J F Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers, dark fantasy, and crime. We are talking about Tomb Of Relics, her twelfth book in her best-selling Arkane series. The series has been likened to Dan Brown’s thrillers and it’s got all the popular themes: relics of power, international locations, and adventure with an edge of the supernatural.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today on Binge Reading J F – Joanna – talks about her attraction to dark mystery and being a successful author in the 21st century.
Of course as usual we have a free book giveaway – this week is Out of Time Mysteries and Thriller Giveaway: https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/2pNOBFed21srn5v1aNfU
If you’d like enjoy the show and would like to thank us for all our work, support us by buying me a cup of coffee at buymeacoffee.com/jennywheelX
Links mentioned in this episode:
Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code: https://danbrown.com/
Anne Rice: http://annerice.com/
Sandra Bullock movie like Romancing the Stone: The Lost City: https://screenrant.com/lost-city-romancing-stone-similar-different/
Mick Herron: https://www.mickherron.com/
Daniel Silva: Portrait of An Unknown Woman: https://danielsilvabooks.com/
John Connolly: Charlie Parker series: https://www.johnconnollybooks.com/
Mick Herron: https://www.mickherron.com/
St Cuthbert’s Way: https://www.stcuthbertsway.info/
Where to find J F Penn:
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Thriller Author
Podcaster. Speaker. Award-winning Entrepreneur.
Get your FREE Successful Author Blueprint: www.TheCreativePenn.com
Love Books and Travel? www.BooksAndTravel.page
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to the show notes in The Joys of Binge Reading.com for important mentions.
But now, here’s Joanna.
Introducing thriller author JF Penn
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Joanna, and welcome to the show. It’s fabulous to have you with us
J F Penn: Thanks so much, Jenny. I’m thrilled to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: You are really well known for your work in the non-fiction area with your podcast, The Creative Penn, but today we are talking about the other 50% of your career, maybe even 60%, your fiction writing, which doesn’t often get quite so much attention.
You are an award nominated New York Times and USA Today best-selling author. You combine genres, multi genre books, which are thrillers, dark fantasy and crime – something that sometimes the trad publishers aren’t quite so keen on because they don’t know where to put them on the shelf, but you have just published your 12th book in your Arkane series, Tomb of Relics.
When you started out, did you appreciate that you were tackling this as a multi-genre and that it might get a little bit complicated as you went along?
J F Penn: I think when you start writing a story, you write the story you are interested in. My Arkane series was sort of shaped by the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code era, back in the day. It seems a long time now, but essentially I love the Da Vinci Code and I have a degree in Theology and I love thrillers. I was working in Australia at the time, miserable in my day job, and I would read these religious and historical Arkane-type thrillers back then, and that’s what I decided to write.
Action thriller with a supernatural edge
The Arkane series is action, adventure, thriller, but has this supernatural edge and is based on religious history and religious myth, but it’s set in the modern day, so it is all the things I love in one action adventure series. I also love explosion movies. I’ve always loved James Bond and Lara Croft and adventures like that, so I wanted to put everything I loved into one series.
It’s funny though, those of us who write action adventure, especially with a female protagonist, have been told so many times that action adventure is a dead genre. But recently there was a movie with Sandra Bullock that came out, a bit like Romancing the Stone. Do you remember that movie?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, yes.
J F Penn: I actually think it might be coming round again. I heard Anne Rice say this, Anne Rice the vampire writer, who’s dead now, but she would say that every genre comes around again. It’s all cyclical in that people love what they love and then the mainstream rediscovers it. It has been 15 years since Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, so I’m going to be well ready for when that comes around again.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s terrific. Tomb of Relics features a supernatural relic, a thousand year old conspiracy, and a man who turns death into art. It’s quite creepy in parts. You have talked quite freely on the podcast. You mentioned that you are quite drawn to the darker side of life. You love to haunt cemeteries and that kind of thing. I wondered if you found it a bit of a struggle sometimes not to get too dark and morbid and how you struck the balance there.
Desecration – a darker crime trilogy
J F Penn: My crime series Desecration is the first of that one. That is a darker crime trilogy at the moment, although it will probably turn into a longer series, and I do tackle much darker subjects in there. There might be a serial killer, it does go into that kind of thing, but it’s so funny because I do read a lot of horror. I never watch horror. I don’t like it visually, but I read a lot of horror and I love that genre mainly because it’s not about the monsters. It’s about the people who fight the monsters and in the end it’s good triumphing over evil.
