Interview With Ellie Marney, Author of None Shall Sleep
Hello Fellow Readerholics,
I’m back again with another amazing opportunity I’ve been given! If any of you saw my last review post (you can find it here) you’ll know that I read (and loved) None Shall Sleep by Ellie Marney. As it was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, I reached out to Ellie and asked if she was interested in doing an interview with me about her newest release, writing and life in general. And luckily, she agreed!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ellie Marney is an award-winning YA crime author who has gone behind the scenes at the Westminster Mortuary in London and interviewed forensic autopsy specialists around the world in pursuit of just the right gory details. She may or may not know how to commit the perfect murder. Her titles include None Shall Sleep, the Every trilogy, No Limits, White Night and the Circus Hearts series. She has lived in Indonesia, India and Singapore, and is now based in Australia with her partner and their four sons.
Ellie has been involved in the creation of the national campaign called #LoveOzYA to promote and advocate for Australian YA literature. She contributed to the critically-acclaimed Begin End Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, and co-runs the popular #LoveOzYAbookclub online. She also co-coordinates an online info-sharing group for Australian women self-publishers. She teaches writing and publishing through Writers Victoria, advocates for Australian women’s writing as a Stella Ambassador in schools, and is a regular speaker at festivals and events.
*bio taken from her website, About Ellie Marney
What have your experiences of publishing a novel during COVID been like?
Ahh…it’s been okay? And it’s also been really hard. I was going to go to the US to launch this book and do research…and that didn’t happen. Bummer. But I’m not the only person who missed out on touring, so I can’t complain much. Honestly, I am quite a shy person, and find live events slightly nerve-racking, but I really do miss going into bookstores and speaking to folks in person and signing books and enjoying the atmosphere. And of course there have been logistical problems, with getting books distributed to stores and getting books signed and so on. Plus the world is rather consumed with covid news, so that changes things when you’re trying to promote. It’s hard to cut through.
But…much as everyone seems a bit Zoomed out, online events aren’t the worst thing ever? People can attend from all over the country – from all over the world. And you can attend in your pajamas, from your couch, while drinking a cup of tea in your slippers… That’s actually not so bad! I think we’ll hang onto a few of the things we’ve learned during covid. I don’t know if Zoom book launches will be one of them, but it’s certainly taught us that you can broaden your reach with people who might not have the means or opportunity to travel to events. As someone who lives outside a metropolitan area, I really appreciate the chance to go digital sometimes.
How has the publishing process changed for you since you were a debut author, compared to now when you’re established?
The main thing that’s changed is I have writing community friends. I live outside of a major capital city – I’m about two hours north of Melbourne, in a regional area. It’s isolated. When I started, I despaired of ever being able to network or connect with people, but luckily social media exists, and that has been a lifeline. It’s allowed me to connect with people in the writing community, and form my important writing friendships. Those are the people who give me pep talks, and talk me down off plot-hanging cliffs, and signal boost my successes, and brainstorm ideas, and keep me sane. I wouldn’t be anywhere without writer mates. They’re a critical part of a writer’s support system.
As far as the publishing industry goes, that hasn’t changed much. Publishing is a very large, slow-moving machine! In some ways, it’s still operating the same way it did back in the 40s… But I know the process now, and I know (mostly) the things that I can do to help move the process along. All that helps with expectations, and understandings of what you’re doing. It allows you to smooth your own way.
There’s the creative part of your professional writing life, and the business side of your professional writing life. It’s good to remember that writing has these two sides.
What influences your choices as a writer? Are you driven by your readers, publishers or another source?
Wow, great question. When I first started out, I wrote the things that pleased me. A few books in, I started noticing that my writing was becoming more influenced by reader or gatekeeper or market tastes. It’s not that you’re writing to the market – it’s more that you’re aware of what’s selling and what’s not, who’s successful, what readers take issue with, what gatekeepers like to funnel to readers and so on. So yes, it did impact on my writing for a while. But that doesn’t work long-term. You end up being pulled in a million different directions, and ultimately it makes for bad writing.
