In the first of a series of interviews with writers, I’m talking to Justin Carroll, author of the rather fab Hemlock Jones & The Angel of Death.
Tell us a little about your latest novel, Justin.
It’s a sort of steampunk detective adventure about a girl called Hemlock Jones who lives down the road from Sherlock Holmes and steals his cases. People looking for 221B Baker Street stumble upon 211B Baker Street. Rather than pointing them in the right direction, Hemlock offers to assist them instead.
In “Hemlock Jones & The Angel of Death”, Hemlock and her recently arrived housemate and unwitting companion, Edward Whitlow, are hired to ‘demystify’ the mystery of a man’s murder by a terrifying angelic spectre. Their investigations lead them all over Victorian London, uncovering bizarre and deadly foes, figures from Hemlock’s hidden past, and a plot to take over the city.
Where did your inspiration for Hemlock Jones come from?
It seemed to fall in to place from a group of ideas that don’t really belong together. The name popped into my head one day (probably while brushing my teeth; no clue why, but teeth-brushing brings me all sorts of “aha!” moments), and I thought it was a great name. Of course, it reminded me of Sherlock, so I started to think about that potential relationship, or lack thereof.
I also feel that there simply aren’t enough strong, independent young female protagonists, in literature or film. I think that young readers need to read about smart, strong, female characters that aren’t just a supporting figure, but are the real hero.
Finally, I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole one day, and ended up learning about the Pepper’s Ghost illusion. When I read about that, I started to think about how this amazing young woman already in my head could begin to unravel various mysteries…
Where do you write?
I want to claim that I have a zen-like zone of creativity, a peaceful bubble where my writing flows uninhibited… But, really, I either write in our spare room at a small writing desk we’ve managed to squeeze in there, or I write on the sofa next to a snoring dog. I also find train journeys to be a really great place to write. I love a bit of background noise, be it an old, familiar film or music. I find that helps me focus, weirdly.
Pen or keyboard?
Keyboard! I hugely admire people who can write out entire books with a pen. They always seem to have this amazing ability to just go with the flow, which makes me very jealous. I type and delete and type and delete, sort of editing and rethinking everything as I go. It’s much slower going, but I end up with a first draft that I’m very happy with.
When did you know you wanted to be an author?
When I was about four I stopped wanting to be a dinosaur and decided I wanted to be a writer. Somewhere, I have a little story I wrote about pirates fighting a giant dustbin monster that I wrote when I was about that age. Ever since then, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write.
What is the best part of being an author?
Hmm… I worked in a big corporation for ten years. Last year, I decided to stop using work as an excuse for not writing enough, and am now a full-time writer. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make ends meet, but the freedom to follow my passion, to wake up every day and think ‘today, today I’m going to write’, is one of the greatest feelings in the world. And when you get that first book in your hand, even if it’s self-published and you got it because you ordered your own book from Amazon (guilty!)… That feeling, that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, is indescribably wonderful.
And the worst?
I should probably say loneliness or rejection. But, honestly, I don’t get lonely when I’m lost in writing, and I think writer types tend to enjoy their own company. And, sure, those first few rejections are brutal, but you quickly learn not to take them too much to heart. Really, the worst thing is, “You’re a writer? Oh my god, that’s so brave. I don’t think I could do that, just throw away my career and earning money to follow a dream.”
THAT is the worst!
Who are your writing heroes?
I have to say Neil Gaiman first. I stopped writing at university. I was too busy with reading and trying to write essays. Then I picked up The Sandman. My creativity was absolutely reignited, and I fell back in love with writing again. Gaiman can have more incredible ideas on a page than some might have in a lifetime, and they’ll be throwaway lines, discarded ideas that, for others, might have been an entire book. He’s incredible.
And, arguably slightly left-field, William Goldman. He’s the man who wrote the screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid”, but he also wrote one of my favourite books, and films, The Princess Bride. Such a clever book, with a wonderful premise disguising a beautifully knowing, funny and tender fairy tale. That sort of enduring, intelligent, endlessly quotable story is a dream.
If you had to be stranded on a desert island with three fictional characters, who would you choose, and why?
Toughest question! I almost don’t want to justify any of them.
Yossarian from Catch-22. I was going to say Billy Pilgrim, but you couldn’t ever be sure what might happen next with Billy. Yossarian would be an amazing person to chat with about anything and everything, I think. He reminds me of me a little, but I like my company, so I guess that works out!
Death from The Sandman. She’s the absolutely wonderful older sister of Dream in the The Sandman. She’s at once cute, beautiful, funny, wise and infinite. What more could you ask for?
Gandalf. Because, well, he’s Gandalf.
The next novel is with my agent and I’m hoping we can find a home for it. It’s a book for older children again, though this one is about a boy who finds an extra day in the week. While that’s over with him, I’ve started work on the next Hemlock book! This time, she and Eddie will be investigating disappearing orphans. Given the last one started with murder and ended up with Frankenstein’s machine, I suspect that the kidnapping will lead to something interesting…!
Thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions, Justin.
Ever since he stopped wanting to be a dinosaur, Justin Carroll wanted to be a writer. He graduated with a degree in English Literature and Language from King’s College, London in 2004 and spent many years in various boring jobs. Having decided to become a full time author, he splits his time between writing all manner of geeky things. Shortlisted for several international short story competitions, Justin was a finalist in the 2010 British Fantasy Awards, and in the 2015 and 2016 NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge. Hemlock Jones & The Angel of Death is his second novel.