I’m not sure how to handle the intro for this month’s interview. It’s really a sort of two for one. Any fans of Dan Brown, Daniel Silva, and/or religious themed thrillers should familiarize themselves with J.F. Penn. Click here to read my recent Turn the Page review of One Day in Budapest. Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Her fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, secret societies, global locations, violence, a kick-ass protagonist and a hint of the supernatural. I don’t know if writing awesome fiction would be considered her day job or nights and weekends job, because J.F. Penn is also Joanna Penn, a blogger, podcaster, entrepreneur, marketing expert, huge self publishing advocate and public speaker. I’m probably leaving a few things out. I’m just delighted and honored she took a few minutes out of her ridiculously busy schedule to speak to me.
Q: In a recent episode of the Rocking Self Publishing podcast, you mentioned you never intended to write fiction. That surprised me, especially given all your various creative endeavors. What first inspired you to give fiction writing a try?
A: We have to wind the clock back a bit here! I’ve always been a huge reader, devouring books from a young age. My parents were teachers and I went to the University of Oxford, so I was raised in a literary tradition, where the ‘best’ books were Pulitzer or Booker prize winners. This blocked my own ability to see that the point of it all is a story that readers love! I have always written – diaries, letters, essays – but I had never considered myself creative enough to write a novel.
I finally started writing non-fiction in 2007, when I was miserable in my day job as a business consultant, implementing financial systems into large corporates. I was desperate to figure out a way to enjoy my work and my life – and in the process, I started blogging, discovered online business and I became an independent author. Writing on my site, TheCreativePenn.com, actually freed me up from my business-like style, and helped me to start finding my voice. It also connected me with a community of other writers around the world, and all those things encouraged me to give fiction a go. I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, in 2009, and that gave me the seed of what eventually became Pentecost, which was published in 2011. The journey of idea to over 40,000 books sold is all catalogued here. Now, I have four full-length novels and two novellas, as well as a short story series and three non-fiction books out in the world – with many more to come. That mindset shift opened the flood-gates!
Q: Your books have been categorized as action/adventure, supernatural, religious fiction, thriller/suspense and I don’t even know what else. Is there one genre that is of particular interest to you as a writer or are you more inclined to let your story ideas take you wherever they might?
A: The genre question is interesting and something many authors struggle with, because most of what we write can be categorized in many ways. Our books are a representation of our minds, and mine is eclectic to say the least! For example, I have a Masters in Theology and my husband is Jewish, so I am fascinated with religion, and use aspects of it in most books, but I’m not a believer, so my books aren’t strictly Christian. I read action-adventure, horror, thrillers and crime novels, as well as literary fiction and lots of psychology books – all of those aspects weave their way into my books.
I also write to address themes that obsess me – religion and the supernatural, psychology and the human mind, death and our attitudes to it. Plus I travel a lot, and find great inspiration from the places I visit. Many of the big scenes in my books spring from visiting sites that inspire me to write them into stories – for example, Jerusalem is a place I return to over and over again. Plus, I always write strong female characters, both heroines and villains – Morgan Sierra is kind of my alter-ego!
Q: Who would you consider your “target audience?”
A: I would say that anyone who likes a deeper theme embedded in a fast-paced story will like my books!
Q: What type of fiction would you find the most challenging or intimidating?
A: If you mean as a writer, then I would struggle to write romance. For me, this life is about figuring out the big questions, which is why I write about the supernatural, death and themes that resonate with me – like the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, as in One Day in Budapest. We only have so many hours left on this Earth, and I use my writing to figure out what I think.
Q: The first time I listened to The Creative Penn podcast, I was immediately struck by your bubbly personality. I remember tweeting something about you sounding like the world’s happiest Muppet. You exude excitement, enthusiasm and positive energy. Your fiction does not. It could best be described as dark. Why do you think so many of your novels are centered around murder and mayhem?
A: I do find myself a curious hybrid of self-help positivity, and dark fiction these days! I am both of those people, and I’m thrilled that my fiction enables me to explore the things that I think about. I used to be scared of what people might think of me, but the more I write, the more I realize that people want to think about these things. Desecration was the first book where I really stopped self-censoring, so expect more darkness to come.
Q: What would you say are the biggest inspirations to your style of fiction?
A: People have always called me ‘an old soul,‘ and I love to visit graveyards, old churches and catacombs. I also like to read darker fiction, Stephen King being a favorite, and I love John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series with its supernatural edge. King was asked once why he writes horror, and he said “What makes you think I have a choice?” I feel the same way.
Q: I’ve read One Day in Budapest twice, something I don’t often do by the way. In that book, a priest is brutally murdered in the opening scene. Later on, a young girl is blown up and five Jews are ritually gunned down on the shore of the Danube. You obviously don’t hesitate to kill off women, children, or presumably, household pets. Is there anything you would consider off limits?
A: My books are always based around historical truth, and then I twist that last 5% into fiction. I want my stories to resonate with reality and the reader should feel that it could happen. The Danube murders in Budapest are a reflection of what actually happened in 1945, and you only have to read the news to know of the atrocities that happen in the world.
In terms of what is off-limits, I don’t actually hurt animals in my books. I also don’t like torture porn, and the murders in the books are important for the story. I write thrillers and death is part of why the books are an emotional roller-coaster – it is the ultimate high stakes.
Q: You made a trip to Budapest in 2012. Was One Day in Budapest inspired by that visit, or did you already have the idea for the story?
A: We went to Budapest to visit the Dohany Street synagogue, where some of my husband’s extended family were buried in the mass grave. They died there in the Budapest ghetto during the Second World War, and I go into the detail of the historical situation in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5onR9-L5IbU
I don’t think I would have written a book purely about the history, but I had to write something when I discovered that an ultra-nationalist political party was calling for a national registry of Jews – and this in 2012, not 1944. That party is now the second largest in Hungary after the 2014 elections. I wanted more people to be aware of this political reality, and by hooking it into a fast-paced thriller, I hope to spread the word about a possible future.
Q: What’s next for your writing? Q:
A: I have Delirium coming out soon, which is the sequel to Desecration, in my London Mystery series. It features a police detective, Jamie Brooke and her sometime partner, Blake Daniel, a reluctant psychic, solving a murder mystery – with a twist! Where Desecration delved into the physical body and what happens to the physical self after death, Delirium uses the history of psychiatry as the backdrop to a larger conspiracy that reaches into the heart of the British government. That will be out in July.
Then I’m focusing on Inquisition, the next full-length ARKANE novel, and I’m off to Barcelona in Spain to start the research soon. So lots more fast-paced, kick ass thrillers with deeper themes to come!