Author Interview with Janet O’Kane
Janet O’Kane is a British mystery writer. Originally from the south of England she now lives in the Scottish Borders. Her varied career before moving to Scotland and writing full-time included selling underwear to Roger Moore in Harrods, the famous London department store, and marketing nappies for a national chemist chain. It was when she helped run a family doctor’s surgery that she decided a doctor would make an excellent main character for the series of crime novels she had always wanted to write.
Janet lives with her stonemason husband and a cat, two dogs and far too many chickens. She is now writing the sequel to No Stranger to Death and learning to tap dance.
Stephanie: Hello, Janet! I am delighted to be chatting with you today and congrats on the B.R.A.G. Medallion! I see that in your bio that it was working in a family doctor’s surgery that inspired a character for crime stories…It truly is fun and amazing where you find inspiration for stories. Please tell me about your book, No Stranger to Death and how you discovered indieBRAG.
Janet: Thanks Stephanie. I’m thrilled to have been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion for No Stranger to Death, which is a mystery novel set in the south of Scotland. The book’s main character is recently-widowed doctor Zoe Moreland who moves to the Scottish Borders for a fresh start among strangers unaware of her tragic past. However, her hopes of a quiet life are dashed when she finds the grisly remains of a woman’s body in the village’s Guy Fawkes bonfire and gets caught up in the resulting murder investigation. When someone else dies unexpectedly and Zoe herself narrowly escapes death, she is forced to dig beneath the tranquil surface of the close-knit community to find out who is committing these horrible acts.
As you say, I worked for a team of GPs (a General Practitioner or GP is what we call a family doctor in the UK) for about a year and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Because of our wonderful National Health Service, patients are cared for from the cradle to the grave and GPs are their first port-of-call for most health issues. GPs often deal with people in extremis who tell them things they can’t share with anyone else. At the same time, GPs often find themselves in contact with the police and other authorities. This seemed like a perfect setting for a mystery, especially when I created a GP as my main character who has even more secrets than her patients.
I’m a big fan of Twitter (I’m @JanetOkane) and follow Alison Morton, the alternative history author who writes about 21st century Romans. When she mentioned being awarded a Medallion, I thought this was a great way of helping readers find quality indie writing and decided to apply. It was daunting but also confirmation that a Medallion is worth having, to find that only 10% of books submitted actually get through.
Stephanie: As Doctor Zoe Moreland gets caught up in a murder investigation, what is one of the challenges she faces that could possibly put her in danger?
Janet: Zoe finds that because she’s a doctor, people tell her things and ask her advice, even outside the consulting room. Because she’s bound by confidentiality, she has to deal with information she can’t share with the police, and this brings her too close to solving the mystery for the killer to ignore.
Stephanie: When Zoe moves to the Scottish Borders looking for a quiet life after the death of her husband, what is an example of what she expected?
Janet: Zoe had lived in a large English city, where it was easy to be anonymous, before moving to the Borders. She’s shocked how in a small, rural community everyone knows (or think they know!) everyone else’s business, making it impossible for her to keep the low profile she had planned. When she gets caught up in the murder investigation, she finds it hard to cope with people’s expectations that she’ll want to discuss what’s going on.
Stephanie: Please tell me a little about Zoe’s childhood and how she came to be a doctor.
Janet: Zoe never knew her father and was raised an only child by her mother until the age of twelve when her mother died in a road accident. She went to live with elderly grandparents who had no idea how to deal with her, but instead of sending her off the rails, their benevolent neglect made her self-reliant and a keen student. Zoe knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor, although she cannot pinpoint where this compulsion came from.
Stephanie: Tell me a little about Zoe’s friend, Kate Mackenzie and what is their friendship like?
Janet: Kate Mackenzie is Zoe’s opposite in just about every way, yet they become firm friends as soon as they meet. Divorced with three young children, she has several elder brothers, parents who dote on her, and lives on her family’s farm. She is outgoing and inquisitive, and tries to bring Zoe out of her shell and be more trusting of people. Totally deaf due to a childhood illness, Kate is a skilled lip-reader and works as a genealogist, tracing clients’ Scottish ancestors.
