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Friday, 23 July 2010

Interview with Penny Grubb, Author.

Penny Grubb by Weronika Dziok
Picture by Weronika Dziok
Penny Grubb writes crime fiction, children’s fiction and academic text books. She is also current Chair of the very important author’s service, the ALCS – The Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society . A university lecturer and active union member, as well as wife and mother, it’s difficult to know how she finds the time to do everything she does. This is especially the case when you see just how good her writing is. Her most recently published novel in the crime genre, The Doll Makers, won the CWA Debut Dagger. The first in this series, Like False Money, has been nominated for the John Creasey (new blood) Dagger. These awards recognise the quality of this writer’s fiction. I’ve read, and enjoyed both books and can recommend them to all readers.

SA: What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?
PG: Mainly persistence, but you also need a thick skin because      
writers have a lot of criticism thrown at them, and need to learn to take it on the chin, especially the constructive criticism which can be invaluable.

SA: What is your working method?
PG: I plan and then I write.  It’s as simple as that.  Getting the words on the page is what writing is about and as obvious as it sounds, it can be one of the hardest things to do.

SA: What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?
PG: Thinking that you can judge your own work.  It’s something you learn to do, but even after years of practice, when you read your own work, especially if it’s recently written, your mind reads what you intended to write and not what a reader will take from it.

SA: How did you come to write this particular book?
PG:  The Doll Makers is part of a crime series about PI, Annie Raymond.  Her fractured childhood is hinted at in the earlier books – her mother was murdered, she never takes friends to meet her father – and I always intended that Annie would return to face her childhood demons. This is the book in which she does so.

SA: If you have a favourite character in your novel, why that particular one?
PG: I have a soft spot for Annie’s Aunt Marian.  Because she’s over 70 and never had what the world at large terms a ‘proper job’, no one takes her seriously, including Annie, and yet she has valuable experience and insights to offer.  As a society, we don’t value age and experience anywhere near enough.

SA: How can people buy your book(s)?
PG: People from my local area, East Yorkshire, will find my books for sale in many of the local shops who are very supportive of local writers.  The books are also available from all the usual outlets, WH Smith, Waterstones, Amazon and so on.  They can also be bought direct from the publisher at or via my website at

SA: To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?
PG: In one way, very important, and in another, not much. Very important because accuracy of spelling and grammar comes from a love of words and language and a deep understanding of the pictures that can be woven from clever use of words.  But a great story can shine through a lack of formal knowledge of the niceties of spelling and grammar.  And a lot of rules that used to be taught as immutable are really no more than matters of personal preference – a split infinitive won’t wreck a good story, a preposition at the end of a sentence won’t end the world.

SA: How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
PG: Huge amounts, but not so much as I used to.  I now do more preparation and planning before I start to write.  I used to rewrite books from scratch, sometimes several times, before I was happy with them.  Nowadays, I put time into planning and get the manuscript more or less right first time.

SA: Where and when is your novel set and why did you make these specific choices?
PG: The novel is set in the present day in London and Argyll.  London is where Annie goes to make her fortune at the end of the previous novel (The Jawbone Gang).  Argyll is where she was brought up, the home turf she escaped from as soon as she could, but that she is now forced to revisit.

SA: To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?
PG: These days it’s hugely important.  Publishers live and die by it, and so writers have to take note too.  I know great books that couldn’t find publishers because they couldn't be pigeonholed into a commercial genre.  The distinctions are very fluid, but the concept of genre is enormously important in marketing and sales.

SA: What are your writing habits?
PG: I fit my writing around full-time paid employment in two different jobs, and it isn’t possible to develop the sort of routine I would have if I wrote full time. I have favourite places and times to write, but I don’t allow myself to make excuses if I can’t get to write where or when I want.  I want to write novels, so I have to fit the writing in around the other things I have to do.

SA: How do you know where to begin any given story?
PG: I usually don’t, although I often have an idea about a particular part of the action that will make a good compelling opening.  I write the back story for the novel, sometimes from decades before the main characters are born.  The back story then morphs into main story and somewhere along the way I see where each of the story lines needs to start.

SA: What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?
PG: I use writing as a displacement activity to avoid housework.

SA: Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?
PG: I am lucky to have very supportive family and friends.  I also belong to Hornsea Writers, which has to be one of the UK’s most successful writing support groups.

SA: Is presentation of the MS as important as most agents and publishers suggest?
PG: Yes.  Why enter the game with one hand tied behind your back? Agents and publishers have hundreds of manuscripts to go through.  Imagine an agent, tired at the end of the day, wanting to reduce the slush pile, maybe reading several dreadful, sleep-inducing offerings before coming to yours.  If yours is badly presented and doesn’t look professional, what are the chances of the great story that’s hiding in there making a dent on the already comatose reader.  Isn’t it more likely the manuscript will be tossed onto the reject pile without really being looked at? 

SA: How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
PG: I can do one long (80k to 100k) and one short (30k – 40k) novel in a year.

SA: What are your inspirations?
PG: Everything really. Things I read, things I hear, things I see.  The tiniest incident can spark a train of thought that becomes a character, a storyline or a whole plot.

SA: If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?
PG: Having to stop when on a roll.  In the early morning, I often have to stop writing to go to work long before I’m ready to.  I hate that.

SA: Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?
PG: Both.  There needs to be a natural story-telling ability, but there is a huge amount that can be learnt about the craft of writing.
SA: What are you writing now?
PG: I’m doing a children’s novel, but also thinking about the next in the Annie series, and my academic publisher has asked if I and my co-author would consider doing a third edition of a successful textbook that is now 7 years old.  It would be a huge undertaking, but we’re thinking about it.

SA: Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?
PG: I love planning out a new novel. I also enjoy the actual writing, especially those moments when the words really flow.

SA: Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?
PG: My website is It has links to my blog and Twitter account.  My blog is at

SA: Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
PG: Given unlimited resources, I would do other things than change my writing environment.  As with so many things today, there is always pressure to change, to get the new version, to expand.  Mostly, it isn’t needed and doesn’t lead to any marked improvement.  My writing environment is just fine as it is.

SA: Where do you actually write?
PG: I have trained myself, perforce, not to be at all precious about where I write.  Sure I love to sit in my study at home and probably do most of my writing there, but I also take my laptop out into the garden or lounge in front of the TV with it.  My day jobs mean I travel a lot, so I also write on trains, in the car (not whilst driving) and sitting in hotel bedrooms at those desks that are never quite the right height.

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