Derrick Ferguson: Who is Jilly Paddock?
Jilly Paddock; I’m a British woman, no longer young but not yet ancient. There’s a lot of grey in my hair, which used to be black, and my joints ache in wet weather. I’m interested in biology, geology and astronomy – I like to know the names of animals, wildflowers and trees, rocks and gemstones, constellations and stars. I like Pre-Raphaelite artwork, Romantic poetry, folklore and folk music. I’m very practical and have dabbled in a lot of different crafts, including jewelry-making, silversmithing and knitting. I collect studio glass perfume bottles and tarot decks. I’m a cat person, but don’t have any pets at the moment. I have a dark sense of humor.
I used to live in South London near Crystal Palace, which has a park with life-sized dinosaur statues sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. They date from 1854, were the first of their kind in the world and were scientifically accurate at the time. I saw them as a child – how could I not write fantastic stories after that?
DF: Where do you live and what do you do to keep the creditors away?
JP: I live in the UK, in a cathedral city in the Fens in East Anglia. I have a small house packed with books, CDs and other stuff, and I share it with Dave, an editor and book reviewer. I miss the chalk hills and woodlands of South East England, where I grew up. It’s very flat here, with wide open skies. I live on the edge of the city and can drive out to the countryside in a few minutes.
I spent most of my working life in the NHS (National Health Service). I was a Biomedical Scientist, which sounds very grand but is just a posh name for a lab technician. I worked in Microbiology, growing and identifying bacteria, testing for antibiotic resistance and doing blood tests to diagnose all kinds of diseases. I’ve handled all kinds of pathogens, including TB, typhoid, cholera and diphtheria, and also viruses like Hepatitis B and HIV on a daily basis and somehow lived to tell the tale. I took early retirement in 2011 and now survive on my NHS pension. It may sound odd but I still miss the bacteria, the colors of the colonies on the various media, the smells (some Streptococci smell of caramel and other bacteria have very distinct odors like pear drops or geraniums) and the sense of wonder when you find something unexpected or unusual.
DF: How long have you been writing and what have you learned about yourself through your writing?
JP: I started writing when I was eleven, inspired by two schoolfriends to put pen to paper. I’d always lived in imaginary worlds inside my head, but now the three of us wrote stories, shared them and had a lot of fun doing it. Both of my friends are now published writers working in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. I kept writing, selling a couple of short stories in the 1990s and trying to get a novel published. It was the first of the Zenith Alpha 4013 series and although several editors liked it, it never made it into print. After I retired I self-published it as an e-book, along with two novellas and a collection of short stuff. Then Pro Se Press picked it up and TO DIE A STRANGER finally came out in paperback in 2014. It was very satisfying to finally hold a real, solid book in my hands after so long.
I suppose I’ve learnt that I can complete a novel, that I can make that journey from first line to ‘The End’ through the twists and turns of the creative process. There are recurring themes in my work; I seem to be obsessed by walled cities, AIs and dragons. There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that, but better not to dwell on it!
DF: What audience are you trying to reach with your work? Is there an audience for Jilly Paddock?
JP: I don’t write with any particular audience in mind. I just write for me, using mainly female protagonists. I suppose that my books have a flavor of the science fiction I read in the 70s and 80s. I’m surprised that I have many male fans, as my work isn’t hard science fiction and has a feminist slant. I’ve had several people who’d never dreamt of reading science fiction pick up my books and tell me they enjoyed them, which is very gratifying.
DF: Where do see your writing career five years from now?
JP: Hopefully all of the Anna and Zenni books will be out by then, plus the huge space opera, WARBIRD. I’d like to still be going to conventions, maybe two or three a year. It would be nice to be better known and to sell more books, of course.
DF: What are you working on now?
JP: I’m finishing the fifth Anna and Zenni book, which was inserted into the original chronology so I could play with the characters a bit more. I have other unfinished pieces, notably a fantasy that’s a simple fairytale with a big dose of folksong and a talking horse, LADDER TO THE MOON, which I need to complete and release into the world.
