Cindy: Welcome, Joss! Please tell us about your current project and where we can purchase it.
Joss Alexander: Tainted Innocence, my first novel, is a historical mystery, set in Cambridge, England, in 1524. It tells the story of Bryony, an illiterate laundress and a stranger to the town, who lives in constant fear that her unusual upbringing and lack of friends will leave her vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. When Matthew Hobson, a scholar at the college, is found murdered Bryony becomes a suspect. But she is not the only one. Luke Hobson, a taciturn local tradesman who has sacrificed much for his charismatic but selfish brother, also has a motive for the murder.
JA: Yes! Here’s an extract from the novel: (PG)
It would not be the first time Bryony had risked the branding iron, but before she’d been sick with hunger. This was different. This wouldn’t be stealing to stop the gnawing in her belly. This would be stealing just because she wanted it.
She caressed the smooth leather binding of the book. It was not so large; it could be concealed in the folds of her shawl, and none would be the wiser. One chilblained finger traced the flowing curves of gold. She knew that first letter—a B—the same as a priest once told her began her own name. Bryony. A pagan name, he had called it, not really a name at all but that of a plant with poisonous berries, and he had urged her to adopt another one, one from the holy saints. Bertha or Barbara.
But her name was the only gift she had had from her mother, and so Bryony valued it all the more for that. Margherita, the wise woman who had raised her, had asked Bryony’s mother how she would name her.
“She has her father’s eyes,” the dying woman had whispered, cradling her newborn babe. “See how they gleam black like the berries in the hedgerow. Name her for those.”
A fitting name, Bryony sometimes thought, since my birth was as fatal for my mother as any deadly juice.
Her gaze lingered on the gleaming B. This must be the Holy Book then, though it was smaller than those she had seen in the churches. She opened it. A lion with angel’s wings stared out at her, his great paws clutching a manuscript, his dark eyes wise and sad.
“Those who steal from the Church steal from God himself and will end their days in torment and damnation.” That’s what the priest had told her when he’d caught her hovering by the communion bread. Much he knew about torment and damnation, with food on his table and a monstrous paunch. Even with the wars ended—at least for the time being—the streets were full of beggars and the common folk still starved, for fifteen years into his reign the greedy Henry, the eighth of that name, had not fulfilled the promises of his golden youth.
No. Bryony placed the book back on the table. No. The purpose of this great University of Cambridge, they said, was the spreading of knowledge, and yet they’d branded a serving-man some three months ago for stealing a manuscript. The college servants had to watch him being punished. He’d not cried out when the felon’s F was burnt into his cheek, but the tears had streamed down his face when they cut his hand off. Good King Hal’s men had a way with thieves.
The chilblains itched painfully on Bryony’s fingers. How could a man earn food for his family with only one hand? Skivvying for the learned doctors was better than trying to sleep with an empty stomach under the shivering hedges. It would be madness to risk losing food and ale and a leaky roof over her head for a book she couldn’t read.
CSP: That sounds wonderful. Now, tell us a little about your writing. What type of stories do you like to write? Any characters you like to write about? Any themes you find especially inspiring?
JA: I’m currently writing a second novel about Tudor Cambridge. I find the Tudor period of history in Britain fascinating; it’s such a rich, dangerous and voluptuous time, with so much happening in literature, architecture, food and exploration. Living in a very ancient town—Cambridge, UK—I find the past haunts me, and I need to write about it, and the people that inhabited it. Not the great and the good necessarily, but the ordinary people. What was it really like to toil and love in those times? How did their lives work? Sometimes I think I’m going a little crazy—are the characters figments of my imagination or did they really exist? They become so real, so vivid, and I eavesdrop on them. They are my constant companions from day to day.
CSP: What is your favorite part of the writing process? What are your most dreaded tasks? Anything special you do to get through the tough parts?
JA: I feel guilty when I don’t write, so I set a daily target of words when I’m doing a first draft and try to meet it. Transforming that first draft from exciting ideas and tantalizing fragments in your head into something that makes sense and is gripping on the page, can be a very elusive process. And then, when it comes together and flows, there’s immense satisfaction.
I nearly always know what the beginning of a novel will be, and the end; the middle can be more challenging, and the temptation to start something new can be almost overwhelming. In fact I wrote about this for the Savvy Authors blog “When the romance is dying…” http://bit.ly/128nzuc
CSP: What’s a typical day look like for you? What’s your writing schedule? When you’re not writing what are you doing?
JA: I find the mornings are my most creative time and I tend to be a lark, rising early, grabbing a cup of tea (I’m English after all!) and starting to write any time from 7am onwards. I work for most of the morning. If I’m writing a first draft, I tend to stop writing about lunchtime, and then spend the afternoon doing all the other stuff that needs to be done in life: housework, cooking, shopping, gardening and the never-ending admin. When I’m feeling virtuous, I also try to get myself out of the front door to the gym, or to have a cycle ride, go for a walk or play tennis. When it’s raining I tend to chicken out, curl up and read a book!
One of my other passions is hill-walking, and I’m off to Japan next month to walk some of the ancient trails through the mountains there.
CSP: Japan? Now I’m really jealous! But never mind me. What would you like readers to take away from your stories?
JA: I’ve always loved books that take me to other worlds, times or places. The best novels for me are those that leave me with a slight sense of loss when I’ve finished the story, because I didn’t want to leave that world and those characters.
I hope readers of Tainted Innocence will have that same feeling.
CSP: I so agree. On the personal side now, what is your favorite comfort food?
JA: I daren’t tell you—it shocks my children and you’ll be disgusted…
CSP: Those are the best kinds! It’s good to shock your offspring. Come on, you can tell us…
JA: …Oh, all right then. Sliced white bread, homemade pork dripping with lots of jelly, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper.
There! I knew I shouldn’t have told you.
CSP: Must be a British thing, but you know, it doesn’t sound bad… I suppose we should get back to the writing thing. When and why did you begin writing?
JA: I can’t remember ever not writing. I first got into print when I was seven, and had a poem published in a national newspaper. It was about mermaids; since then, as an adult, I have had two short stories published about mermaids so I guess that’s a theme! Then at ten, I went on to write my first novel about a badger. I thought I was being highly original when I called him Brock. I also illustrated that novel with lots of bright-coloured pictures. And no, I can’t draw. Art was the only exam I failed at school!
CSP: Do you have a specific writing style?
JA: The phrases that people have used most about my writing are: ‘easy to read’ and ‘I had to know what happened next’.
CSP: Wonderful compliments! Congrats. So, who’s your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
JA: I have lots of favorite authors but the ones I read over and over again, often to work out how they write something that really touches, amuses or resonates with me, are Georgette Heyer, Shakespeare and Robin Hobb. I can’t believe the Robin Hobb novels haven’t yet been turned into films. Her worlds are so well constructed, and her characters are wonderfully flawed.
CSP: Do you have any advice for other writers?
JA: Sorry, it has to be the old chestnuts…set yourself a target number of words to write regularly and meet it, and always finish what you start before you discard it and start something new.
Speaking of which—I haven’t done my daily words yet…
CSP: Believe me, I understand! We’ll let you get back to it. Before you go, tell us where we can find you on the web.
JA: You can find me, Joss Alexander, on Twitter @joss1524, Facebook http://on.fb.me/OgqxSr and read my blog Random Jossings http://bit.ly/SfQaDd
You can buy Tainted Innocence on the Carina Press website http://bit.ly/UeR9Zw Amazon.com http://amzn.to/ZtM1Pz Amazon.co.uk http://amzn.to/SlfzQ1 and all major e-book sites.
CSP: Thanks, Joss! Have a great day!