That is a theme that runs through all my fiction. What I always come back to is things can be really dark but good will triumph in the end, and if it doesn’t, it’s not the end. Especially in the last few years with the pandemic, we all have difficult times and it’s nice to write about triumphing over difficult times, whatever they may be.
I’ve always been fascinated with demons and the supernatural. Not ghosts. You mentioned graveyards. I don’t haunt graveyards at night. I tend to go around them in the daytime with my camera. I love art and architecture and I love the peace of cemeteries and the old stone architecture. Especially here in the UK, we’ve got some beautiful graveyards and cemeteries.
I don’t feel like it is overwhelming darkness, but that I’m writing about the light in the darkness. That’s how I end all my books. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that good wins in my fiction.
Good always wins in the end
Jenny Wheeler: No, it’s probably an encouragement to people. It’s a bit like the HEA in romance, isn’t it? The Happy Ever After.
J F Penn: Yes, exactly. That’s what people come back to things for, isn’t it? As I say, I like to read the darker books. We all have our favorites, and I don’t read, I don’t write graphic violence. It’s more that things make you think deeper about death for example, like desecration is about, what is the meaning of our physical bodies after death?
When you go into a medical museum and there are body parts in jars, and I went to one of these medical museums and I was like, that’s just weird because when I’m dead I think that my physical body shouldn’t go in a jar. But why would I worry, because I’m dead.
It was this questioning of, why do we care so much about what happens to this physical self after death? That was where I started, and then I wrote a murder mystery around the history of medical anatomy, but it was a modern day detective story. So yes, I get my ideas from darker things but, as I said, good triumphs.
Jenny Wheeler: Your key protagonist is a woman called Dr. Morgan Sierra. She’s a clinical psychologist but she’s got a kick ass aspect as well, because she trained with the Israeli Defence Force at one stage, so she’s perfectly capable of looking after herself.
How is the author similar to her hero?
You have mentioned a couple of times that Morgan is quite similar to yourself in some ways. I perhaps wouldn’t go quite so far as to say she’s an alter ego, but she also has this fascination with the space between science and theology that you share.
Can you give us a little bit of a wrap up? What kinds of ways do you think you are similar to Morgan, and what ways would you say you’re really quite different?
J F Penn: In terms of the difference, you mentioned the IDF, the Israeli Defence Force, and I clearly have no military background. She does kill people. She is like a secret agent with the Arkane Agency, and I haven’t done that. She’s also really good at Krav Maga, which is this Israeli marshal art.
When I started to write her, I was like, I should become a Krav Maga expert. You can go along to these classes, so I went along to a class and essentially I came home after that lying on my couch, crying in pain. I said to my husband, I am never doing that again. I love watching, I watch these YouTube videos when I write my fight scenes, and there are some brilliant female Krav Maga fighters, and so I choreograph my fight scenes. But I can’t do that.
So I definitely don’t have the physical skill she does, or that experience, obviously. But she has my mind in terms of, a lot of the things she thinks are the things I think about religion. She questions. I’m not a Christian. I call myself a seeker or someone who’s interested in spiritual things, but I’m not religious in any way. My interest in religion comes through in the books, and my interest in the supernatural.
The magic pull of religious relics
I’m just questioning, what more is in the world that we can’t see? How does that happen in the world, and also how these spiritual places have some kind of resonance. So, Tomb of Relics, and Crypt of Bone particularly is also about religious relics. I love religious relics, again body parts of saints that people think have magical powers. This is a so-called mainstream religion that has an arm bone in a jar or a vial of blood or whatever. It is quite creepy when you think about it in that way.
So, yes, Morgan’s questions about religion, about why historical places have such resonance. Also, a lot of her travels are based on my travels, which is why I’ve struggled quite a lot with the pandemic. All those books are based on places I’ve been, and I ran out of places to write about. Tomb of Relics opens in Canterbury where I visited during the pandemic, but I had to write about places like Cologne, where I haven’t been, so I did a lot of research online.
It feels like I need to get out there in the world again so I can write more Morgan stories. The Desecration, Delirium and Deviance, my crime thrillers, are based in the UK, so that’s fine. Then Map of Shadows, that is a fantasy series, opens in Bath where I live, but it’s set in this alternate world as well. So I write based on where I travel, but also things I make up as well.
Inspired by locations JF Penn likes to visit
Jenny Wheeler: Location is a real key for you, isn’t it? It’s an inspiration. The first book in this series opens along the Ganges with the funeral pyres. You said you felt so inspired by going there that you wanted to use a scene in a book from that particular place and that particular atmosphere that was there.
