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Interview with A.J. MacKenzie

Written by Ayo Onatade

Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel better known as AJ McKenzie are the authors of The Body on the Doorstep which is the first in the Romney Marsh series.  SHOTS persuaded them to interview each other about writing, relationships and the best and worst thing about writing together.



Morgen: When did you first start writing?


Marilyn: Oh, I started writing when I was a kid. It was mostly music and poetry then, and also some semi-autobiographical stuff, which was not a success. I never managed to hide or disguise the real people in my stories very well, and the autobiographical bits were a lot less interesting written down than they were in my head. What about you?


Morgen: I used to read novels and then try to imitate them. I’d read a Henty novel or a Hornblower story and then sit down and try to write my own version of it. Most of these efforts petered out after about page four. I remember once getting to page 12 and thinking, wow, that’s a lot of writing.


Marilyn: Do you remember the first thing we wrote together?


Morgen: How could I forget? It was huge. It had a cast of thousands: knights, kings, bandits, actors, scholars, cattle thieves, Russian merchants, Mongol warlords, Teutonic crusaders; I get dizzy thinking about it.


Marilyn: It was called Journeys, and we were convinced it was going to make us rich and famous. It’s also one of the things that brought us together, of course.


Morgen: That’s right. Looking back, it was an odd sort of way to start a relationship, wasn’t it?


Marilyn: Well, we’re still here after thirty-eight years, still writing together, so something must have worked. I still believe in Journeys, you know. I still think it will see the light of day.


Morgen: It absolutely will. Back to the present, I have another question for you. We’re often told that writers should “only write about the things they know”. What do you think of that?


Marilyn: I’m not sure I’m very good at writing about the things I know, in the sense of things drawn from my own life. I said earlier that when I tried semi-autobiographical pieces, they never worked very well. You know how we are often asked whether our characters are based on real people? The answer for me is no. There might be some occasional resemblances to real people, but I far prefer to create characters out of whole cloth; I am not very good at camouflaging real people and they would probably get upset if I put them in books.  I like to be able to create a landscape to put my people in, not be limited by what is around me. That is probably why historical novels appeal - they offer greater freedom to interpret places and landscapes. You asked the question; what is your view?


Morgen: Much the same. To write only about what we know would be terribly limiting. For one thing, if we followed that rule, no one would ever be able to write about death. Nor, until time travel is invented, would anyone be able to write about the past. As authors of historical fiction, we’re always going to be writing about places and times we’ve never experienced in person. But that’s half the fun.


Marilyn: Change of topic (as usual from me). Who is your favourite character in The Body on the Doorstep and why?


Morgen: I’m very fond of Amelia Chaytor, our detective widow. There’s so much to her, so many facets; she is full of surprises. I like how we portrayed JMW Turner, too, he works for me and I hope we can bring him back in later books. But my two favourites are Miss Godfrey and Miss Roper, the old ladies who pretend to be batty but are in fact sharp as tacks. I love them to bits.


Marilyn: I think that my favourite is Peter, the spy. He is very cool and calculating and clever, but also with a touch of humanity. Joshua Stemp the fisherman/smuggler is also a bit of a favourite; I suspect he has hidden depths that are not necessarily related to his fishing abilities! I also have a soft spot for Bessie Luckhurst, the daughter of the landlord of the Star Inn; I particularly like her taste in men...


Morgen: I thought you might. Here’s a slightly more serious question. What do you like most about the writing process? Which bit of writing do you most enjoy?


Marilyn: I love the planning. I especially love character development. It is so pleasing to think about a character and almost watch them come to life as you work on them. I used to manage a gallery in Canada that sold pottery, and I got to know a bit about potting. I think creating a character is a bit like making a pot. They grow organically, and you can see the process happening. I also like writing the dialogue and being able to use different voices.


Morgen: My favourite part, I think, is putting the pieces of a story together, working out how it will run, how the different elements will come together to create a whole. My metaphor is music; a good story to me has a strong sense of rhythm and all the different parts flow together like the elements of a symphony. Which is quite odd, because I’m not musical at all. But when I listen to music I often see pictures; and I do the same when we are writing.


Marilyn: Last question. What is the best thing about writing with me, and the worst thing?


Morgen: Gulp. Okay, here goes. The best thing is easy. If I have a problem with something I am working on, I can come to you and ask for help, and you’ll pull a solution out of the air, just like that. Sometimes two or three solutions. It’s amazing, and I don’t know how you do it. The worst? The fact that you keep looking at social media while we’re working together. I don’t know how you can concentrate. It’s just weird. Okay, your turn.


Marilyn: The best thing about you is how open-minded you are. You are really happy to have your ideas examined and looked at critically. If something doesn’t work, you get it immediately, and we put it aside and move on. It makes working with you a pleasure. The worst? The music you listen to while you are writing: Liszt, Dvorak, Sibelius, Smetana, et cetera. It’s too depressing for me. I can’t take all that Central European angst. I need something either mathematical like Bach or Hadyn or something I can sing to.


Morgen: But despite our musical differences, we’ll keep writing together.


Marilyn: Absolutely. The Reverend Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor still have plenty of mysteries still to solve. And there is that history book to finish....



The Body on the Doorstep

A J McKenzie

Zaffre, £18.99  hbk

Published 21 April 2016


Kent, 1796. Smugglers’ boats bring their illicit cargoes of brandy and tobacco from France to land on the beaches of the Channel coast.  Shocked to discover a dying man on his doorstep - and lucky to avoid a bullet himself – our alcoholic Reverend Hardcastle, with a colourful past, finds himself entrusted with the victim's cryptic last words.  Who is the young man? Where did he come from, and who killed him? Why, five minutes later, was a Customs officer shot and killed out on the Marsh? And who are the mysterious group of smugglers known as the Twelve Apostles and why is the leader of the local Customs service so reluctant to investigate?  Ably assisted by the ingenious Mrs Chaytor, Reverend Hardcastle sets out to solve the mystery for himself. But smugglers are not the only ones to lurk off the Kent coast, and the more he discovers, the more he realises he might have bitten off more than he can chew.


You can find more information about them on their website.


You can follow them on Twitter @AJMacKnovels

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