Author Interview: Anietie Isong


Today marks the release of The Borough Press anthology Of This Our Country, celebrating acclaimed Nigerian writers. One such writer, our very own Anietie Isong, spoke to us about Nigeria, the collection, and his (many!) other projects.

Nigeria is the 7th largest global population, and its population is set to take over the US’s by the year 2050. For such a large population, do you feel Nigerian voices are sufficiently represented in literature?

Nigeria overtaking the US? I hope the world is ready for this population explosion! That said, I believe our voices are well-represented in literature. The other day, I was reading a feature on Nigerian authors published in the UK and the US. I would like to point out that that there is an incredibly vibrant literary scene in Nigeria too. A couple of years ago, a BBC radio documentary, Writing a New Nigeria, featured 15 authors, all of whom were residing and writing in the country at the time. Many of the writers featured in that programme went on to win major international prizes. Speaking of awards, there are very few literary prizes that a Nigerian has never won. When Bernardine Evaristo was announced as joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize for her novel, Girl, Woman, Other, she became the first black woman to win the prize, but many people might not know she was born in London to a Nigerian father. Interestingly, the longlist/shortlist of that year’s Booker Prize featured two other Nigerian writers – Chigozie Obioma and Oyinkan Braithwaite. Obioma is judging the prize this year. And let’s not forget that Nigerian Wole Soyinka became the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, a few years before fellow countryman Ben Okri won the Booker Prize. Not too long ago, my friend Sola Adenekan published African Literature in the Digital Age: Class and Sexual Politics in New Writing from Nigeria and Kenya, a book that explores not just the literatures of these two countries, but also the transformative power of new technologies. As Sola states in his book, Nigeria and Kenya, both significant countries in African literature, are two of the continent’s largest digital technology hubs. In many ways, digital technology has enhanced our literature – something I also explored in my PhD thesis. As an example, the Ake Festival, which takes place in October, will be hosted entirely online – and I am excited to be a guest this year.

In this, do you feel that the Of This Our Country collection is an indicator of how the tide is changing?

To be fair, foreign publishers have played a major role in the development of Nigerian literature. Take, for instance, the African Writers Series, developed by Heinemann to introduce many readers to books written by African authors. Of this our Country is a unique project, and I am excited to be part of it. The collection is a celebration of Nigerian identity. I like the way it’s being widely promoted in the UK, both online and offline. In editing the collection, Ore Agbaje-Williams and Nancy Adimora went the extra mile to ensure the book reflects the diversity of Nigeria. For instance, writers from many ethnic groups in the country are represented. Of This Our Country also features both old and new writers, established and budding authors, as well as essays by men and women. I give kudos to HarperCollins for funding this work.

Nigeria has a wealth of young writing talent, showcased in the collection. What is it about Nigerian writing to you that is so distinctive and exciting?

As stated in Of This Our Country, storytelling by Nigerians is not just a coincidence, “but part of a national and cultural inheritance”. I believe that Nigerian writers continue to break barriers, expressing themselves in previously unheard ways, and like I mentioned earlier, their works are increasingly receiving accolades across the world. It has been suggested that while older Nigerian writers – such as Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka – were always conscious of their roles as pan-Africanists, this is a lesser concern for new writers, and this works in their favour by allowing them to explore more diverse themes. I think, even though many new Nigerian writers are refreshing and innovative, they continue the tradition of writing about social justice, although their political positions might be subtler.

In addition, Nigeria has – broadly – a young and connected population. Where do you think books and literature fit in this landscape, as much as they do?

Indeed, young Nigerian writers – including scriptwriters and songwriters – are taking the country by storm. It’s great to see young writers producing works that matter to them. Works that are equally consumed by a young population. But we should note that not all of these young Nigerian writers reside in Nigeria; many are scattered across the world. They are part of a transformative global relocation, and their immigrations are often triggered by events at home. The internet has made it possible for these writers to maintain close, ongoing ties with their homeland in an unprecedented way.

How have you found the experience of writing an essay compared to the experience you have as a writer of novels?

This is my first published essay, and it was a delight to write, although at first, I was unsure of the subject to tackle. When it became clear that I wanted to reflect on the funeral process in my hometown, I took some time to think about the direction of my piece. What aspects of my culture did I want to portray? How much detail did I need to provide? Would I offend my extended family by revealing conversations that had been made in private? After finding answers to these questions, it became easy for me to write ‘Rites of Passage’.

Radio Sunrise, published in the UK by Jacaranda, has recently been published in Nigeria through Narrative Landscape Press. How do the experiences compare?

Perhaps I should say a few words about my journey to publication – which wasn’t entirely a smooth one! I started writing Radio Sunrise after I was offered a book deal by an independent press that had previously published my short story. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned, so I put the novel away to focus on my career in corporate writing. I revisited the manuscript in 2016, and Jacaranda offered to publish it the following year. I am excited that Radio Sunrise is now published in Nigeria, and I would like to thank Dr. Eghosa Imasuen for making this possible. I am currently working on adapting the novel into a film, and will share the details of this shortly!

Of This Our Country is available now. Anietie Isong’s award-winning novel Radio Sunrise is published by Jacaranda in the UK and Narrative Landscape Press in Nigeria. Jacaranda will also publish Anietie Isong’s next novel – look out for details soon! Anietie will be speaking as part of the Ake Festival on October 28th. For more details visit:

Mozley’s ‘dazzling Dickensian tale’ confirms her as a writer of ‘extraordinary empathic gifts’.


