a teenager living in the aftermath of the invasion – desperately trying to survive in a cruel world.
Partially because we both have love for Gobolino the Witch’s Cat, (but mostly because I know Jo through the forums she haunts), Jo happily agreed to answer a few questions for House On The Borderland.
SH: Jo, are you mad? Why on Earth are you self-publishing Inish Carraig?
JZ: I might be mad… But, no, I thought long and hard about it (although possibly underestimated the work in bringing both out so close together.)
The easy answer is that I was afraid to lose the book, and liked it too much to want that to happen. Also, lots of people told me they loved the premise and urged me to release it.
The harder answer is that it’s a difficult book to market. It has a young adult protagonist, and a shared adult point of view in contrast to it. It’s sci-fi with a bit of thriller. It’s set in Belfast, not exactly a mecca for alien-contact books. When a book doesn’t have a comfy slot on the bookshelf, marketability becomes an issue, whereas the self-published market doesn’t get as excited about what’s on each (virtual) shelf.
SH: The cover of Inish Carraig offers a statement of its own, how did that come about?
JZ: I wanted something that was both iconically Belfast but that would look equally striking to those who don’t know the city, so I decided on the cranes. They’re called Samson and Goliath and they dominate the Belfast skyline. Originally, I wanted a bonfire in the foreground but thought the bleaker image of the devastated land matched the feel of the book better (I don’t write Sparkly Unicorn stories…)
I worked with Gary Compton from Tickety Boo covers on it, who took that brief and produced the cover which exactly captured what I hoped for.
SH: What is your favourite part of Inish Carraig?
JZ: My favourite part was using a setting I found familiar, and changing it so it reflected the aftermath of what has been a tragic, and futile, invasion. The capturing of an inverted sense of place, if you like.
In this scene, Henry, the policeman drawn into John’s story, is travelling to the house John and his siblings have been subsisting in throughout the war. The scene harks back to the earlier Belfast and builds to a pathos when Henry enters the house that brings the war home to him more than anything else could have:
‘Later, as they drove up the rubble-strewn streets of north Belfast, he wasn’t smiling. The city felt as if it was in stasis: the explosion of fear, held in abeyance for months, close and dangerous. The soldiers sat in silence, their faces closed and grim. Peters, leading the squad, had seemed resigned to the request from Carter for support. They passed no other vehicles, saw no one out on the streets. Below them, deceptively calm, was the lough. One of the old passenger ferries from before the attack was moored at its neck. No smoke rose from the sewage farms, but their smell permeated the van, an accusing reminder of the Zelotyr.
They pulled up outside the house. Carter got out of the vehicle, glancing down the small cul-de-sac. There was no one in sight. He could see the Oldpark Road, just visible through a gap beside number ten, its tarmac filled with weeds. A sparrow chirruped nearby, making Carter jump. He looked at the surrounding houses. Their windows – the ones with glass – were dark and empty. Was anyone there? Peters came alongside, his firearm ready, and Carter pulled his pistol from its holster. Both men walked forward, crunching over broken glass in the small front garden. The rest of the soldiers got out of the vehicle, dispersing into the house and round the back. Carter waited, tight against the wall, his heart hammering.’
SH: The self-publishing route offers an author more control and therefore more stress. What part would you happily remove from the process?
JZ: I did remove it! I paid for the formatting to be done. I feared the time it would take me – I’m not computer savvy – would be huge and I’d get under pressure. I think there is a danger of falling into the trap of thinking we should do everything because that’s what self-publishing is, and not recognising we can’t do it all. (Well, I can’t).
SH: Most authors have an idea of what they want to avoid, a cliché, trope, within their work, is there anything you wanted to leave out but had to include to allow the story to flow?
JZ: Interesting question. I think I’d have loved not to show anything of the historical Belfast, but I also wanted the book to have the sense of place that readers would recognise. So, some of the imagery – in particular a riot scene – evokes a history I might have preferred it not to. But that’s the danger of somewhere with Belfast as a setting – there is a lot of history. I think it is balanced because the focus of the book is on the changed world, not the past, and the themes of division, so often a feature of books set in Northern Ireland, weren’t any part of the book’s focus.
SH: If there was an invasion, and you could claim any public place or building as your own, which/where would you turn into your haven?
JZ: My town, Carrickfergus, has a huge, intact medieval castle in it, complete with kitchen and fresh water spring. There could be worse places to hide out…
SH: You’re currently working on the sequel to Abendau’s Heir, the second book of the Inheritance Trilogy. Like John in Inish Carraig, Kare has a hard time of it in Abendau’s Heir, do you enjoy tormenting your characters with vicious life struggles?
JZ: My poor characters (although, on balance, John has it easy compared to Kare).
I think part of it is to do with conflict – in facing dark times there can be a lot of conflict. And conflict makes for an interesting story. But that’s too easy and trite an answer. Perhaps it’s more that without the darkness, light can’t be appreciated.
One reviewer felt I’d balanced the darkness in Inish Carraig and hoped, over the trilogy, I’d do the same with Abendau. I think I have, but without the darkness portrayed the balance would be out of kilter. Also, in Abendau with Kare, I am trying to deliberately shine a light on what I think can be a weakness in genre fiction – the unbeatable hero, who gets atrocious things done to him or her, and then dust themselves off and go on. I wanted to challenge the unreality of that. Many trauma sufferers don’t carry on unchanged. But to challenge that trope, I had to embrace it.
I’ve argued that what happens to Kare really isn’t that extreme for the genre. What is different is that I hold the reader close through the ordeal and that I, pretty unflinchingly, show the effect on him – particularly the psychological. I show very little gore, very little of his ordeal, so it’s not that which incurs the horror, but that we know and like the character, and he’s very human. What he goes through, the reader does too. Without that closeness, the trilogy simply wouldn’t work. So, particularly for Abendau, it is absolutely central to the story.
Also, when I write the books, apart from the truly grim scenes, they don’t feel dark. Challenging, yes, and upfront in terms of portraying consequences, but never as dark as readers find them. I don’t feel, for instance, that Inish Carraig is darker than something like Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go.
SH: How difficult is it to juggle the requirements that come with being self-published around the creative work of a writer and that of being ‘you’?
JZ: I am insanely busy at the moment. I work. I write. I promote. And I have a young(ish) family. Balancing it all is a challenge but the kids (and my husband) keep me grounded. We’re a close family and I love being with them more than I love writing so it’s about making the most of the times when I’m free. I’m lucky too because I do have people who tell me to knock off when I do too much, and who insist on going shopping instead. (Hi, Mum!)
SH: And finally, it’s taken you five years to get to this point, so without borrowing the nearest time travel device, where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I’d love to be writing more and working less (although I enjoy my work, so not giving up altogether.) Realistically, I know it’s incredibly hard to get to that point, and suspect I’ll still be frantically juggling.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Jo.
Inish Carraig is available through Amazon in e-book and paperback: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=inish+carraig
Abendau’s Heir, From Tickety Boo Press is available via Amazon and the Tickety Boo website: http://shop.ticketyboopress.co.uk/index.php?id_product=69&controller=product
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