With None Shall Sleep, I think I finally put all that to bed. It was the first time in a while when I sat down with my laptop and wrote something just for me. Man, that was refreshing! And it turns out to be the best strategy: write what you love, and believe me, there’ll be other people out in the world who’ll love it too.
Why did you choose to set None Shall Sleep in the eighties instead of in the modern day?
Mainly because that was the era – that first decade, after the FBI Behavioural Science unit was established – when the bureau was still being innovative, was trying new things, was taking risks. They’d taken a risk to set the unit up, and it was getting amazing results. The 70s and early 80s were a unique time: the CIA was experimenting with LSD and extrasensory perception (I know, wild, right? But you can look it up!), and the FBI was making huge headway with forensic profiling. It just seemed like the perfect time, when they might try something daring like employing a pair of teenagers to interview juvenile offenders…
In None Shall Sleep, what inspired you to write from the perspectives of teenagers with trauma as opposed to people who might have credentials?
Well, mostly because teenagers don’t have credentials! You can write from the perspective of a Private Eye, or an FBI agent, or a police officer or whatever – but there aren’t many teenagers in those roles. And to be honest, that makes it more interesting. Because teenagers have to really jump over hoops to stay involved, to stay informed, to keep up with an investigation, and how they navigate those obstacles makes for great story. Also, it means you have to make the story personal to them – otherwise why else would they keep going when it gets dangerous? A cop or a PI is getting remunerated for their work. For teen detectives, they’re not getting paid, so they need to have some personally motivating factor. And that feeds into the story too.
I wanted my teenage detectives to have experience of trauma for a couple of reasons. First, it gives them unique insight into the mindset of both hunter and hunted. That’s good for the story. Second, it helps to centre the story in what murder is really about – the human cost. Murder is awful. It’s tragic, and it’s horrifying, and it’s grim. I wanted the reader to understand that, so the murders in the books aren’t just gratuitous – and I think Emma and Travis’s experiences bring that home.
I love asking this question because everyone always has such different answers, what is the strangest thing you had to research for this book?
Ha! Well, I learned that the FBI has no in-house medical examiner. They can’t have their own medical examiner, because any FBI-employed person going to court to provide evidence in a homicide prosecution would be considered biased. That sounds a bit boring, but I spent literally hours trying to figure that out!
Okay, here’s something more interesting: I spent a long time researching the history of the St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It was originally set up as a hospice for soldiers returning from the American Civil War. But then it turned into a hospital for the ‘mentally defective’ and psychologically infirm, and then it became quite notorious. But the most notorious mental asylum in the US was the Byberry Hospital, in Philadelphia. There was a horrific pictorial documentary series published in LIFE magazine that exposed the conditions there. I spent a lot of time researching mental asylums in the US – most of them are old and derelict now. Probably the saddest thing about these places is, when they were shut down, the inmates were largely turned out into the street. Quite a lot of them just wandered back, and lived on the grounds of the defunct hospital. They didn’t know any other kind of life. Sad, huh? In a lot of ways, we haven’t made much societal progress on things like mental health.
What inspired you to write such a gruesome tale for young people and how did you find a balance that would be audience appropriate?
Well it’s funny you ask that. Because I’ve gotta say, when I was in high school, all I wanted to read was Stephen King! There seems to be a moment when teenagers really get into Stephen King, and Joe Hill, and zombie flicks, and horror. Which I think is pretty normal. Being a teenager is scary – and right now the world is scary. Horror not only gives the reader some catharsis – a rush of adrenaline, then boom, you’re done – but it also talks to us about resilience, I think. It’s part of what made Emma’s story such a natural fit. The way she coaches herself through these terrifying situations with the Butcher and Simon Gutmunsson, the way she reaches down inside herself for strength – You have lived through awful situations and survived, You can do this. I don’t think that’s a bad message to give to teenagers these days.
I think I found a balance (and I guess only you readers can be the judge!) by not putting in too much gruesome detail. Because honestly, we get that all the time on the news – I could describe every horrible thing on the page, but hey, we have drone footage from war zones and sensational stories about domestic violence incidents… We all know what it looks like. We don’t need the play-by-play. And also, I really think it’s worth trusting reader intelligence and imagination. If you hold off on the details, a teen reader will fill in the gaps very easily from their own scary imagination. And quite often it’ll be with something that’s worse than whatever I can write! So that’s how I walked the line – it’s enough to suggest, to intimate, without pulling back the curtain completely. Readers are very good at doing that themselves in their own minds.