This week sees the release of Hot Stew, the much anticipated second novel from Fiona Mozley. In 2017 Mozley’s debut novel Elmet made an overnight sensation of its author, scooping up prizes, rave reviews, and a place on the Booker shortlist.

Elmet’s depiction of a secluded family on the Yorkshire moors swiftly became an exemplar of modern rural noir. Mozley’s latest book Hot Stew leaves behind the rugged dales and districts for the grit and grime of London’s inner district of Soho. Through brothels and pubs, back alleys and tunnels, the novel tracks a city in motion and the individuals who make its community.

Fans of Elmet will recognise its themes of power and property, and Mozley’s careful attention to the psychic geography created by people and places. But there the similarities end, as Hot Stew plunges the reader into a metropolis in flux, a gordian knot of lives interlinked, with themes of nostalgia and adulthood.

Hot Stew is served up to the public on Thursday 18th of March, with critics already salivating. The Guardian’s Lara Feigal described it as a “dazzling Dickensian tale“, the FT praised it as a “fantastical novel about the city’s messy, mutable nature.” The Observer’s Alex Preston hails it as “a rich, ribald tale of old Soho under siege.” It is currently The Bookseller’s Book of the Week. With this superlative second novel Fiona Mozley confirms herself as ‘a writer of extraordinary empathic gifts.’

Hot Stew is published by John Murray on Thursday 18th of March. An online book launch hosted by Portobello Books marks the occasion. It’s been an honour to work with Fiona on this book, and we can’t wait for this fantastic novel to be gobbled up by literature fans across the world.

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is published in the UK by John Murray Press on 18th of March 2021. For agent enquiries contact Leslie Gardner, Artellus Ltd.

Bringing Paperback

As we find our feet in 2021, we look forward to a bountiful year of book releases: debuts and follow ups, fiction and non-fiction, hardback and paperback. With a number of fantastic hardbacks out last year, we’re now blessed with their paperback follow-ups. As ever from Artellus Ltd. there’s a great variety: From Nazis and Paris to motherhood and madness. The two things all these books have in common are their superb quality and their literary agency.

Juliet Bates’ The Colours was released on Fleet (Little Brown) last year. The hardback garnered praise for its literary prose, fine artistry, and mesmerising story. Set around the North East of England it captures time, geographies, and relationships as they evolve. The Yorkshire post described Bates’ The Colours as “Striking, closely observed, and beautifully wrought.” The paperback edition of The Colours is released this June.

Kyra Wilder was selected as one of Picador’s New Voices in 2020. Her debut novel Little Bandaged Days was a taut, emotionally charged thriller centred on a new mother. Little Bandaged Days was a critically acclaimed debut, described by The Guardian as “gripping, observant, wonderfully written – and extravagantly cruel.” The paperback edition was published by Picador in January 2021.

Christopher Othen’s meticulously researched history book The King Of Nazi Paris documents the rise of Henri Lafont, a petit criminal who rose to become the most powerful crook and head of the ‘French Gestapo’ in Nazi occupied Paris. This pacy historical account covers some incredible characters and events, unearthing a little known story within a very well known era. According to Paul Lay for The Times “Othen captures the seediness and amorality of Lafont, his men and occupied Paris.” The paperback edition will come out on 23rd of March, published by Biteback.

Last but not least is the paperback release of Samir Puri’s The Great Imperial Hangover. This masterful analysis takes on the role of imperial legacies across the globe in the here and now. The hardback release by Atlantic Books garnered wide praise for its even- handed analysis of how our present world lives under the shadow of its colonial past. A must read for those interested in geopolitics and global history, The Great Imperial Hangover comes out on paperback in July.

Ein deutscher Herbst


As an international literary agency, getting an author's manuscript onto the shelves of your local British bookshop is only half the work. Our job also involves negotiating contracts all over the English reading world, in translation country by country, and working in partnership with English language publishers as they place rights abroad on our behalf. 

Selling our authors' books abroad is exciting for a few reasons: a foreign audience will come at the book from an entirely different angle; the undergoing of literary translation is a minor miracle (more on this here); and a new book design and foreign title is always novel. This autumn, by glücklich coincidence three of our books are released in Germany in quick succession. We thought we'd mark the occasion. Here's to the global community of literature lovers, and the triumph of books over borders.

Dr Guido Steinberg is an expert in counter-terrorism and conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Previously working for the German government, he is now a Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His first book German Jihad was published by Columbia University Press. This autumn Krieg Am Golf is published by Droemer HG, looking at the recent geopolitical tensions between Iran, Saudi-Arabia, and the USA in the Persian Gulf.

Kyra Wilder was selected as one of Picador’s 2020 New Voices. Her debut novel Little Bandaged Days is an eerie novel of family, motherhood, and madness. Little Bandaged Days was published in English to critical acclaim, The Guardian’s Daisy Hildyard describing it as “gripping, observant, wonderfully written – and extravagantly cruel.” Das brennende Haus is published by S. Fischer Verlag this November, when German readers will have the chance to read Wilder’s debut and find out: wie schmal ist der Grat zwischen Mutterglück und Wahnsinn?

The final of our German trio is Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, a dark tale of land, power, and family in the rugged hills of West Yorkshire. Published in 2017 by John Murray Originals, Mozley’s book was quickly recognised as a masterful and gripping debut. Elmet won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Polari Prize. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Dublin Literary Award and the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Mozley’s hotly anticipated second novel Hot Stew comes out in March 2021. In the meantime, Elmet‘s German translation is released this November on btb, an imprint of Penguin Random House Deutschland.

