Today sees the publication of author Ally Sherrick's debut novel Black Powder. As you might expect this is a busy period for Ally. Nevertheless, she still managed to find the time to stop by the blog for a chat. However, before we begin here's a little information about Ally and her book.
Ally loved writing stories at school and thought she’d quite like to be a writer, although she also really wanted to be an Egyptologist and spend her time excavating pyramids, digging up mummies and hunting for buried treasure.
Her love of history and books led her to study for a BA in medieval history, literature and French at the University of Newcastle on Tyne. She also has an MA in Writing for Children from the University of Winchester. Over the years Ally has had a number of different jobs including working at WH Smith Head Office, working for a publisher of self-help books, and for a firm of tea-traders, plus she's held several roles in public relations and marketing, and in the public and HE sectors. Ally loves exploring ruined castles and decaying mansions and imagining what it must have been like to live in them without electricity, hot and cold running water and flushing loos – although she’s quite glad she doesn’t have to herself. She is married and lives with her husband and assorted garden wildlife in Farnham, Surrey.
You can find out more about Ally on her website or connect with her on Twitter. Black Powder is published by Chicken House and is available as an ebook and in paperback from Waterstones and all good book shops. It can also be purchased from Amazon and other online book stores.
Welcome to the blog, Ally it’s a pleasure to have you here. Huge congratulations on the publication of Black Powder.
Thanks so much, Christina. Delighted to be here!
What inspired the story behind Black Powder?
A visit to the beautiful ruins of a great Tudor mansion called Cowdray House in Midhurst, West Sussex and the discovery that a certain Mister Guy Fawkes had worked there as a gentleman footman.
Why was it important for you to write this particular tale?
Because although we commemorate the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot every year on 5 November with bonfires and firework displays, most of us have only a very basic idea of what it was all about. The more I looked into the real-life Plot and the people caught up in it, the more I realized it had all the elements of a brilliant adventure story – some of which you really couldn’t make up if you tried! And if a couple of children got mixed up with the plotters and their mission, well it all seemed ripe for the telling.
So, what’s the book about?
It’s the story of 12 year old Tom Garnett, whose father is arrested and thrown into prison for sheltering a Catholic priest. Tom sets out to try and save him and meets up with a mysterious stranger – the Falcon – who promises to help in exchange for his service. But on the long journey to London, Tom discovers the Falcon’s true mission – and a plot to blow up Parliament with barrels of black powder. Tom is then faced with a terrible decision: secure his father’s release, or stop the assassination of the king …
That sounds fantastic! I expect you had to do a fair bit of research in crafting this story, am I right?
Yes, there was a fair amount as I was keen to try and create as authentic a version of early Jacobean England as I could. I used a mix of primary and secondary sources including historians’ accounts of the Plot and the early reign of James I, books, old maps, portraits and official records from the time. I also visited the key historical settings and walked the route that Tom and the Falcon take when they first arrive in London and journey from Southwark across London Bridge and on to Westminster where the final part of the story takes place.
Along the way I learnt a whole host of fascinating facts about how people lived in those days and a whole lot more about the Gunpowder Plot itself. Did you know for example that people’s clothes didn’t tend to have pockets? Or that young men used to ride the rapids under London Bridge for fun? And that the tradition of lighting bonfires began the very day the plot was discovered?
No, I didn't. Talking of young men, could you describe your yound main character, Tom, to us in five words?
Impulsive. A bit mischievous . Quick-witted – although sometimes this backfires on him! Resourceful. Loyal. Brave – although he doesn’t always think he is himself.
He sounds brilliant! And what about the mysterious Falcon, which two words would best describe him?
I like the sound of him, too. Now what about the manuscript itself, how long did it take to write and how long was it until you found a publisher?
The story took me about a year and a half to write – I was working part-time at the time so couldn’t devote as many hours as I’d have liked to writing it. And then it took about another year before it came to the attention of my lovely publishers, Chicken House.
I'm very glad it did because it sounds wonderful, as is your book cover. Who created that and did you have any input into the final design?
Thank you! Yes, it’s beautiful isn’t it? It was created by Alexis Snell, a Yorkshire-based artist and printmaker to a brief provided by Rachel Hickman, the Marketing Director at Chicken House. Rachel was great about involving me in the various stages of the cover design, although ultimately I was more than happy to let Chicken House make the final decision about colours etc. They are the experts and know what works best for the market.
Indeed. Taking you back a bit, when did you begin to write novels and how has your writing process evolved since you pinned down your first word?