Stephanie: What is a typical day like for the people who live in the Scottish Borders? Does Zoe have a hard time fitting in or is the expectations of what she thought it would be like, how it is?
Janet: I thought it would be interesting to write about an English woman who moved to Scotland because that was my experience 22 years ago. There’s no border crossing to negotiate and no need to change currency or buy a foreign phrasebook, but Scotland is still a different country. Zoe has also swapped city-living for life in the country, where the main industries are farming and tourism. It’s a big culture-shock for her. For example, when she drives anywhere she always gets there early because she builds in time for traffic jams which never happen, unless you count being caught behind a collie herding sheep along a narrow lane.
When I worked at the GP practice I often heard myself referred to as ‘the English girl’ and people struggled with my accent as much as I did with theirs! I had fun introducing Zoe to the Scots words I’ve learnt since I came here, like ‘swither’, which means to be indecisive about something.
Stephanie: Could you please tell me a little about why the location of your story is important?
Janet: Scotland is rightly famous for its ‘tartan noir’ crime fiction, with writers like Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre mainly setting their books in cities. I wanted to show a different side of Scotland, although setting my book in a rural community risks disappointing readers who expect the story to be cosy, which it isn’t.
You can get to the Borders from Edinburgh in less than an hour by car, yet the surroundings and way of life are reminiscent of Scotland’s more remote highlands and islands. We have stunning scenery and an abundance of wildlife and castles, but also the same social problems found in any city – only they’re better hidden. Living somewhere beautiful doesn’t stop people making a mess of their lives. Murder is dreadful wherever it happens and I wanted to reflect this.
I use actual Borders locations in No Stranger to Death as much as I can, because I think this makes imaginary events seem more real. It has also pleased readers who live here; I’ve been told by many people they enjoy spotting places they know. Finally, and I acknowledge this may seem strange, setting a crime series in the Borders is my way of saying thank you to the community where I now live very happily.
I did, however, create a fictional setting, the village of Westerlea, for the book’s main events. Given the grim circumstances Zoe gets caught up in, it seemed unfair to saddle a real community with even a fictional notoriety.
Stephanie: How long did it take to write your story and who designed your book cover?
Janet: I’d be embarrassed to say how many years it took me to write No Stranger to Death, but in my defence I did several jobs and studied for an Open University degree during that time.
I was lucky to be put in touch with a friend of a friend, Kim McGillivray, when I was looking for someone to design my book cover. Kim has produced many excellent covers in the past but he had never worked directly with an author before, so it was a learning experience for both of us. (I blogged about the process.) While I was researching cover designs, I spent a lot of time on Joel Friedlander’s, website, which includes a monthly e-book cover design competition. Kim’s wonderful cover has garnered a lot of positive comments, but I was especially pleased when it recently won a coveted gold star and praise from Joel.
I’m looking forward to working with Kim again in 2015 on the cover of my second book, Too Soon a Death.
Stephanie: How much time do you spend on your craft and where in your home do you like to write?
Janet: My study is at the back of the house and I purposely positioned my desk away from the window, although I get up regularly to stretch my legs and look out on my chickens. Until recently, I’ve always had a cat keeping me company – Doris used to sleep in the cupboard next to me and her successor, Katy, shared my chair – but sadly they’re both gone now, although I’m not alone as Harry the bichon frisé and Bella the border collie regularly wander in to check up on me and demand biscuits.
Because I’m lucky enough to write full-time now, while also helping my husband run his business, I try to keep regular office hours. Sometimes this can be very productive, other times less so, but by sitting in front of my pc every day I know my word count will steadily rise and eventually I’ll finish what I started. I also find having readers who say they’re looking forward to No Stranger to Death’s sequel is hugely encouraging.
*I don’t know if Americans are aware of the British Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night tradition. Every year on November 5th we celebrate with bonfires and fireworks the failure of a plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. Guy Fawkes was one of the plot’s leaders who was subsequently executed.*
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Janet O’Kane, who is the author of, No Stranger to Death, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, No Stranger to Death, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.