In conversation with… Clint Chico!

The author of the incredible Marcia’s series bares it all, from personal life to his plans for the future.

Clint! What a journey it was to read Marcia’s story! It was quite emotional to be honest, especially the last book. As Marcia herself said, ‘this is the last time for real!’ and we all became melancholic about it – but it was impossible not to! After all that happened during those high school years… tell us: how did you come up with the idea?

Great question! This one is the one I get asked the most when talking about my books – where do your ideas come from? For most of my books, it starts with the characters and a basic idea for a plot.
What if a young teenager was forced to come out publicly as gay before she was ready? (My Name is Marcia) What if two girls fell in love for the first time, but events around them pulled them apart? (Art School Blues) What if a bunch of teenagers signed up for a reality show that turned out to be a total lie? (Island Games) What if everything you thought you knew about your world was wrong? (Wayward Magic).
In the case of my first book, My Name is Marcia, I was working on something completely unrelated during July of 2020, the pandemic summer, and I had a vision of a girl lying in the middle of a football field. She turns to her friend and says, “I think I might be gay.” That ended up being the very first scene in My Name is Marcia. I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book before that, but I’d never had an idea this strong or so fully formed. But I also knew that writing a book would be a MAJOR undertaking, it was easily the hardest creative thing I’d ever done, so I decided that if I was going to do it, I didn’t want to read another book about guys like me (straight, white, older, male). Which is how I ended up creating Marcia Torres, a Hispanic lesbian teenager, but someone who, like me, gets overly excited about things and has tons of empathy for the people and world around her.

Why is it so important for you to portray the teen LGBT community?

The short answer here is that my own kids are LGBTQ and that I teach in an inner city
performing arts high school, so many of my students are also LGBTQ and African-American.
The longer answer is that, when I first started the Marcia books I didn’t have a plan beyond just finishing the first book. But once I had, and once I saw the positive response I’d gotten from my readers – teens or adults, gay or straight, everyone was loving the books and the characters. I could tell how important this kind of representation was going to be, especially to my LGBTQ readers, and ESPECIALLY to my teen students who were LGBTQ. I’ve been told, “I wish this book had been around when I was younger and struggling with coming out.” I’ve gotten thank-you’s from parents of LGBTQ students who have read the books and given it to their parents. A few months ago, at a career fair at my school, a teenage girl came up to my display of books and very quietly asked, “Sorry if this sounds rude, but are your books gay?” I smiled, nodded and replied, “They’re very gay.” She nearly squealed with delight.
I know focusing on LGBTQ characters, as well as non-white characters, might turns away some potential readers, and it certainly makes the writing harder for someone like me who is not directly part of that community, but I feel it’s absolutely the
right call, especially with an increase in book bans in some parts of the US, and a concerted effort from some political groups to bury stories about the kinds of characters I like to write about.

Across the four Marcia’s books you portray a wide array of homophobic and racist characters, and all of them are not of legal age yet. Tell us non-Americans more about it, because it looks like such a distant and almost impossible-to-still-exist world.

First, I want to mention that I think of the world of my Marcia and Katrina series to be a slightly exaggerated version of the world we live in. The good kids are a little nicer, a little smarter, and little more empathetic than your average teen, but that’s because I’ve seen kids like that. I’ve taught kids like that. I’ve taught a Marcia, a Patience, a Charlie, a Katrina, an Anna. They aren’t your typical teenager, but they’re out there. And so, the antagonists of the stories are also slightly exaggerated but also based on real-life examples I’ve seen. I’m not going to say ‘bad’ kids because in some cases ‘misunderstood’ or ‘misguided’ is more accurate. The simple fact is that during our pre-teen years, we still accept most of what our parents show us about the world, and it’s not until our teenage years that we begin to question it. Sometimes, you rebel against your parents’ way of life. Sometimes, you embrace it. I grew up in the American South in the 1970s and 80s – no longer the Civil Rights-era world of MLK and the 60s, but still filled with under-the-surface racism and not-so-under-the-surface anger and mistrust. I saw a lot of people who, like me, pushed back against the history of violence and hatred of our ancestors and instead embraced inclusion and diversity. But I also saw a lot of people who didn’t.
Just remember that every adult KKK member, every Neo Nazi, every ultra right-wing politician who uses ‘them vs us’ as an excuse for the nation’s problems was once a teenager who had to decide which direction to go in. Racism and homophobia doesn’t spout during adulthood. It’s grown and cultivated in kids by their racist and homophobic parents.
Sometimes, the kids fight against it, like my character Ashley Harwood. But a lot of them don’t. I write about kids like that because they’re out there in the real world, spray painting swastikas on synagogues, or tearing down their neighbour’s pride flags, or carrying AR-15s and firing into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protestors. Like a famous author once said, “Fiction is finding the truth in the lie.” My characters may not be real, but they’re all based on the world we live in, the good and the bad.

You said that after “Marcia says goodbye” there will not be anymore Marcia books.
However, “Kathrina’s theory of Starting over” features as main protagonists two girls
who were in the same high school as Marcia. Can we hope for a spin-off?

After completing my first book, I knew a few things.
The first was that I was going to keep writing – the rush of seeing your ideas becoming something real and tangible is simply too great for me to stop. Second was I wanted to keep writing about Marcia and her friends, and that each Marcia book would be one year of her high school life. In America that’s 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. And I also knew I didn’t have much interest in writing “Marcia and Patience Go to College”. I knew that after they graduated, it would be time to move on to new characters and new stories. But, what I didn’t expect was how much fun it is to write those characters, especially after several years of them living in my head. So, the Katrina books, which pick up right after Marcia and her friends graduate, will continue to feature cameos
from the old bunch as they drop back into town for the holidays and such.
One last thing I knew as well was that I love taking on books that are slightly outside my norm, and I’ve always wanted to write a book that feels like the fun, goofy Christmas movies you see on cable during the holidays. So, keep an eye out for A Very Marcia Christmas. Not sure when it’s coming, maybe next year, maybe after, but I have a feeling it’ll all come together one day. In the meantime, fans of Marcia, Charlie, and Patience can see them interacting with the main characters of the Katrina series, which I’m two books into, with two more to come over the next few years.

You have written 9 books so far and, exclusively for us, a short story, but how did you
start writing and why?

If you’d asked me when I was younger, I wouldn’t have said, “I want to be an author
when I grow up.” But I was always creative and artistic. I would write, draw, and create little stories with my toys and action figures. Like all kids of the 80s, I watched a lot of TV shows and movies, but I was always more interested in the stories in my head than the ones I saw on the screens around me.
I’d never really thought of myself as a writer because writing was always difficult for me as a kid. As my teachers and parents would tell you, my penmanship was horrible and I was a terrible speller. Besides, what I really wanted to do was make movies. Well, I found ways as an adult to fulfil that dream – first working as a news videographer and editor, then becoming a teacher and turning teenagers into writers, producers and directors, as well as making short films with my own kids as they got older.
What I hadn’t really realised through my twenties and thirties is that writing had always been there waiting in the background as a creative outlet for me. My mom still keeps essays and stories I wrote in elementary school. I still have my journals and notebooks from my high school creative writing classes, including one story that was typed on an actual typewriter. I like to take that out every now and then to show my students when they complain about having to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word. But back to my point – it wasn’t until the past five years or so, as my own kids got older and my life slowed down a bit, that I thought seriously about writing again. Every now and then, my wonderfully supportive wife would say, “You should write a book. I bet it’d be really good.” But she’d never pressure me because we both understood the difference between writing a short story or a five-page script and trying to bang out an entire novel. Taking on an endeavor that large is scary. What if you start and you just can’t find your way to the end? What if you spend months and months working on this thing only to lose the threads that hold it together, so you let it fall apart and
leave it sitting unfinished with nothing to show for it? Or worse, what if you finish your
book… and no one likes it? Your first book is absolutely terrifying.
What I never expected was how absolutely thrilling it is when it goes right. When the
pieces all fall together, when characters come to life, when your readers respond not just positively but in ways you never expected: “I’m OBSESSED with this book.” (Island Games); “I adore your book but I can’t stop crying.” (Art School Blues); “Every high school needs a copy of this book.” (My Name is Marcia). Getting there, though, isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. It’s work. Work, work, work. And a little bit of faith.
And okay, yeah, some magic, too. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me.

You are a self-published author: have you ever tried to go the traditional way? If so, can you tell us anything about your experience?

I think everyone who’s written a book the past few years is aware of a few things.
They know that every year there are more and more self-published books to compete against. I think there’s something like a million new books a year dropped on Amazon,
which is staggering to think about. They also know that life would be so much easier if we had a legitimate publishing house, not a vanity press, backing your book and helping with promotion and sales. And regardless of what some authors say about the ‘freedom’ of independent publishing, which I’m all for, the fact remains that we would all absolutely die with validation if some major publisher like Random House or HarperCollins said, “We like your book SO MUCH that we’d like to pay you for the rights to publish it. How’s a hundred thousand dollars sound? Also, we’d like to talk long-term contracts and movie rights.”
Well, I mean, to be able to make a living off your writing is just the dream, right? So very, very hard to do as an indie writer. Unfortunately, getting picked up by a publisher has about the same odds as becoming a pro athlete when there are a half-million other writers out there putting out books. But yes, I have tried to seek representation. And will continue to try. Last year I spent the summer querying agents and shopping around my standalone romance Art School Blues. I spent months getting the “We love your book, but it’s not for us” email or receiving the “Your book is not what we’re looking for at this time” message. I have several former students who are now actors, local and in LA and NY, and I’ve always told them I admire their ability to put themselves out there auditioning just to be told ‘no’ over and over again. Trying to get into acting means hearing at least ten to twenty no’s for every yes. Often more. Submitting to publishers or querying agents is like that. Imagine asking a girl out and hearing, “You’re very cute, but you’re not my type.” Then imagine hearing that thirty more times in a row. After a while, you stop asking. But yeah, I figure that, eventually, when I hit on the right book, I’ll start the process back up again. I often think of the author Colleen Hoover, now a household name with books like ‘Verity’ and ‘It Ends With Us’. A little research shows that she’d been writing and self-publishing book after book for almost a decade before ‘hitting it big’. But it takes patience and perseverance. And really, really thick skin.

What are the main challenges you find as a self-published author? And what
would you like to do/gave you done about it?

I think almost every self-published author will tell you the same thing. All we want to do is find time to keep writing. But, instead, we have to figure out how to edit and format and upload. We need pretty solid computer skills and knowledge of graphic design for our covers. Even if we pay someone else to do all that, we still need to know how it’s all done so we can make sure it’s done right. And that’s all before the book comes out. We still need to make sure people read our book. Because what good is a book if no one reads it? So we learn to promote, promote, promote. We become experts in social media, building websites, or running promotions, or making ads and book trailers. Speaking engagements and online interviews and podcasts, and all that is if we’re lucky and people liked the book to begin with. And, oh, wouldn’t it be grand if someone would handle all that for us so we could get back to writing? But, alas, that’s not to be unless you have unlimited funds to throw around to pay people to do it for you, and most of us do not.
The upside is that there are so many indie authors now that there is a very supportive
community online (this website is an example) where authors can support each other, find each other’s books, share ideas, ask questions, and uplift each other’s spirits when things get hard. Yes, there are scammers, and companies out there trying to take your money, and occasional professional jealousy from other authors, but my online interactions with other authors are almost always positive.

