Interview With Author Ali Sparkes

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hello! I am Ali Sparkes – author of children’s and YA fiction. I am also A D Fox, author of crime thriller fiction for adults.

# What are the real-life stories behind your books?

Most of my 50+ books are made up – but there are definitely some bits which are inspired by true life experiences or stories.

For example, Thunderstruck, set in fictional Easthampton, was inspired by a gravestone in actual Southampton, where I live. It’s in an old cemetery on the edge of Southampton Common and I used to take a short cut through it, with my young sons, on the way to the common.

The gravestone is dedicated to Douglas Lane, who died when he and two of his friends were struck by lightning during a storm on the common in the summer of 1955. We always wondered about Douglas and his friends – Elizabeth and Anthony, I later found out. The author in me couldn’t help but muse about whether they had ever left the common, or whether they still hung around as ghosts… and that led to Thunderstruck.

I set my ghosts’ deaths in the 1970s rather than the 50s – because I’m a child of the 70s and had also already had a fair bit of success with Frozen In Time (Blue Peter Award winner in 2010), which features kids from the fifties. You can see the trailer for Thunderstruck here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aOSeDOmiow – filmed on Southampton Common on a FREEZING February day, while my poor actors, in shorts and T-shirts, had to pretend it was summer!

# What inspires your creativity?

Things like that gravestone kick off ideas all the time. They just drop into my head fairly randomly. I’ve always had a whimsical brain. My most successful novels have been The Shapeshifter series and the lead character in it is Dax Jones, who one day discovers that he can turn into a fox. I’m still not entirely sure where that idea came from but back then, as a journalist in local newspapers and then regional radio, although I often interviewed famous people, I found the stories that I loved best were about ordinary people, to whom something extraordinary had happened. I also love foxes!

# How do you deal with creative block?

I step away from the laptop and go for a walk. To be honest, I don’t get it very often. I’ve been a professional writer for three decades and have learned to just crack on, regardless of whether the muse wants to show up. But there are definitely days when my creative brain just needs a rest. A bit of nature usually sorts it out.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Not researching properly. You can end up utterly embarrassing yourself if you make assumptions about things and don’t get them checked out before publication. Most editors will pick things up for you but nobody’s infallible. You need to check anything that is related to reality. I’ve not had terrible embarrassments so far, thanks to my journalism background, but there are a few things that make me twitch when I read them, years later, because they’re a bit iffy.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

For much of my children’s fiction the key decisions are made by my publishers, but I have some input too. I also write crime fiction as A D Fox and here the covers for my Henry & Sparrow series are all down to me and my choices, although I work with a talented illustrator and designer who gives me a very good steer. Atmosphere is very important – it tells the idle browser so much at a glance. Nothing too busy – a good strapline – but fashions change all the time. See what’s working well now and get guidance from that. Use a recommended professional designer/illustrator.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

They used to upset me, although I’m glad to say there have been only a handful over the years. Amazon ratings and reviews are scarily powerful. Often, I’ve noticed, a poor review tends to come from someone who hasn’t really understood something in my story. I guess it’s just not their thing. Or, occasionally, ONE STAR because the package arrived damp and torn (SERIOUSLY!). I try not to stress about it. I would never leave a review lower than three stars – and only three stars if I felt I had something constructive to say. I don’t like to be hurtful.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

What makes you think it’s IMPROVED?! It might have got a lot worse! Actually, I think as a writer you mature into your style and voice and find a method which works for you. But sometimes you look back at your earlier stuff, noting that while it may have some errors or passages which you might do a better job of today, there’s a kind of raw energy and excitement which has its own charm.

Writing crime as A D Fox, I have had to adapt from my usual ‘jump in and see where it goes’ technique to something with just a little bit more planning. My timelines can get so snarled up. But I’m not really a planner. It’s not how I work and it seems to have been OK for the past 50 or 60 books.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?

The best thing is vanishing into other worlds, particularly when the world is in crisis! I love those sessions when I forget who I am… The worst thing is snarled up timelines. I have to get a big bit of paper and write and draw it all out until it makes sense again. Most surprising is realising that you really have no idea what will sell really well and what won’t. It’s all very random.

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I write to please ME for the first draft. Second draft onwards, I might consider the reader!

# What role do emotions play in creativity?

They’re absolutely intrinsic. I feel like I’m in my characters and everything they do or say is motivated by the emotions I am feeling on their behalf. If I’m not occasionally laughing out loud, welling up, or getting an increased heart rate while I’m writing, I’m not doing it right.

# Do you have any creativity tricks?

Write anything at all – even a shopping list – when you’re daunted by a blank screen. Just to get your brain and fingers limbered up. Sometimes it stays in. I had to start a chapter introducing a returning character in my Night Speakers series and I just couldn’t work out where she was or what she was doing. So I typed: ‘TIMA! Where are you and what are you doing?’

Immediately I knew she was in her bedroom, her mum calling up to her, and she was doing something her mum wouldn’t approve of (playing with a big house spider called Spencer, since you ask). That’s another trick. Once you’ve got to know your characters well… just ask them: Where are you and what are you doing? They will usually tell you.

# What are your plans for future books?

I’ve just finished a four-story arc of the Henry & Sparrow series (The Dying Dolls, Dead Air, Seven Deadly Things and Death Circles) and now I’m having a little break before going back to children’s for a story I plan to write this summer. My Shapeshifter series is currently in development with the BBC. the pilot is written and if it goes ahead (never a sure thing!) I may be screenwriting an episode or two. I’m planning a different screen adaptation from my Wishful Thinking novel too.

And I’m pressing on with more crime fiction in the autumn.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I can wiggle my ears quite impressively. I am quite good at graphology and can work out from your handwriting if you’re a psychopath (probably). I have a large woolly labradoodle called Willow (see picture) who takes me for walks every day. I was once the spangle-clad assistant to a juggling unicyclist. And I sang on the soundtrack to a couple of adverts for Boux Avenue lingerie (Christmas 2015 and 2016 – find them on YouTube!) because my husband’s a music producer – we met when I joined his band as the girl singer.