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Interview With Author TJ Brown, and My Other Hat

24 June, 2024.

Dear Readers,

black witch's hat with orange band and gold buckle with a blue pencil tucked into the band - editor's hatTomorrow and My Other Hat

The sun will be rising on Monday 24th June 2024 to witness a momentous event: none other than the launching of the creative work of best-selling author TJ Brown. This third novel in the supernatural comedy series The Unhappy Medium: Wretched Things, represents my most recent foray into the wonderful world of — and here comes the Other (metaphorical) Hat — editing.

Why Are You Telling Us This, Holly?

Indeed. Now, for you, here comes the crux of the matter: does the Unhappy Medium have anything in common with the Amanda Cadabra series? Indeed, it does. There is plenty of cross-over in various aspects of ‘UM’ and ‘AC’, as we call them, humour and the supernatural being the most notable.

Consequently, a number of Tim’s readers have also been enjoying visits to Sunken Madley, and I thought it only fair to introduce a series that might suit you, too.

If you’d like to know more about how I came to be involved in the project and missed my last letter, you can find it here. The short version is that my health took a deep dive last year, and after some months, the writing and marketing with it. As I began to resurface, Tim invited me onto a project that I could do at my own pace and in my own time. Years ago, I edited his second novel (now due for an editorial revisit) so I knew the series well.

This new novel had a slow start and has been five years in the making. It was partly through editing Tim’s second novel, a few years ago, that he started me on the road to being a fantasy mystery writer, and you can read that (true) story here. Suffice it to say that Tim is responsible for my beginning the Amanda Cadabra series.

A Celebratory Gift For You

I could not let this occasion pass with a … you guessed it …. commemorative jigsaw puzzle for your entertainment. I call it: The Critic. Click on the image or the link below to have a go.

Click to go to mystery jigsaw for Sunday 23rd June 2024

https://amandacadabra.com/puzzles

The Third Hat

black witch's hat with orange band and gold buckle with a mic tucked into the band - interviewer's hatMeanwhile, without more ado, let me take up my third hat: Interviewer. Here goes.

Today, I have the privilege of interviewing best-selling supernatural comedy author TJ Brown, whose latest novel, Wretched Things – The Unhappy Medium 3, launches tomorrow on Amazon. Here is Tim – author (and Polymath) – to tell us about his road to Wretched Things.

 

1. Tim, what was the first piece of fiction that you can recall writing?

I remember my O-Level grade English exams. We had to write an essay based on a picture of Liverpool docks in the 1800s. I hated my exams, but I enjoyed that. Being around 16, it probably ended with ‘And then I woke up.’

Yes, that sounds like an all-time favourite early author go-to and get-out that I well recall.

TJ Brown - author of Wretched Things - The Unhappy Medium 3. Edited by Holly BellSadly, real life is harder to wake up from. Working on it.

2. Has story-telling always come naturally to you?

I’ve always found it easy to ‘freewheel’ creatively. What took longer was working out how to structure and discipline the plot around the freewheeling. Once I learnt how to tame my creative mania, I was away. Humour was always there, and story-telling and humour are kind of joined at the hip.

Well, I’d say especially so in your case.

You can see it Amanda Cadabra too. Some of the most serious truths can be told with comedy too, which is importan

3. How did you get from your first job to becoming a best-selling author?

My first job was cleaning pots in a greasy little café. From there to now it went something like this….
Supermarket. Crematorium. Retail. Graphic Design. Illustration. Book Design. Then years in illustrated publishing finally leading to a daft little book about underpants. I freelanced a fair bit in whatever was going, and that had me doing mad stuff like nightclub décor, fashion modelling, stage painting, medieval boat restoration and fruit packaging. My CV is just plain silly.

Cover of A Brief History of Underpants by Tim Brown. Colourful 70s image against a blue sky of three men in vest and pants sets in yellow, purple and blueI have to add a footnote here about your loud-out-loud and cunningly named A Brief History of Underpants which sits on my shelves. It is not only hugely entertaining but well researched, and the gaps filled in creatively. Oh, and worth the unbelievably modest price if only for the beautiful vintage photographs.

4. How has your university degree fed into your writing, if it has?

I’m afraid my degree was a disaster. I studied fine art in Wales in the 1980s, a lazily experimental course that favoured people standing in buckets with fish on their heads over painting or sculpture. Hated every minute. Not a day goes by that I don’t fail to not use what I didn’t learn at Newport College of Art. It rained both indoors and out for three years. However, prior to that I did a two-year foundation course in Bournemouth, based in what had been Mary Shelley’s house (I know, right?). That was a really good grounding in the visual arts and it was huge fun. I was in bands, there were parties, we read a lot. Those two years set me up pretty well I think.

