Candles, Egg Whisks, and Imagination – a chat with John Marrs

Welcome to my website, John, and to your official publication day of The Good Samaritan, which I loved, as my review here describes.

And here’s the blurb…

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She’s a friendly voice on the phone. But can you trust her?
The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die.
Laura hasn’t had it easy: she’s survived sickness and a difficult marriage only to find herself heading for forty, unsettled and angry. She doesn’t love talking to people worse off than she is. She craves it.
But now someone’s on to her—Ryan, whose world falls apart when his pregnant wife ends her life, hand in hand with a stranger. Who was this man, and why did they choose to die together?
The sinister truth is within Ryan’s grasp, but he has no idea of the desperate lengths Laura will go to…
Because the best thing about being a Good Samaritan is that you can get away with murder.

The-Good-Samaritan-1200-x-1200-2So, a book blurb tells a reader loosely what to expect, and word of mouth and reviews add to that, but for you what is The Good Samaritan about? What was the story in your head when you started writing it, and did you end up with the story you intended when you were done?

Well, Samaritan first came to me after meeting a friend’s new partner. He worked part-time manning the phones for the Samaritans a few nights a month. He explained to us what this role entailed and how he had heard people commit suicide while they were on the phone to him. I was shocked by this, I knew the Samaritans were there to listen, not to judge or interfere, but I wondered how I would cope listening to something like that and not be able to do a thing to prevent it or to try and talk them out of it. I thought it might make an interesting subject for a novel, so I got to writing about a (non-Samaritans) helpline woman called Laura who falls in love with a suicidal man who calls her regularly. One night, he kills himself while talking to her, and she’s horrified. However, later, she wants to find out more about him and starts looking into the life he had. And to be honest Louise, this is where I became bored with the story. Suddenly it came to me, how much more interesting would it be if Laura was actually encouraging certain vulnerable people to whom she spoke to end their lives? It was at this point, the entire plot flipped on its head and I started the novel from scratch. The more I wrote, the darker it became. At one point through the book, Laura is trying to encourage a new ‘candidate’ Ryan to end his life, but that becomes her undoing. Because Ryan knows who she is and what she does as she helped his pregnant wife end her life. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between them. For me the book is about loss and how different people can deal with it in different ways. Suicide is never going to be an easy subject to base a book on and has proved quite divisive. But I try and deal with it by showing both sides of the argument – what it’s like for someone who feels like they have no choice but to end their life and how the people they leave behind try and pick up the pieces. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by it.

This is the most interesting aspect of writing to me – how a story changes and evolves and mostly becomes the thing it never even started as. I hear you on the Samaritans and suicide fascination. I was a volunteer and it was the most harrowing thing I’ve ever done. My mother attempted suicide when I was a nine – a very serious attempt where she went to a deserted place with all her pills and vodka. She’s only alive today because a homeless guy found her. So I think this has shaped my interest in life/death/survival. Which brings me nicely back to your Laura. My daughter Katy loves the line about her obsession with final breaths. You’re never afraid to go really dark, so to speak. Does it excite you to take risks with your work? I guess this could be classed as a risky book with the subject matter, but you handle it really well. And like The One, I think it’ll get a lot of discussion going. Do you like that?

Thanks, and I’m sorry to hear about the pain your mum must have gone through, and as a knock-on effect, your family too. Naively, I didn’t think The Good Samaritan would create the fuss it did. Reviews have either adored it or hated it because of the subject matter alone. But I didn’t set out to write a divisive story; I just wanted to write a book on a subject that interested me. And while it excites me to take risks, I don’t think writing Samaritan excited me at all. It just drained me. It was the first-time characters I’d created seeped into my non-writing world. I was mentally exhausted after finishing it and I decided I didn’t want to inhabit characters like that again for a while. I wrote that book from a first-person viewpoint, and for my next I switched to third person because I needed to disassociate myself from the bleakness for a while. And please thank Katy for me! As for provoking discussion, if it does, I’m won’t be reading it. I have long given up reading reviews and comments about my novels.

My office
John’s super-tidy desk… and of course candle…

I know you love candles when you write, so what’s your favourite candle scent?

Either pomegranate or sandalwood. Or if I’m having a particularly dark writing day, patchouli. 

Which is your favourite Imagination song from the 1980s?

Funny you ask. I was a reporter at the Chronicle & Echo in Northampton back in 1994 when I had to interview Ashley Ingram, the band’s bassist as he too was from Northampton. I returned to the office when I was asked by my colleague how it went. ‘I didn’t like him,’ I said. ‘I thought that he was up his own backside because of the success of Des’ree’s You Gotta Be song, which he co-wrote.’ ‘Have you met his little sister?’ my colleague replied. Sitting next to him was a stonyfaced school girl on work experience who it turned out was, indeed, Ashley’s sister. What were the chances of that? Oh, and I choose Just An Illusion.  