We know you are a writer but also a teacher, so we presume that you are also a great
reader: what’s are you reading currently and what are the books that most influenced

I read about 20 to 30 books a year, which is either considered a ton or very little, depending on how busy your life is. When my kids were younger, it was closer to maybe a book a month. Now my kids are older (my youngest are in high school) and my life has slowed down a little. I balance reading with writing my own books, keeping up with TV shows and movies, and playing the occasional video game. I am a teacher, as you’ve mentioned, and so I’ll often seek out good YA books, not only to help me as a YA writer but to find books that my students might be into. Recently I read ‘I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’ by Erika Sanchez and the graphic novel ‘Nimona’ by ND Stevenson. Both were phenomenal five-star reads. I’m currently reading Jimmy Buffett’s memoir ‘A Pirate Looks at Fifty’ in honour of the recent passing of the singer-songwriter (I’ve been a huge fan of his for decades). Then I’m planning to read ‘Local Woman Missing’ by Mary Kubica for a book club, and then I hope to get back to Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series, which I’m hoping to finish sometime before I die. (I’m currently on book #13.) Also, I recently purchased ‘I Just Can’t Say I Love You’ by fellow indie author Debby Meltzer Quick. I highly recommend her books for anyone who’s into sweet romance and the 1980s.
As to books and authors that influenced me, I’m going to say Stephen King, which probably sounds odd since he writes supernatural horror that shines a light on the worst parts of society, and I write sweet YA books about gay kids fighting to make the world a better place. But I discovered the work of ‘Uncle Stevie’ back in college many, many years ago, and since then I’ve read nearly everything he’s written. And while our content may be very, very different, there are a few things our writing has in common.
First, we both love playing with language and structure. Anyone who’s read King’s work
knows that he loves using unconventional storytelling devices and occasionally playing fast and loose with grammar and syntax. He sometimes invents words and phrases for stuff there’s no word for, which I’ve also done from time to time. He never gets too crazy with his formatting, but he isn’t afraid to throw in some weird indenting to get a point across, or he’ll start and stop a scene in an odd place as a way to help the audience feel what the characters feel. And he’ll hop, skip and jump around plot-wise in ways that an author normally won’t. It was through reading King that I learned that you don’t always have to follow the ‘rules’ of writing, but if you are going to break the rules, you’d better have a darn good reason.
And speaking of characters, King knows how to make ‘em. It’s not just that he creates
horrifying situations – anyone can do that – it’s that he makes characters that you really care about, ones that feel like real people, and then he throws them into horrifying situations. A big part of that is through dialogue, which is a major focus of King’s, and that’s a major focus of mine as well. King is sort of like scriptwriters like Quinton Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin in that the dialogue isn’t always a hundred percent true-to-life, but it always feels authentic, and every character speaks with a different voice. That’s what I strive for. My readers always say that I create teenage characters that feel real and authentic, and, yes, part of that is being a teacher and a parent (and being observant and listening to how young people speak), but a bigger part is thinking of your characters as real people with real thoughts, feelings, and lives
outside of the pages, and that’s something I picked up from reading King.

What are your goals for the future?

Well, my current goal is to keep writing. I’m writing and publishing at a pace of about
two books a year. A friend of mine says that I release books faster than she can read them, but the truth is I don’t know how to slow down. Nor do I really want to. Since I’m a teacher, I do the majority of my intense writing during summer breaks and winter/holiday breaks, and I edit and rewrite throughout the year. I started my first book in the summer of 2020, and I’m currently working on book #10, a fantasy novel called ‘Wayward Magic’. It’s my first foray into fantasy. Like all of my other books, it’s lighthearted and funny at times, serious and somber at other times, and, of course, features LGBTQ main characters. I’d told myself that I’d only ever take a stab at fantasy if I had a really good, really original idea before I started.
To do fantasy right, you need to create an original world that feels real and authentic but also isn’t a copy of Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, A Court of Thorns and Roses, or one of the dozens of dragon books that are out there. But you also can’t create anything too different or it won’t feel like fantasy. The basic starting premise for ‘Wayward Magic’ was to create a world where the reader thinks everything is one way, and then hit them with an OMG WHAT? twist midway through the book that changes everything. When ‘Wayward Magic’ comes out early next year, readers will be able to decide if I pulled it off or not.
In October, I’ll start working on the third Katrina book, ‘Katrina’s Theory of Infinite
Possibilities’. Then, next spring, I’ll start work on another stand-alone book, but I’m not sure which one. I have lots of ideas floating around. I want to try a cozy mystery set in a high school (working title: The Princess and the Quarterback) but mysteries take a lot of planning and I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants writer.
I also want to write a novel that deals with father-daughter relationships (working title: Anchor Points) since I was told by a coworker that YA doesn’t do that often enough. You have tons of mom-and-kids stories, but not a lot showing healthy dad-and-kid relationships. So yeah, that’s my plan for next year – release ‘Wayward
Magic’ in the spring of 2024, and the third Katrina book in the fall, and then find my way forward from there.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been lovely talking with you, but I have to get back to my writing.

And we are happy to let you go! Reading Marcia’s series has been an incredible experience, and having a glimpse of Wayward Magic just left us thirsty for more. We can only hope the wait won’t be long, but giving his speed, we think it will be short and sweet. Until then, you can have a look at Clint Chico author’s page on Amazon and follow his progresses on his social media account (Facebook: Clint Chico and Clint Chico YA Author, Instagram: booksbychico).


In conversation with: Mack Little

Following our review of ‘Daughter of Hades’, we asked Mack Little a few questions about her life as a writer

Mack Little. Image Credits:

Hi Mack! It’s a pleasure to virtually meet you and it’s also been a pleasure to read your book, Daughter of Hades. I have to admit that I was mislead by the title: somehow, I was expecting either a fantasy or a story set in Ancient Greece. So here’s my first question: why this title?

I don’t feel like I chose this title. Truly, I blame it on Captain Duff, who took the Dutch fluyt ship as a prize. I think because of his limited knowledge of Greek mythology, he only knew the dark and powerful connotation of the name Hades itself. And what better name for a Buccaneer ship—one that invoked fear in their prey and exploited sailors’ superstitions? The ‘Daughter of Hades’, refers to the book’s main character.

Though it was not my conscious intent, I suppose the title could speak to Dinny escaping the accepted morays of a capitalist system to find freedom in an underworld operated contrary to the unjust mainstream economy and cultural ideals. Duff, the captain of Hades and, for all intents and purposes, Dinny’s godfather, is Hades himself. Hades, the renowned. Hades the good counselor. Hades the gatherer of wealth. All these things could be used to describe Captain Duff.

The book is set in the middle of the 17th century in the Caribbean, and back then piracy was flourishing in those seas, but the players had European roots, while you are American and born in the South, another area where racism and inequalities are, unfortunately, still alive and kicking. Why then talking about European slavery of the past instead of focusing on more contemporary or local themes?

I feel that Daughter of Hades does reflect modern concepts of diversity. It foregrounds the ways race, class, gender, and sexual orientation operated in that time period. However, despite my attention to historical accuracy and the attempt to bring in sharp relief little-known details from the past, my story is meant to be entertaining escapist fare.

At its heart, Daughter of Hades is a historical romance. It features the destiny of lovers and swashbuckling pirating adventures. Of all the books I’ve read of that type, none had lead characters who looked like me. When black characters were present in books during the 17th century, they were “slaves”, not enslaved persons with agency. What is more, not all blacks were enslaved. Maroons, self-liberated persons, existed wherever there was slavery. These communities thrived and, in many cases, struck fear in the hearts of whites.

The first buccaneers were maroons, and when white sailors escaped the tyranny of the merchant and naval ships, they deserted and became hunters primarily on Hispaniola [an island in the Caribbean, Ed.]. When buccaneers took to the sea, they maintained relationship with maroons. Blacks escaping slavery were on their crews.
Maroons traded with buccaneers, hunted with them and often raided plantations alongside buccaneers. Given this history, there is space to have black characters at the forefront of swashbuckling pirating romance.

Apart from entertainment, it was important to me to show the different dimensions of black lives in the 17th century. While slavery did exist, I continue to be determined not to make it the focus of my novels, though that seems to be the main takeaway by some readers. None of my main
characters are enslaved. They actively subvert the institution. To me, that is a concept that is ripe for romance and adventure! However, I am equally determined not to ignore slavery or gloss over the injustice and the horror of the practice. It would be an insult to my ancestors not to acknowledge their sacrifice and endurance. It’s because they endured I exist.

We can see from your bio that you had quite an interesting upbringing: you studied Political Science in Spain, lived in Germany, served in the military and now you are on the Board of Directors of the Houston’s Writers Guild. How much or how little did all these choices and changes helped and formed you as a writer and affected your writing process?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was twelve years old. Between then and forty-six years since, everything I have done has been in service to that goal.
All of my experiences, the people I’ve met, and the skills I have picked up along the way go into my writing, particularly all the things I have learned about myself. My curiosity and sense of adventure led me to Spain and Germany, and all over the world. And those character traits guide me in the stories I love to tell.
Joining the Houston Writer’s Guild put me in contact with other writers—critique groups in particular. Critique groups were essential to my finally completing a story. They motivated me, inspired me, and demanded accountability. By accountability, I mean ten pages were expected every week in order to participate. That helped me to create a habit of writing that continues to this day.

On the homepage of your website you write “Why I write. Books and movies about characters who looked like me are read and viewed out of duty to learn something about the past. Books and movies that showcased the pleasures of dreaming, imagination, and escape were stories about people who did not look like me.” Do you think this is still valid today? If so, would you like to elaborate? And what do you think should we do to rectify it?

Absolutely it remains true that there is a dearth of stories with black characters at the forefront in fantasy, romance, horror, and sci-fi—stories that are not predicated on racial injustice or use black pain as entertainment.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, who lost their lives to racial and police violence created a renewed impetus for gatekeepers (literary agents and publishers) to ramp up their solicitation for stories that reflect the social ills. Stories that not only retraumatizes blacks who experience these psychological wounds in their day-to-day life, but also reduce the scope of the experience to only their suffering.

No doubt stories examining social injustice are important, but there are very few alternative stories with blacks at the forefront. Indeed, most Black books that provide escapist faire are treated as less important. But I say, books that explore other dimensions of black existence and stories that allow mainstream audiences to imagine black people in a different context are equally important.
Also, Blacks, like any other person, need magic and flights of imagination. Yet stories that don’t fit the mould of black trauma are denied the time and resources needed to make them successful. They’re ignored by the industry, by librarians, by awards committees, by schools, and yes, even by certain readers.

How to solve this problem? The gatekeepers need to curate commercial stories told by black creators. Diverse writers who have already found a place at the table can mentor other writers of color. I would love to see a Black Writer’s Guild that offers workshops, mentorship, and networking opportunities. It would also provide a well of content that the mainstream gatekeepers can draw from. As a creator myself, I keep writing and creating as much as my resources allow.

We know you are ready to publish another book, set in Barbados this time. We only have the title, Shelter in a hostile world, and a brief blurb. Can you tell us a bit more about it? How did you get the inspiration?

‘Shelter in a hostile world’ features a minor character from Daughter of Hades. His name is Badu Obosi. He was once an overseer on a plantation in Barbados. It details his life in pre-colonial Nigeria and highlights Igbo culture and traditions. At the same time, I show his escape from slavery in the aftermath of the slave revolt he instigated. It also touches on the history of an Irish indentured servant, Saoirse, Badu’s wife, who is escaping Barbados along with him.

Speaking of writing and your busy schedule, can you guide us through your writing routine?

As I dream of becoming a writer who supports herself with her craft, I continue to work a full-time job as an IT Analyst. When my workday is done, I pack up my 3-ring binder and research notes and move to my patio where I write my stories longhand. For this, I must have paper made from good stock, a fountain pen, and a couple of fine cigars. Occasionally, I have a glass of bourbon. On the weekend, I type up my notes, filling in the blanks of my research.

What’s the book on your night table at the moment? What are your favourite reads and your reading habits (for example, do you like get cosy on the sofa with a drink or are you one of those readers on public transports with their nose constantly in a book when commuting)?

My favorite read is a good historical novel with lots of adventure and/or romance. I’ve made my way through most of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series. I’ve read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series twice. I still need to read her latest novel.

I’m currently reading My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones for 30 minutes before bedtime. I listen to Nevernight by Jay Kristoff every morning during my workouts.

Plans for the future?

I’ve written an urban fantasy/horror series for which I am currently seeking representation for a game-changer in vampire lore. A young woman struggles with the mystery of her ability to constrain human minds, her supernatural strength, and her lust for violence. However, an ancient species finds her and pulls her into a power struggle between Djinn and the Children of Lylith. As she learns the glorious source of her strength, she finds it was born thousands of years ago with the most powerful female ruler during the time of Solomon. The gifts she found monstrous before, become her greatest asset in fighting evil.
I am currently writing the 4th book in my historical romance series, ‘Love and Peace’. I hope to get that to my publisher by the end of the year.

Any last word?

Daughter of Hades is written by a black author with black main characters, but the story is told from diverse points of view. It shines a light on little known details in Caribbean history. It’s definitely worth a look.

Oh! And the best way to thank an author for an adventure you just read is to write a review. It only takes a sentence or two to support authors.