Artellus Agent Profile: Jon Curzon


Jon Curzon (pictured with gorge) has been working at Artellus Ltd. since 2016. He is a graduate of English Literature and alongside his role at Artellus works as a freelance editor. 

As agent for Artellus Ltd. he represents authors of both fiction and non-fiction, handling domestic and international rights. Jon also works with Artellus co-founder Gabriele Pantucci reviewing English literary releases for the Italian press. We spoke to Jon about his work and literary tastes.

Jon, how did you get into publishing and end up working with us here at Artellus Ltd.?

After university I applied for around 50(!) publishing internships over months and months. I finally got one with an agency, where I read submissions mostly. That agency had a connection with a literary consultancy, which I then got involved with, going on to build a portfolio as a freelance editor/literary consultant. Then I just saw the Artellus Ltd job advertised – on Indeed… It wasn’t exactly to do with the agency side explicitly, more of an admin role. But with some hard work, perseverance, and support from Leslie and Darryl I’ve managed to build my own list over the years.

Over lockdown, what have you been reading? Any good escapist recommendations? 

I don’t know if I’ve done that much escaping, to be honest! We’ve been working from home pretty much as normal – perhaps even more so. Mostly I’ve been escaping through the submissions. I haven’t stopped reading for pleasure entirely; if I had to pick a top 3 it’d be ‘Dinner with Edward’ by Isabel Vincent (a charming, true story of a neighbour befriending an elderly widower), ‘Blue Ticket’ by Sophie Mackintosh (I loved ‘The Water Cure’) and – a real discovery – ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole, which quickly became one of my favourite ever books.

When it comes to classic literature, which books have you got no time for?

I never finished ‘Jude the Obscure’. And when I say ‘never finished’ I mean didn’t get beyond the first chapter. But I don’t read many classics really – I was quite bad at school (and uni too, being honest) and used Sparknotes a fair bit.

Which books or authors do you wish you could have represented?

I would have liked to have represented someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald, just to have exchanged cool letters that would one day be part of an archive… I guess that’s emails now though, right? Or maybe a controversial book for its time, like ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

And when it comes to your work now, what are you looking for in the submissions pile?

In submissions, I’m looking for literary fiction; I’m a big believer in first lines. Usually the voice and style of writing within that space says if I’ll like something. Then non-fiction from big ideas to monographs to memoirs to history – anything really that catches the eye and is well-written!

And so to conclude: a favourite novel opening?

I’d say my favourite is Sylvia Plath’s opening of The Bell Jar…

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

Jon Curzon is an agent for Artellus Ltd. and can be contacted at For this post he spoke with colleague Angus MacDonald.

Who killed Berta Cáceres?

Nina Lakhani's new book WHO KILLED BERTA CÁCERES? tells the story of an Indigenous environmental activist murdered in Honduras. 

Berta Cáceres was a celebrated champion of her indigenous Lenca community and fiercely opposed the construction of a dam on their land. Ultimately, her defiance put her at lethal odds with the companies and Honduran government supporting the dam's construction. On the 3rd of March 2016 she was assassinated by gunmen later linked to the construction of the dam. 

Nina Lakhani's book details her investigation into the complex power structures at play in Cáceres' murder and elaborates on the reality that so many more were responsible for Berta Cáceres' assassination than just those who pulled the trigger.

Before the book’s publication by Verso, Lakhani had been a Latin American correspondent for The Guardian, reporting on Berta Cáceres’ campaign among other regional affairs. Lakhani’s reporting often came with much personal risk. As John Perry points out in his review for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs “Nina Lakhani is a brave reporter. She had to be. Since the coup in Honduras, 83 journalists have been killed; 21 were thrown in prison during the period when Lakhani was writing her book.”

The book has been released to international acclaim. Many reviews have praised its success in detailing how systemic corruption works against indigneous communities and activists like Cáceres. In openDemocracy Julia Zulver said “Lakhani’s book meticulously unpicks a Gordian knot of corruption, impunity, and violence, to show how the struggle against the dam is deeply-rooted in historical power dynamics in Honduras.” Ben Leather in Global Witness writes that the book “…offers the inside track on a case that is not only emblematic of the struggle for rights and representation in Honduras, but of the global battle for rights and the environment in the face of corrupt governments and irresponsible business.”

As well as reviews in Ms Magazine, Eurasia Review, Counter Punch, Jacobin Magazine, and Americas Quarterly, Lakhani herself has been doing the rounds. She has since appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Red Nation Podcast, and in Foreign Policy magazine to talk about Berta Cácere’s life and work. The book continues to garner international acclaim for its fearless reporting on this tragic murder, and the relevance of Berta Cáceres’ life and death to on-going indigenous and environmental struggles on-going throughout the world.

Read an extract of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? in The Guardian here. For your copy of Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet head to the Verso website, where you can get 40% off for the rest of June.


Robert O’Connor’s Blood and Circuses

Robert O'Connor's first book Blood and Circuses charts his journeys through the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, looking at how football culture is tied up with ideas of nationhood, history, and power.

For the Artellus blog, Robert talks about how he went from rookie sports journalist in the UK to writing a book about footballing culture in remote corners of Eastern European.

Blood and Circuses is out now on Biteback Publishing, and can be purchased here.

