Zoë Sharp is the author of the Charlie Fox series, comprising Killer Instinct (2001), Riot Act (2002), Hard Knocks(2003), First Drop (2004), Road Kill (2005) and Second Shot (2007). The series features the tough former Special Forces trainee and trained bodyguard known as Charlotte Foxcroft by her aloof and uncommunicative father, but Charlie Fox by everyone else.
In Second Shot, Charlie’s latest assignment is protecting Simone Kerse (a recent lottery multi-millionaire) and her young daughter, Ella, from the attentions of a former boyfriend. Simone’s refusal to comply with Charlie’s security measures, and her reckless search across snowbound New England for the father that abandoned her, end up with Charlie shot in a frozen forest and left fighting for her life.
Zoë is currently on a busy US book-signing tour to promote Second Shot, the second book in the series to be set in the US, but has kindly made time to answer my email questions for Shots.
Charlie’s an engaging and sympathetic mixture of butt-kicking bodyguard who will kill, ex-Special Forces trainee with a damaged past and attendant hang-ups, and good-natured softie (especially towards Ella, four-year-old daughter of the woman she’s hired to protect) – how much do you identify with Charlie?
I used to deny any connection, but now I find it’s just easier to tell people it’s all entirely autobiographical. :) Seriously, I think I’ve just tried to make her a real person, with all the quirks of personality you’d expect. Actually, considering what she’s gone through, I feel she’s surprisingly well balanced in her outlook on life.
Yes, she has an ability to kill under the right circumstances that could make her into a cold-blooded caricature, but I’ve tried very hard not to let that happen. Women in fiction with that ability are so often portrayed as psychopaths or assassins, and rarely do we see inside their heads. Charlie Fox speaks in the first person in the books, so you’re inside her head all the time. I wanted to try and ensure it was a place the reader wanted to be. After all, you may not always agree or sympathise with the main protagonist in a novel, but they have to engage you on some level. I hope Charlie strikes a chord on the secret bravery front – that if-push-came-to-shove-I-could-do-that kind of level. I’ve also tried to develop her as the series goes on, so she learns something from the experiences she goes through, which have an effect on her life and the way she reacts to those around her.
Your settings are very precise, right down to street-by-street descriptions of car journeys that suggest more than a passing knowledge of the area. How do you know Boston and the surrounding area so well?
To me, the setting for a book is as much a part of it as another character. As a writer I would hate to include a character who was a two-dimensional cipher for the plot, and it’s the same with the location. I try to give it some meaning within the confines of the plot. In Second Shot, I knew I wanted to start off in the slightly more impersonal setting of a big city, then move out into a small town where things should be so much safer, but they actually aren’t.Boston is a city we used to spend some time in when we were coming over to New England regularly to ski. I liked the idea of starting off there, with the Boston Harbor Hotel, and the Aquarium right on the edge of the wharf.
And we also spent a lot of time in North Conway, so it was somewhere I had a good feel for before I started. It had so many good places to set scenes for the book, like the White Mountain Hotel and the little seafood restaurant where Charlie has her meeting with Felix Vaughan. The only place I invented was the military surplus store. There is actually a store of that type in North Conway itself, but because of various things that happen in the fictional one, I didn’t want to use a real place, so I moved it out towards Intervale and made up my own. That turned out to be a good idea. About a month before Second Shot came out, somebody walked into the real surplus store in North Conway and shot three people, including the owner, which was a scary coincidence. If anything had been going to come true from the book, I was quietly hoping for a sizeable lottery win ...
And with First Drop, the whole idea for the book came about because of being in Daytona Beach over the Spring Break weekend for my day job, photographing the car show that goes on there. I remember saying to myself at the time, ‘If you were on the run, with a teenage kid, this would be a great place to hide because you could hide in plain sight.’ So, the plot grew out of the location, rather than coming up with the idea and then having to find somewhere to put it.
In Second Shot there’s a memorable scene where Charlie’s on a shooting range with a smug, sexist boor called Felix Vaughan. She well and truly out-shoots him, driving home her point with a perfect headshot. Now, you’re an excellent shot yourself – both ballistically and photographically, being a handgun expert and a freelance photo-journalist in the tough, macho world of cars and motorbikes. Have you encountered any real-life Felix Vaughans, and were any of those close-to-the-bone emotions coming from Zoë as much as Charlie?
First of all, I can only lay claim to being a reasonable shot with a handgun! Rifle – 7.62 calibre – was always my weapon of choice. I used to competition shoot at 300 metres with open sights, as well as doing moving target competitions. We’ve had the opportunity on this trip to get some practice in, but the truth is if you want to stay any good you have to work at it a lot harder than I’m able to these days. Still a lot of fun, though.
And yes, I do bump up against the occasional thick skull in my day-job. You can’t work in a very male-dominated field and not do so. It still annoys me when people make assumptions about my knowledge and abilities based purely on my gender and nothing else but I don’t lose my temper about it ... very often.
Having said that, I’m as against positive discrimination as much as negative. If someone’s good at their job, let them get ahead, regardless of who they are, rather than forcibly promote someone just on the grounds that they are a particular minority of any description. And in the books, Charlie’s not asking for special treatment, just the same treatment as everybody else.
Poor Charlie really has a hard time in Second Shot, getting shot and left for dead in a frozen forest, winding up in hospital heavily sedated, with broken bones and near-fatal flesh wounds, covered in plaster with tubes sticking into her veins: but still she hobbles back into her job with the odds heavily stacked against her. Does it hurt you to put your heroine through so much, and where do you think Charlie finds the mental strength to fight on?