What scene did you find most difficult to write in None Shall Sleep?
The most difficult scenes to write… Well, there were two scenes I found tough. One of them was the moment when Emma and Travis go to their first homicide scene. That was a really affecting scene to write, and I got it all down in a big rush, and afterward I needed a lie down. It was just really easy to picture it in my mind. But I’ve discovered that usually, when something I write on the page gives me a really visceral reaction, that will translate into a great scene, because the reader will feel that too.
The other scene I found hard was the first time Emma and Simon meet. Mainly it was because Simon is a genius – like, he was IQ-tested as a child, and he was in the ninety-eighth percentile back then, so now he’s just terrifyingly smart. I have a terrible habit of writing these genius characters, when I myself am not actually a genius! I mean, I’m just a regular person! Writing the dialogue and behaviour of someone who is stratospherically smart is really hard. They’re always ten steps ahead of everyone else in the room. And being a regular person, I had to work really hard on that first meeting to portray that.
But I gotta say…Simon is a lot of fun to write. His intelligence, and his personality, means he’s completely unpredictable. Those characters are just great on the page. He’s an evil genius, and you wouldn’t want to meet him alone in a dark alley, but he’s a great character!
What does literary success look like to you? Do you consider yourself a successful author?
What an interesting question, wow. Am I a successful author? I mean, yes, I think so – I’ve published nine books, I have another coming next year, I’m doing an amazing job that I love, people pay me to make stuff up… That’s pretty cool! And I know a lot of people still starting out, struggling to get published, and I remember that. It’s a tough road.
But on another level, there’s still things I’d like to achieve. I’d like to quit my day job, for one! I still work as a teacher, and while I love teaching, it’s hard to juggle what is essentially one part-time job and one full-time job (because writing never lets up, it’s 24/7), and having a family and so on. So it would be nice to reach a point where I could just focus on books. And I’d like to be more engaged overseas, I’d like to see more of my books go into foreign territories. And maybe make some kind of best-seller list, I guess? I mean, that would be cool.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s just that you have to treat every win as a win. You can have goals, but you can’t get impatient. You just have to work steadily toward things, and enjoy the journey.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt as an author?
Well, see ‘enjoy the journey’ above! No, seriously, the most important thing I’ve learned is that publishing is a long game. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I remember when I got depressed at twenty-one, when I still hadn’t published my Great Work of Fiction… That makes me laugh a bit now. I don’t think anything I had published at twenty-one would have been as near as good as the stuff I’m publishing now. A lot of writing is about condensing life experiences into moments for characters, moments of dialogue, moments of resonance for the reader. I think I’m old enough now that I’ve got a bit more to put into my writing – I think I’m a fair bit better now than I was at twenty-one. Thank goodness! But it’s worth it, if you’re a writer, to cultivate a bit of tenacity and patience. The more time you put into it, the more years you have under your belt, the better you’ll be. Enjoy the journey!
I also think it’s important to write for yourself – to write what you love. Because honestly, authors don’t get paid enough to write stuff they only feel ‘meh’ about. If you love historical romance dramas, write that. If you love writing courtroom procedurals, or gun-slinging westerns, or…I dunno, mermaid space opera! Write that. Write that thing you love. Whatever it is that you love, someone else out there will love it too. Remember – you’re not getting paid enough to write stuff you hate! Who the heck would wanna do that anyway?
And… that’s a wrap for the interview! I hope you guys enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. Thank you so much to Ellie for agreeing to the interview and for providing such wonderful insights into the questions I asked. It was such an amazing opportunity and I’m truly grateful for it. I’d also like to give a big thank you to Allen and Unwin for providing me an arc copy of the book and for helping to facilitate the interview. I encourage you to all read None Shall Sleep as it is absolutely a new favourite of mine! Thank you all for sticking around to read this, it was a pretty long (and hopefully informative) post!
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