Saira Viola: Under The Influence

Saira Viola is a pioneering writer of fiction and poetry who splits her time between Italy, London, and Baltimore. Her experimental ‘Sonic Scatterscript’ style has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and Heathcote Williams. Viola’s two novels Jukebox and Crack, Apple, Pop are published by the fiercely independent Fahrenheit Press who celebrate ‘Fahrenbruary‘ this month. For this month’s blog post we asked Saira to list three of her literary influences…


Dickens has been a major influence and continues to provide me with a rich vein of source material to tap into.  Few can equal Dickens when it comes to vibrant and eccentric characters, revealing the darkest of humours. Dickens has a Shakespearean heft and scale when describing villainy across the various strata of society. The characters bear the physical marks of a deformed society. Daniel Quilp, the shady money lender and ship breaker in The Old Curiosity Shop  is a perfect example, with his  ‘black sly eyes crooked long yellow nails,’ and ugly grin. He eats hard eggs shell and all and bites his fork and spoon until they are bent again. His protagonists experience a corresponding identity crisis as they struggle to reconcile the social conflicts that define their environment and inform their individual being.  They provide a connection, a portal into the novel, to the reader who, even at this late date, experience much the same tensions.  When I was ten, I was given a copy of Great Expectations. My family and I had recently settled in England after a blissful few years in Africa. I felt an outsider in English society alienated and alone, and so I immediately connected with the protagonist in the novel.  Pip is unclear about his identity and desperate to leave the brutal poverty of his childhood and establish a new identity on the glittered streets of London. When I was mercilessly teased at school about where I came from Pip’s words struck a chord “It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home.”

William S. Burroughs

But for tone and style I turned to William Burroughs. I bought a copy of Naked Lunch during my angst ridden teens, going through a punkish phase. Reading Burroughs’ pyretic prose, for the first time was revelatory to me and ultimately freed me from self-imposed conventions I never even knew existed. The raw sex and violence inspired me to write without fear, to try a riskier style of prose. The poetic punch of Burroughs’ novels propelled the rhythmic style of my own work and much later, I developed and experimented with my own writing resulting in a style I dubbed ‘sonic scatterscript’.

Marvin Gaye

I am often drawn to art-forms outside of literature for models that suit my purpose. Which brings me to the importance of music. Certain musicians  have been as important to me as the authors I admire, because the music of language is key. Take someone like Marvin Gaye, whose poetic street idioms, though deceptively simple, are weighted with great emotion and honesty. ‘What’s Going On?’ is a perfect example of Gaye’s song writing technique. The song is eternally fresh and manages to convey in only a very few lines the civil unrest and mood of dissent that characterised the end of the 60s. My favourite lines of the song are :

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
But just talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on… 

Thanks to Saira Viola for the pleasure of being her literary agents, and for providing us with February’s blog.

“I wrote a 200 page manuscript; my wife and I had an argument and she tore it all up!”

In this month's Artellus author profile, we speak with Jim Raven. Raven is a consummate crime author who writes under his own name, as well as the pseudonyms Jaime Raven and JP Carter. His hotly anticipated new series begins with In Safe Hands, released by Avon on 24th January 2019, can be ordered on Amazon here.

We spoke to Jim about being a full time writer, working under a pseudonym, and how crime fiction has changed with the internet age.

Jim, can you begin by telling us how you became a full time crime author?

I guess it begins when I was a child because my late mother was a big fan of Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane books, and she encouraged me to read. So I read them and got hooked on crime books. I did write my first book when I was 15 but it was so bad it didn’t get sent off or anything.

I worked as a journalist for newspapers and I started to write, and had four early books published by Robert Hale. I then moved into television and became a TV news producer. I’d heard about self publishing and thought why not do it myself? I went on to Amazon and published through the Kindle Direct a couple of books I’d written and they were quite successful. After I became one of Artellus’ clients. I got another 5 books published by Robert Hale, before they were taken over.

Then I dug out of my drawer a book I’d written that I’d never sent off. It was half-finished and I can’t remember what it was called. I wrote it up and sent it to Leslie and she sent it off to Avon (Harper Collins), who took it on, changed the title to The Madam, and we did a three book deal with Avon.

And that’s when you took on the pseudonym Jaime Raven?

Correct, the book was slightly different to what I’d done before, it wasn’t a straightforward police procedural. It was gangster, gritty crime, so Avon wanted me to change my name. It was partly because they didn’t want me associated with the previous books. Also it was a gender neutral name, they were keen on that. Most people who reviewed the book referred to me as ‘she’ so that worked for them(!)