J F Penn: I’ve been to India several times. When I was there, I think it was 2006, I went to Varanasi, which is a holy city. If you die in Varanasi, you can escape the cycle of reincarnation. That’s why a lot of people go there to die. They have these burning ghats where they burn the bodies on these pyres. The way death is treated in that city is so alien to British people, and New Zealanders I think as well. We don’t burn bodies on open pyres. We just don’t do that.
Jenny Wheeler: No, definitely not.
J F Penn: It’s absolutely fascinating. Obviously you can feel like it’s some kind of scene from hell with all the smoke billowing and the fire at night. I went out on a boat and sat off shore, because it’s a holy place too. It’s a very spiritual place, but equally it’s very physical. There are bodies being burned and flames and smoke, and it smells. So it’s this incredibly human place and also an incredibly spiritual place. That’s what I like to write about in my books – this combination of places that are both physical and spiritual in some way, and that dichotomy.
Stories set in Europe have strong appeal
Depending on the way you look at things can make a real difference in a place. I am definitely inspired by places. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I had to move back from Australia and New Zealand. I lived over there for 11 years, and I found all the stories I wanted to write were mainly set in Europe because I wanted that historical background.
Varanasi is thousands and thousands of years old, and I write a lot about Israel, I write a lot about European places, ancient places that have had humans doing things in them for millennia. And the cathedrals and things we have here. It’s interesting. I go to places and then I find stories. That’s how it works.
Jenny Wheeler: How are you progressing with the pandemic? Are you getting to the point where you can resume travel pretty much freely as you did two years ago?
J F Penn: The main issue is of course, as I mentioned to you before we started recording, my husband is a New Zealander, so obviously the first thing we had to do was come to New Zealand, which is what we did as soon as we could, and then ended up in quarantine and a lot of the restrictions.
Jenny Wheeler: I know. That was pretty awful.
Pandemic trip was ‘pretty awful’
J F Penn: It was pretty awful. Also, as you know, it’s a pretty expensive trip from the UK at the moment, and my husband’s just come back again, so that’s been our main travel. My whole family is very international so we’ve all been traveling to see family, but I hope to get back into the traveling for research. I’m walking the Camino de Santiago, the Portuguese route, in September 2022, so depending on when this goes out.
Jenny Wheeler: I think it will be September.
J F Penn: Oh, there we go. I might be walking. My pictures will be on Instagram at J F Penn Author if people are interested. Stone of Fire, interestingly, Santiago de Compostela because it’s based around the relics of the apostles and some stones they may or may not have had. And of course the relics of St. James are at Santiago de Compostela, so I wrote about that cathedral way back then. That book came out in 2011 and now I’m actually going to be going there, so I’m pretty excited about that.
Jenny Wheeler: I did want to mention the book you co-wrote with J. Thorn that has got a very strong New Zealand component called Risen Gods. It’s a contemporary New Zealand story but it’s got a tsunami that awakens ancient and deadly powers, quite a Maori presence in it. Tell us about that one. I think it was written on a train if I remember rightly because I was listening to your podcast at the time.
J F Penn: No, that was a different one. That was Authors on a Train.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, sorry. Yes.
A volcanic eruption on the Pacific rim?
J F Penn: I’m sure you remember 2011, the Christchurch earthquake that pretty much destroyed a lot of Christchurch there in the South Island. Some very dear friends to whom the book is dedicated, their house was destroyed, they lost everything and ended up moving to Tauranga in the end.
At the time I remember I was in Australia and I saw the news and it was just devastating. Living in New Zealand, and I lived there for six or seven years, you’re very aware of the volcanic Pacific rim of fire and Tongariro. You feel the presence of volcanoes. Also, I’ve always been very interested in Maori mythology and the stories, and so the premise was, what if that earthquake and the resulting tsunami and then volcanic eruptions are basically the Maori gods arising and they’re like, humans are not looking after this country. We’re going to take it back.
These friends, Ben and Lucy – Ben is a young Maori man and Lucy a young Pakeha woman. They get separated and have to find each other again and stop the stop the risen gods. Can they prove that they can look after the country, but they have to fight a lot of mythical creatures along the way.