All books by Mack Little are available at:


Life of a Writer: in Conversation with Chrissy Smith

Fiction and real life intertwine in this conversation with author Chrissy Smith, as she tells us more about her book ‘The Pilgrims Rest’

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with St Albans, in Hertfordshire. For those who aren’t, though, here’s a few facts: the city is in the commuter belt of London, prices are slightly cheaper than the capital and it’s well connected, making living there a good compromise. But at the very beginning of its existence, St Albans was Verulamium, a Roman city, the second largest after Londinium. Once the Roman empire fell and consequently disintegrated, the city became part of the Anglo-Saxon reign and its name derives from St Albans Abbey, which is believed to be the resting place of Saint Alban.

There are many layers to the city – Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Tudors, Victorian – but what interests us are the more recent years, the ones right after the end of WWII because this is where our story begins.

Have you ever wondered whether Holywell Hill is really haunted? There have been quite a few sightings during the years. And do any of you happen to remember a popular restaurant called The Pilgrims Rest at number 1 Holywell Hill? No? So let me tell you a bit more about it.

The Pilgrims Rest was run by my family from the 1950s to the 1970s and I lived above the restaurant for most of my young life. I have to say it was quite an unusual upbringing. My grandparents, Reg and Win Hayes, former publicans, bought The Pilgrims Rest and worked there with my parents, Derrick and Julie, and also my aunt and uncle, Reggie and Sheila. They worked every day, there was no such thing as the weekend off, and our living quarters were upstairs on the first and second floor. There were twelve of us, but we were sharing two whole floors, so it was quite spacious.  There were three bedrooms on the top, almost in the rafters, where my parents slept, and for a short while my uncle, aunt and their children lived on that floor as well but they moved out sooner than us. So I took one of the bedrooms with one of my sisters while my parents slept in another with my younger brother and my other sister.  And then there was Alf, a strange lodger of sorts, who slept in the third bedroom opposite the spooky attic. He was an elusive character and I would define him a strange anomaly.  I never really knew who he was or why he was there. I knew he was not a member of our family, but he seemed to do odd jobs for my nana, sweeping, shopping or the occasional repair. He didn’t say much and used to shuffle around the place with his head bowed low. I only found out many years later, when I was writing the book, that he had been taken in by my grandmother when they’d lived in Dartford after having been in some kind of institution there for many years and she’d given him a home.

At the far end of the first floor there was a large room which we called the ‘Big Room’, the photo shows me standing next to the old fireplace on our last day there; it was a huge sitting room with a twin-bedded room adjacent to it, accessible via huge double doors hidden behind heavy brocade curtains.  Along the corridor there was a long row of rooms that we called ‘the flat’ and at the far end was a bathroom with a large flap door which could be lifted; beneath it were wooden steps leading down to the scullery.

When all the customers had gone home and the place was quiet, I would explore the 16thcentury building now hosting our restaurant, which had many secret nooks and crannies, a spooky attic on the top floor and an old cellar underground where I discovered the blocked off tunnel, believed to link to the city’s Norman cathedral. Apparently, monks used it centuries before to make and store their wine for the liturgy. There was a lot of talk and rumours amongst staff of ghostly apparitions.

Stories surrounding the tunnel were the trigger for my imagination.

I started the book about nine years ago when my mother and I went back to visit Number 1 Holywell Hill which had been bought by Wesley Barrell, a furniture showroom, and I started doing my research there and then, asking if there had been any more ghostly sightings by the staff, which there had! There have been many ghostly apparitions reported in the area in the past.

My novel is based on reality and is a memoir and homage to those who lived and worked at The Pilgrims Rest. Fictitious events have been intermingled with religious and historical truths and legends relating to the town of St Albans which have been passed down through the ages. 

I have so many happy memories of the restaurant, most of which I have tried to include in the book.  But one of my favourites is my grandad sitting at the large kitchen table, handing out money from the till’s takings to all the Saturday staff, including me. We all had to wait our turn, queuing up before him, while he sat at the head of the table like a magnanimous benefactor.  I felt as though I ought to curtsey before him when I reached the front of the queue to receive my hard-earned wages of £3.00 for washing up on a Saturday afternoon, always the busiest day – no dishwashers then!  

The book itself is a family affair through and through: my husband David was the first to read the final draft and helped to lay out the artwork for the cover with illustrations by our daughter Hayley, while Andrew and Daniel, our sons, showed their support all along.

St Albans is an amazing city, and I was truly blessed to have been brought up there.  The Abbey was a very special place and I would often pop in to enjoy its ambience if I was bored or perhaps if it was quiet at the restaurant. I would often take my younger brother and sisters out on a jaunt down to the lake at Verulamium to keep them out of the way of the busy kitchen. One of those jaunts features in my book when the lake was frozen and my sister fell through the ice, but in the book Alf suddenly appears to save the day. Shame he wasn’t there when it really happened!

The town itself was always bustling with many visitors who’d come to see the Abbey and Roman ruins at Verulamium and also to visit the ancient pubs, shops and the busy market which consisted of stalls running all the way from the Market Place, past the Town Hall and all along St Peter’s Street, and also have a peek at the secret alleyways along Chequer Street that I always loved dearly.

I have many photos of the family at the restaurant, some are very old, taken on our last day at the restaurant and others show the place as it is today, taken over by a bookshop called Books on the Hill.

Intrigued? Grab you copy of the book here:


Life of an artist: in conversation with Joslin Fitzgerald

In this exclusive interview, author and publisher Joslin Fitzgerald tells us more about her background, her beginnings as a writer, the bumps in the road and her exciting future plans.

The Merry Movies, inspired by Joslin Fitzgerald’s books. Image credits:

Who is Mary Joslin, also known as an author by the name of Joslin Fitzgerald, and how and why did she start writing?

Mary Joslin is a normal lady, who has lived an exciting, yet extreme and, at times, abnormal life! Saying that, let me tell you a bit more. At a very young age – I was only 23 – after giving birth to my first son I was abruptly transplanted from my safe life in the United States. My husband needed to find a well-paying job that would support our family, but being both so young we also wanted fun and adventure and be able to travel the world like movie stars. So, we moved overseas with our two-month-old son, landing in Saudi Arabia, in a city near the Persian Gulf. This was a very difficult and scary life-changing decision for me: I was a terrified first-time mother with a tiny baby, who did not know what she was doing. I had no idea how to raise a child on my own, hence my family would have come in handy, but my husband said that he was moving with or without me, putting me in between a rock and a hard place. Yes, I needed help, but at the same time I didn’t want to raise my son without his father, so I chose what was best at the moment and went to Saudi Arabia, deciding I was going to figure it out by myself. 

I was completely horrified and overwhelmed by the condition of abandonment I was welcomed by. Other than my father, nobody in my family had ever been on an airplane. It is hard to explain it to today’s people, and harder still for them to understand, but keep in mind in the early 70’s nobody ever flew anywhere unless you were employed overseas. Or you were a music or a film idol. Or you were rich. Having the amazing and rare opportunity to be an international traveller, even though I was either rich or famous, somehow helped me easing into my decision to move. I didn’t even know where Saudi Arabia was located on the map, let alone what to expect from it! And when my husband made big promises of expensive trips, diamonds, even gold, and one-of-a-kind magical adventure, I was game. But it was a poor decision, that not only changed everything but also ruined my marriage. It was only after we landed that I found out he had been lying to me about everything, including where we would be living. We were supposed to be stationed in the American camp, but when we arrived, there was no in-camp houses available and we lived in this building that could have hosted up to 50 people, but only saw us. Not only there were no Americans around us, but there also were no people at all, except for this guard at the door, armed with a machine gun, that was supposed to be there to keep me safe, but that only made me feel threatened and vulnerable.

We lived in a 600 square foot apartment (55 square metres), with no electricity except for the one produced by a small generator, that was hardly enough to run a barely functioning A/C unit, no operating toilet (I had to bury our poo, pee and vomit outside in the sand) a bed, a crib, a sofa, a chair, and three coffins… Yes, I said coffins. On our arrival the company my husband worked for measured, prepared, and gave us our wooden coffins, just in case things would go south. Since I didn’t have a table, I used the two smaller ones to serve food on, and the big one as my son’s playpen. I cooked on a makeshift gas stove and oven, while my son played with rats that he called cats. I poured poison on my hands to make sure the food we ate was safe, and the bugs on it were dead. I literally watched the Clorox eat my skin that peeled off my bones as I bled.

The only car we had access to was the one my husband used to go to work. Once the driver picked him up and drove away to his office inside the American camp with proper working A/C units, I was stuck there. Not that it made any difference, since women weren’t allowed to drive anyway, or even take the bus to go to town. Women were not allowed to do anything that was not approved by their law, be them local or foreigner: I, too, had to wear a black abaya and niqab every day… but thankfully not at night. Just like any woman there, I had to walk everywhere I went, but with no sidewalks available, I had to push the stroller through the sand, which was not easy. I ended up carrying the baby in one arm and the stroller in the other. I shopped at souks, where I bought things I did not know what they were, and bought them from a very short, agitated men who did not like emancipated, free-willed, un-accompanied [by a man member of the family] women, all this while speaking a strange language who I could not understand. It’s funny how this was supposed to be a one-week arrangement, but it turned into two years of my life.

Eventually, things got better. After such a long time, I was ready to pack my stuff and go back to the States, when we finally got some good news: we were moving into the American camp. It was only slightly better, since the only communication I was allowed with my family were sporadic letters that were all blacked out, since news and information were censored. But, on the other hand, during those 7 years we travelled around the world three times and visited 35 countries. You need to know that in Saudi Arabia there is this rule for which, if you stay for longer than 11 months in a year, you will be considered a resident. We were kind of forced to take vacations, but I am not complaining about it: we went back and forth to the States so I would not go insane, and it was also a necessity. Inside the camp we had American groceries and everything food related but we didn’t have any kind of department store meaning everything we purchased had to be purchased on our trips back home. We would literally buy a year’s worth of clothes and toys for the kids, and I bought Christmas presents in July, and 4 to 5 sizes of the same clothes because all of those things went in boat shipments took up to months to be received.

To entertain myself I even started buying gold. Yes, gold. It was cheaper than wine! With alcohol forbidden in the country, any bootleg spirit was very expensive, if you could put your hands on it at all. It was a way for me to survive and keep my fears and my disintegrating marriage at bay, and it was a way for my husband to pay me off and keep me there. Slowly but surely, my husband changed from Dr Jeckyll to Mr Hide in front of my eyes. He still loved me, but he would not touch me, he became more and more unhappy with who he was, hiding secrets from me: some had to do with drugs, other with lies. I was living alone, away from my family, with a man who was more like my angry brother than my comforting lover. I am not proud of it, but I have been contemplating the idea of suicide a few times.

At the same time, though, I was also having fun, somehow, and I accumulated enough one-of-a-kind amazing stories to write 15 novels of my Circle’s Legacy series. Years later I felt the urge and the need to document all my incredible overseas experiences in a fictional yet nonfictional way, including the sufferance of going through a difficult and abusive marriage, that after 15 years of struggles, ended badly in a devastating lawsuit, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and divorce. Unable to keep my secrets hidden anymore, I started writing. And ten years later, after I had written one million words (it was verified on my computer’s word count) and all those sentences turned into 15 novels, I went looking for a publisher.

On our first phone interview, you told me about being a published author with a good-sized company that, at a certain point, pulled out your books, and the ones of many other authors, from distribution, with no warning or explanation. What went through your mind? And in that moment how did this make you feel as an author and as a person?

During my writing career, which has spanned for over 25 years, I worked with two major publishing houses, but, for different reasons, both publishers ran into legal difficulties. After closing their doors without warning, taking 350,000 novels out of distribution and affecting over 2,000 authors, my writing stopped, and I was left completely devastated. Let me clarify one thing for people who are not in the publishing industry: if a publisher goes out of business, that publishing house will immediately and automatically take all books that they have under contract out of distribution, meaning your books will no longer be selling anywhere and you will not be able to sell them yourself. Plus, you will not be given your books’ files back. It’s like you never wrote them in the first place because it’s like your books no longer exist. Unless you want to start over with a new publisher, or try to self-publish with new illustrations, a new cover and new layout, your book is as good as dead. The last big publisher was also sued for stealing royalties from its authors. They took three of my novels, and seven of my children’s books out with them. It was a catastrophe. I felt like I would ever be able to start over again. However, that was not the case the first time: just one week after the first publisher went out of business, I was immediately picked up by another big publishing house, which bought the rights for my books, but five years later, the second publisher went out of business. The last book in the series ends with the death of a character’s marriage, leaving her devastated. With the publisher closing down I felt like the character died twice. It was heart-breaking, even more because I had no way to stop it or reverse it. And that’s when I decided I could never trust publishers again. That gave me liberation and led to me starting my own publishing company.

You decided to take things into your hands, using your skills and your experience. What is the ethos of this?

I wanted to make sure that my books were never taken out of distribution again. I joined forces with my production team, which was the same team I had been working with a week before the company closed. Clearly, they all have been fired without any warning, meaning we all were out of business, too in shocked to process what happened, and in need to find a new way to start over again soon. We came together to pick up the pieces: since we already knew each other, and I trusted them – they had already worked on seven of my books – within a matter of weeks we were back on track.

At this point I needed a publisher, but, given my experiences, I wasn’t trusting any of them. Starting my own publishing company was a challenging but at the same time easy decision to make. It was far more complex to make the company work and be my own publisher. But I was surrounded by an extremely talented group of artists, illustrators, book cover designers, layout specialist supervisors, and my dear project manager, who were not only my crew, but also people I still consider my family, and together we created the Circles Legacy Publishing LTD, which is still in business 10 years later. The beginning was rough, as it is in any new business, but I managed to give birth to 18 of my own books.

We offer the same services the same as traditional publishing, but what we do differently is that we don’t put authors under contract. And we will not take royalties from them. I will not set up accounts for them and I will not have any access to their bank account or to their financial information. I will invoice them for my services and work, half of the cost up front and the other half when the book is finished. But at that finished point, instead of controlling their book, they will have the final product, the full control of it and they will pay me for my services just once. I will also instruct the authors on how to get the book into distribution with Ingram Sparks, but they will be the one doing the job, and any revenue they make from any sale will go directly to them. Plus, they will have to get their own copyright certification with the Library of Congress.

How are you different from other publishers?

Until now, I haven’t been a traditional publisher for anybody other than myself. I have recently published what could possibly be my last children’s book (but we’ll see!), and because of this I started to help other emerging authors. I have decided to offer my publishing services, my expertise, and my team to provide high quality book covers, design work, and layouts, while I give guidance. I have decided to be a different kind of publisher, I don’t want to be in the position of taking their books out of distribution and, in this way, take their characters away from them. I want to help authors to put their books out of their computers and in the open for everyone to see and read. I will make sure that the books are ready to be printed in high resolution format, I will show the authors how to publish their own books, and how to put them into distribution themselves, while owning all the rights to every part of the book. They will be taking control of their own work and their future because I will hand over their print ready files. Basically, the authors will be their own publisher.

Let’s talk about your books, why children’s books rather than, for example, young adult or romance? Where do you take inspiration from? Do you have children yourself or are you in close contact with children (for example nieces and nephews)?

I didn’t start writing children’s books. I began writing novels. Now I have 15 novels under copyright and ready to go, including the three novels that are still stranded, and out of distribution because of the publishing company closing down. With them, those three novels were never released, but I am happy to announce that they will be back out for distribution by next year.

After I finished writing over 1 million words, that turned into my 15 novels, I looked around and decided that I did not want to stop writing. Wanting to do something different, I started writing children’s books. It was an easy transition for me because I have always loved teaching children! I have two children of my own, 2 stepchildren, 2 grandchildren, and as my kids were growing up, to help financially I opened a day care and preschool in my house. And I have always worked with children through churches and in Mothers’ Day out programs [they are programs that offer parents some ‘me-time’ to take care of personal business while offering the children the opportunity to learn and socialise with peers]. I’ve always been around children quite a lot. Writing children’s books just seemed to be the normal progression for me. I combined life lessons from my childhood, as well as valuable insights from my children’s escapades, magic and child innocence, trying to make the world a better place one child and one adult at a time. Five of these children’s books have been turned into Animated Merry Movies by a Motion Picture Company, and they are getting a lot of interest and attention from Hollywood producers.

Tell us more about them: how did you go from the books to the animation, how much control do you have over the process, what stage of production are you at, who are you working with, the release date?

Well, that’s a great merry question! The Merry Movies are 30-minute films that have been made by a Professional Motion Picture company from 5 of my bestselling children’s books. The Merry Movies are not videos or cartoons, but 30 minute long, high definition, high quality films with sounds, music, 3D element and pictures of the whole book, narrated by a retired professional actress, making this fairy tale magical world come alive right in front of your eyes. 

They will solely be available through my Author company and at my website. The Merry Movies are for every child! Recently, through my Patreon host site they are also available world-wide. You now can stream thyem on all your devices, including your TV. 

How did the Merry Movies get started?

Well, that’s another good question that stems from my books being into a wide distribution. My books caught the attention of a motion picture company, and 2 years ago they approached me with the idea to turn some of them into animated movies. The company told me that they mostly produced audiobooks, but because of the original storylines, the bright signature colours, and all the sweet things inside (literally: the books are full of candies, ice creams, doughnuts…) they wanted to turn 5 of them into movies. I have been closely collaborating with them during the whole process.

Sadly, though, there will not be any more Merry Movies, because, due to unforeseen circumstances, the company is no longer in business. So, I am not expecting to put out anymore Merry Movies. But, again, who knows!

You mentioned that you are mentoring two college seniors in an internship, and that you are all starting a new kind of marketing and advertising company. Can you please tell us more about that?

Every creator, every author, every artist knows it’s hard to market anything if you don’t have ‘the big money’ behind you. And since it seems like every social media site has shut down our advertising attempts unless they are getting a cut from it, I started to think out of the box: how I could tell other authors about my publishing company while getting out the information on the publishing services I am offering? And I asked myself: how can authors and creators help each other succeed and market their products, all the while offering peers feedback? That’s how I had the idea for my new company. Thanks to my experience, both as a writer and as publisher, I asked and obtained to be tutoring at three Universities internship programs. At the moment I am helping two college seniors as we start the Arising Writers Company: while helping to start this business, both students are learning about promotion, marketing, advertising, communication, and business. This is a self-marketing company which aims to create a free platform where other authors, musicians, singers, bands, and songwriters can showcase their work in their own way and in their own words. In our dedicated and safe space, the Arising Writers Blog, the writers can tell us in their own words about their books, and the songwriters can tell us about their own songs. On top of that, they can sell on our site if they want. We decided to turn the comments off to avoid sterile criticisms and unjustified attacks: we are here to help writers thrive, not stop doing what they are already doing with a lot of effort and sacrifices. It is our hope, as we support them in our community, that they will support us and tell their friends and family about others’ book too. 

Additional information is available at and you can also contact us via email at

Social Media

To find out more about her work and project, follow Joslin Fitzgerald on Instagram and Twitter.


Life of an Artist: in conversation with Jorah Kai (Part Two)

Photo: Zhang Deng (

Welcome to part two of our interview with Canadian author Jorah Kai. In this instalment, Jorah discusses his latest book, the solarpunk fantasy novel ‘Amos the Amazing’, his future creative plans and gives valuable advice to those approaching publishing for the first time. 

At the end of 2022, you released your book ‘Amos the Amazing’, a “solarpunk fantasy novel”. Could you tell us a bit more about this genre? 

Solarpunk is an imaginative literary and art movement that speculates on what it would look like if we solved current and future pressing problems such as social inequality due to late-stage capitalism, the climate crisis, global warming, and a lot of other social issues to reshape our society and world into something a lot more like what you saw on Star Trek. I live in a cyberpunk supercity in Asia of 34 million people. It sounds cool and looks great at night, but I want to highlight more than that – actually, it’s inspiring to live in a place that is both the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest provider of solar power. To watch coal power plants transition to wind, water, and solar power, to see Chongqing become a sponge city… like it’s all very exciting for me. Solar punk envisions a world where we have overcome these social and environmental problems using technology, shifting to green energies and away from fossil fuels. Often, it involves a political shift somewhere between socialism and radical anarchism. Still, I’ve even wondered if AI would do a better job than what we’ve got going on now anyway. However we get there, we need to break through the log jam of big industry lobbyism, corruption, and resistance to new energy solutions and create a world where we live in high technology and harmony with nature. Say what you will about them – and I have some tough words for billionaires and how they manage to become real-life dragons, but Jeff Bezos does want to create Earth into a park and offload polluting industries into space, and Elon Musk did really move the needle on electric cars. In China now, there are so many electric vehicles, millions of charging stations, and even hydrogen buses that create water instead of CO2 when you drive them. So it feels very exciting to be in this country now. I hope this book and other solar punk books can inspire young readers to go into the sciences (and magick) and help change the world, recreate it into something amazing, high vibration, full of imagination and potential. We could be so much more than we are, and we have the tools to reach it.

Amos the Amazing. More Publishing, 2022. (Photo Credits:

What was your source of inspiration for the story, and what would you like readers to take away from reading it?

Amos was a great mix of many things, it is a love letter to the hundreds of fantasy novels I read as a child, and something I wanted to do for many years: mix science fiction and fantasy, using frames, to create a deeply layered experience. There is a LOT of world-building to unpack in sequels, which I think will be fun. I also choose Chongqing as the setting because it’s a wonderful and surprising city that many English speakers have probably never even word of. I used to take some students from the city to help teach rural village primary school students English on an annual spring trip before the pandemic, and it was quite an experience to watch the city kids adapt to rural life in China. That was part of it, as well. I love the opportunity to create a story that is both western and eastern, and my translator, Dr. Fei Gao, who has been a wonderful source of encouragement and support all along, has been really positive about the work as a cross-cultural achievement that, according to her, is quite interesting to Sinologists and experts in English-Chinese cross-cultural studies, which is, again, really interesting.

As part of my writing process for this book, I was asked to do a reading in Tongliang village, China, for a group of university students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Chongqing and sign some of my past books for them. I decided to write a chapter of Amos from a draft I had done up and read it at the event as ‘part of my next book.’ The response I got was incredibly encouraging, and Dr. Gao, who I met at that event, offered to facilitate a beta reading project with me: she said if I had a book to workshop by September 1, we could teach it to her cross-cultural and literary studies students. So that was, like, mid-June, and I went off for my summer break and wrote the book. By August 31, I had a draft of it, and then we began an intense 15-week course, where I scrambled to get each section polished in time for the students to read and comment on it. It was super intense and very interesting. It’s been exciting to be a writer in a foreign country these past few years. As much as I love my native Canada, I can’t imagine having the same opportunities there as I’ve been lucky enough to have here.

What would they like to take from it? I don’t want to spoil that, but I hope it inspires them to read more, believe in magick, and maybe help this world become a little more solarpunk. If I can inspire some clever kids to go into STEM fields and help invent the technologies I dream up and make our world a better place, that’s amazing. Also, with all this war machine saber rattling, I’d like my readers to know my experience. China has been a great place for me to live and work. It’s a lovely place to live. The food is juicy and delicious, and the cost of living is affordable. I think a lot of western leaders and media need an adversary to point at so people don’t ask them the hard questions about why inflation, addiction, and the environment are so out of control or why lobbying makes it legal for big corps to bribe leaders to do bad things instead of responsible ones. Still, if my books can shed some light on the beauty of other cultures and the wonders of China, too, maybe a few people will open their eyes and turn the conversation back to making their own country better rather than trying to bomb ones that are just doing their best and to be honest, the amount of work I’ve seen happen to encourage clean energy, electric and hydrogen cars, etc. in China is amazing. If the West doesn’t get its act together and step it up, China might just save the whole world by itself.

In the end, I moved to China by chance, but also, it’s very interesting to be in this ancient culture and also a very powerful nation, and have, what I hope, is a positive effect as a cross-cultural ambassador. Also, if you love Chinese food, you’ll never have as authentic Chinese food as if you come to China. It’s the real deal.

Any other interesting writing projects in the pipeline? 

