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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

Interview with A.J. West


Over the summer, I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of The Spirit Engineer, a beautifully written historical fiction, inspired by the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and the medium Kathleen Goligher. Set in Belfast in the years following the sinking of the Titanic, this tale of spiritualism and scepticism is the perfect read for the season.


Author A.J. West became captivated by William and Kathleen’s story whilst in Belfast and set about researching the true events behind what would eventually form the basis of his wonderful novel. The road to publication is always one I am fascinated by, and AJ very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his own experiences on that journey, as a debut novelist.


For anyone out there who writes, or creates in any form really, you know just how much of yourself you invest in it. From chatting with A.J. and reading through the research on his website (www.ajwestauthor.com which I can heartily recommend you visit!), it is incredibly clear to me just how much of himself he has invested in bringing William’s story to life. The Spirit Engineer is a truly remarkable piece of historical fiction, and I’d like to thank A.J. for giving us this glimpse behind the veil of creating it.


First up, your debut novel is out soon on 7th October. Exciting! How are you feeling? I'm feeling very grateful to those people supporting me and encouraging me on and yes, excited about the unknown because I really don't know how the book will do. Apparently, we've got some great buzz and pre-sales but I've got nothing to compare it to so I'm just trying to trust the experts and carry on putting my heart and soul into everything in the hope it pays off.


Overall, I'm trying my best to appreciate the fact that I've managed to achieve something massive that's been a lifelong dream. There was a point when I thought I would never be published and I have to keep reminding myself what a difficult journey it's been. I have to make sure I remember that being a published author with so many supportive readers is an extremely special thing to treasure no matter what the future has in store.


What has been your favourite part of the journey so far? Definitely the moment Duckworth offered a publishing deal. I didn't have an agent and I sent them the manuscript expecting to hear nothing back. When they emailed offering to publish the book I slid off the sofa to my knees, dropped my phone and burst into tears. I know that sounds dramatic but after losing my job at the BBC, going on Big Brother, scraping by for three years, working an extremely tough job and trying to write a story at the same time... I had reached a point of exhaustion and was quietly trying to accept that I would always be a failed novelist. My husband thought something awful had happened but I managed to show him my phone and he gave me a big hug because he'd seen how hard I'd been fighting for so long to write the story.


Other than that, there have been many amazing moments, from seeing the cover for the first time, getting 750 orders from Goldsboro Books, producing and editing the audiobook myself and sharing my trailer with my blogger friends, but probably the most amazing thing this year has been Jodie Whittaker, Derren Brown and Patricia Cornwell loving the book and endorsing it. For a debut author with a small publisher, it's pretty incredible to have the support of such extraordinarily accomplished people. I was lucky enough to visit Derren for lunch after sending him a handwritten letter detailing the true story. I was struck by his generosity and wisdom. He gave me some advice which I will hold close as I go through the next few months. Jodie has been a real champion of the book, and it was strange and wonderful to see her holding the novel and enjoying the story. Patricia Cornwell connected with my story on Twitter, entirely out of the blue, and she has been a quiet, positive force in the background ever since.


What has been harder than you expected in the publishing process? I had to choose between my full-time job and my new career as a writer. I couldn't carry on doing both so I'm now effectively unemployed which is mentally and emotionally quite straining and my anxiety levels are pretty high. Unfortunately, the publishing industry has manipulated 'advances' to a point where they no longer serve their original purpose: allowing novelists the security to write books. Having to write an entire manuscript with no financial support or guarantee of income may suit publishers, but it makes it very hard indeed for less well-off writers. I have to hope the effort I put into my book will be appreciated by readers and I'll do just enough to keep myself afloat while I work on book two.


Do you have any advice for those looking to become published authors? I really need to work on my answer to this and I would have a lot to say over a glass of wine but I think one good bit of advice is to build a network online and not just with other authors. As writers, we spend so much time talking to each other on platforms like Twitter, when it's the readers who really matter. If you're passionate about creating and enjoying fiction (and you're a nice, genuine person) then the book blogger world will be right there to support you. By getting an audience and enjoying their feedback, even having a book tour at relatively little expense, you can approach agents and publishers with an existing audience and, almost certainly, a sharper, more characterful writing style informed by feedback from the community. I couldn't have done what I've done without the tireless support, expertise and encouragement I've gained from Vic at @InstaBookTours (www.instabooktours.com)


This is probably my most important question: what are your go-to snacks when you’re writing? (The people love the snacks!)

I don't eat when I write. I go entire days without eating a thing and then end up completely famished. When I'm writing, I'm lost in the story and I just can't think of anything else for hours on end. So no snacking at all I'm afraid! But if I'm not writing, I love nice 'n' spicy Nik Naks and cheddar cheese sandwiches in white bread with really crunchy iceberg lettuce. Oh and have you tried the new M&S cakes in a pot? I had a raspberry jam and icing one last week and it was so amazing it made me cry.


If you could choose only 3 words to describe The Spirit Engineer, what would they be? Enigmatic. Haunting. Unexpected.


The Spirit Engineer is out on 7th October 2021, published by Duckworth Books. You can pre-order from your local bookshop or using the links below:

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