Bob Harris – Writer and book promoter / Vancouver
My conversation with Winona:
Describe your main character and his lifestyle. What motivates him?
My main character is Jason Davey. His real name is Jason Figgis, and he’s the son of a couple of famous musicians who made their name in the 1960s and 70s with a folky pop group called Figgis Green. Jason grew up in the spotlight, and is a musician himself—he’s a jazz guitarist with a gig at a club called the Blue Devil in London. But he hates the idea of nepotism and would rather make a name for himself without trading on his parents’ fame. So he uses the name Jason Davey. That was the premise I started out with in Notes on a Missing G-String, but, ironically, he ends up actually replacing his dad in Figgis Green when the band reunites for a tour in Lost Time and Ticket to Ride. The other interesting thing about Jason is that he’s an amateur sleuth. There aren’t a lot of those around—musicians who also solve mysteries—so he’s a bit of a trailblazer in the crimewriting world. He’s motivated by his own curiosity—in the first three books, he was approached by individuals and asked to investigate cases involving missing people and missing money. In Ticket to Ride, he’s motivated by a sense of self-preservation—someone is out to cause him serious harm. In the next book, Bad Boy, he’ll be approached by someone who was actually a “baddie” in G-String, and asked to start an investigation.
What inspires your book titles? How do they emerge?
I am SO bad at coming up with book titles. To be honest, out of the ten books I’ve written, I’ve only thought up four of them myself: Skywatcher (which was a play on a popular book published around the same time, Spycatcher), The Cilla Rose Affair (inspired by the naming conventions of the old Man from UNCLE tv series), Persistence of Memory (which was stolen from the Salvador Dali melting clocks painting) and Disturbing the Peace (which just came to me naturally as the story was largely set in Peace River, Alberta). All of the others have been suggested by friends or by my publishing partner, Brian Richmond. Cold Play, which was Jason Davey’s first appearance aboard a cruise ship in 2012, was suggested to me by an online Twitter friend. In Loving Memory, my second time travel novel, was also suggested to me by that same Twitter friend. I arrived at Marianne’s Memory, my third time travel novel, while I was sitting with a real-life friend at the Waterfront Skytrain Station, literally spitballing ideas. Notes on a Missing G-String started out as a joke between me and Brian Richmond. I was chatting with him, trying to come up with a storyline for the next mystery I was going to write after Disturbing the Peace, and, if I recall correctly, he suggested something to do with Soho, where Jason worked at a jazz club. I threw out the idea of the gentlemen’s clubs that used to populate the area (only a handful are left now) and from there the conversation progressed to g-strings and G Strings (the kind you find on guitars), and it just carried on from there. I wrote the novel around the title. Brian also came up with Lost Time, and my latest, Ticket to Ride (although that’s very obviously a take on the Beatles’ song, as well as a popular phone game).
Your last 3 novels are set in England and are detailed, indicating you spend a lot of time on research. How do you balance research with writing and editing time to meet deadline, considering you have ongoing CWC and Sisters in Crime Canada West responsibilities?
Well, to be honest, I’ve always had to balance my writing life with my working life. I’ve always held down full-time jobs—I was a travel agent for about five years, and then I worked at Telus for 18 years in a variety of jobs. After that I worked at UBC for a further 15 years, at the School of Population and Public Health. I managed to write all but my last two novels while I was working full-time. Lost Time, novel #9, was all researched and outlined and its first few drafts were written while I was still at UBC. I retired from work in October 2019, and finally became a full-time writer. I found being involved with CWC and SinC-CW extremely rewarding, and the work I do as the BC Rep for CWC is largely administrative anyway—which isn’t a lot different to what I was doing in any of my past jobs. So none of it is really challenging. I’m good at organizing my time and using calendars and task schedulers to keep track of what I’m doing and where I’m supposed to be in my ordinary life. I use plotting software to plan out my writing (I’m very definitely a plotter, not a pantser) and to keep track of where I am in my novel-in-progress. And I’m a great believer in naps. I relied on them extensively when I was working at Telus and UBC—I used to have a nap at lunch time and another, longer one when I came home from work. Those naps rebooted my brain, just like a computer, and allowed me to refresh my memory and work on my writing for a couple of hours every night. Now that I’m working from home on my books, if I find I’ve got busy with admin stuff, I often just take an hour or two out late in the afternoon and have a nap to restart my creative brain. I highly recommend it.