I’m almost done proofing the Amos the Amazing audiobook, read by award-winning voice actor Christian Neale and that’s super exciting. The way he brings the characters to life is incredibly entertaining, and it was really cool working with him to realize this project. I’m also working on rewriting a novel I wrote (drafted) about four years ago, and I think it’s time to get it out and done. I hope to get it translated into other languages and also write it as a screenplay when it’s done – it’s very cinematic and, I think, has commercial appeal. I’m working on a few experimental forms as well that are exciting because they’re ambitious and strange and feel like very new territory. After centuries of writers saying all stories have been told, we have some really new territory to break bread with, and that’s thrilling. I am going to write a book about the history of Solarpunk, but at the moment, I’m weighing out making it a nonfiction book or a fictionalized novel – I actually have drafts for both, and both have pros and cons. I believe it deserves a nonfiction treatment, but the audience for fiction is much bigger, and I want to reach as many people as possible, so I am leaning towards a cyberpunk-style adventure with possible solarpunk futurism, inspiring people to create a future worth living in. My Chinese publisher wants me to write many more Amos stories, so I will return to that world after a little break and a few other books because I want to be a better, more cohesive, and clearer writer when I return to it. As my protagonists age, I think the demands for a more mature voice will push me to take it to higher heights, but it’s another great challenge I’m also looking forward to.

As a very experienced writer, what advice would you give to aspiring authors approaching publishing (or self-publishing) for the first time?

I get a little surprised to hear myself described that way, but I’ll take it. I guess if you do anything for long enough, it’s inevitable. Whether you choose to go down the route of traditional publishing, self-publishing, or hybrid publishing, it’s a lot more work in social media, marketing, and promoting than you probably realized. The great thing about traditional publishers is you just give them the book, and they guide you the rest of the way. The problem is they may say no for a long time before one says yes, and they may require a lot of sacrifices or compromises you might not want to make. For self-publishing, it’s the converse, you dictate the timing, the material, and absolute creative control, but it’s also on you to get your cover done to a standard that someone might find appealing, recruit your team of beta readers and editors, and decide what quality of book is enough for your purposes and your audience. I’ve done both, and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Working with my friend Garrett to create More Publishing as a micro ‘boutique’ imprint that primarily is focused on amplifying English voices and telling stories of China which is relevant to our daily lives here (I’m in Chongqing, he’s in Chengdu, about an hour away by high-speed rail). By publishing Amos in English first, I was able to get it to a level I think is about as good as it is going to get now, meaning that the Chinese translator and the traditional publishing house in China are getting a better Chinese product in the end, and I get to share it in my native language this year instead of in 5 years or so, so we were all happy about that. I’ll give you some advice that works for me, the students I’ve taught over the last decade, and advice we’d give to prospective writers hoping More Publishing might want to publish their novel; I think, in general, it’s reasonable advice for any writer.

First, dream it, and then work like you want your dream to come true. You have to make space for your dream to grow and then wake up every day and work like you believe your dream will happen. Inspiration and perspiration. Two, plan and outline. Take your book and break it into bite-sized chunks. One day, write a logline; the next, give me a paragraph showing 3 act structure. Break it into chapters the next day and tell me the beats you want each chapter to hit, then wake up and give me 2000 words for Chapter 1 before lunch. If you can’t write a scene in artistic and literary glory, give me the bullet points of what happens, and know you’ll get back to it to fill it in later.

When you’ve got that glorious first draft, that’s great, but the job is only beginning. Be ready to work on those lines and scenes 70 times if that is what it takes to get it right, and find beta readers who can give honest feedback and fill in your gaps. Want to write an action scene but never held a gun? Just do your best and then find someone with that experience to help you get the weight right later. Rewrite and revise until you’re ready (or have) to let it go. I had to let Amos go in 2022 because the translator and publisher were hungry for it. I could have written it for 3 more years, and it would have been a better English book, but I had to take the chance that I did when I did it, and we’re still cleaning up typos here and there, but the editors did a great job and I think it’s a lovely story. I want the next one to be 1000% better, so I’ll keep pushing myself harder to learn and grow. Lastly, if you write for everyone, you’re writing for no one, so consider your audience. Picture someone and tell the story as you want them to hear it. 

In the end, what I learned from my diaries/nonfiction trilogy, The Invisible War, and replicated with Amos and other books going forward, is the difference between a hobby writer with a draft on their shelf and a published writer with thousands of copies sold is a mindset. As Stephen Pressfield so eloquently says, if you want to go pro, you’ve got to act pro. It’s about not giving up when you get to the end but pushing on harder than you’ve ever pushed before. They call them book babies for a reason and it is labor – but it’s a labor of love. Treat it like it matters and needs to be born for the world, and you’ll get it done.

The first one is the hardest. You’re proving to yourself and to the world that you are a writer and you have at least one good book in you. It gets easier after that. You have a roadmap, you’ve done it before, and you just have to do it again. Don’t worry about being a genius, don’t worry about anything, just do your best, show up to the desk and write and welcome the muses when they come. If you write a bum book, maybe you just had a bum muse. Write another one. They’ll get better, and so will you.

If I could leave you with one final idea, it’s the duality of this: Writing is Magic. You are sharing your mind and yourself with the world, and if you do it well, people who aren’t even alive yet will spend time with you in close communion years after you’re dead. But writing isn’t magic. It’s a job, and it’s hard work. And you may dream of being a writer, but until you show up at your desk every day and make the time to get your books done and meet your muses halfway, you are robbing yourself and the world of your potential. So get to it, and show us what you’ve got.

Thanks so much for your time! Really appreciate speaking with you and hope your readers get something out of this.

With warm regards and twinkly toes, as we spin purposely about on a beautiful blue ball through the endless vast emptiness for what seems like an awfully long time,

Jorah Kai

Editor’s Note from Alex: During our numerous online conversations and throughout the interview, Jorah shared meaningful insight on the challenges he faced growing up and the sense of ennui he felt numerous times in his life. I believe these are feelings we can all relate to as human beings, and having struggled with mental health myself, I’d like to share links to two UK charities very close to my heart, in the hope they might help if you too feel overwhelmed.

Mosaic LGBT + Young Person Trust | A charity aiming to support, educate and inspire young LGBT+ persons and those around them by providing accessible activities, programmes and services (including counselling) to empower community members, provide essential resources, advocate for young LGBT+ rights, and embrace, promote and endorse the diversity of young persons.

Mind UK | A charity fighting mental health, ‘for support for respect, for you’. Mind operates in England and Wales, supporting minds and making mental health an everyday priority. It offers help through information, advice and local services and brings together a network of individuals and communities – people who care about mental health to make a difference.

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Life of an Artist: in conversation with Jorah Kai (Part One)

Jorah Kai, photo by Li Jun.

Extra-ordinary lives do not come by every day. When Jorah got in touch at the beginning of the year, his was “just another query”. However, here at Not for Vanity we have the very bad habit to always look beneath the surface. Fascinated by what we discovered, this feature was born. 

In this two-part interview, Canadian author Jorah Kai talks about his life and his work as a writer. As the story unfolds, he tells us how ‘the gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson of the ’90s dance music scene took a job at Chinese Harvard and traded a couple hours a day lecturing to international students for the time and space to sit and think, work on my hobbies, decompress from the stress of decades of touring, and eventually get to work writing the books I wanted to write’. We hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did.

Hi Jorah, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Having looked at your bio on your website, it seems to me you’ve already lived a thousand lives… Can you introduce yourself to our audience? Who is Jorah Kai?

Hi Alex, nice to meet you. First off, thanks so much for asking me to do this interview. Writing is often a lonely grind, and the gratification of sharing your work is delayed immeasurably compared to music or visual arts. Whenever someone wants to know about a writer’s work, an angel gets their wings. Please call me Kai if you like; most of my friends do, and I must say, you’ve asked me a question that’s got me utterly stumped, which has only happened a couple of times in my life. I must have stared at this question for a week before I blinked, but I will do my best to answer so profound a question as who I am; please forgive me if I do it poorly.

As the caterpillar said to Alice, “Who are you?” I’ve spent my life trying to figure that question out. As a young lad, I wanted to be a writer, and somebody told me to write what I knew. Knowing I knew very little, I set out to experience everything I could … 1000 lifetimes indeed. I’ve had every odd job under the sun. I became something of a social chameleon. As a child, I spent a year at a tough urban primary school, telling jokes to older boys and girls who had me in the hospital several times with pencils and other sharp objects shoved in places where you shouldn’t put pencils. I was funny, I swear. The next September, my mom’s friend encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. I entered a prestigious Hebrew private school (I wasn’t Jewish, which makes it all the more absurd) across the street called Hillel academy. I remember they gave me a new name in the cloakroom before they pushed me out on stage into the grade 1 class: Noah Ross, named after the man who built a boat to save humanity. No pressure.

I think I’ve spent a lifetime trying to live up to that name, which had nothing to do with me (years later, when I was hosting events and building warm artistic communities and arks in cold concrete jungles, the theme haunted me). Then they introduced me, and I tried to learn a whole new alphabet. I think I had a mental breakdown about three months in, a total identity crisis, and returned to the tough urban school for the rest of the year. I remember the highlight of Hebrew private school was the tuna fish sandwiches, and they would cut the crusts off, which should surprise no one with even a rudimentary knowledge of their practices. No, I was not Jewish, but it was a primer in playacting. I returned to the tough school and told a joke in class that got a pencil so far up my nose I think my brain was bleeding. A supply teacher told my parents that I would probably thrive better if I could get transferred to the school up the hill, and surprisingly, that worked out. My new best friends were the son of a government minister and the stepson of the president of South Africa – and this was a year before he stepped down to support Nelson Mandela. On a trip to old Quebec City, I gave that boy a bag of gummy bears that impressed him so much that through the butterfly effect, I wonder how much weight those candies had on the history of that country and the legacy of apartheid. Regardless, I had seen three very different worlds and imagined different futures, all before I was six years old.

As a teenager, I got into role-playing games with much older kids and then into electronic music – back then, it was called the ‘rave’ scene. That community was really wild for its beauty and tragedy, and diversity. I met orks, goblins, fairies, movie stars, poets, and gangsters. Tom Greene tried to steal my girlfriend once, and the entire dancefloor of a club I was DJing at, live on MTV and then Drew Barrymore danced with me under the pale moonlight, and Harrison Ford gave my date his best rascally grin, but we laughed and ran away and danced in the dark until dawn. For a Canadian boy from a small town, it was a lot to take, but it was just life. It happened.

Who am I? In the end, I’m anyone, I’m everyone, I’m no one. I would like to say I’m noble because I’m made of stars, and I’m humble because I’m made of earth. I guess I’m just a guy with many stories, from many different places, over the years. 

Was that a dodge? I didn’t mean it to be. I’ll try to be more specific. I’ve been a gamer nerd, a goth teenager, and a hip-hop DJ in a rising group, making records and breaking bridges as we went. In an incarnation that lasted for decades, I was a touring music producer and DJ for a bass music group that headlined major festivals and played multiple Olympics for leaders of the world and millions on TV. I DJ’d for the Queen of England, at least legally, and fire breathed for 10,000 people with eyes like saucers and shut down Toronto’s Dundas Square with a pirate renegade float during the art night Nuit Blanche dressed as pirates with my childhood friend (bass music superstar) ill.Gates, and then we did it like ten more years in a row – with the help of friends that do events like ‘world’s largest light sword battle’ and got sued by Disney and ‘world’s largest pillow fight’ – at a time when it felt safe for Alec Baldwin to rage tweet at you that you were ruining New York. Oh, we were summer children. I ran a studio with ill.Gates, and he’d go hang with Bill Gates at Sundance and come back, and we’d have ringtones to make to sell to the big guy, and when he passed on some of the pretty ones, we wrote fart tones and silence for big bucks. One night Gates and I were hanging out with Bassnectar (when that was still cool) and Skrillex at Shambhala, and this guy in a Squirrlex costume stalked us – he claimed to be after Sonny’s nuts. One day I visited a friend to play chess and drink tea, and a dozen gang bangers showed up to rob him. Wrong place, right time, but I got the leader in a small room (there was a debate as to who was trapped in there with whom), found two claw hammers in a drawer, and used a combination of intense eye contact, logic, and philosophy to make a compelling case for them to leave right away and never come back. Or the time I accidentally dated a gangster who got kidnapped by movie stars and escaped from an evil billionaire on an island fortress surrounded by sharks. Because that’s a real risk if you stay out too late.