And now you’re writing under the pseudonym JP Carter?

Yes, I then came up with an idea for a new detective series which is slightly different again to the Jaime Raven books and Avon went for it. Because it was slightly different they wanted me to change my name yet again! The only thing I asked them, and they were happy to do it, was that I would like to refer to my previous names and to my real name. So in the first JP Carter book ‘In Safe Hands’ there is an explanation inside as to who I am and the fact that I’ve written books under different names.

What are the pros and cons of writing under a different name?

The main disadvantage is that it’s not my name on the book! For any author one of the greatest pleasures is to see your name on the cover of a book. It can be confusing when you do book launches and things you have to explain to people ‘actually that’s not me that’s not my real name’  If I’m in Waterstones and there’s a book by JP Carter it does take a bit of the edge of it if it’s not your name! So you do miss that.

Right, people will think you’re having them on if you point it out in the bookshop! And what about advantages of not writing under your own name?

I notice depending on the type of book I’m doing my writing does change a bit. I wrote several books under my own name, James, and they’re in the first person. And I got quite used to that, and then I decided to write a couple of books that were not in the first person. I think you develop characters more easily by not being in the first person. So I do that, and the JP Carter books are not in the first person so I’m concentrating a lot more on character development.

How do you think tastes in Crime Fiction have changed over, say, the last 20 years?

The main thing is the popularity of psychological thrillers. Going back many years I don’t remember reading many at all, but now the market is saturated with psychological thrillers. There’s much more emphasis on characters and characterisation than the plot. When I first started reading I was always focused on the plot: how to develop the plot, what action is taking place. Now I come at it from the characters and their backstories and relationships first. I try and come up with a main protagonist first before I develop a plot. That, for me, is the main change.

Do you think the recent popularity in psychological thrillers reflects a change in society at all?

I think it does reflect something in society: how social media has an effect on how we react. We look at Facebook, Twitter, all this stuff and you’re seeing how other lives are led. Together with that there’s a lot more news out there now: 24 hour news; online news; newspapers. There’s a lot more exposure of people’s lives and you’re seeing that it’s not just detectives and criminals who are getting up to stuff! You see normal people in newspapers or online that everyday are doing things that make for interesting reading.

Right, the mass exposure of private lives through the internet and social media, and it’s changing our cultural tastes.

I remember speaking to Avon about changing from the Jaime books which were more ‘Gangsters’ and ‘police’ to the new series. They wanted the plots to focus more on ordinary people rather than gangsters and that moves it more towards the psychological: a mother has got a secret, or a marriage is going wrong. So the newest book, In Safe Hands, centres on a nursery school, children are being kidnapped. A nursery school is something many of us send our kids to.

Interesting stuff. The time’s they are a-changing!

I can tell you another story about the way the life for an author has changed. When I was doing the first books for Robert Hale, many years ago, it was on a typewriter. I remember I wrote a 200 page manuscript; my wife and I had an argument and she tore it all up! And of course there was no backup! I remember I had to start it all over again.

Eurgh, what a horrible place the past was! Finally, what’s next for the many incarnations of Jim Raven?

Well I’ve got the three book JP Carter series with Avon. I’ve written one that comes out this month – In Safe Hands. I just finished the second one, ‘At Your Door’, which Leslie has sent to Avon and I’m just in the process of doing the structural edit. Then I’ll have to come up with another story for the third book. We’ll see where we go from there. So that’ll be three JP Carter books and hopefully more beyond that.

No resurrection of the 15 year old Jim Raven’s crime masterpiece?

I’ve no idea where that is!⬛️

Thanks to Jim Raven for speaking with us, and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents. Interview by Angus MacDonald; transcript has been edited for clarity.

“How do you translate bread?” An interview with Prof. David Coward.

David Coward is a professor of French literature at the University of Leeds and veteran translator of French literature. His translation of Arthur Cohen's Belle du Seigneur won a Scott Moncreif Prize. He is currently translating Georges Simenon's popular Inspector Maigret series for Penguin Classics. A Maigret Christmas is available now.

We caught up with him to talk translation, his newest Inspector Maigret, and the impossibility of exact translation.

David, could you start with a quick summary of how you got into translating?

I was teaching French at the University of Leeds and in 1986 OUP rang me up and asked would I translate The Lady of the Camellias, which I’d never read. I thought it might be quite dreadful, but of course I said yes. Later on I was asked by Penguin to translate a book by Albert Cohen called Belle du Seigneur which was really rather long and quite hard, it came out at about 1000 pages, but it won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. Anyway I’ve now translated about 30 books.  I fell into it, if you like.