“I knew from the earliest days of my career as a football journalist that I wanted to write about more than just the domestic game in England.

It’s not easy as a young writer (relatively speaking – I was 25 when I first turned my hand to scribbling about football) starting out in this business. The sheer breadth of competition that you’re up against is daunting. Finding a unique angle on something like the Premier League in the Sky Sports age is next to impossible.

All the biggest news stories are being covered by the heavyweight personalities at the national newspapers, and getting access to big names for interviews can be hellishly hard, even for those blessed with initiative and the fearlessness to stick your neck out (of which I had neither).

My solution was to pack a bag and fly off to Eastern Europe to look for stories that hadn’t been told. Football behind the old Iron Curtain has been quite well documented if you know where to look, so I had to look between the cracks of the cracks and go where virtually no English football journalist had been.

So in March 2016, scraping together a couple of hundred pounds from my meager income as an ad hoc freelancer, I got on a bus from Sheffield to Heathrow and flew to Pristina – the capital city of the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. It was the first time I had left the country alone, and I had no idea what I would do when I arrived. A couple of emails placed to the local football authorities hooked me up with a few names to interview and matches to attend, and within a week I had the foundations for what eventually became Blood & Circuses.

I’d made the transition to writing full-time only about six months earlier. I’d gone back to university at 26 to train properly as a journalist and jump through the NCTJ’s educational hoops, which gave me a bit of breathing room to start doing my first paid writing, at FourFourTwo and VICE. My first proper break came when I was offered a freelance job with the Bleacher Report doing these huge in-depth, 4,000-word investigations, which enabled me to finally quit the myriad part-time jobs I had stayed on in after my studies.

Freelance jobs came and went over the next few years. I moved back to London but eschewed pursuing staff work as I needed the freedom to be able to disappear for weeks at a time to obscure outposts in Eastern Europe. But my travels meant I was able to get my first heavyweight bylines; The Times, the BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent all carried my reporting over the next few years, and I was finally able to articulate exactly where my work as a journalist was leading me. Currently I contribute ad hoc as a freelance reporter to the iThe Times and The Sun (if any of my editors there are reading this and would like to take me on full-time, you’ve got my number).

I continued to write from wherever my travels took me up until the end of 2019, which by then included each of Europe’s separatist statelets; Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donetsk – the principal subjects of Blood & Circuses.

I believe I got the green light that the book was going to be published whilst half asleep in a backpackers hostel in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. That night at a snow-swept Olympiskiy Stadium as I watched a drab Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, the perishing cold didn’t bother me at all.”

Words by Robert O’Connor, whose first book Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics is out now on Biteback Publishing. Thanks to Robert for writing for our blog and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents.

‘What’s the world you came out of?’ Juliet Bates

Juliet Bates hails from the North East of England and lives in France teaching art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Caen in Normandy. Her debut novel The Missing was published in 2009 on Linen Press, her short fiction has appeared in various publications.

Bates' latest novel The Colours is out now on Fleet Reads, an imprint of Little Brown. This sweeping novel features a mother and son separated in the early 1900s. With its rich visual descriptions the novel is an exploration of looking differently at our surroundings and relationships to place. 

Juliet, your latest novel The Colours has just come out, what’s it about?

The Colours is a novel about a mother and a son, Ellen and Jack. Despite their intimate connection they’re separated for most of the novel which explores Jack’s slow reconciliation with his mother’s condition and, not unconnected to his mother, Jack’s reconciliation with his hometown and the landscape and environment around it. That’s at the centre of the novel, the people part.

And the non-people part?

The town itself is a fairly important character and I was interested in the way in which the environments and landscapes changed over the period of the 70 years of the novel: socially and geographically. It’s also a novel about looking. Looking in the context of being an artist in Jack’s case and in terms of Ellen and her synesthesia. Ellen sees things in a slightly oblique, strange, oddly coloured way. I suppose it’s also a book about the way in which people perceive the same things differently. In this novel you have these two characters in parallel seeing this landscape and environment in very different ways.

So there’s a connection to your last novel, The Missing, when it comes to themes of people’s ways of processing and perception?

Yes, and understanding things that have happened in the past in various different ways, which I hadn’t picked up on when I was writing The Colours, but there you go!

Well now we’re all cooped up in our homes it’s a great time to release a book about seeing things differently.

Absolutely. Everyday I get emails from students sending me pictures of stuff that they’ve been doing and it’s great. I hope that other people are doing the same, where they’re nudged into creativity using a very minimal amount of materials and things they’ve got to hand. I sense that a lot of people, not just my students, are experimenting and being inventive. I’m sounding very positive, but I think that’s true!

Maybe now everyone’s had a drop in quantity of visual input they’ll think about ways of upping the quality?

Let’s hope so, we’ll see how it goes! That’s something that Jack talks about himself in the novel where he tries to get students to look more and look closer and look better and it would be nice if people did that. I take the train to work and on French trains there are blinds, and people pull the blinds down! I find that…


I know! I don’t understand it at all so the book is an attempt to encourage people to keep the blinds up.

Can you tell us a bit about your career and how you came to write novels?

I have spent all of my adult life in art schools in one way or another. I studied Graphic Design, although I was never a graphic designer. I worked as an illustrator for a while. I did an MA in art-history and I started teaching fairly early on in Britain. I then moved to France and started teaching in France. I started writing just after moving to France, in 2003/2004 and I had my first piece published in 2005. I think the writing in English really came as a consequence of living in France and struggling with the French language and English became this space that I could feel comfortable with.