I shake my head, thinking about these things. None of them sound real, but they happened, and a lot more, and that was really interesting, at least until it wasn’t. Life was sensorily thrilling for the most part. So much so that I suffered bouts of depression when I wasn’t on stage rocking a million-dollar sound system because if that was normal, then anything else was dreadfully boring. Luckily, I found mindfulness, stoic philosophy, and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy- not the one you get from the dominatrix). The journey led me to some near-death experiences in some extremely inhospitable surroundings. One day I was a 15-year-old kid in grade 9 math, and then I went dancing and never came home. Suddenly I was a plucky teen DJ that had to face down thugs and gangsters in Brooklyn, NYC, to get my gas money home to Canada. I was a freelance event runner that had to face off with biker gangs and organized crime that tried to profit off my hobby of making dance spaces magical. All before I was 18 years old. In the heart of the black rock desert, I embraced a dream to become a detective, focusing on existential mysteries. I tried being a clown, doing stand-up comedy, and hosting burlesque and Weimar-era-themed cabaret events. It was a lot, and I met many interesting people from all walks of life and listened to their stories.

When I felt I’d discovered all I could in the Western world, I went East and started over with a new life in the secret cyberpunk megacity of Asia- Chongqing, China. And I’ve found new things to learn, experience and write about. Oscar Wilde said, ‘there is no such thing as good and evil people, just charming and tedious ones.’ My life in China has been full of surprises that I could never have imagined, and it continues to astound me utterly on a regular basis. I live in a near-constant state of agitated confusion. Creatively, it’s very helpful. For the past decade, I’ve been a professor in residence, newspaperman, editor, and professional writer. I became a ‘COVID guru’ and got to hang out with Jeanne-Claude Van Damme as we tried to rebuild society together, and came very close to recording an anthem for staying home with Justin Bieber, but in the end, it didn’t click. My life is extremely bizarre and has become increasingly absurd, but I have succeeded in knowing a few things, and most of it has not been boring.

You are originally from Canada, but you’ve now been living in China for years. Tell us a bit more about your life as an ex-pat and moving to a new country: was it a total cultural shock or love at first sight?  

I think it was both. Let me set a scene: I left Toronto in 2014. Within 24 hours, I graduated from a teaching program, said goodbye to my family, and moved a van of some belongings out of my apartment (and into storage with my family), hosted a huge circus and burlesque event that 1000 artists, friends and creatives showed up at and we danced until dawn. I came home and realized that I’d left my fancy designer bathrobe and pair of handmade boots – gifts from a good friend – on the back of my door, shoved them into my suitcase, left the key under the mat and became, legally homeless, and hopped in a cab to catch a flight to Beijing. My suitcase was overweight, so I had to wear a handmade pair of gold lame boots and a fluffy blue bathrobe, wearing Elvis glasses while I drank mimosas all the way to Beijing (I was that guy). We landed 12 hours later, and I washed my face, and was driven to a welcome feast where my host tried to drink me under the table in traditional Chinese greeting culture. When that finished, our team, a group of Canadian teachers, was shuttled to a KTV hall to experience Beijing by night until about 5 am, where we were dropped back at our hotels and told to get a good hour or two of sleep before we spent the day walking the Great Wall of China. I ended up wearing some sort of Song Dynasty armor cosplay and made a lot of friends that day. That was just the speed of China, it took the chaos of my life in Toronto and just amplified it, and it was a mile a minute. Every meal was a ludicrous feast, and every day was a tour of an ancient wonder, and I was gobsmacked and in love with it but utterly confused and didn’t understand a thing.  

Nearly a decade later, I’d say I managed to get a better sleep schedule figured out, mainly thanks to my wife, whom I met in Chongqing. Xiaolin is my rock and my compass, and my love. But we are absolutely different in many incredible ways. My friends were shocked to hear I finally got married. They never thought I’d find ‘the one.’ I dated poets and artists, designers and models, CEOs and actresses, teachers and gangsters, wrestlers, suicide girls, dancers, and dominatrixes, but when I moved to China, I knew she was the one. Xiaolin – or my Shaolin – has the comedic genius of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), the profound wisdom of Yoda, and the sex appeal of a mid-90’s Tia Carerre to my Mike Myers’ Wayne’s world. Can you say Shwiiing?

I’ve learned so much about myself and the world in a decade overseas, but I am still generally confused about nearly everything. I’ve learned to let go. Let go of the need to control my life, let go of fear and anxiety, and just be happy with the day I have and try to make it a good one. I’ve finally built a quieter life here in China, amongst the chaos, and it’s let me publish seven books since 2020, and I have a few more drafts that I’d like to see published in the next year or two as well if life is kind and I am lucky.

Sometimes I wonder about my decision to leave Canada, even the western world, and end up literally about as far as a human can go without coming back to the other side or leaving the planet, on a mountain in southwest China, in the world’s biggest municipality of 35 million, in a secret cyberpunk supercity, rainy, foggy, or, usually swelteringly hot.

Then I read pieces about the struggles of paying the bills in the west and remember why the opportunity had seemed so exciting. In a world of gig economies, it was a full-time job with benefits and time off to write. A chance at a fresh start to live my dream of writing piles of books without distractions. It was a free house, on campus, at a time when housing was getting harder to obtain. A decade later, it looks like none of those problems back home have improved, but my life in China has grown immeasurably. An artist who struggled to pay rent has become a landlord (I rent a place to a single tenant, but that counts, doesn’t it?). We’ve got a new writing retreat by the ocean paid off with lots of hard work and savings (a formerly very foreign concept to me), I’m excited to spend time writing new books while my wife paints by the sea. It sounds like the dream I had at 12, writing with my toes in the sand, laptop chugging away, books happening.

Sometimes, if you listen, your brain will propose radical solutions to what feels like insurmountable problems. How far will you go?

Not for Vanity focuses primarily on English and American audiences, so we are curious… What’s the public’s approach to books and reading in China? Any interesting facts you could share?

The Chinese love to read, but the market for English books is quite small by comparison with Chinese novels. My Chinese is not great, but my works have been translated, which has been really interesting. I mean I live in a city that is the population of Canada. Making it big in a country of 1.4 billion people is a whole other level of success, and so far it’s going pretty well. It’s been incredibly supportive to work here. I sort of lucked into one good situation after another. My latest novel, Amos the Amazing, is a fantasy book through and through but also a solarpunk fantasy novel, and it’s due to come out this year with a huge Chinese publisher that did incredible things with Cixin Liu’s ‘Three-Body Problem,’ so, fingers crossed, it could become quite successful here. Local media heard about it and I just wrapped filming of a pilot TV show where I explore solarpunk stuff around China and check out ancient culture and I have no idea what’s going to happen with that but it will surely help promote the book. I plan to write more in this world and would love to see it adapted to film. I think there’s a great market in China for local content. They love western books and movies too, so sort of doing a hybrid, a ‘Chinese Harry Potter meets Alice in Wonderland’ kind of thing that shows off and explores China, and combines Western and Eastern myths and legends, magic and fantasy, science fiction and the dreams of a solarpunk green energy revolution, well, it’s all quite exciting. It takes the edge of my existential ennui. It’s always good to have hope.

In May 2020 you published your first book ‘Kai’s Diary: A Canadian’s COVID-19 Days in Chongqing’. What made you decide to put pen to paper and tell your story? How did it feel to be the unwilling pioneer of a new “Covid Life” nobody knew how to handle back then? 

It was terrifying. As a poet, I took the pandemic extremely seriously, almost comically so. I washed my hands and masked like it was performance art, like the way Jim Carrey did Andy Kaufman. And it was mostly scary that after spending 30 years studying creative writing and taking classes and drafting outlines, I might die with a few binders of unpublished books and never know if I had the stuff to really make a mark as a storyteller. That was my ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro (Hemingway)’ moment, where he lies around dreaming of all the travels he never wrote, of all the novels he had in his belly that he was saving for later but would never live to write. It put a fire under my butt, and I got to writing whatever stories I could… first, a diary about the very scary and new situation I encountered, plus vignettes and dreams and a bit of what felt like ‘time traveling.’ 

There was a lot of scientific speculation and then as my ‘diary’ unfolded over the 3 years, became much more philosophical. I published the first 60 days with a huge Chinese traditional publisher, in English and Chinese, and it became a nonfiction bestseller here, won some awards and was voted a ‘top novel in China for 2020’ by some publishing agencies. I was astounded. Here, I had heard there wasn’t ‘free speech’ in China. Still, here I was, publishing an internationally syndicated column in Canadian and Chinese news, sharing my gripes and griefs and shower thoughts, data, fears and projections. I was winning awards from Journalist Associations and accolades from the local government and the foreign affairs office for my ‘good work during a crisis.’ It was quite encouraging, and I got to writing my fantasy novel and decided to keep the fire burning, to see how many books I could get done in this short lifelike dream that has been gifted to me, one day at a time. 

Kai’s Diary Book Release, Chongqing, 2020. Photo by Wang Yiling (

‘Kai’s Diary’ was hugely successful and published both in English and Chinese: what happened next? 

As the pandemic spread, I curated blogs from friends around the world to continue this journey as a book, Year of the Rat. Rats are funny, in Asia they’re seen as clever and smart, in the west they’re dirty and plague carriers. This curious Yin and Yang really interested me, as so many things do when you have one foot on each side of the world and exist in a totally alien culture that becomes more ‘normal’ to you than the country you came from. The year 2020 hit very differently worldwide, and it was very interesting to document all the different responses, thoughts, fears and ideas, for posterity. That book is about 800 pages, quite a tome. While my friends and family were in their own lockdowns in Canada and the US, Europe and Africa, I became a published author, was doing regular media appearances, and even met my childhood hero, martial arts movie star Jeanne-Claude Van Damme at a COVID recovery event – and included some of his thoughts in Year of the Rat. It was all very surreal. By 2021-2022, as the Chinese COVID-0 plan meant months of ongoing lockdowns whenever cases became outbreaks in my city, I kept writing (essays, a media column, my fantasy novel, other drafts, and these philosophical books), and the third book in that trilogy, what I call the Invisible War trilogy, Aye of the Tiger, is almost absurd, a little Albert Camus, in my own way, but it was all me walking myself through a tough conversation. I read this great James Baldwin quote about what a shame it is that most of humanity does all it can to ignore the only simple truth of life: that we will all die. So I asked, what does it mean to realize we might soon die? Does it hit differently when your dreams are not yet realized versus when your bucket list is complete? Over the course of the three years, I went from being unpublished to having seven books out, in multiple languages, a couple of which became best sellers in their own niche genres. I had won awards, was a regular on TV and guest at some pretty heavy conventions hanging out with former presidents and movie stars. These diaries – well I don’t expect them, as a new trilogy to become a best seller for a decade, unless Amos becomes the new Game of Thrones and even then. The others I just put out I think for posterity. I don’t imagine many people want to read about COVID yet. Still, in 5 or 10 years, it might be a welcome look back at a special, very strange time in our lives. For me, it was a transformative period, where I looked death in the face and realized, if I’m going to die soon, I’m going to do my best to realize my dreams, to write, to travel again, to help others, to make amends and conquer fears and make peace with myself and my family. I haven’t been back to Canada in five years, and I’m not sure when I will see them again, but my dad has every one of my books on his shelf, and it means something to me that I can leave behind that legacy, no matter what the future holds. In the end, every one of us dies, but as Shakespeare cleverly wrote in Sonnet 18, his most famous love poem: ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ Writing is a kind of magic, like a twinning of souls. The fact that we can pick up books and sit with dead writers of many ages, and feel their ideas come to life again in our minds truly is magic. And if I work hard enough, I’ll write something that will sit next to their books on the shelf of a boy or girl that I can hopefully inspire, just as their books inspired me.

Join us on Friday for Part Two!

In the meantime, have a look at Jorah Kai’s website:

All his books to date are available on Amazon:


Darcy Boyd Mahoney

In conversation with the author of ‘The Daughters of Pendle’

The Daughters of Pendle. Darcy Boyd Mahoney, 2022.

Hi Darcy! It’s a pleasure to have you with us! Let’s start with your book, The Daughters of Pendle. There is a brief intro dated 1564, where we witness a terrible practice of the past: witch hunting. It wasn’t one of the most enlightening moments of humankind, let’s be honest. And still, you decided to use it as the pivotal point of your book. Can you tell us why?