Laughing evilly here at the Ashley Ingram thing. I ALWAYS end up expressing my (ill-advised) opinion at the most inappropriate time…

My office 3
Such an adorable face. (The dog.)

I think all our books can be mentally exhausting, can’t they? I really do live mine. Like when people say, ‘oh, I could write a book,’ like it’s something you do in an easy flash. Yeah, right. Interesting about the first-person aspect. I too love this POV but it can drain you. Does the voice come to you as soon as the story does? In that, I mean do you know immediately who will tell the story in your novels, and how? The POV can make or break a novel, I think. How different Laura would have been in third person! I guess you don’t miss her? What do you reckon she’s doing right now? 

I’ve read two of your books and will start my third soon but it’s obvious that you put your heart and soul into them and leave a chunk of yourself in there. So yes, I completely believe you when you say that you live your characters.

Thank you for your kind words – I think the only concern when we ‘lose a chunk of ourselves’ each time is what about when there’s nothing left?

I also hear ‘oh I could write a book, I just don’t have the time or the patience’ as that is all it takes. I know writing a novel isn’t like brain surgery or working down a coalmine – I mean, I’m sitting here in my office, listening to Post Malone on Apple Music with the heating turned up switching between writing a chapter and writing to you – but it takes a lot of bloody effort to tell a story and to then promote it and make people aware of it. But I digress. In answer to your question, sometimes the voice comes to me immediately, on other occasions, the voice will begin one way and end up completely different by the time I’m done. It’s often the supporting characters whose voices I know from the start. The main players take me a little longer. Do I miss Laura? Not at all. People keep asking me if I will bring her back for a sequel. There are no plans to, but who knows? If I get a good enough idea, I might revisit her. I think right now, she is planning to get revenge on…. Actually, I can’t tell you that otherwise I’d give away the ending.

Scorpios are meant to be dark, evil bastards. Do you agree or is it all just witchcraft and sorcery?

Star signs and horoscopes are rubbish, in my humble opinion. I worked for a magazine once where they repeated a whole year’s worth of horoscopes the following year because they couldn’t afford to renew the astrologer’s contract. Not one reader noticed or complained.

I agree about newspaper horoscopes. They are porn to the erotica of a carefully-calculated birth chart.

Can I turn the tables and ask you a question? You can bring back to life David Bowie (in his 1970s period); Michael Jackson (1980s period); George Michael (1990s period) or Amy Winehouse (2000s period) – which one do you choose and why?

Good question. I had to think about this one. For me, it’s a toss-up between Michael Jackson and George Michael. I saw Michael Jackson in 1988, my first big concert, and was quite literally speechless. But then George Michael during the 90s… it felt like he sang the anthems to my experiences at times. And such a sweet, troubled, and gifted soul. So I have to say him, if only so he can write the theme song for my next novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost. How about you?

If you went to see Jacko in 1988 in Leeds, then I was there too! £25 for a coach ticket and gate entrance. Kim Wilde was supporting. My mate Sean and I waved to her and we swear to this day that she waved back. It was the second gig I ever went to, the first was Madonna’s Who’s That Girl tour the year before. And I’d bring George back to life too. He was the first artist I followed the career of right from the start when I bought Wham’s Fantastic album and right up until his death. I was genuinely gutted when he died.

I was indeed at the Leeds Jackson concert – oh my God, yes, £25 a ticket including coach! You couldn’t even see Steve Brookstein for that now.

Doesn’t Steve Brookstein spend his days playing at Pizza Express now and trying to wind up the world on Twitter? 

I don’t know, but he’s here now cleaning my outside toilet, so I’ll ask him.

I'll proof read anywhere
‘I can proofread anywhere…’

Back to The Good Samaritan. You mostly write books that explore dark topics. But what scares you? For me it’s deep water (I have a recurring nightmare about going into water in a car), heights (I had panic attacks about my kids riding bikes across the Humber Bridge for ages), and it used to be public speaking, but I’ve had to get over that. 

Public speaking scares the bejesus out of me. I won’t do it. I’ve tried it, hated it and vowed not to do it again. I have participated in a book panel, book launch or even a public book singing despite my publisher trying to talk me into it. I did a live Radio Two interview with Simon Mayo when The One was picked by his Book Club and I’d have been mad to have said no to that. But it was only him and me in the studio and I couldn’t see the five million listeners at home. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I also hate heights, yet the one time I tried it, I loved zip-lining. Death also scares me. I’ve yet to accept that one day I’ll die. 

You’ll never die. Because you’ve written books. We’re ensuring our immortality remember. 