Like a linguistic refuge? Did you speak any French at all before you went to France?

Yes, I did. But when you’re working you then you realise the enormity of the task, you realise how much you don’t know! I think I still struggle, after 20 years. I live with an English person and I work with, oddly, I happen to work with a lot of English speaking colleagues, which doesn’t help. French has always been a bit of a struggle for me.

But it helped you develop your English?

Very much so, yes. It gives you an awareness of how a language functions and I went to school in the 70s when we didn’t do anything to do with grammar, and very little to do with punctuation. It was a huge learning curve for me to properly learn a language.

In a way, when you learn a second language you also re-learn your first language. 

Yes, certainly. And I was widening my vocabulary. You become aware of language in a way that you weren’t aware of it when living in your own country. On top of that you have the added benefit of learning culturally, learning about other writers for example. I would have probably written stuff had I stayed in Britain but I think it was more of an imperative in France, it became more important, I became more motivated to do it.

Your new book The Colours is steeped in art and visuals, was it a challenge to be writing about art?

It came fairly naturally to me, I don’t think I would have been able to write in any other way. That comes from the Art History background where you spend a long time writing about paintings. The issues begin when I stand and stare at things too long which means the pacing slows down quite a bit. I also felt I wanted to write a lot about the technical aspects of painting. And once the novel went to Rihannon, my editor, it needed to be pruned of those bits.

What sort of technical details?

Oh I had a whole scene, page after page of stretching canvases and working on two at the same time because the oil paints dry slowly so you need to work on several paintings at the same time. Or mixing paint: what sort of surface do you mix paint on? I have friends who use glass because it’s a very smooth surface to mix paint on and what colours do you want to mix and then again what paint brush sizes and diluting, how much do you dilute the paint? Do you want something watery, or more thick, even moving your body or moving your arm when you’re painting, depends very much on the quality of the thickness of the paint that you’re using. I had all this stuff!

I guess if you have such a sense for the technical intricacies and the really dense visual descriptions it must be easy to forget that there’s a plot!

I think that’s certainly true! I don’t know whether I should say this, but I didn’t plot the novel really, I just sort of started writing and let it develop in its own way. Obviously I got excited about long passages of description.

That’s where editors come in handy!

Exactly, and you’re always in that half way mode of thinking ‘yes well, they’re right’ and ‘aaaaarrghh!’.

But how will people understand how to stretch a canvas?!

Exactly! It feels important! To be fair my editor was very sensitive and it was always ‘if you want to’ or ‘if you think it’s a good idea’ and I think knowing that it was a bit loosely plotted it was a good idea to tighten some of those things up. They did slow things down quite a lot, so I’m happy with it.

Now our final question: Lockdown Literature, what are you reading right now?

Ok I am embarrassed about this…I’m in a writing mode at the moment. A lot of my reading happens on the train when I go to work. I have a 40 minute journey which is perfect for proper reading and I’ve missed that since the lockdown. I find it very difficult to read another novel at the same time as writing my own novel. I had a whole year of proper reading last year and up until the point when I started writing the novel.

And once you’re writing you steer totally clear of any other books?

Now I’ve got three novels by the side of my desk, which are like talismans for me. One of them is Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, just so good. And another is Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway, and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. And I dip into them, open a page randomly and read a passage. Sometimes I read a passage aloud, because it helps one understand the language or understand the structuring a bit better or the pacing or whatever.

Aha, they’re your literary muses!

They’re my muses! And I also noticed, I have Atonement by McEwan, which is the period that I’m dealing with, which is why it’s sitting on the desk. I’m also in the process of reading a biography of Oswold Mosley which is called Black Shirt: Oswold Mosley and British Fascism, and it’s by Steven Dorril.

Oh a nice bit of light bedtime reading…

Oh yes, the intricacies of British government in the 1920s and 30s…

That’d send anyone to sleep!

I can do about two or three pages at a time! It gets a bit more racy when he moves onto Mosley’s affairs but it’s pretty dense stuff. And that is research for the book which I’m trying to write, for which I manage a paragraph a day at the moment. 

Another book set in the first half of the 20th century then?

The 20th century is the place I want to be, so it’s another 20th century novel. I vowed I would not do what I did with The Colours which caused me a bit of trouble which was dealing with such a long period of time because that caused me difficulty with pacing. So this novel is set in a single year, 1936.

Would you only write about the first half of the 20th century?

Well or the second half, but it would always have to be before I was born. As soon as it gets to the point where I was born I can’t handle it. Contemporary life: I can’t handle it! I don’t want to be the subject of my own novel so it always has to be before. I think it’s about trying to work out where you come from, what’s the world you came out of?

Thanks very much to Juliet for talking to us, and the ongoing pleasure of being her literary agents. The Colours is out now on Fleet Reads. Interview edited for clarity.

‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’

Kevin Doherty called time on a successful and lucrative career in marketing to make good on his lifelong dream of writing.  Doherty's well-loved historical thrillers range from gripping espionage in Cold War Russia to daring heroism in Nazi-occupied France. 

His fourth book, The Leonardo Gulag, is a startlingly original tale of art and survival in a notorious Soviet prison camp. We spoke to Kevin Doherty about choosing his genre, slow-burning ideas, and the power of fictional woes to escape real ones. 

Kevin, what did you do before you got into writing?

