Zoë Sharp is the author of nine novels in the hard-hitting thriller series featuring Charlie Fox, a protagoist many reviewers have described as a female equivalent to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. The Chicago Tribune noted of Charlie Fox: “Ill-tempered, aggressive and borderline psychotic, Fox is also compassionate, introspective and highly principled: arguably one of the most enigmatic − and coolest − heroines in contemporary genre fiction.” Former Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox is “a marvellous heroine, with a flawed past,” noted Eurocrime of the 2011 installment of the popular series, Fifth Victim. Of the 2010 addition to the series, Fourth Day, Booklist found it “must reading for fans of action-packed, hard-edged thrillers” while Publishers Weekly dubbed it an ” adrenaline-packed” novel.
Sharp’s novels have been published both in her native England as well as in United States, though U.S. publication began only after the first few books in the series came out in England. The first Fox novel, Killer Instinct, published in 2001, however, finally saw U.S. publication in 2010 and earned this praise from the New York Times Book Review: “The bloody bar fights are bloody brilliant, and Charlie’s skills are both formidable and for real.”
I live in the English Lake District, but set a lot of the action of the Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox books in the States. Having said that, I do like to bring Charlie back for the occasional visit to her home country. We’ve visited varying different areas of America getting on for forty times over the past few years, so I hope I’ve acquired a feel for the place. Charlie is a Brit, so she still looks at the States with a foreigner’s eye. It was another thing that helps cement her outsider status.
The early books in the Charlie Fox series were all set in varying locations around the north of England, starting with Charlie teaching self-defence in the rather the faded seaside town of Morecambe in Killer Instinct. I was living nearby at the time, and thought the area was ripe for dark goings-on.
The later books – once Charlie has turned her hard-won military skills into a career in close protection – largely take place in different places in the States. In the latest novel (just out in the UK), Fifth Victim, she is trying to foil a kidnapping plot amid the wealthy of Long Island. I used Long Island for Fifth Victim partly because to me it was the epitome of what it means to have wealth and power in New York. It was their stronghold and therefore it was where they felt safest. I wanted to take the danger deep to the heart of things.
In the latest book to be published in the States, Fourth Day, she is sent on an undercover assignment into a cult in California after a simple extraction turns deadly. And although many Californian friends groaned when I told them I was setting a book about a cult in their home state, this was a deliberate decision. Partly this was because the geography of the area was right, and partly because I wanted to subvert expectations of what the book was about. You think you know where it’s going, but the likelihood is that you’re wrong.
All the locations I choose for the books have to call to me in some way. The first of the Charlie Fox books I set in the States was First Drop, which took place over the Spring Break weekend in Daytona Beach, Florida. I remember standing on the main drag during the big car show that takes place there every year, watching all these teenage kids riding up and down in custom cars and pickups, and thinking ‘if you were on the run with a teenager, this would be a great place to hide, because you could hide in plain sight’ and from that basic idea, the whole of the rest of the book was born.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
How do I incorporate location? ‘Carefully’ is the answer to that. ‘Sparingly’ might be another good description. I’m not writing a guide book or a text book and I dislike long descriptive passages that do not serve to move the story forwards. The story takes precedence. So, if my character walks down a street there has to be a better reason for me describing it than just because I want to impress the reader with my local knowledge.
When I write, it’s as if I’m watching a movie in my head, and when you read, I want us both to be watching the same movie. I need to evoke a feeling, a flavour, a snapshot, rather than long, lovingly framed shots of the landscape my characters happen to be occupying.
How does Charlie interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Between jobs, Charlie is now living in New York City, but she doesn’t belong there – she doesn’t really belong anywhere. To quote Sting, she’s a legal alien, an English(wo)man in New York. Charlie likes the anonymity of the big city, and being able to slice through the traffic on a motorcycle adds to that ‘unseen observer’ feeling she often has towards life – like she’s watching, apart, waiting for the trouble to start before she steps in. I would say she’s surprised by her own enthusiasm for the place that has become her adopted home.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
So far, fingers crossed, the local reaction to the books has been very positive. I hope I manage to capture the feel of each location where Charlie’s working and get that across. My books have been translated into other languages – two have just come out in Russian – but as I can’t read the reviews, I don’t know what they made of them. (To be honest, I try not to look at reviews too much. It’s bad for the soul.)
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
OK, now I’m tempting fate. So far, touch wood, I haven’t made any horrendous goofs regarding location, although now I’ve said that someone will write and tell me I’ve made hundreds that I just didn’t know about! I did manage to get somebody driving the wrong way up a one-way street in New York, but fortunately that was spotted at copyediting stage. My US copyeditor also thought I’d taken Charlie from Boston to Houston (by car) by an illogical route, but I pointed out they were trying to avoid driving through New York with two wanted fugitives and a couple of illegal firearms.
Location always features strongly, although I always prefer it when the location and the plot are as intertwined as possible. In First Drop, for example, I used the Spring Break timing, and the Daytona Beach setting, complete with the big Spring Break Nationals car and car stereo competition as integral parts of the plot. It would have been hard to bring those factors together and set the story elsewhere. Heat and cold and distance are important features of the landscape for Charlie, too. Her first experience of walking out of the air-conditioned interior of Miami airport, for example, is when ‘the hot wet Florida heat hit me in the face like a sneezing dragon.’ And I loved being able to travel round Boston and up into the rural White Mountains of New Hampshire for Second Shot.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I’ve always loved the very spare style of description that Robert B. Parker uses for Boston and the surrounding area. It gives you a feel for the place without overdoing it. Lee Child also describes the differing locations of his Reacher books with great skill. Apart from that, I really like John D. MacDonald’s Florida, Russel D. McLean’s Dundee, Anne Zouroudi’s rural Greece, Toni McGee Causey’s Louisiana, JT Ellison’s Tennessee, Stuart MacBride’s Aberdeen. There are bound to be lots of others, too, but I could go on and on …
I’m planning on taking Charlie south – to New Orleans as it is today, post-Katrina. I was there last year and was fascinated by the way that parts of the city and surrounding area look like people fled ahead of the storm and never came back. That part-abandoned, part business-as-usual feel was an intriguing mix. I’m looking forward to seeing what Charlie makes of the place. (She’ll try not to destroy any more of it in the process.)
Zoë, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Zoë Sharp, visit her homepage.