That short prologue was a very late addition to the story. I had received notes from an American beta reader who never heard of Pendle or its history, and suggested filling in some of the background by adding historical information. I decided a direct prologue would be more effective. It enabled me to ground the story historically and geographically, and it gave me a chance to give one of the main characters some foundation. 

I think that dark period in history is evocative for a lot of different reasons: apart from the very serious abuses and crimes against innocent women (and some men), it was also a time of social control and abuse. It’s a subject which deserves a degree of sensitivity, and despite my effort to create a fun, though dark adventure, I wanted to be respectful. I asked a friend, who is also a practicing witch, if she would give the story a sensitivity pass, as I didn’t want to trample on anyone’s belief system or practices. Being a fun, horror story, she was more than happy with the approach I have taken throughout the tale. 

You made an unusual and bold choice when it comes to characters dialogues, i.e. they resemble a film script but lack the genre-specific formatting and economy. This may make the book challenging to read for some. Can you tell us why you opted for this format?

It’s actually been mentioned a few times. I think it ultimately comes down to me not being a writer. I did a Film and Animation degree in my late twenties; as I was only prepping and creating storyboards and scripts for my own use, I developed a hybrid approach, which is pretty much what you see in the book. Also, when I started making notes and plotting this story twenty odd years ago, I didn’t know if I’d ever finish. I certainly never considered I would find or need a publisher, so I continued in the style I was comfortable with.

It hasn’t been a belligerent decision though; my developmental editor suggested I changed it to the more standard format. I tried on a few chapters, but I couldn’t make them flow in the same way. At her suggestion, I decided to get feedback and started to engage with beta readers, who are invaluable by the way (thank you!) and had no negative feedback about the formatting from anyone who read it.

I also sell the book in a local, new-age spirituality shop in my hometown, (it’s the perfect audience for the story) and I have been told by the owner that most of the people who buy it have already flicked through it, so I think if readers are aware, it doesn’t pose too much of a problem. Similarly, the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon should prepare potential readers. If I ever start getting a lot of negative reviews, I might reconsider my position.

The storyline seems to leave some questions unanswered at the end – for example who is the circle of old ladies, or what happened to the cult? I came to think that this was the product of a very specific choice you made. Perhaps it’s because you are already planning a second book in the series?

Most definitely, but initially, when this was going to be a one-off, I was trying to create the same feeling as the one experienced by the main characters: they are somewhat unprepared and ignorant to what is going on around them. I felt withholding the answers to those questions added to that sense of bewilderment.  

After planning and plotting more separate adventures, I realised that with minimal tinkering I could tie them all together, and now I have three more instalments which grow in scope as the story progresses, and dip into the past and the future of the different groups of characters.

There are some wonderful images at the opening and closing of each chapter. Who made them and why did you decide to use them for a book that targets adult readers?

Thank you. I created all the artwork in the book except for the cover painting, A Walk in the Woods, which is by the brilliant Lynda Jones. It has never crossed my mind that I couldn’t or shouldn’t have images. I’m so visually-driven that I wanted to recreate the pictures I have in my mind for the reader, and my main purpose in adding images was to enhance the compelling atmosphere that already comes from words alone.

I’ve researched the internet quite extensively, but there is no info whatsoever about you. Can you guide the readers into your world? Tell us about how you decided to start writing, why did you choose self-publishing instead of a traditional approach, if you wrote other things beside The Daughters of Pendle, and, if so, where can we find them?

I’ve come to writing relatively late, I think, though since my early twenties I have always made notes and jotted down characters or plotted stories. I’m inspired by anything that excites me and a lot continues to resonate from when I was a kid: Jason and the Argonauts being on TV at Christmas was one of the highlights of the year! Doctor Who and the sci-fi/adventure comic 2000AD both became staples as I got older. I also remember watching a few films that I probably shouldn’t have at that age, lots of Hammer Horror for instance, and the ones that have stuck with me are those with devastating endings. She, from the H. Rider Haggard novel, The Wicker Man by Robert Hardy, and later, Withnail and I, have all left indelible marks on my psyche and undoubtedly influenced my writing.

I decided to self-publish because approaching publishers was never really on the agenda. Also, because the self-publishing business model has changed massively since its beginnings, and it’s now more approachable and profitable.

My lack of presence on the internet is something I know needs to be addressed, especially now that I’m trying to gain interest around this story. I use Facebook, and many of the groups I’m a member of helped me to finish and then publish the book.

The only other examples of my writing that exist are the films I made while at university 1997-1999. The first, a one-minute, expressionist metaphor, ‘Greed’ and my final year film, a five-minute, downbeat, realist psychodrama, called, ‘Keep Out‘. I’m still quite proud of these two.

Last but not least: any plans for the future?  

As well as trying to bring the sequels to The Daughters of Pendle to print, I’m also plotting out a one-off horror adventure, called The Victorian Monster Hunters Club which is turning into a lot of fun. And being a frustrated filmmaker I have started producing mock-up film posters for my stories, with the secret hope that, one day, I will turn my stories into movies.

‘The Daughters of Pendle’ is available for purchase at:


Life of an Artist: in conversation with Jonathan A. Cerruto

“I lived in a cult, but I ain’t no victim. Now I use my experience to create my character.”

It was a dark Sunday at the end of January, not yet evening but already dark. You know, one of those depressing winter days in England, where daylight seems a distant memory and the sun a rude joke. I was working on taking my lazy multitasking to the next level – meaning: sitting on the sofa in the same position for at least four hours, watching TV with one eye and surfing social media with the other, pretending I am working on – when something popped up in my Twitter feed. A guy, named Jonathan Cerruto – an Italian surname, maybe New York? I asked myself – shares a tweet. I thought it was one of those ‘shameless self-promo’ hashtags meant to help fellow authors but, most of the times, only end up in likes and retweets. This one, though, felt different, genuine for once: Jonathan’s words were along the lines of ‘hi guys, l am a writer too and I know the struggles of getting something out there, so help me to help you. I’ll start: here’s my book. Have a look at it and I will have a look at yours.’

These were the words of a like-minded person, a perfect stranger who had a purpose similar to mine: helping others to succeed, instead of climbing on others’ shoulders for a brief second of elusive virtual celebrity. I followed him, he follow me back and we began to exchange DMs. The more we talked, the more we discovered we had things in common (we both were writers and, more broadly, artists, we both had lived in Italy, we both had studied in London, we both were trying to create our artistic path out there) and inevitably we grew close, sharing not only ideas and comments, but also comparing notes about personal life and past experiences.

‘My life has been a movie, a real rollercoaster of emotions with many ups and downs. 
I grew up in a cult, and in a very strict, physically and mentally, abusive family. I wasn’t allowed to have friends out of the that community, and for that I was heavily bullied by the other kids. I was not allowed to listen to certain types of music or follow any artistic inclinations.’

It’s a hard reality to admit and it’s probably harder to hear. But, as Jonathan pointed out, ‘I don’t want to look like a victim, because I am not.’ And he’s right. It wasn’t his choice, as it wasn’t our choice where we grew up, what we wore, what school we went to. Probably up to our mid-teenage years, if not later, we all had to agree to choices that weren’t ours and deal with the consequences, even if they were unfair.

‘Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is prohibited and punishable with the exclusion from the community, for the person but also for their family members, which is what happened to me.’

A common reaction to this amount of pressure is to find a way to let off some steam, a place that we can call our own, may it be a group of peers, gaming, playing a sport, sometimes even drugs. Other times the release is found in solitary activities, like reading, writing, listening to or playing music, painting.

‘Art has always been a gateway for me, a portal for me to ‘escape’ the place where I was. Since I was little, I used to create stories in my head and put them down on paper, write rhymes and express how I was feeling in those particular moments. Creating art has always kept me company and lifted my spirit in those dark moments. My happiest memories are of me being in an isolated place, listening to music and reading a book, or writing down my thoughts, hidden from everyone.’

I know this might be hard to digest for many social animals. But you need to understand we are not all social animals, and we are not social animals all the time. I, for example, like to spend time with friends and family, I am happy to go for a couple of drinks with my work colleagues after a rough day, but there are also times where I need to be totally alone with myself: no music or a very specific genre, no people, no WhatsApp chat, nothing. Not even my partner. Just me. It’s necessary to heal, to declutter, to regenerate, to breathe, to avoid going completely out of my mind. It makes me who I am, but it’s also a part of me, like an arm or a leg, a piece I can’t part from without being worse off after. It happens to everybody, but the opposite is also true: we need happy tunes, spending an hour over the phone with our bestie and being surrounded by a lot of people. One thing doesn’t exclude the other, as one reaction is not better than the other. They are different.

The same can be said about us. As artists, but also as human beings, we don’t have a single like or dislike, and we are not only interested in one thing or another, and in our personal scale of interests there isn’t one superior. Being a writer doesn’t mean I can’t be a chef too, or that I can’t learn how to play an instrument or climb a mountain. Or having a passion for fashion.

‘Fashion was one of the many passions that I have taught myself to escape from that toxic environment. I remember I used to hide under the living room table and draw gowns, clothing items and shoes on scrap paper. I couldn’t suppress those inclinations and once I turned 17 years old, I ran away and followed my dreams. I moved to Milan and got my degree in Fashion and Design. I created and designed four collections that I had the chance to showcase in London. Life was good and kind to me, but something was still missing.’

There are different reasons to escape. You might be bored. You might have reached breaking point. You might be truly, madly, deeply in love. Maybe it’s the need for a new adventure or the burning desire of new knowledge. But whatever the reason that sends you packing, there is one point in common: your deep desire to find a missing piece. You go away because your life is not complete maybe good, but not perfect. And you might realise it in so many different ways – you don’t want to leave the place you landed last week because the idea of not being there tears your soul, it might be yet another abusive comment making you say ‘enough is enough’ – but it will switch on in your head like a neon bulb. It’s always been there, it just never occurred to you up to that point. But when it does you’ll see your life under a completely different light.

“Three years ago, [2020] I had some serious health issues, and I underwent surgery. That experience changed me completely. I promised myself that, from that moment on, I would move forward and respond to my real calling. My novels, like all my writing, come from a place of truth and real-life experience, and, of course, a lot of heart. My Joshua Bane series features, clearly, Joshua, who has been abandoned by his biological parents and grows up in an orphanage with his twin sister Ashely, in Russia. The siblings are separated when they are 7 and the memory of each other is erased by Her, an evil entity. He lives in an abusive environment, heavily bullied and mistreated by the nuns because of his peculiar features, he experiences depression, and has suicidal thoughts, but he’s finally adopted by a UK family. Things seem to take a turn for the best, but on a tragic day when Joshua is 16, he comes home from school to find his adopted parents brutally killed. The experience is so traumatic that awakens his magical skills and from this moment on he devotes his life and his skills to find out who killed his parents and find his twin sister. In the process he will fight monsters, face dark magic and most importantly, he will have to fight his inner demons, because despite he has a successful career, plenty of money and apparently whatever he wants in life, his twin is still missing and there seem to be no one in the world that loves him for who he really is. I wanted to share Joshua Bane’s story, this fantastic superhero, member of the LGBTQ+ community, who goes through a lot of challenges in his life for all the messages it carries. I envisioned Joshua’s character when I was only 12 years old, because I wanted to make people understand that there is always hope.”

What’s more powerful than a message of hope? Especially for all the voiceless kids out there. Like Jonathan himself, I have been an invisible person in my teenage years. I felt unheard, misunderstood, different, not belonging anywhere. I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t have the means or the words to express my distress. It was not only frustrating, but painful. I felt like there was no cure, I lived in a dark bubble of hate and desperation with no way out.

Except for music. There was a band that really helped me, Linkin Park. They became my voice, my anger, my frustration. They said what I couldn’t voice in front of millions of people, they expressed loud and clear what was going through my mind. But they also gave me hope. They were a bit older than me, but not so old to be my parents, and they made it. They went through my same path, and they reached the other side, somehow. Scarred, angry, ready to fight but alive. And if they made it, so could I. 

“In my books I do mention specific songs to help the reader diving into the story. I want them to feel and visualise through the lyrics what a particular character is experiencing in that moment. That’s what makes it magical for me: music and books have the power to take your mind to places, near or far, imaginary or real, and they make you feel things without physically moving.”

One can be easily tricked into thinking that art, in any form, comes from the same spring. But it’s not like that.

“The lyrics business and the book business are two separate worlds. But, even though I apply two different methods, somehow one skill inspires the other. Music has such power over me. I can listen to a specific song and find inspiration to write the next scene in my book and vice versa: a specific scene or event I wrote in my books pops up in my mind and that can inspire a whole verse, the chorus, or a bridge for my lyrics. Joshua Bane has a very deep connection with music too, and I mentioned it. One of my many missions in life is to be able to combine the two worlds into one, create a sort of platform that allows the readers to read while listening to that specific soundtrack, like watching a movie on a page.”

A mission. A heroic quest of sorts, if you like. 

“Having a dream is the hardest thing to have because it’s hard work, it requires patience and sacrifice, a lot of sacrifice. It can suck you dry; at times it leaves you in a worse place than where you started, and it can cut your spirit. That’s why, in my opinion, many people give up: because they expect to see results in a short time. And, let’s be honest, some of them are not willing to do the work, because they are too scared, or because they don’t think they are worthy. Then the frustration kicks in, and they simply throw the towel. Being an artist is a daily challenge and it takes time, but at the end you will be happy and live your days without regret. Otherwise, sooner or later, regret will knock at your door, and, at that point, it might be too late. One of my favourite mantras is ‘Time and pressure create the most precious diamonds’. 

For those who are afraid of taking that leap of faith I would say: do it fearlessly. The hardest part is jump. Life is too short to not follow your dreams. We are incredible creatures, and our mind is magical. If we picture it in our mind, if we truly believe in it, we can do what we think is impossible. Trust the process, believe in yourself and work hard. Surround yourself with people that you truly love and love you back. I am very lucky to have a partner that supports me and lifts me up, but, even if that’s not your case, remember: love yourself. That’s the most important bit. Repeat it to yourself every single day, especially on those days when you don’t feel like it, trick your mind, fake it till you make it. Don’t listen to people’s opinions, listen to your heart, be kind to yourself first, then to others. And, as a last word of advice, be like a train, that moves only forward and never back.”

Because the past is a desolated land, it’s something to look at with curiosity, learn from its mistake and dispose of once its function is exhausted. The past is a land that doesn’t belong to us anymore, it’s a shadow on the wall, disappearing as soon as we turn the lights on.

All books by Jonathan A. Cerruto are available at:



Welsh Poet, Author and Playwright

To kick things off, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers? Who is M. L. Farr ? 

I would describe myself as a middle-aged Welshman who likes playing about with words. Having failed at many things in my early years I decided to concentrate on something that I enjoyed. If I was going to put my time and effort into anything it should be something that brought me joy. The creative process gave me that happiness. 

You are a very prolific writer, spanning across a variety of genres. What is the secret behind your creativity?

I’m not sure that there is a secret to one’s creativity. If there is, I haven’t found it. I think that creativity is in us all. As children we think nothing of playing games and creating characters. As adults we often forget how to pretend, how to use our imaginations. Authors I believe are the ones that haven’t forgotten how to be someone else every now and then. 

Personally, I like to write everything down. I don’t trust my brain to remember all of, if any, of my ideas. No matter how strange or seemingly unimportant it may be, I make sure I write it down. Be that in a notebook, a scrap of paper or on my phone. Old notes can always be returned to. You never know when you may feel the need for a little change of direction, a plot twist, an extra character or an interesting location for your work in progress to take place. 

I have found that a good way not to get bogged down or stuck within the story (Writers block if you will) is to go and write something else. Something that is nothing at all like what I had been working on. The change in style, format or tone usually serves to fool my little brain into not concentrating on the hurdle that I could not find a way past. Often, as soon as I am no longer thinking about it, the solution will present itself when I am not even looking. 

Of all the books you have written what is your favourite and why?

Asking me to choose a favourite book is a little like trying to pick a favourite family member. We shouldn’t do it but it really depends on the situation and what mood I am in at the time. 

The Forgotten Town series is my best seller so that will always be up there. As I can be as shallow as the next man and we all rather like getting paid. If I did have to pick one, I would probably say Blood Island though. It took a long time to write with much research before I even put pen to paper. (Yes, I do still write everything long hand before I type anything, old school). 

Can you tell us something about your writing habits?

The way I approach each project is as individual as the work itself. Again, it depends on my frame of mind. I don’t like to force myself to do anything. Sometimes I like to spend time creating the plot beforehand. Other times I prefer to create the characters first and once I know them well enough, let them guide the story.

Which ever way I start I will always have a collection of notes and ideas. Many of which I will not use until a later book, but I will still take a look at them as I write. I find that they help push the chaotic side of my brain into something like the right direction. I have been known to jot down ideas at the dinner table, in the pub, in the bath, pretty much anywhere. If left alone I can sometimes write all day and night. Finishing a book before I have a chance to stop and think about it. Some days I will procrastinate, drinking tea and making excuses why I can’t finish a single page. Those days are fine by me too. One word is better than none. 

What were the most challenging and most rewarding moments in your career?

Any time I finish a page I feel that is an accomplishment but my ego does love it when people comment on a book. I recently overheard a conversation about one of my books and when I tried to give a little input considering the characters I was corrected. Apparently the two readers had worked out exactly what was going to happen in the next book and where it would be set. They were wrong by the way but it did make me smile as they had no idea I was the author. Does nobody look at the back cover?

As with many authors I find advertising the most challenging. That and realising that I cannot draw after finishing a children’s series that required illustration.

What can we expect from M. L. Farr in the future?

There will be at least another two instalments to the Forgotten Town series. One if which I have already started. Also, I have a WIP that is currently entitled Shouting at Shadows, (although that may well change as the story evolves) that is threatening to be unlike anything I have ever written before.

When you are not writing what do you like to read? 

I would recommend reading anything and everything that you can. I try to. From Agatha Christie to Isaac Asimov, Arthur Conan Doyle to Terry Pratchett, William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde. Graphic novels, magazines and newspapers can all provide information and inspiration as much as a novel big enough to prop a door open with. 

I would like to add that if you read something you like please pass on that information. Maybe even leave a review if that is possible. Too many people are ready to knock authors without realising that not every book is for everyone. If a book is not for you that does not mean it was a bad book. Only badly chosen by you. Be kind to each other and fellow authors. A lot of time and emotion will have been put into whatever it is you read. 

All books by M.L. Farr are available for purchase at:


Ben Dixon

Author of the Neil Peel Trilogy

Hi Ben! Before we start, let me just say I absolutely loved Neil Peel’s Holiday. I am very happy you found us on Twitter and put your book forward for review. How and when did you come up with the idea for your Neil Peel novels? 

Hello! Thank you for such a kind review. That’s the kind of feedback that makes it all worthwhile.

There are probably many brilliant writers out there who just need the right story to tell. Coming up with an original idea is most of the battle. Neil Peel was born from several ideas coming together. My son, Max, was always brutally honest when he was a little boy. I remember an occasion when his sister was playing a video game and not doing very well. She was upset, and he said, “you’re not very good at this, are you?” which upset her even more. I felt for Isabelle, but his bluntness was also quite funny. A main character who always tells the truth gave me plenty of fuel once I’d come up with a good reason for him to do so.

Neil’s name came from a time when I was reading a Stephen King book in which there was a girl wearing a yellow dress. Just at that moment, I had a message from a friend called Melanie. Wordplay is something that I use a lot to come up with silly ideas; I switched the consonants in Melanie’s name to come up with Lemony, a girl who wears yellow. The surname followed to become Lemony Peel, and then Neil, father, John Peel and mother, Emma Peel came to mind after that. There are always little references to pop culture throughout the books that many won’t get. More blatant puns such as the primary school being called Prince Albert School in the village of Lower Piercing give an idea of the tone that I followed.

I had a lot of good episodic ideas for the first story, but a good ending is crucial for the whole thing not to fall flat. I’d written a silly comedy horror story for narration nearly thirty years ago before podcasts were a thing. It was about two bullies forcing an overweight victim-type into robbing an old lady’s house; she may or may not have been a witch. That tale got twisted to form the ending of my first story, ‘The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel’.

You are a father of four. Did this influence your writing and choice of genre in any way? 

I tried to write a thriller about five years ago because that was the genre that I generally read. I did have an idea and started to write it, but it wasn’t pulling me to the computer to write when I had the time; others have a knack for that sort of thing, but it seems I didn’t. I think, however, that I am a good observer of behaviour as many introverts are. My children often did and said funny things, sometimes without realising it when they were younger, or with confidence as they got older. I have quite a schoolboy sense of humour, so this genre came much more naturally. There are so many parts of a young person’s life which are rich pickings for humorous situations, and I really look forward to each writing session.

Talking about genres, I found it challenging to narrow your book series down to a specific one. I think it would be unfair to simply describe it as “funny books for teens”. Could you tell us a bit more about the genre? Are there many contemporary authors that write what you write? 

I usually say that my books are YA Humour, although you are right that it covers more than that. The stories touch on family dynamics, and there are some parts of ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’, the third book, that have made readers cry (with sadness as well as laughter!). 

Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books were so popular when I was a teenager and remain popular to this day. For that reason, I cannot understand for the life of me why more people aren’t writing in that genre now. There were a few derivative diary books immediately after the first Mole book, but they were all inferior. My Neil Peel books have been likened to a modern Adrian Mole and have proven popular, even with reluctant readers. However, I wrote to entertain myself as well as the teen bracket, so there are many hidden gems for older readers as well as the young; in fact, many of the series biggest fans are nostalgic adults.

Irony and humour are a big part of your writing and I think they are also a great personal quality. Do you consider yourself a humorous person? Do these scenes just come to you or are they the product of a specific creative process? 

I’ve always loved comedy and have taken influences from a great variety of sources: The Marx Brothers, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, Les Dawson, Round the Horne, The Molesworth books, Vic and Bob, Frasier, Ronnie Barker and many more; I even did my university dissertation on the language-based humour of the Marx Brothers. I wrote a series of humorous horror shorts thirty years ago and some irreverent comedy school plays in my first teaching job which went down very well among the non-PC parents. Humour plays a big part in my life, and I always try to look on the bright side, something that’s so essential with all the constant bad news around us.

Whether I’m funny in person would be open to debate, but with time to plan humorous situations, I seem to find my niche. I was a guest speaker at the 2021 Surrey New Writers Festival, and the delegates were genuinely curious about how to write humour. They were very hard questions to answer. I think much of successful humour writing has to come from within and your influences.

What are your future writing plans? Are you going to continue writing Neil’s adventures or move on to something else? Can you give us a taste of what’s to come?

The third novel in the series, ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’, came out last month, and I’m delighted with it. The end of ‘Neil Peel’s Holiday’ teased a new character called Damian Devlin who has just joined Neil’s school, Titfield. All the familiar characters are back, but the main thrust of this third one is the rivalry between Neil and Damian, particularly centred around a mutual affection for Fleur, a girl in their class, and also the production of Much Ado About Nothing, their school play.

Book Three wraps up in a tidy fashion as if that is the end of the story. I’m not intending to go any further with it unless it really takes off on a larger scale. Otherwise, I might go back to that thriller, who knows?

Tell us a bit more about your writing routine. Do you follow a schedule or wait for inspiration? What type of writer are you: someone who can put a thousand words on paper in one go or someone who takes a whole morning to put in a comma only to remove it again in the afternoon?

Having a day job gets in the way of writing, but it also helps to consolidate ideas. Most advice seems to suggest forcing yourself to sit down and write, even if you are struggling; you can edit 40,000 words out of your manuscript at a later stage. What a waste of time that is! I gather ideas, noting down little jokes or chapter ideas while I’m too busy to write. I can also move the ideas around so that a sensible timeline is reached. When I do actually get time to write properly, it is more a question of putting ready-formed plans down onto paper, so I can often write 3,000 words in a (long) sitting. Having said that, I can also spend a really long time coming up with a chapter title. My favourite in ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’ is Return of the Red-Eye. My children are usually my test readers, and they spot typos or suggest that I’ve gone too far with the cheekiest ideas. 

If there’s anything else you’d like to add, please feel free to do so! 

Thank you again for the review. Exposure for new and independent writers is so hard to come by, so organisations like are really helpful for getting the word out. ‘Neil Peel’s Holiday’ and ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’ are free on Kindle Unlimited for anyone who has a subscription and might like to try something different. They also make great Christmas presents for those wishing to get their teens away from a screen for a while!