Arlene Hunt’s The Chosen
Arlene Hunt is an Irish author who has made her mark firmly on the Irish crime writing scene with six best sellers. I caught up with her just before the launch of her seventh book The Chosen, to get some advice for aspiring crime writers and to find out exactly why she has made a departure from her ‘big six’ publisher to found her own publishing company Portnoy.
Arlene’s first crucial piece of advice for writers is ‘don’t worry about your book being a bestseller, it probably won’t be; your family might buy it, friends, some people you went to school with and maybe an aunt or two but unless you’re extremely fortunate your book won’t be a ‘bestseller’. The key is to focus on the story, on writing the best book that you can and getting it done.’ Arlene explains ‘like most people with ambitions to write I think I talked about it a lot first, I might be still talking about it now if my husband hadn’t put a stop to my eternal waffle’. She explains that once she figured out how to type she began to put her ambitions into action.
Arlene’s first step on the road to publication was to get an agent, namely Faith O’Grady from Lisa Richards Agency. Finding a publisher as an emerging writer is a daunting and sometimes disheartening prospect, however Arlene divulges that with ‘the cocksuredness of youth’ her 27-year-old self had no doubts. Then her first book was rejected. But this rejection proved to be only a temporary setback. Her second book sold and in a two book deal, her first was picked up and published first.
In an admission that will ease the minds of many aspiring writers Arlene admits she can ‘cast a lofty eye over earlier work and wince slightly, but it is what it is, part of a process to find one’s true voice’. I asked if she would do anything differently if she had the opportunity to begin her career again? She told me: ‘knowing what I know now I wouldn’t have overwritten my first two or three novels. But that’s coming from experience and I suppose I wouldn’t have this experience without first making the mistakes’. To offer a tip to those out there with designs on a crime-writing career, Arlene explains ‘my books are less overtly violent these days, oh the body count is there, but I’m confident enough not to need to describe a scene down to every last detail’. It is true when she says that ‘there is very little more terrifying than a person’s imagination’ and she goes on to advise that ‘if you paint a picture in broad strokes imagination can fill in the rest.’
Arlene Hunt is now not only a successful author, described by John Connolly as ‘possibly the best female crime writer to have emerged from these islands in recent years’ but she has also made the huge move into independent publishing and when I asked her if she felt there was any risk involved Arlene revealed that it was a carefully considered decision. With an offer on the table of a two-book deal from Hachette Ireland, Arlene explains that ‘this is business, and personal affections aside, I was anxious to have control over my own work and my gut feeling was to form my own publishing house, which I did, with Andrew, my husband. And so Portnoy Publishing was created’.
Arlene says setting up Portnoy Publishing has been a steep learning curve. She admits that ‘Andrew has had to shoulder the bulk of the technical side of things as I am a bit of a Luddite’, but describes the whole process as an eye-opener. From formatting and learning about paper quality, to cover design and designing author information pages, Arlene explained that it is a ‘never-ending process of learning’. That process doesn’t end once the physical book has been produced however. Formatting a novel to kindle, cold calling shops to organise a tour and organising media coverage and press releases are the next few rungs on the ladder. Distribution comes next and approaching a company that can reach shops nationwide was essential – Arlene is delighted to have Gill MacMillan handling distribution.
The first book to be published by Portnoy Publishing, the seventh book to be written by Arlene Hunt, is The Chosen. It is available in trade paperback and as an eBook from October 17th. Arlene explains that she had the idea for The Chosen kicking about in my head for ages. It is a temporary step away from John and Sarah of QuicK Investigations, the series connecting Arlene’s last five books, and it is set in the United States. Arlene describes it as ‘a book primarily about loss and how people cope with trauma and the horror of having everything in their life come to a grinding halt’. Taking a step away from her normal Irish locations she felt that this country did not have the appropriate setting to bring it to life. Describing the need for ‘an area remote enough for Caleb Switch to feel comfortable working in’ Arlene moved the story the borders of Tennessee/ North Carolina. She describes the setting for the first Portnoy published book as ‘heavily wooded, remote and perfect for what I wanted.’
The specific requirements for the setting of this book prompted me to ask Arlene for her opinion on the importance of research. Every writer places a different weight on the importance of research and Arlene explains that in her case it depends on the story. She admits that ‘sometimes Google is your friend’ but warns that ‘other times there’s nothing for it but to get out there and learn.’ For The Chosen Arlene travelled to America where she ‘spent some time hiking through the wilderness, taking photos and falling off rocks.’ She describes how she spent an afternoon with a master craftsman, learning about weapons and specifically how to handle and shoot a long bow – something which she claims is harder than it looks. The Chosen also presented a dialect challenge for Arlene and she explains how some of the characters in The Chosen speak with a rural American accents. The very last thing she wanted was “to have a sort of‘well gather round chillin’s let Pappy tells y’all a cotten-picken’ story yeee-hawww!‘ feel to it”, and she empathises the importance of the authenticity of the voices and concedes that ‘you can’t really Google that, you’ve got to go, experience it, soak it up and treat it with respect.’
Arlene’s literary move to the USA is a temporary one, as she is halfway through the next QuicK Investigations book, in a return to the series. The writing process for Arlene is a fluid one. She explains how she has a broad idea of where she is going with a story just keeps writing. ‘Once the first draft is done THEN I start tinkering with it’. She describes herself as her own toughest critic and explains how she ‘can spend an awful lot of time scowling at a chapter before tearing the whole thing asunder and starting again if I don’t feel its right.’ Arlene’s husband Andrew is the reader awarded the first opportunity to critique her work and Arlene explains ‘his opinion is the first I would seek out. I trust him completely and he doesn’t sugar-coat things.’
To finish with a tip for all writers Arlene presents an analogy on the age old question of whether plot or character drives the story. She asks you to ‘think of the crime novel as a car: the plot is the engine, it’s what drives the book, and the characters are the wheels. If a wheel falls off the car won’t go, if the engine stalls the car won’t go. You need all of it to work together. I know it’s not the best analogy in the world, but that’s kind of how I see it.’
© Julie Murphy, October 2011
For more information on Arlene Hunt and her work visit http://arlenehunt.com/