I earned a living! A sensible living! My background is in marketing and at the time I decided to take the plunge I was Marketing Director of Coca-Cola UK, which was one of the best marketing jobs in the world really but there was this itch inside me which had been there for, honestly, a good many years.

So you decided to chuck it all in to become an author…

I agonised over the decision for a long time, talked it over – and over! – with Roz, my wife, and we thought ‘What are we going to do here? I have this wonderful job but there is this unfulfilled dream,’ and we decided to take the plunge. I was very, very fortunate, incredibly lucky, because I really would have felt very daft if it had all come to nothing. But I did end up with a published book to show for my efforts at the end of a year and a half.

How did you break the news to your colleagues at Coca-Cola?

I walked in and said to my boss, ‘I need to have a conversation with you, a very serious conversation,’ and he was very understanding. I think really in his heart he knew where I was coming from but it was a very difficult thing for him to take on board. He wanted to know if I was unhappy with some aspect of my role, if I would maybe be interested in transferring to the US, could he do anything to make me reconsider? All these kinds of things.

Pretty supportive all in all!

When I was maybe about six months into the period I heard from a friend who’d been in contact with a man who was the chairman of a company that I’d been a director of and he was asking, ‘What’s going on with Kevin?’ ‘Well,’ my friend said, ‘he’s gone off to write his novel,’ and the guy said, ‘Doesn’t he have three sons and a mortgage to support?’ and my friend said, ‘Yes … hmmm.’ And that bemusement would have solidified into something more negative if I hadn’t managed to pull it off.

You’d decided to write a novel; how did you settle on writing historical political thrillers?

A shrewd question, and the answer is a marketing man’s answer. I sat down with a blank sheet of paper and said, ‘OK, what are the various categories into which novels can be assembled? Could I be interested in writing a horror story? Could it be a thriller? What kind of thriller? Or could it be a romance? Is that something I could handle?’ I went through all the categories I could think of, then looked at how I thought these various categories were performing. I didn’t have any statistics to go by but mooching around bookshops and talking to people or watching what was on display, what was being promoted – that all helped.

A very analytical pre-writing process then…

Alongside that it wasn’t too difficult to say, ‘Don’t kid yourself, you’re never going to be able to write a romance novel, that’s not the kind of person you are.’ The candidates really were horror and some type of thriller. ‘So does that mean a crime thriller?’ I wondered. ‘Someone gets murdered and it’s about catching the perpetrator? No, I don’t want to do that.’ I realised that what I was really excited about was political thrillers…

And then you homed in on the Soviet Union?

I took the next step, which was, ‘Do I think I could put myself into the shoes of someone completely alien in terms of their society and culture, in other words someone in the Soviet Union – someone powerful and corrupt?’ That was when the fun really started because I knew that I wanted to do exactly that. It was going to be bloody difficult but that was what I wanted to target. The result was Patriots.

Your new book, The Leonardo Gulag, is, as the title suggests, about a Soviet work camp and the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Where on earth did the ideas come from for this?

The very original first seed was when Roz and our three sons and I were in a traffic jam in France. I’d picked up some leaflets about places to explore around the city of Amboise. One of them was a Leonardo da Vinci museum and we sat in our traffic jam and looked at our map, and realised we could come out of this traffic jam and not be very far away from this museum. So off we went. The place, Château du Clos Lucé, was where Leonardo spent his last years. At some point it became a museum, housing replicas of some of Leonardo’s inventions. I wandered around looking at all of this – Leonardo has always fascinated me, I have always been interested in art – and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could pull together some kind of story that involved Leonardo’s work?’ That was really where it all came from.

And the Soviet Union dimension?

The whole Soviet dimension didn’t enter into the scheme of things until many years later because I never got anywhere with the Leonardo idea; well, I made the occasional attempt but never really got my head around it properly. I abandoned it and put it in a bottom drawer somewhere. Then other things happened, including the two novels that followed Patriots. It was Roz who said, ‘I think you should go back to Leonardo and have another crack at that,’ and I said, ‘OK – let’s give it a go!’ So if Roz hadn’t said that, who knows – maybe I would never have attempted it again!

How long are we talking about, between visiting the Leonardo museum and publishing The Leonardo Gulag?

A very long while. We are talking in excess of 20 years. A long time.

Yikes! It was percolating away in the background. I think many people imagine novels to be written all in one go, but some really do filter through over years in the subconscious, don’t they?

Yes! And what always intrigued me was that, going back to what I said about that day when I sat down and thought, ‘OK, I’m going to write a novel, now what type of novel is it going to be?’ – that was a brutally rational process, that was the marketing man at work: clinical. Compare that with the fact that this thing was just sitting there – literally as well as figuratively – in a bottom drawer, going nowhere … and then one day, ‘Boom!’

I heard you used Google Maps to view satellite images of some of the book’s settings, to get a sense of the geography of these remote and isolated work camps in the Arctic Circle?

Well, that’s when things came into play like the ice river which the prisoners are driven along to get to the work camp. If you look at the satellite view of the whole Vorkuta region you will see the rivers; black ribbons running along the landscape. Those are the rivers that freeze up once you get into autumn and really don’t unfreeze until about two months in the summer.

Very cool. Anything else you found?

I was well into the writing of the book when I discovered this heartbreaking cemetery, which you can actually find on Google Maps. There are a couple of photographs which show a rough area of land, I wouldn’t even call it a field because it’s all humped and ridged and so on, with these tragic handmade wooden crosses with the extra crossbar of the Russian Orthodox faith, and with handwritten inscriptions – just names and dates. That is really heart-rending to come upon.

