Once my own writing enters the editing stage, it becomes more difficult to write on the train, and so this is a perfect opportunity to catch up with reading some of the books I’ve purchased.
JM Hewitt’s Exclusion Zone had caught my eye a few weeks ago, especially because of its subject matter. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened when I was at school. The memory of the harrowing news reports at the time have stuck with me ever since, and 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the event. Exclusion Zone is a brilliant page-turner, so I invited JM Hewitt over here to the blog to find out more about it and her writing processes.
You’ve previously published under your own name, and in a slightly different sub-genre to Exclusion Zone – what made you decide to try something different?
This is an interesting question asked at just the right time! I did have two novels that were classed as contemporary fiction published by a small, independent publisher many years ago. But a few years ago I became quite taken with the current authors of today’s crime fiction and this really felt like the direction that my work should be heading in.
Earlier this year I got the rights back to my two previously published novels and Endeavour Press agreed to re-publish them. At the time I thought it would just be a case of passing the manuscripts over to Endeavour, but when I read them I realised just how much my writing style has changed in the ten years since these were originally written and I knew I didn’t want them to be republished as they were. I was shocked by how much I done the old ‘…and they lived happily ever after’ cliché. Yuk! So not only will my two old books have new titles, new covers and a new publisher, but brand new stories too.
I have completed the rewrite of what will now be called The Maze and it is based around the 1981 hunger strikes in H.M.P The Maze prison, Northern Ireland. This is such an important event in history that was often reported in a biased way by the British Press, so for authenticity I tracked down a former I.R.A gunman who participated in the hunger strikes while serving a lifetime prison sentence in The Maze. His help was so valuable and we struck up quite a friendship, which made using his own experiences in my book quite emotional. I hope this comes across in my writing! The second book is called The Duty, and both of these fall into the Domestic Noir category and should be released by the end of 2016.
Why base your novel in Chernobyl? What drew you to that place for the setting of this story?
The nuclear disaster which happened in 1986 is an event that is in living history and it still features regularly in the news and in documentaries because the effects are still felt today. In fact, in my home town of Felixstowe, we have ‘Chernobyl Children’ visit each year. They come here for recuperative holidays, to breathe our air which is so much cleaner than their own in Belarus and just a fortnight here in Britain can boost their immune system so much.
But Chernobyl itself is so fascinating, imagine, a place which is out of bounds and will be for eternity. Of course, you can visit it under controlled circumstances via the various tour groups and many people will recall when the guys from Top Gear drove through it, but nobody will ever be able to legally live there again. There are people who didn’t leave the evacuated area, and it was these residents that intrigued me and led to the bones of my Exclusion Zonestory. What happened if they needed help? What would happen if crimes were being in an area where no police officers dared to tread?
I also knew that the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster was coming up, and I had the idea of releasing my book to coincide and having the book launch on the actual date itself as something to work towards. The launch was fantastic, Chernobyl was all over the media that day which really raised interest in Exclusion Zone.
What sort of research did you undertake to write the novel?
Oh I could talk about my research for hours! I gathered statistics firstly; did you know that there were sheep that were affected by the nuclear explosion as far away from Chernobyl as Yorkshire that had to be destroyed? There are reindeer over 1000 miles away in Norway that to this day, thirty years after the disaster, are still recording high levels of radiation. The rain scattered the radioactive effects so far and wide that it certainly was not an isolated incident. My family is from Poland, not too far away from the site of the disaster, and one of my cousins had a childhood cancer that he and his family are certain that the nuclear disaster was responsible for.
I also spoke to people who remember where they were, my mother, who was with me (though I was just 8 years old) and we were travelling on a coach to London. She remembers everyone talking about it in hushed whispers, it was a big deal. I also got in touch with Sergi who runs Chernobyl Tour. He was a big help with the specifics of it and he has invited me over to take the actual tour next year.
I had a vague idea of Alex’s personality, but it was while watching the American T.V drama ‘Suits’ that I found my Alex Harvey. The main character in ‘Suits’ is a tough lawyer who at first glance may not seem to care about anybody else, but underneath the steel exterior a heart does beat! That’s my man. Elian seemed a perfect partner, nervous, a loner, but who can be tough when required.
With your love for 20th century history and the dark side of the human psyche, do you see yourself delving further back in time, or sticking with more recent events?
Well I do like to write about events that happened in our lifetime; the 1981 hunger strikes which The Maze is based around are of course a good example of this. In the second P.I Alex Harvey novel I have used a particularly brutal murder to base the events upon which occurred in 2000 in Scheveningen, Holland. This is a place that myself and my partner love to visit (he was actually working there at the time that this murder happened!) and we travelled there last weekend for my birthday. I have another manuscript called The Intelligence of Ravens which is based around the Holocaust and this is on full submission to a publisher at the moment, so… fingers crossed!
Writing dark themes can be exhausting – what do you do to relax?
I spend time with my partner, we love to travel. It was his 40th birthday in May and he decided he wanted to do a year of holidays. Between us we’ve clocked up thirty plane journeys in 2016! When we are at home we enjoy walking our old dog, Buster, and just relaxing. I love to read and we are also both big fans of American dramas such as The Affair, Chicago Fire,etc as well as crime based dramas on Netflix. I am an absolute sun worshipper so during nice weather the laptop or notebook comes outside with me. I write a lot better in the winter when I’m not distracted by the outdoors!
What’s next for Alex Harvey? I see the second in series, Reckoning Point is underway…
Absolutely, in fact if I hadn’t had the last minute decision to rewrite my two old books Reckoning Point would be complete now, but these things happen and I’m so thrilled with both The Maze and The Duty. But once they are both done and dusted, Reckoning Point will be back on the table. I am actually almost finished with the first draft and the trip away this weekend to the location where it takes place is going to be put to good use as I have some specific locations to check out. One of them is the apartment where the murder that I am basing Reckoning Point on took place. I know where it is, and it will be an adventure to see how close we can get to it.