And how long did 1000 pages of Albert Cohen take to translate?

Oh god, years. I was working at the time, it was about 5 years on and off, I did other things as well.

What do you enjoy about translating?

I quite like translating because being a bit of a ham, I always think the translator gets to play all the parts, you can do all the voices you know? You are the narrator, all the characters, sometimes you talk in different accents, but that in itself can be quite difficult.

Talking of difficulties, what’s the biggest challenge?

One of the things you have to do as a translator is clear up the vague bits in the original text, because authors try it on, sometimes they will try an image and you’re not quite sure what that image means. You then have to interpret it and force a meaning on the reader and hope to goodness that you’ve got it right(!)

Then there’s the cultural challenges: for example how do you translate ‘bread’? Bread in English conjures up in the eye of the average British reader something that is square that you make sandwiches with and form triangles, whereas bread in french is something long you put under your arms. When you change the nationality of objects, then of course all the historical references that every nation has change with it.

Can you give a good specifically historical example?

Well, in terms of translating a French book from the German occupation of France, you talk about ‘semelles de bois’: The merry sound it made as you crack along on your wooden shoes because there wasn’t any leather around. But in England we wouldn’t understand that so you have to convey that without putting a footnote, which is terribly boring and taboo as far as I’m concerned(!)

Right! 100% direct translation is basically impossible, isn’t it?

Ultimately I suppose, direct translation is not possible. Somebody in the 16th century said when you read a translated book it’s really rather like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the back, you get a lot of fluff and inklings and the broad idea but the finer points skip you.

Can you think of any phrases or passages that really gave, or give, you a headache when it comes to translation?

Oh gosh. Well, ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is a bit of a snorter to put into French. Is this cat a male cat or a female cat? And when it sat, was it sat sitting? Or did it sit down, at that moment? These tenses are much more distinct in French than they are in English. Now what about your mat? What sort of mat are you thinking of: something behind the door? In front of a fire?

If you wanted to put that into French you’d bear in mind the general sense of what this sentence means, it’s heavily rhythmic and alliterative isn’t it? Now instead of making the cat sit down on some mat or other that I can’t actually translate, I would call it a female cat, ‘la chatte’, and then there’s a verb in French which is to scratch, which is ‘se gratter’, and then the word for a cat’s paw is ‘la pate’. So I would translate that as ‘la chatte se gratte la patte’ which gets the rhythm of ‘the cat sat on the mat’, and it’s just as nonsensical. But you see how something that appears to be quite simple is in fact fiendishly complex.

Sounds like a headache…

It does take a bit of time, absolutely. I mean, to talk about Simenon, it was his habit to lock himself in a room for 10 days with a pencil and paper and he would emerge with a novel ten days later in 20 chapters, and it took him less time to write the damn thing than it takes anyone else to translate it!

When it comes to Simenon, you’ve translated many books in the Inspector Maigret series, which is your favourite?

I think this Christmas one. It’s three longish short stories. The variety is very interesting and the stories are very compelling. It’s good Maigret stuff, it’s about the psychology of the individual, tracking what they do, judging them by what they’ve done, and then trying to second guess what they might do next. French detective fiction is very different to ours, we tend to go by ‘there was blood on the floor’ or ‘the train went at six forty five that day instead of half six’ therefore the butler is lying!

More quantitative clues?

That’s right! The french have gone according to the psychological makeup of the criminal which can be deduced from his actions.

Are the three tales straight up detective stories?

One is not really about crime at all but is a very subtle short story and full of humanity, which people don’t often associate with Simenon, because he has this terrible reputation for being a rather louche character, and the others are plain detection. They’re very satisfying because the wicked are brought to justice.

A big Scooby-Doo resolve at the end?

Umm, not my generation I fear…

I mean… a good Shakespearean resolution at the end?

Much better! Yes that’s the one.

Finally, the big question: French or English?

Oh English every time! Oh yes, English has got a wider vocabulary and is much more down to earth and its range is wider. The reason why the French have so much slang is because they their vocabulary has been reduced whereas ours continues to proliferate. It seems to me English is much more wedded to practicalities, whereas french is a language of abstraction. There are times where French can be opaque, although it seems clear, which explains I think, why until the early 18th century French was the international language of diplomacy because you can say nothing more elegantly in French than in any other language ⬛️

Thanks to David Coward for speaking to us, and of course the pleasure of representing him as literary agents. Interview by Angus MacDonald; transcript has been edited for clarity.