It sounds like researching for The Leonardo Gulag must have been bleak and heavy. Was it ever just a bit too depressing?

Let me try and answer it this way. When I’m writing, I’m writing for me first and foremost and then I take a step back and say, ‘Is this going to be of interest to anyone else?’ The readers I try to keep in my mind are not only those who are perfectly happy but also those who may have a sadness in their life, a need – maybe they’re in a dead-end job and have to commute to and from London or some other city every day and they hate it, and they take refuge in a paperback during their train journey; or maybe they’re suffering an illness of some description or have some other sadness or loss, and they take refuge from that in reading. If an author can give people a story that provides the refuge they’re looking for, I think that’s worthwhile doing. Now you could do that by writing something that’s really funny and makes them laugh, but I can’t do that, it’s not my kind of writing. Or you can bring them into a situation which is tense, maybe tragic, frightening perhaps, whatever, and that becomes a refuge that they can go to.

Of course, fiction at its best is escapism.

It sounds weird: escaping into a worse situation than they themselves are in. But I remember my late father-in-law used to have a saying: ‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’

That sums it up perfectly!

All this stuff about gulags and how people were treated. It’s all depressing stuff, but should we forget about it? No, I don’t think so. Can it be put to good use so that we can still relate to it today? Yes, absolutely. And besides, perhaps we owe that to the people who had to suffer in that cruel regime. So it didn’t depress me in the way you might expect.

Finally, can you tell us some of your literary favourites and inspirations?

Well, it’s going to be all the obvious ones, isn’t it, and quite rightly too: Frederick Forsyth, Robert Harris, John le Carré, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Moss, Martin Cruz Smith. And many more, from the past as well as today…

And any not-so-obvious literary loves?

Yes – Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French author writing about French society of his day. He writes about the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, but he also writes about French countryfolk – often self-sustaining smallholders or ordinary working people, people who are just getting by. In Maupassant’s stories they can be very resilient characters, and very shrewd, sometimes even wily, because they’re used to surviving. There are no flies on them, if I can use that expression. I first read Maupassant when I was a teenager, and I realised that these folk were very like the people I was growing up among. Their language and culture may have been different, and the century in which they lived, but other than that I could see the resonance of them in my Irish compatriots.

Thanks very much to Kevin for talking to us, and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents. The Leonardo Gulag is out now on Oceanview Publishing. Interview edited for clarity.

I am the Queen of the Killer Eels! In conversation with Rachel Bennett

Rachel Bennett, or Rakie for short, is a Manx writer of Crime and Thrillers whose debut novel The Flood came out in September with Avon Books. The novel takes places in a flooded town where a death in the family unspools into a dark tale of past and present mysteries. 

Here Rakie talks to us about their career in the Isle of Man's criminal courts and pathology department, their work with the Manx Lit Fest, and their love of classic horror.

Rachel, you’ve had some interesting jobs, tell us a bit about them.

For ten years I was working in the criminal justice system; my posh job title was Clerk to the Deputy High Bailiff; she was the first female member of a Manx judiciary so that was pretty exciting, on the same level as a magistrate. I was working in the criminal courts and in the lower criminal courts.

And what did you do there?

You know in movies when you see a stenographer in the court typing away? They do a recording now; it was my job to press ‘record’. And it was all the paperwork that goes along with that. I never personally sent anyone to jail, but I had to complete the paperwork to send people to jail!

So witnessing the daily comings and goings of petty crime?

Yes exactly, we’re such a small jurisdiction you see the same folks coming in all the time and you get to know faces and names and we also worked quite closely with the prison and probation service and everything so I got to know a little bit about the rehabilitation of criminals side of things; I wanted to pull some of that into a book if I could.

So you heard about some interesting criminal stories I imagine?

Certainly, one particularly memorable one was when a farm accidentally released a load of slurry into a river, killing 28 fish and one eel – but the advocate representing the farm insisted that although 28 fish had indeed died, the eel later recovered. This was despite us being shown a photo of the (definitely dead) eel pinned to a board! The eel became known as Lazarus and was forevermore a long-running joke in the office.

Oh right, some pretty off the wall stuff then…

Yeah just have a google of Manx news. I’m not sure if it’s just being on an island that we’re particularly susceptible. And we have our own laws and our own government and everything…

That throws up quite a few interesting linguistic quirks doesn’t it? Isn’t there a law for ‘Furious Driving’?

Yeah there is a charge of ‘Furious Driving’. We’ve got one called ‘Provoking Behaviour’ too, anything that would provoke a reaction you can charge it under ‘Provoking Behaviour’ and get done for it.

Sounds like the kind of open-ended law an authoritarian dictatorship would love(!)

Yeah it’s not an offence you can go to prison for but if someone’s being a bit drunk and shouty, or having an argument with the neighbours, or doing something else weird…

…I’m being provoked!

You are doing an action that would provoke a reaction from me therefore…

Any other funny words or phrases that come to mind?

Yes, we’ve got Deemsters instead of Judges. When they swear them into office they have to take an oath that they will take the law as straight and impartial ‘as the backbone lies within the herring.’

That’s fantastic!

Yeah in the court building there’s a big metal statue of a herring and you can see its backbone down the middle, isn’t that neat?

And along with courts, you’ve worked in Pathology too, is that right?

Yes, before I started in courts I was in the Department of Pathology for about ten years. I was in the office and I typed up post-mortems and stuff.

Yet another great job for someone who wants to write crime books…

The main thing it taught me is that pathologists will not leave their office for anything. When you read a crime book and it’s like ‘the pathologist went to the crime scene’, oh no he didn’t!

So not just an insight into pathology but pathologists too.

It gives you a real insight into the many terrible things that can happen to a human body and how they can fail, stop working, come apart and all that sort of thing – but you do become a bit blase about it.

You have to develop a detachment I suppose?

Yeah I’m not sure how healthy it was, everyone there was quite mad in their own personal ways. But it was very interesting and it definitely got me writing about that sort of thing and the forensic side.

Working as a fly on the wall in pathology and criminal courts, you couldn’t be better placed to write a crime novel!

It’s meant that I’ve had access to people. The number of times I said to someone ‘can I ask you a million questions about your job?’. There are some very nice people on the Isle of Man Constabulary Force who I owe a lot of beer to for some very random questions(!)

Let’s talk about your latest book The Flood. Where did you get the idea to set a novel in a flooded town?

Just from watching it on the news. I’ve fortunately never been in that situation but I’ve always really liked the idea of a locked, enclosed location like an isolated place, and watching the news and seeing towns that are properly cut off; it’s a setting I’ve always wanted to use. I had tried to use it a few times and it didn’t take off… this book came very close to having killer eels in it.
Same setting, some of the same characters, killer eels.

No way! What happened to them? Don’t tell me Leslie made you cut the killer eels?!

No, no, I grew up reading pulp horror like Guy N Smith. My first big love is always going to be monsters and ridiculous scary stuff. It was honestly a real departure to try and write about the real world. It’s relatively easy when there’s zombies or killer eels because if you get stuck you can make a monster appear and they do the hard work for you.

Right! You get to play by your own rules. The reader reads it on your terms. Who are they to say what your killer eels should be doing? You made them!

Exactly: they’re mine! They do what I tell them! I am the Queen of the Killer Eels!

So it sounds like a lot of the details came from different imaginative processes and ideas you had.

Yeah and stealing bits from everywhere to be honest, I’m a terrible pick pocket when it comes to ideas, and things that I’ve seen in various places. I try and write down everything because my memory is terrible. I put everything into my notebook and then I’ll steal bits like a magpie, and try and smoosh them all together into a cohesive story. And sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn’t. Fingers crossed it seems to have worked ok so far.

Well it has certainly worked for The Flood! Have you enjoyed having the book out?

It’s been great! Everyone’s been so nice about it. People keep talking to me about it and it’s so weird to have something that’s been inside my own head for years, and now suddenly people are talking about it *like it’s a real book*; where they’re up to, which bit they’re reading now, what they think is going to happen. It’s a bit of a surreal experience. I’m very much enjoying it though!

In September you were a part of the Manx Lit Fest, is that right?

Yes, the Manx Literary Festival is our local lit fest and I squirmed my way onto the committee a few years ago. I coordinate their Writers’ Day which is aimed at aspiring authors. It’s been very successful – we’ve just had our eighth year. It’s lead to quite a few success stories from our local authors. Elizabeth Brooks had a book out last year called ‘Call Of The Curlew’, Rona Halsall has just had her fourth book out on Bookoutre, and they all found literary agents through coming to our events!

That’s great to be cultivating local talent.

Yeah we’re so proud of our local authors, there’s a shocking amount of home grown talent over here.

So what’s next for Rachel Bennett? How’s the future looking?

Looking rosy! Book two is with the copy-editor at the moment. Actually it’s just come back from the copy editor, I’m supposed to be doing edits right now, but I’m putting up Christmas decorations and things, I’ll get around to it very soon! They’ve sent me the cover it looks fantastic. Due for release end of May next year, so that’s very exciting. I’m trying to get ahead with book three as well.

Any monsters on the horizon?

Not quite… I’m trying to stay in my lane with this for a moment, I’m trying to stick to the crime and thriller thing, that seems to be what people would like at present.

We’ll see how book two does, and maybe if the publishers get desperate we can pull out the fantastical monsters.

Well, if you need a back catalogue of ridiculous monsters attacking Birmingham I’ve got us covered!

And organising the Manx Lit Fest for next year?

Yes, we’re in the throes of planning it at the moment. We haven’t announced who we’ve got next year but between you and me, [REDACTED]’s coming over next September.

Woah my gosh that’s incredible!

We do quite well to be honest; for such a small festival we’ve had some pretty good names – we got Martina Cole last year. She made everyone come back to the hotel and sit in the bar getting drunk until two in the morning! She kept buying everyone drinks and wouldn’t let them leave, she was an absolute star.

What a legend! Anything else on the horizon?

I’m in a new job now, I’m now a librarian which is amazing and I’m working in the mobile library side of it as well, which means I get to go out in a bus full of books, drive around, it’s like Postman Pat you just go around and distribute books to people.

What a great CV you’ve got, you must never be short of anecdotes!

Yeah I’ve got a lot of stories, I’ve just given you a sample, but I have a lot more. If we ever end up in the pub I’ll tell you some of the others.

Save it for the lit fest after-party!

Definitely. We’ll see if we can get someone like Martina Cole to buy our drinks⬛️

Thanks very much to Rachel for chatting to us, and the pleasure of being their literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.