And while I do spend a lot of time on research, I’d say about 99% of it is online. Even when my story is set in England and my characters are travelling around on a tour bus. Google is my friend. So is Google Earth 😊
Ticket to Ride marketing and promotion is extensive. You’re doing a USA blog tour, podcast and media interviews, in-store book signings for June and July, attending conferences and organizing a United Kingdom blog tour for September. Have I missed anything? Explain how you manage this juggling act.
In the past, I never really applied myself to an organized PR program. It was all very hit and miss. And then I decided to get serious, to observe what my colleagues were doing to promote themselves and their books, and to try and emulate them. I attended a couple of webinars about marketing fiction. I decided what my comfort level was (which is very important). I decided on a budget (quite small, actually). And I decided that I would stick to a handful of manageable platforms. So, I narrowed my PR down to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And then I booked a US blog tour for half price, which made it affordable. And then Brian and I created a support website for Ticket to Ride, which is just like a real band’s tour website and gives people somewhere to go to find out more about the book. I gave Jason an Instagram account and I uploaded a series of pictures to support his tour diary entries. Brian got some software that imported those entries into the Figgis Green website. We used royalty-free pictures that were available on a paid website specializing in all kinds of marketing tools for writers (he got that lifetime membership at a bargain-basement price when it was first introduced—one of the best investments he ever made in terms of PR). And then I prepped a whole lot of postings to put on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So I was extremely well-prepared to hit the road running as soon as Ticket to Ride was released. The Figgis Green website became part of the support structure, as it also has links to the places where you can buy the books. And it’s a whole lot more interesting than just sending potential readers to my very ordinary writer website.
So I guess it comes down to just being very organized, and having a schedule, having a calendar and a list of Things to Do, to refer to, and spending some time making a list of all of the places I’d approached in the past (and some new ones) that I knew would feature me, or interview me, or allow me to write a guest blog…that sort of thing.
It does get a bit hairy at times. You think you’ve got it all nicely organized and then something happens similar to what happened to me when I came back from England in mid-March. I picked up a horrendous virus (not Covid) which knocked me off my feet for three weeks, exactly at the same time that I was launching Ticket to Ride. And exactly at the same time that I was needed for some work on two committees I was helping out on (both launching anthologies), and exactly at the same time as I was helping to organize involvement in two writing festivals. Everything came home to roost at once. So now I’m just sort of taking a few days off to try and catch my breath! And put out this newsletter.
Is there a Ticket to Ride sequel in development?
There is. And it’s called Bad Boy. I haven’t really figured out much of the plot yet, other than it will involve a lot of the places I visited when I was in England recently, including The Shard, and a little village where my cousins live in Derbyshire. And it will have, as one of its main characters, Arthur Braskey, who you last saw in Notes on a Missing G-String. He’s my favourite baddie, and Jason is terrified of him.
Reflecting on your journey as fiction author / screenwriter, who and what influenced you the most and why?
I think I have to go right back to my formative years in high school and university. Back then, in the 1960s and 70s, writers tended to succeed in spite of what we were (or were not) taught in school, rather than because of it. There were very few opportunities in the curriculum where we were encouraged to express ourselves creatively. It was the era of the space race and the Cold War and schools were instructed to focus on Math and Science, not the Arts. Fortunately I went to a somewhat progressive high school where thinking outside the box was encouraged. I had a Grade 10 Lit teacher, Sam Robinson, who recognized that I wanted to be a writer when I was 14 and actively encouraged me. He actually called to congratulate me in 1989 when my first novel was published. I’ll always remember that. The last time I’d seen him or heard from him was in 1971, when I’d graduated from high school. Another great influence was my Grade 12 Lit teacher, Mr. Williamson--I never did know his first name!--who actually let me write a novel for my major class project instead of an essay--and gave me an A+ for it when I handed it in. Later on, when I was at university working on my BA in English, one of my instructors was Canadian writer Ken Mitchell. He took me under his wing and worked out an “apprenticeship” for me so I could learn the nuts and bolts of writing. He taught me the basics of fiction and I'm still using a lot of his early wisdom. I also remember his favourite pet peeve: "There is no such word as gotten!"
What are you currently reading?
I developed the skill, when I was at university doing my BA in Lit, of reading several books at the same time. I’m currently reading Fall Out by M.N. Grenside, an ARC of The Ghosts of Paris by Tara Moss, and the entire collection of short stories in the upcoming Crime Writers of Canada 40th Anniversary anthology, Cold Canadian Crime (I was on the committee that helped to bring it to life).