Friday, July 24, 2020

Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet. He’s the author of crime fiction, action thrillers, and dark comedies. Stringer’s work has been shortlisted for two Anthonys, the McIlvanney Prize, and a Derringer award. He is dyslexic and learned the sound of storytelling long before he could read the words. Stringer’s latest book Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth is available now from Pegasus Books.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The titles for the Marah Chase series have been hard. Before the first one came out, myself, my publisher, and my agent kicked around a lot of variations. How to sell the tone? How to establish a series?

It needed to sell to the reader the idea that these are like modern Indiana Jones stories, but also a bit like Mission: Impossible movies, and also that they’re diverse and inclusive, and overall fun. Giving them the Marah Chase and… titles felt like the obvious route, but do they sound too much like YA novels in the current market? I kicked around titles like Marah Chase, Gold Dogs, No More Worlds, Save The World. In the end, the obvious route felt like the right one.

This second book was written under the title Marah Chase and the Gateway to Hell. But the publisher felt --rightly, I think-- that it sounded too dark and more like a horror story. Whereas Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth said exactly what the book was. Almost. There might be a lie in there, readers will find out….

What's in a name?

A lesson I keep failing to learn. My very first book had a protagonist named Eoin Miller, and most of my time discussing the story with readers was spent explaining how to pronounce Eoin. There are two main ways to pronounce Marah, and unfortunately, I chose the more obscure way. Most people call her Mar-a Chase. Which is fine. I accept it. But Chase herself would like people to say her name right, which is Muh-Rah, rhymes loosely with Ta Da.

I named her after one of my favourite bands. A Philadelphia rootsy rock outfit called Marah, whose 2000 album Kids in Philly has always been in heavy rotation for me. Then I found out it was a Hebrew word. So in writing the first book, Chase told me she was Jewish, and that became a very important character detail in the second book. So be careful, writers. There’s a lot in a name.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Almost not at all. I actually created an early version of Marah Chase when I was 20, intending to write a comic book. The teenaged version of me would be more surprised it took me so long to come back to the idea. Though I’m glad of the delay, I’m a very different writer at forty than I was back then, and Chase is a much-changed character.

The biggest surprise I think would be the way I try to push diversity in the books, casting as widely as I can when picking the characters. I was a teenager in the 90’s and, though I’ve always thought I was progressive and on the right side, the books I write now are simply more inclusive than anything I would have attempted back then.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t worry as much about either as I used to, but a beginning takes me longer. I’m a character-based writer, I need to get inside the heads of my characters almost like a method actor. So it can take me a long time to build that character, and I’ll rewrite the opening chapter more than anything else in the book. I’ve learned to not worry too much about endings. I used to have to know what the ending was before I started, but then my best books have come when the ending was something I didn’t expect at all. So now I just focus on the character, in the moment. What does the character want? What does the character need? What’s the difference between the two? Those three questions drive the plot, and the ending grows out of asking them. Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t a movie about the Lost Ark. It’s a movie about Indiana Jones, and how he’s lost sight of what’s important to him. The ending comes an hour after finding the Ark, because he had different questions to answer.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

This is a difficult one to answer. Because at this stage in my career, I work as hard as I can to seek out and write about experiences different to my own. But of course, these books come out of my head, and so all of the characters have some connection to me.

Chase has trust issues. Chase makes dumb decisions and hurts people close to her without meaning to. She also, when push comes to shove, sides with the marginalised and the ignored, and hates authority. I can’t deny that we’d agree on a lot of things if we met for coffee, but we’d also manufacture reasons to fall out with each other.

And all of my books contain the same themes, I’m always returning to personal issues and motifs that are all about my own development and journey. But I don’t think a writer should reveal those things, that’s for readers to decide.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m dyslexic. So although I can talk for hours about literary influences --Sean O’Casey was important, as was Douglas Adams, and I’m an Elmore Leonard devotee-- my voice and tastes were formed outside of books. I learned to read through comics, and my first love was probably standup comedy. Music was very important to me, and of course, movies and television. So I think my work and voice now is my own, but there are traces of all of these things. Writers like Alan Grant and Denny O’Neil. Bands like The Replacements. A comedian’s urge to hide important heartfelt issues in a joke. Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth is a love letter to action movies.
Visit Jay Stringer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue