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Interview with Alan Skinner, author of Brimstone

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Tell us about Brimstone

Brimstone’s a story in the classic adventure/mystery mould. It’s the tale of a young girl, Jenny Swift, who becomes apprenticed – against her will – to a famous alchemist, John Antrobus. All her life Jenny has lived a sheltered life in the middle of Queerwood with her mother and father. From her mother Jenny learned to be a healer and she is puzzled why a great alchemist would want her as an apprentice.

Taken to the city of Vale by Antrobus, Jenny finds life very different – and far more dangerous than she ever imagined. Relations with the neighbouring city state of Cleve are strained when it appears that the rival city is plotting against Vale and Jenny is soon caught up in the politics.  On top of that, she comes into a possession of a strange astronomical artefact called an astrolabe that is the key to an ancient secret. Before long, she discovers that there are others who have killed, and will kill again, to possess the key. Against them, Jenny finds herself fighting for her life, and the life of her friends.

Amid the plotting, the politics, the betrayals and even kidnapping and murder, Jenny finds new friendships and loyalties, as well as coming to realise that she has a inexplicable gift for alchemy. It is that gift which she will need to use in order to protect Vale and the people she loves – and to unlock the secret behind the mysterious astrolabe.

What genre is it?
I try not to think of books in terms of genre. I think it does a disservice to both readers and books. A book is either a good book or a bad book regardless of genre. And readers who limit themselves to a particular genre because the conventions and expectations are comforting are missing out on the thrill of exploring the unknown and the joy of discovery.

If I had to classify Brimstone, I’d say it was a Young Adult historical adventure.  That’s slightly misleading because although it is set in a bygone place and time, the time is not specified, and the central place is imaginary, although the rest of the world is real and the details of the past in which it is set are accurate.

What kind of readers will it appeal to?
The obvious answer is “Anyone who loves a good book!” To try and be a bit more helpful, though, readers who like action and plot rounded off with character and all tied together by the rhythm of language will be particularly drawn to it, I think. Some readers have approached it expecting it to be fantasy – after all, there’s some common fantasy ‘tags’ attached to it, such as alchemy and apprentice, and the cover is consistent with visual concepts of fantasy – but they don’t seem to have been disappointed when they discovered there’s no magic, no wizards, no dragons and no trolls.

Because the main character is female, some people (who had not read the book) thought that it would not appeal to males, especially teenage boys. That hasn’t been the case and I think a great part of that is because there are two very strong principal males, both of whom can well take care of themselves (and do!) and because Jenny is a strong character who doesn’t dwell on her own gender.

As for age, well, we’ve had great reviews from older teens to grandmothers.

Complete this sentence for us: If you like __________, you’ll love Brimstone
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

Tell us a bit more about Jenny Swift and the world your story is set in.
Let’s start with the world first so you can get an idea of Jenny’s environment first, which will help get an idea of Jenny.

The time period is not specified, but it is obviously mid-Elizabethan to very early Jacobean. Gunpowder-based arms are no longer uncommon, but swords and even bows and arrows have not disappeared entirely.

The wider world is the real world of that period, but the part of the world in which the story happens is imaginary. The central location is a big city state called Vale, which is bordered by a large river on one side and an immense forest called Queerwood on another. There is another nearby city state, Cleve, but in Brimstone none of the action actually takes place there. If Britain had evolved as a conglomeration of powerful city states the way Italy did, that would be Jenny’s world.

Jenny is nearly 15 when we first meet her. She’s of mixed parentage – Eurasian – and very skilled, though she has no idea that she is. She’s very intelligent, resourceful, loyal, instinctively kind and, as she discovers, quite capable of defending herself. She knows nothing of the world, having grown up in the middle of Queerwood, sheltered by her parents.

In Vale, she encounters bigotry and prejudice because of her looks and her gender, but she also encounters friendship for the first time. Her closest friend is a young lady called Emily who is a bit flirty but who means well. Of course, there’s her master, the great alchemist Richard Antrobus; among the other characters is Jenny’s lazy and unpleasant landlady, Rumpkin; a rather mysterious Court enforcer called Rayker; and Pitch, her local warden and city watchman. Added to these is a host of outlaws, led by a completely ruthless man, Jack – known to everyone as Jack O’ Lantern. Jack is a nasty piece of work.

Are you done with these characters or will they return in future books?
Almost all the characters appear in the sequel, Hourglass, along with a few new ones. A couple of the characters who started out as minor or secondary characters have a bigger role in Hourglass, though Jenny remains the central protagonist.

Tell us about your Vanity Awards idea. Have you made any progress in getting it off the ground?
Not much progress with finding a new name but quite a bit otherwise! There’s been a lot of interest in the idea. The Guardian newspaper, in particular, which has been very supportive of self-published literature, has been in touch to discuss it.

The idea came to me after several on-line discussions with readers and authors. There’s an impression among a lot of people that self-published literature is second class or amateurish and getting it to be seen in the same light as traditionally published books is a problem. One of the things that came up was the absence of self-published books in the mainstream book awards. For example, a self-published book cannot nominated for the Booker (the Booker rules expressly forbid it), which I think is a terrible pity and quite short-sighted.
My belief is that getting self-published books even long-listed for a major book prize will help the standing of self-published literature. Winning, or even just being shortlisted, would be the next major stage in recognition.

That is not likely to happen soon, though, so I thought one way to move forward was to have an award just for self-published books. Not only would this provide recognition for deserving authors and books, but it would highlight just how good some of the self-published literature is, and act as a pointer for people trying to find worthy books among the hundreds of thousands now being published each year.

We think it’s a great idea! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a full-time writer now, having wanted to be a writer since I was about 10. I let life get in the way and for the past forty-odd years I’ve been distracted by too many other things. I’ve worked at most jobs in that time, from manual labourer to teacher, though many things I’ve done, such as working in theatre and television, have had a strong creative element.

Most recently, I was a director in a top-tier global investment bank, though I’m not sure how helpful it is these days to mention that! People are rightfully angry at the way banks have behaved and their lack of ethical behaviour and their greed.

Have you got a website where readers can keep up with your work? Do you use social media?
Bookmasque is my author site. There, readers can see my published work, as well as work in progress. I also write a blog from that site, though lately I’ve not blogged as often as I should.

Facebook doesn’t appeal to me, so I don’t have a Facebook account. Jenny Swift did at one stage, as did the other set of characters I created, the Muddles, but I closed them a while ago.

I do have a Twitter account (@alanwskinner) but I don’t tweet as much as I should. I am trying to improve my tweeting habits, but I hate taking time out from writing to do it. Most of my tweets are to announce a new blog, the occasional link to a Guardian article (I am a keen Guardian reader) or something else that takes my interest. One of the things which puts me off Twitter is the excess of authors whose main or only objective is to promote their book.

Where can we buy Brimstone?
If you want an ebook edition, all global Amazon sites ( US , UK ) list it, as do the Apple iBookstore, Kobo and Goodreads.

If you prefer a print edition, Amazon sells that as well, as do many other online stores such as Waterstones, Readings (in Australia). Getting hold of a print edition in the US will take slightly longer as we don’t have a US wholesaler and the book will come from the UK. Or, you can pop into any high street book store and if they haven’t got one on the shelves, they can order it from our wholesaler. The covers for the ebook and the print editions are different but the content is identical.

What’s next?
That depends on which book is most insistent in clamouring for attention! I have several books on the go, but the two that are almost ready to go are Hourglass, the sequel to Brimstone, and an adult literary novel, Master Quickly, which is a stand-alone book. And there’s the third (and last) book in the Land’s Tale series, The Last Mountain.

Brimstone and Hourglass are the first two books in the Earth Air Fire and Water series. There will be two more after Hourglass: Elixir and Cinnabar. So, four books for the four alchemical elements of life!

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