Since it’s International Women’s Day, who’s your favourite female protagonist in any film or novel? 

I’m going to choose two recent-ish characters in novels – Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Lily from The Kind Worth Killing. I love it when you never know where you stand with a character, and even if you hate them, you are still fascinated by them. I like to use strong women in all of my books in one way or another.

I liked turning the tables and asking you questions – name three actresses you would choose to play Catherine in Maria in the Moon?

You’re such a bloody journalist! As an excuse to bring her back from the dead and meet my idol, I’d say a likely very miscast Marilyn Monroe. Failing that, I’d say Sheridan Smith or Julie Walters circa Educating Rita. 

A proud moment
One of John’s proudest moments…

As we’ve mentioned a lot, you write books with pretty dark themes. Is there anything you would never write about? Why? Or is nothing off-limits? 

Hmmm… interesting question … I don’t think I’d touch religion with a barge pole and while I’m not afraid to write about violence, I haven’t ventured into gore for the sake of it. In two books’ time I have a storyline about child abuse (it’s one of many different storylines), but I’ve tried to tread carefully with that. Often you can say enough without saying too much on a subject. I’d like to be one of those writers who isn’t afraid to tackle controversial matters – I just don’t want to write about them for the sake of it or to try and cause a stir. 

How will you celebrate your publication day today? My celebrations usually involve peanut butter, an egg whisk, two clean towels and the local rugby team. (I’m lying – I don’t like peanut butter.)

Your celebrations of publication day are the same as mine! However, I use just the one clean towel, and why make do with a team when you can have a league? Think big, Beechy.

Oh, always.

In all likelihood, I’ll completely forget I have a book out for the first couple of hours of the morning, then remember, then tell myself not to look at the sales rankings on Amazon, give in to that minutes later and spend the rest of the day refreshing the website hoping some bugger has downloaded it. Although I won’t read the reviews. Do you read them? And if so, why?

I too want to be a brave writer who tackles issues. But, like you, not for the sake of controversy but because I can’t do light and fluffy. It just doesn’t interest me. I may act silly and love to have fun, but I’m actually pretty serious. 

I do read my reviews, yes. Even the bad ones. I read the good ones because I’m eternally looking for the validation I never got as a kid. I read the bad ones because they fire me up to work harder, because I want to keep myself in check, and because some of them are actually hilarious. 

I used to read both, but then some of the bad ones were really quite nasty and I began to doubt myself as a writer, even though the good ones totally outweighed them in volume. So I decided not to read the bad ones, and as a result, I don’t look at the good ones either. Reviews are from one reader for another, they’re not there for me. It’s not my business.

My office 2
And another one of John’s desk because it’s so tidy and this makes me very happy.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now? Or at least a little about the next book, as I know that’s already written?

I am currently working on two books. I’m putting the final touches to my fifth novel, Her Last Move, a detective thriller in which two detectives hunt a serial murderer in London. One of the detectives is from a little known (but true) department called Super Recognisers – they have photographic memories for faces. That book won’t be out until around August time. The next book has the working title The Passengers and is more Black Mirror- style, in the way The One was. It has a hint of science fiction, but is set in the present. 

And I can’t talk about you or your success (because yours is an incredible success story, it really is) without mentioning the indomitable, extraordinary and utterly diseased, sorry delectable, Tracy Fenton. Tell me who she is, why she is so important to you, and why the hell her bloody name keeps popping up in your books? 

Ah, Tracy. My first book, The Wronged Sons, was self-published and had shifted a few thousand copies but its shelf life was coming to an end. Tracy was a member of an online book club, found the book, read it, and loved it. She got in touch to say she’d be recommending it to other members and within a day, sales had rocketed and continued to do so for months afterwards. Its success and positive reviews led to it being picked up by a mainstream publisher and republished as When You Disappeared. It’s partly thanks to her that the first book was a success, it found me a new audience and enabled me to continue writing. Ever since, she has made a cameo in each of my novels, from a masculine looking lawyer to a talent show judge. She’s not just a supporter, she’s a friend.

What you like to do to switch off from writing (that won’t make people’s eyes fall out)?

I slip into old man mode and I love pottering around the garden, decorating, going to the gym, and walking my dog with my husband, confusingly also called John. We also like to travel, and we are going on a road trip around California for a few weeks later in the year. John’s my biggest supporter and sounding board for stories. And considering he reads about two books a year, he comes up with some great twists of his own that I’m happy to steal and claim as my own…

I am so jealous of the California trip. I’ve been to LA, but I really want to do it for longer one day. Enjoy every bit.

Thank you for being so willing to be probed, and I wish you every bit of luck with The Good Samaritan as it deserves to fly. And I think it will.

Order it here now – TheGoodSamaritan

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