Amply demonstrating that there’s no substitute for an education – whatever form it takes!

Dunno. Would I have been better off just working for the civil service and writing on the side for 40 years? Yes. Kafka was wiser than me.

5. As someone who had worked in traditional publishing, what made you decide to become an indie author?

Well, I’ve seen the highs and lows of traditional publishing close up. The lows can be pretty low. My musical era had been punk and post punk, and the whole DIY ethic of that really appealed to me. I’ve always liked this idea of creativity surging past the gatekeepers. Indie publishing is that all over again and I love the satisfaction you get from succeeding on your own. That said, I’d accept a deal if it was bountiful and manageable and didn’t turn my happy wee baby into a miserable chore. Being an indie can be hard too though. You have to be a one-man band and the ghost of burnout is always lurking on the battlements. Works for now.

Thank you, Tim. That’s a realistic assessment.

Has to be fun basically.

HG Wells and Conan Doyle with Chesterton_at_work6. Who have been your greatest literary (or other) influences?

Early on I read Conan Doyle, H G Wells and G K Chesterton, I love that whole British Victorian Edwardian vibe. M R James ghost stories I love, the Christmas TV adaptions made a huge impact on me growing up. My favourite book of all time is The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a wonderful absurd novel that is as dry as it is dark.

Comedy came in via Woody Allen, Without Feathers is just magnificent and Python. I’ve always read a lot of history which you can see in my The Unhappy Medium. I was also hugely influenced by Howard Devoto, the singer of the post-punk band Magazine. The way Devoto flips clichés around to create new meanings is remarkable and got me thinking a lot about the power words as a young-un. ‘I’ve got a good face for memories.’

7. Can you tell us a bit about who The Happy Medium is?

Newton Barlow is the voice of reason in a mad, mad world. He came from my love of TV scientists like Carl Sagan, Brian Cox and David Attenborough. I started with the phrase ‘Strike an unhappy medium’ then thought … why would a medium be unhappy? Well, a medium who didn’t want to be a medium, of course. And who would least want to believe in ghosts? A sceptical scientist. A whole book spun off one weak pun … if that’s not value for money, I don’t know what is.

Let’s hear it for the creative power of puns, weak or otherwise.

Amen.

8. What genres would you say The Unhappy Medium series fits into?

Genres can be a pain. So far, the Unhappy Medium has been: Supernatural suspense, Metaphysical and visionary, Parody and satire, horror comedy, British comedy, occult and dark humour. I’d say it was a dark comedy probably. It is a mystery, it is a thriller and it is a ghost story, but it’s deep down about people and how they can be mostly dreadful, but occasionally magnificent, if they can be bothered.

Good, so if a reader likes any of those genres, I’d certainly recommend your series.

Thanks. I’d probably be easier to classify if it was TV or a movie. Good Omens, Blackadder, Inside No. 9, Beetlejuice … etc. Dark comedy is a staple of those media.

9. How do you get your ideas for The Unhappy Medium books?

History, the news, life. I love linking up historical scenarios to where we are today as these illustrate the folly of how we manage our species in the here and now. Typically, I tend to think up one or two set pieces I want to cover then force links between them. You get great ideas by having problems to solve so I welcome plot holes, continuity disasters and huge glaring inconsistencies.

That’s something, as my fiction-writing mentor, that you’ve always passed on to me: make an advantage out of a problem.

Yes, and you’ve really run with that on your books. Nothing like a plot cul-de-sac to get the brain working. I can laugh out loud when I crack those.

Dr Newton Barlow, hero of the Unhappy Medium series by TJ Brown10. Tell us a bit about the plot and characters of The Unhappy Medium 3: Wretched Things.

It’s a story about hubris, vanity, pride, trauma and redemption. This is where Newton finally has his revelation, at least enough of one to make sense of where he will go next. It’s also about the madness of political ambition and how Bronze Age politics linger in what should be the age of reason. My books are comedy, but they are also not. It’s also a book about the perpetual inefficiency of the good guys. History is full of good guys, but they always seem to come after a lot of bad guys. They say about the British Army that they lose every battle but the last one, there’s a lot of that in it. The banality of evil is everywhere in the book, as always.

I like the fact that your book can be read at more than one level; simply as a straight comedy, (‘150,000 words of comedic gold’) or as satire, or as social or political commentary, or … whatever resonates with you personally as a reader. But aside from that, I found a great deal of warmth and camaraderie between the good guys. Their bumbling efforts in the face of the foe is endearing and relatable. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do our best.