I started out writing short stories for adults as a hobby back in the early 2000s but I didn’t attempt a longer story until I studied for an MA in Writing for Children in 2009. My dissertation was the first 20, 000 words of a middle grade sci-fi story which I then went on and completed in 2012 after I graduated. I tried to find a home for it and a couple of agents asked to see the whole thing, but unfortunately this didn’t convert to an offer of representation so I filed it in my bottom drawer and started work on the story that became Black Powder. I used to think that writing was all about waiting for the Muse to visit you and that when she/he did, a story would pop into your head almost fully-formed. Wishful thinking! After several years of hard slog, I now know that whilst initial ideas might seed themselves fairly easily in my head, it takes a whole load of sweat, determination and plain hard graft to get them down on paper and polished into something vaguely approaching a finished novel.
Ah yes, I know what you mean. Speaking of hard graft, you’ve had several interesting jobs in the past, have any of these influenced your writing?
I suppose all my jobs have involved writing in one way or another – from my role as a trainee editor in a publishers early on, to the many press releases, leaflets, magazine articles and brochures I’ve written during my time in PR and marketing. So I guess you could say I’ve been honing my basic word-smithing skills for years. Most of the jobs I’ve done have also involved a fair amount of creative thinking, particularly in terms of some of the events I’ve been involved with planning and organizing – from science festivals and carnivals to steam train extravaganzas and Britain in Bloom celebrations. I also spent some time working in central London helping to promote the various tourist sites there, some of which pop up as part of the backdrop to the action in Black Powder.
Getting back to writing, what are you working on now? Can we expect to see it in print any time soon?
I’m working on a second story for Chicken House. It’s another historical adventure, set in England during World War Two but with links back to early Anglo-Saxon England – a period I fell in love with when I studied it at university. But I’ll say no more now as I don’t want to give too much away. I don’t have a publication date yet, but am hoping it will come out later in 2017.
Ooh, how intriguing! Now, to round off the interview, let’s have a bit of fun. If you had to choose to live in only one of these periods from history which would it be: England during 1605 or life in 12th century Persia? Why?
I’d have to say living in England in 1605. Hopefully, the research I’ve done for Black Powder might help me to survive for that little bit longer! For example I now know it’s best to drink the ale not the water if you don’t want to drop down dead from some awful water-borne disease. Whereas I’d be all at sea (or should that be sand??) in 12th century Persia, unless I could do a crash-course in Arabic before I left and could take a map….
Which would you prefer to be: a famous Egyptologist who discovers a fabulous long-lost treasure that changes the world’s perception of the past, or to have life-long fame as a New York Times best selling author?
A famous Egyptologist – especially if it means discovering something like the tomb of Tutankhamun, although I’d need to check there wasn’t a curse on it first.
What’s better: a sticky shape or a Smartie?
A sticky shape – especially one of a flying bird – because, although not nearly as tasty as a Smartie, they last much longer. And if you get them as a reward for doing something well, like reading books, it helps you to remember the achievement for longer too.
Which one book would you take with you to pass the time on an Antarctic research station?
To pass the time? Hmmm. That’s a tricky one. My all time favourite book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but I think if I was holed up in the Antarctic it might be better to have something I could dip in and out of, in between tracking penguins and taking rock samples etc. I love history, as you might have guessed, so how about Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects? That would also hopefully give me lots of new story ideas to play around with during the long dark days and nights.
Which would you prefer, the rain in Spain or hail in Yale?
The rain in Spain, because there are plenty of beautiful Moorish palaces, Roman ruins and crumbling castles you can go and take cover in until it passes. And Spanish rain isn’t like British rain. It’s warmer and there’s usually an end in sight!
The Great British Bake off or Top Gear?
Neither, I’m afraid. I’m not a baker or a driver. Give me MasterChef any day – amateur, professional or celebrity.
A bag of boiled sweets or a jarful of liquorice?
Oooh! Liquorice, definitely. I’ve always loved it – especially those liquorice pipes with the hundreds and thousands on the end of them and the ‘Catherine wheels’ with the pink or blue Liquorice Allsorts sweets in the middle.
Complete the sentence: I couldn’t get through each day without…
My mouth’s watering so much from the mention of liquorice that I’m tempted to say that, but, if I’m being more serious, I’d say, the love and support of my lovely husband, Steve.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions, Ally. I wish you lots of success with Black Powder and with all your future books.
Thank you so much, Christina. It’s been a pleasure!