DF: A. Afton Lamont and her partner Jerome are characters you obviously have a lot of affection for. What is the origin story behind your creation of them?
JP: Afton and Jerome came from a small seed – I needed a pair of detectives on a colony world for a short story, which turned into BLIND WITNESS, which is in the LEGENDS OF NEW PULP anthology. A friend had mentioned that most of my male characters were bastards, so I decided to have a nice man as my first-person protagonist. Poor Jerome – as well as being my first likeable man, I made him black and bisexual as well! He isn’t human; he was rescued from a barbaric desert planet by a team of Earth scientists, who then mutilated him with surgery and inflicted our culture on him. He doesn’t quite fit in the society he lives in; as he says of himself, he’s a stranger in a strange land. Afton started out as the classic cynical police detective, belligerent and disliked in the ranks, full of anger and sarcastic quips. We still don’t know much about her past; she was born on Earth and probably spent some time in the military, but how she ended up on a backwater colony world is a mystery.
I do like my characters, some more than others. I spend so much time with their voices in my head that it’s hard not to see them as friends.
DF: TO DIE A STRANGER mixes science fiction with elements of the thriller and detective genres. Mashing up different genres seems to be a trademark of yours. Why do you enjoy blending genres together?
And what’s the secret to mixing different genres together and making them work smoothly with each other?
JP: I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until my reviewers pointed it out. When I started out, choosing science fiction was a no-brainer – what other genre allows you to write about anything you can imagine? I’d read a lot of thrillers and detective novels as a teenager, so that went into the mix, and it didn’t seem odd to add a little supernatural and magic, mythology and folklore. Real life has traces of all of that, plus a big dollop of coincidence and synchronicity that readers would baulk at if you put it in fiction. I just let the story go where it wants.
I’m not sure I know the secret of mixing genres, as I don’t do it deliberately. Keep your nerve and make it plausible – if you’re confident and believe in the plot your readers will go right along with you.
DF: WITH AMBER TEARS is the sequel to TO DIE A STRANGER. How many more books have you got planned for this series?
JP: It’s planned to be a ten book series. The fourth book, THE BEAUTY OF OUR WEAPONS, is with Pro Se and due out in May/June this year. Book five is unfinished, six to eight are complete but need minor re-writes, nine exists as fragments and ten needs a bit more work. This series is unusual in that I started writing it in 1973 and the books have been lurking on my hard drive since then, constantly being tweaked and altered as the story arc unfolded.
DF: STARCHILD is your latest novel. What’s it about and why should we be reading it?
JP: STARCHILD is the third in the Zenith Alpha 4013 series. Anna and Zenni are now working for Earth Intelligence (EI) and need to prove themselves, so they’re sent to Ile Garoque, a world that severed all contact with Earth two decades ago. The initial plan is to put Anna in the entourage of StarChild, a hugely popular band who’ve been invited to play on the planet, but when Taheera, the lead singer, refuses to go the mission turns into an impersonation of her, using Anna’s acting skills and EI’s technology. Add to that a hostile first contact situation with a group of predatory aliens, an enemy making yet another attempt on Anna’s life, an unexpected romance and being caught up in two weird storms in hyperspace that can destroy unwary spacecraft.
This series is at the lighter end of science fiction, edging towards pulp sci-fi. I think of it as space soap opera; this one has romance stirred into the mix. It has humor and isn’t too gritty, although it does have some swearing and a sex scene, so I wouldn’t recommend it to kids. You should read it because it’s fun and I think most people would enjoy it.
DF: What is the one book or story of yours you would recommend to somebody to start with? And why that book or story?
JP: That would have to be NO EARTHLY SHORE, a novella that’s currently only available as an e-book. It’s another tale of first contact, between the colonists of a world called Calvados and giant telepathic sea slugs, who were assumed to be just dumb animals until they save a girl from drowning and start talking to her. This time the mix includes a marine biologist, another EI agent (although he isn’t revealed as such within the story and he lacks psionic powers) and quilt patterns. It’s a very uplifting feel-good story and seems to appeal to science fiction fans and people who don’t usually read in that genre alike.