Photo of cast of TV series Dad's ArmyI think a lot about Britain in WW2, that whole Dad’s Army defiance. Good people don’t rise to the challenge quickly, they get angry slowly, but when they do get organised, their ranks fill with the creative, the dynamic and the pragmatic. The bad guys, the bullies start well, but end up getting chopped to bits by their more nimble and creative prey. That’s hubris for you, my number one favourite human design flaw. Pride comes before a very long fall. World events bearing that out right now I think. What a shame we have to keep learning these lessons again and again.

11.The title of the first book, which is also the title of the series, ‘The Unhappy Medium’ is clear as is book two’s ‘Tom Fool’. Can you give us a hint about the significance of the title: ‘Wretched Things’?

It’s a quote from the Brad Pitt playing of Achilles in the movie, Troy. ‘We men are such wretched things’, which is, of course, by way of the Iliad. I’m not a wretched thing, I’m a bunch of wretched things joined together by bones.

Now that’s a typical example of sentences in your books that make me laugh out loud.

Yer welcome.

12. What was the inspiration for Wretched Things?

Oh, lots of things I’ve been experiencing personally and watching unfold politically. Mostly it was down to stumbling onto the story of Andronicus the Terrible. I read his life story with my jaw on the ground. What an absolute !@£$%^&*. A lot of the novel is about stoicism and having to reconcile the irreconcilable. Comedy is a serious business.

But you didn’t write an academic commentary. Instead, you spun his story into a hilariously crafted send-up, that reminds me very much of the treatment of Hitler in The Producers, one of my favourite films and go-to’s when I need cheering up. I think Wretched Things will have the same effect on readers who enjoy humour and satire.

The best Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictatordefence against narcissists is to laugh at them. Once you strip them of their atrocities and silly little uniforms, they are just the most ridiculous and lamentable specimens, terrified little children. Fear them and they have all the cards. Chaplin did that well in The Great Dictator. Putin hates being compared to Dobby, I gather, Winnie the Pooh references in China can get you 50 years in a salt mine and whatever you do, don’t mention Little Gem lettuces to Liz Truss.

14. You design your own covers. How did you get the ideas for each of them?

I have a huge book of medieval woodcuts. One for every mood. The design evolved over time, I wanted something between The Munsters and the The Handmaid’s Tale. The background has a texture made up of tracks from a particle accelerator. The new book has a crazed little skeletal drummer, manically drumming up a war we could all do without. Rings any bells?

So the cover expertly combines science, history, the supernatural and a message.

The falling from a tower metaphor was a gift. Newton falls from an ivory tower and lands face down. Yeah, had to be that.

15. What is the most rewarding part about producing each of your books?

Hands down, it’s connecting with like minds. I do get bafflement from some readers, some loathing, but that response where you know that people absolutely get what you are up to is priceless. Often, my readers see things in the stories I didn’t even realise I had put in there. That’s a great feeling.

I agree, nothing prepared me for that magical connection with readers who then went on to become friends. You did tell me when I was writing the first book, but it has been beyond anything I imagined.

It’s special. No question. I just wish they’d stop following me home.

15. What is the most fun part of the process?

Second edits are more fun that writing. First drafts can be a slog. First positive responses from my peeps is a relief. I never know what I’ve done till it starts getting reviews. Imposter syndrome and all that. It is fun, but it’s a LOT of work. I think it would be more that I just wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t doing it.

16. What would be your ideal writing schedule? Or are you a pantser?

I have a full-time job … I take what I can get. I’m in the middle with planning. Usually, I like to create a loose structure then freewheel through that. I don’t over plan because I want the story to partly write itself. I want the reader to be as surprised by the twists and turns as I was.

Absolutely. I’m in a similar boat, taking what I can get around my health. And yes, that’s one of the most, I want to say, ‘magical’ aspects of writing fiction, the way that the book writes itself, steered to some extent or other by ourselves.

It’s an overused idea, but it really does happen.

Cover of Tim Brown's The Long Range Desert Group's album Pro-Oxidant. WW2 aircraft on the sea floor.17. Now, I have to ask you about your other talents. You compose and you paint. Is there any inspirational or practical ink between those two and writing?

I am a bit of a polymath, creatively at least. Bit of a neurodiversity thing I suspect. My maths is so bad it’s laughable. If I had five pounds for every time I’ve added up something wrong, I’d have £3659.57.

There are connections with painting and the music. I tend to like media where I can blat things out, then correct them back to where I am happy. I’m not a perfectionist, I like to weedle out things from the background, fixing errors until I run out of glitches. Digital media really help that, but so do acrylic paints, you can layer and correct quickly. Tapestries wouldn’t work for me.

