9th February 2019
The Saturday Interview: P. J. Skinner
Good afternoon Ms. Skinner and thanks for your time. Could you tell us a little about ‘The Sam Harris Saga’?
The Sam Harris Saga covers the career of an unwilling heroine, whose bravery and resourcefulness are needed to navigate a series of adventures set in remote sites in Africa and South America. Set in the late 1980's themes such as women working in formerly male domains, and what constitutes a normal existence, are examined and developed in the context of Sam's constant ability to find herself in the middle of an adventure or mystery. Sam's home life provides a contrast to her adventures and feeds her need to escape. Her attachment to an unsuitable boyfriend is the thread running through her romantic life, and her attempts to break free of it provide another side to her character. Essentially she is a cross between Indiana Jones and Calamity Jane.
What made you choose the late 1980s as a time period, rather than earlier or later? I know you worked as a geologist for a long time, so is it personal experience?
I started my career the same year as Sam in 1987. I chose the time period because I wanted to write classic adventure without gadgets and mobile phones. How can you have a mystery when everyone can ring each other in the jungle and tell them who the baddy is? In the book I’m writing now, there is primitive email but the phone lines go off for days which is vital for the plot to work.
Books from the Sam Harris Saga have been very well-received on review sites like Goodreads. What do you think the key to writing a good adventure is?
The location is a key part of any adventure. The ability to make the reader feel like they are there, in the jungle, pushing aside the creepers, sweating, is important as is the inclusion of characters who are not wholly good or wholly bad to keep your reader guessing.
How do you go about creating your characters?
They create themselves, I just hold my hands over the keyboard and wait. I can see them so clearly. They just turn up and start acting up. They often change from good to bad without my permission. Sam likes people I hadn’t planned on her liking. She’s an avatar with attitude.
How much of the Indiana Jones-style adventures of your protagonist are based on your own personal experience?
All the background material comes from personal experience, I just add in an extra element like a treasure or a missing person and the story writes itself to a certain extent. I don’t model my characters on real people, but just in case there is a future misunderstanding, I set the adventures in fictional countries. People who have been to any of them will not be in any doubt as to where they are.
I hate myself for asking this, but this is the closest I’ll ever come to interviewing Indiana Jones. Can I trouble you for a brief anecdote?
All of the books are anecdotal to a great extent. They are basically my life with a mystery injected in it. Most of the characters are invented though. What sort of anecdote are you after? On a job in the Congo, I was asked by a member of the French Foreign Legion if I would like him to shoot me, if we got attacked by the rebels (which was looking likely at the time). We were unarmed (except for his weapon) so I said yes, if they were going to capture me, because I knew what that would entail, but not to let me see the gun. Is that what you meant? It’s in my new book, The Pink Elephants.
Yep, that will do very nicely! What authors do you enjoy reading?
I love early William Boyd, Louis de Bernieres and Kate Atkinson. I read a lot of Latin American authors, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado are my favourites. I also like The Wallander, Zen and Inspector Montalbano series of books. Old favourites include Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Green and Somerset Maugham.
You’re widely read then. Do you think that’s important for an author?
Essential for me as I have no training in creative writing. I have spoken to writers who don't read and I find that a little odd, but we all do it our way and it’s a free country.
Do you consider the boom in self-publishing to be a good or a bad thing then?
Anything that gets more people reading is close to miraculous in my view. Since I don’t believe anyone has the right to designate who should publish and who shouldn’t, if just one extra person reads a book because it’s got naked space troopers in it, that must be a good thing. Education is the magic ingredient for world peace and prosperity.
Some authors in this interview series have said that character is more important to a story than plot. Others have disagreed. What’s your take?
The plot comes from my characters ignoring me so it’s all integrated for me. I just hold my fingers over the keyboards most days and they get on without me.
Are you someone who doesn’t do much planning before starting? I’ve chatted with people who’ve made up the entire thing as they went along and others who plot the entire thing out with cards on their wall, making their rooms look like a serial killer’s lair.
I’m mostly a pantser rather than a plotter. I have tried using cards and Scrivener but it only slows me down as I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in my books. I do sort out my plotting in the middle and when I’m getting to the end to make sure all the threads fit. I always know how it starts and how it will end before I start writing but the characters do not behave quite as I imagined so I am flexible about the middle. Since it is based largely on a mix of life experiences with fiction, I just need the magic ingredient to make mundane working life into an adventure.
What’s your writing routine like?
Hahahahahahaha. Sorry. Routine, um, no. Well, sort of. I write the first half of the book without a care in the world, get stuck in the middle, swear and watch a lot of sport on television, go on long walks, force myself to write 10 words a day or 100. Finally, I sprint to the end. Then I realise I have 60,000 words again (my natural length) and I spend a month wondering how to make it longer without ruining it. Daily routine involves drinking lots of tea, going to the gym and looking for a job, ironing, washing up, laundry and finally giving up and writing something or not around 11pm.
How have you found the writing community online?
Generous, supportive, funny. I never imagined Twitter could be such fun, and so addictive. Despite appearances, almost one hundred percent of people are fantastic in their own way.
Do you think it’s essential for an author to be engaged online in a way it wasn’t a decade ago?
It is for me but then no one knows who I am. I guess if you have a massive following, it’s less imperative, but for an indie author, it seems key to getting new fans. Ten years ago. I was working in Senegal without internet so I have no idea what it was like to be an indie then.
If people would like to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?
I chat to anyone who messages me on my Facebook author page. There is often a delay as I am asleep when messages from USA and Australia come in but I always answer. I’m happy to accept DM’s about my writing on Twitter. I will take questions about my books on Goodreads too. In essence, any public forum is good as long as it’s about writing.
Thanks for your time.
PJ Skinner's website and Sam Harris novel series can be found here.