DF: Most of your novels and stories are connected. Did you start out to do this on purpose and is it easier to create stories once you have a fully developed universe in place?
JP: Again, this happened by accident. I can’t claim to have invented the universe – it’s a future variant of our own. I’m enough of an optimist to hope that we will go to the stars someday and set up colonies on other worlds. Some of the links between books seemed obvious and logical – the agent that Terrapol sent to help Afton and Jerome in THE SPOOK AND THE SPIRIT IN THE STONE had to be an agent-pair from EI – and some were in-jokes to amuse me and any readers who were paying attention. The world Jerome lives on was discovered by the spacecraft from WARBIRD, so some of the street names are surnames of the crew and Jerome’s cat, Gresham, is named after the ship’s captain, who is also ginger.
I suppose it’s a symptom of my scientific brain to keep things simple – don’t reinvent the wheel – so, if you need a planet, ship or character for the plot, why not use one you already have instead of starting again from the ground up?
DF: What keeps you motivated when you have a creative slump?
JP: There have been times when I’ve stopped writing, when life really got in the way. The stories keep bubbling away in the back of my brain and I have to let them out eventually. I write to empty my head, to get it down on paper so it stops bothering me and I can move on to the next thing. I’ve always found that forcing words out when they aren’t ready doesn’t work well. I don’t like deadlines; that said, I have produced some short stuff very rapidly when necessary.
DF: Drop some much-needed Words of Wisdom on all the young aspiring writers reading this that are thirsting for your knowledge.
JP: Other people have said this, but it’s true – if you want to be a writer, write. Keep writing and finish stuff. Even if you think it’s awful don’t throw it away – keep it and you might be able to use it one day. Read, a lot.
And, if you write on a computer, for pity’s sake keep multiple copies and back-ups of your files!
DF: What writers have influenced you?
JP: So many! I read a lot of classic science fiction and fantasy – Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Tolkien, Leiber – they’re buried in the landscape that lurks under my writing style. I adore Cordwainer Smith, who had such a quirky voice, so deceptively simple with strange psychological depths. There are touches of him in STARCHILD, in a chapter title and the notion behind dragon-storms. I like Peter S Beagle, who writes lovely, poetic prose, and Tanith Lee, Louise Cooper, John Wyndham and Iain Banks – too many of those have died recently. The poetry of W B Yeats and John Keats haunts me, and also the song lyrics of Melanie and Leonard Cohen, which have also inspired titles.
DF: How much room in your head do you allow critics or criticism to occupy?
JP: Too much, I guess. One bad review overshadows ten good ones. I wish I could be more like Iris Murdoch, who said “A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”
DF: What’s a typical Day In The Life of Jilly Paddock like?
Ooh, I’m dead boring! I have porridge for breakfast and drink lots of tea. I don’t have an office of desk to write at – my computer is next to my armchair and I type with the keyboard on my lap. There’s usually music on in the background, as Dave has a vast and eclectic collection of songs and albums on his computer. I switch between writing, reading and the latest knitting project, and play solitaire to rest the eyes.
In winter I don’t venture out much – one of the joys of being retired is that you don’t have to go out in the rain or snow. About once a fortnight I take my father shopping and out to lunch. He’s 91 now and still lives independently, but he gave up driving last year and needs me to take him to medical appointments and the supermarket. I hope I’m still as fit and mentally alert (and alive!) when I get to that age.
Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we need to know?
Jilly Paddock: In the question about which book I’d recommend as an introduction to my work, I was torn between two, so can I mention the second one here? It’s THE THIRD WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN ON MARS and it appeared in PRO SE PRESENTS #19: SUMMER 2013. It’s about the misadventures of Vonnie, a teenage girl who isn’t at all happy when her parents move to Mars. It seems to be a popular story, particularly with youngsters, and will come out soon in a version illustrated by the award-winning fantasy artist, Morgan Fitzsimons. She did the covers for WITH AMBER TEARS and the e-book, THE DRAGON, FLY.