I was in bands in the late 70s and early 80s, mostly as a singer and loved it, but couldn’t do it again until Garageband gave me the means. I love making music, even though I actually can’t play anything. Thanks, digital universe. If anyone fancies a listen, my (one man) band is The Long Range Desert Group. My LP Pro-Oxidant is on Spotify if you fancy some ambient techno noir. There is an Unhappy Medium theme tune, but that’s hiding at the moment. Even better, buy it on Bandcamp and make me and my record company happy.

A musical footnote here. You can hear a couple of samples from the Unhappy Medium track on the trailer I created for the book launch (here) and on the first chapter I had the privilege of reading aloud on this video here. Both are on the Holly Bell YouTube Channel, if you fancy a wander over there after this lively interview.

18. What would be your advice to someone considering becoming a professional fiction author?

Don’t be over ambitious. Have fun with it and write what you would actually like to read yourself. Definitely don’t give a rat’s behind what your nearest and dearest think of it … that way lies madness. But mostly, have fun. You can polish it to death afterwards, but for the love of Zeus, have some bloody fun. Blat it out, clean it up. And don’t just copy your favourite author. Please.

Yes, not even your mentor! (You’ve frequently said over the years, ‘Don’t listen to me.’ Good thing I often ignored that!)

I said it to avoid future litigation.

19. What encouragement would you give to someone who feels they have a story to tell?

Break your idea down, then put it back together. Fill in the gaps, then get on with it. Finish one chapter if you have to be locked in toilet till it’s done. Once you have one chapter, it would be sad not to have two … and so on. Finishing a book is a major life experience. Nothing feels so good. Go on … you know you want to. If you really want to do it, then why don’t you? Do it. Do it now.

Ringbinder with colourful dividersI remember for the first Amanda Cadabra book, you encouraged me to clean up and print out chapter 1 then put it in a nice ring binder with dividers, then chapter 2, and so on. That gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I’m no longer nearly as organised as my books seem to write themselves in a random order of chapters, but I still get a buzz from feeling a chapter is completed and ready to go.

Yes! Ritual is hugely important. Buy a good laser printer and just watch that book flying out. Then punch them holes and watch that sucker grow.

20. You have over 3,000 reviews on Amazon. What would you say has contributed to the success of your books?

Maybe it’s that Newton Barlow’s frustrations resonate for us all. He’s plucking diamonds out of an absurd mess. Who doesn’t know that one? They appeal to that dark, wry kind of reader. They know who they are. I think maybe you should ask them.

21. What is the future of The Happy Medium series?

I could tell you, but then I’d have to have you possessed. Book 4 is laid out and ready to start. It’s called …

All in good time!

22. Where can we find out more about Wretched Things and the next sequel?

I need to do a proper website … sorry … time, it’s a time thing. For now, Facebook is where I speak my beans. Look for the Unhappy Medium. I update there most weeks. Meet other Purgatorians, raise families.

Thank you very much indeed, Tim, for taking the time to answer that long list of my questions so entertainingly and insightfully. I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience and will be happy to come back for another round when The Unhappy Medium is nearing its launch.

Pleasure.

 

Tim’s series is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon, where you can also find the audiobook formats of the first two books.

You can find Tim’s latest news on Facebook Here is his website – worth a look even in its present incarnation. The development of Tim’s existing website is a future project so watch this space: http://www.theunhappymedium.com/

And join Tim’s newsletter here, for his entertaining updates.

Here’s Tim’s Official Bio

‘T.J. Brown always found life far more amusing than he should have. Like most authors, he has a surreal CV with jobs in frozen food, a crematorium, publishing, design, illustration, and medical technology. Alongside these he also paints, makes music, drinks red wine, catches spiders and grows vegetables.

Brown works, lives and writes in Wales, where the castles are.’

Clock showing midnight with a magical book in the middleA Final Word For Now From Me

As to the Amanda Cadabra books, I am now preparing brand new landing pages here on amandacadabra.com, one for each book, in readiness for the new look about to sweep the board. I shall reveal these one at a time for your enjoyment and – even better – feedback, please!

And yes, the new sequel is still simmering; some more arrived at midnight in my wakeful brain, and I intend to take up my quill in earnest once more as soon as the landing pages are done. Stay tuned for more updates. Join the Holly Bell Facebook page, come on into the Bell Tower Readers Group (also on Facebook), sign up for the inside track newsletters or, my favourite, drop me a line and say hello.

Back soon.

Happy June!

Holly

 

PS If you want to start the series now:
Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth

Available on Amazon

Paperback, Kindle
and Large Print

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About the Author

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Cat adorer and chocolate lover. Holly Bell's life changed in a day. A best-selling author friend telephoned and convinced her, that after years of penning non-fiction, she could write cozy paranormal mysteries. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Holly lives in the UK and is a photographer and video maker when not writing. Her favourite cat is called Bobby. He is black. Like her favourite hat. Purely coincidental.

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