The whole idea behind Second Shot was that I wanted to take away Charlie’s normal physical self-assurance. After she’s injured she knows that she can’t rely on her usual skills to get her out of trouble. She has an encounter with one of the bad guys just after she comes out of hospital that demonstrates this to her in no uncertain terms. For the first time in years, she’s suddenly vulnerable and this fact pushes her to take more drastic action than she would otherwise have to do in order to save the life of a child. That becomes more important to her than she was expecting, and has resonance further down the line.
You are, as we speak, on a tour of the United States, promoting Second Shot. You have an excellent blog of the tour on www.zoesharp.com, but what’s the most memorable experience so far? Any storyline fodder for a future novel, for example? And what sorts of reactions are Americans, especially Bostonians, giving to this Brit writer who’s set her story in and around Boston?
Being on the road in the UK is great thinking and plotting time for me, and this has proved no exception. In the mass market paperback edition of First Drop in the US, St Martin’s asked me for a short story to go in the back as a bonus feature. While we’ve been travelling around on this trip the idea for the perfect short story to go in the back ofSecond Shot when it comes out in paperback next year has come to me and I’ve been writing snippets as we go.
No experiences are ever wasted. Even when I attempted to remove the last knuckle of my left index finger with a chop saw while we were building the house. I remember looking at the blood spatter on the floor and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting ...’
The reaction to Second Shot in New England has been great. The owners of the White Mountain Hotel, where part of the book is set, came to the event I did at White Birch Books in North Conway, New Hampshire. They bought half a dozen copies on the spot and asked if it was possible I could sign more for them. The owner of the bookstore, Laura Lucy, admitted that when I went in there last year while we were over doing some final research and I went in and introduced myself to her, saying I was writing a book set in the town, she’d taken it with a bit of a pinch of salt. Then she’d been to my website and realised that I wasn’t just a wannabe, that there was a distinct possibility if I said I was writing a book set in North Conway, I actually might do it.
I think one of the reasons the character seems to be going down so well in the US is that I’m not trying to write an American character, set in America. Charlie’s a Brit, and I’ve tried to keep that slant in her views on the places she visits, so she’s looking at them from an outsider’s point of view, not just someone slightly out of step with civilian life, as she is, but also as someone slightly out of step with the culture of the country in which she finds herself.
Being a photo-journalist as well as a novelist must be a great help for the visuals in your novels. Do you think like a photographer when you’re visualising scenes, and in what ways do these two quite different disciplines inform each other?
As a photographer I have to capture the feel and flavour of a place in a snapshot, and I try to carry that over into my writing. I tend to be impatient as a reader so I find long narrative passages that don’t move the story forwards somewhat dull. I’d far rather get the point across in as few words as possible. When I finished next year’s book,Third Strike, earlier this year, the first draft was 22,000 words over length and I went through it line by line cutting out all the unnecessary bits, paring it down. It was a great exercise in trying to write tighter prose, to the extent where I think I would do that again, even if the next book didn’t go over length.
On a more practical level, we travel over 30,000 miles a year inside the UK for the day job, so that means we spend a lot of time in the car. I learned a couple of years ago that I can write quite happily with the laptop on my knee on the move – and no, not while I’m driving ...I don’t have the luxury of shutting myself away in a hotel or a mountain retreat for weeks to finish a book. It’s done around the cracks of the day job. I fit it in because I have a compulsion to write that won’t be quiet. It’s just something I have to do. But, I’d find it more difficult in a lot of ways not to have a day job. I enjoy the vast majority of what I do and, besides, I do all the photography for my husband Andy’s nonfiction writing, so if I give up my day job, it affects him, too. Cutting it back a little might be nice, though.
You’re one quarter of LadyKillers, the other three being Danuta Reah (aka Carla Banks), Lesley Horton and Priscilla Masters: it must be great hanging out with other crime writers who are friends as well as colleagues (although rumour hath it that crime writers in general are an incredibly friendly bunch). What kind of support are you able to offer each other? Any war stories you’ve shared?
My fellow LadyKillers are great. It’s wonderful to do events with them, because as an author you always have that horrible feeling that nobody’s going to turn up to hear you speak. And three of the four of us did do an event, organised by somebody else, where there were six of us, including a moderator, and we outnumbered the audience by three to one.We’ve become friends as well as writing colleagues, which is lovely. And yes, the crime writing crowd are generally a very friendly bunch. I have a theory it’s because they work all their anger and aggression out on the page instead of taking it out on those around them. Although, I have to say that as a rule I find the American authors more prepared to help you out, give you a leg up, than the UK authors. In the UK other writers still see you as their competition – if someone buys your book, they might not buy mine, that kind of attitude. In the US I think there’s much more of a feeling that just getting people to buy books and read books is a Good Thing. And encouraging someone to read by recommending another author’s work is doing a service to the industry as a whole. I really like that.
Any tasters you can give us for where Charlie’s going next, in Third Strike (due out in 2008)?
is set partly in New York
, then moves up to Boston
briefly before heading for Houston, Texas
. In this book I wanted to explore Charlie’s relationship with her parents – particularly her father – which has never been good, especially not when she throws in her lot wholeheartedly with Sean, whom they’ve neither liked nor approved of. So, when her father suddenly turns up in the States, disgraced and admitting to gross professional misconduct, Charlie is the last person he’s going to turn to for help. It’s up to her to muscle in and force him to accept it. I also really wanted to dig a little deeper into Charlie’s search for respect. She’s been looking for it for years, from the military and from her parents, and I think she finally finds it in this book, but at a heavy price. And after that? Well, I have a few ideas for the follow-up. In the follow-up, she’s going to be looking for redemption ...