I co-wrote that with J. Thorn. It’s urban fantasy/edge of horror, I guess. I did have a Maori man read it as what we call now a sensitivity reader to make sure that it was acceptable to the culture. But I’m really glad I wrote that. We have a map in the front of the book which is basically, as they travel the country it’s got all the different creatures from Maori myth that come out and attack them. It’s just a fun, dark fantasy adventure, but based on my love of New Zealand and some of the wonderful places that there are.
A travel podcast for adventurers
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. For people who are interested in that international and travel aspect of your fiction, I’d like to mention your podcast that you’ve started in recent times called Books and Travel. That focuses on traveling, places you’ve been and how they link in with your fiction, doesn’t it?
J F Penn: Yes. The timing was pretty bad. I started Books and Travel a little bit before the pandemic, but actually it’s always wonderful to talk to other writers about the places that inspire their books as well. I do talk to a lot of travel writers and it’s been a bit of vicarious travel for me, but also it gives me ideas for places.
The people who listen to that Books and Travel podcast all have a bit of wanderlust in their soul, so I do that as a sort of passion project, I guess. Recently I’ve been talking to people who’ve walked that pilgrimage, the Camino, so it’s sort of research too.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. Switching back to the Arkane series for a moment, tell us the direction that it’s going in now. Morgan is taking a little bit of a break, is she, or was that just for one book? What’s happening with Morgan?
End of Days is an ‘apocalyptic’ book
J F Penn: She was going to take a break a while back, I think at the end of End of Days. The thing is, I’ve written 12 and obviously people get injured along the way. At the end of End of Days she got injured. End of Days is a sort of apocalyptic book, and she got injured so she was resting at the beginning of Valley of Dry Bones, which was book 10, and Jake heads off to America.
But then she has to come back. I couldn’t leave her alone for too long. At the end of Tomb of Relics the hook is into Vienna. I won’t go too much into it, but I’ve committed to Vienna as an opening for the next book, but I really want to go to Vienna before I write that book. I’m not a plotter or a planner. I’m what they call a discovery writer, and what happens is, if I go to Vienna, I will find a story.
That’s how it works for me. I can’t sit down and go, right, what is the story? In fact, Lee Child with Jack Reacher talked about this, when Lee Child used to write Jack Reacher. His brother writes now, but he would sit down and the story would start and then it would just carry on and that’s what happened.
I’m the same. I need to sit down and then write and that’s what happens. I can’t plan it in advance, it just kind of happens. So, Morgan and Jake will be going to Vienna and there will be something there. That’s part of the reason we write, for the fun of discovery. I don’t think I could do it if I wasn’t interested in what might happen.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to your wider career, one question I like to ask everyone, is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career, more than any other, that you see as the secret of your success?
Steady does it – full time writing since 2011
J F Penn: I was at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last week and we were talking about this. So many people we see come into writing and then disappear. I’ve been a full-time writer since 2011, so over a decade as we record this. I started writing in 2006, seriously, for publication, so 15 years now doing this and I think that’s the secret. I’ve never had a breakout success. I’ve never had a huge payday. It’s just all been a career, I guess what they call a mid-list career, which is not a blazing star, but a lot of those blazing stars blaze out.
I think persistence and putting enough pressure on yourself to continue writing, but not putting so much pressure that you give up because it’s too hard. I see a lot of writers go both ways. It’s kind of ironic. Some of the people who have the greatest success with their first book disappear because that never happens again. Those of us who start at a lower level can be consistent for years because there are up days, there are down days, but we love the writing.
The secret for a long term career is to keep going and write what you love. I started writing because I hated my job and so I never want to get to that point with what I do. If I hate my job, then I should go and get another job, but I’m still happy in this one.
What is JF Penn reading now?
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Joanna as reader, because it is the Binge Reading podcast, and I like to get suggestions for our listeners for other things they might like to try out. Are you a binge reader, and in terms of your leisure reading, what do you like to read?
J F Penn: I read all the time. I read every day and in fact, talking of binge reading, I have just done a typical binge. There’s a series on Apple TV right now called Slow Horses.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, yes, Mick Herron. I haven’t seen it.
J F Penn: Mick Herron, right. I was like, that doesn’t look like my thing, but I will watch it. So we watched this series and I was like, I love it, and so I went to Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series and I basically binged the whole lot. I finished book eight the other day. I read them all in the last month, and at the Harrogate Festival, I got a selfie with him and I got a signed book, because I’d never even really heard of him before.
Jenny Wheeler: How cool.
J F Penn: Now I’m like, oh my gosh, I love this series. It’s funny because it’s not what I normally would have picked up, but I absolutely loved it. It’s very voicey. His writing is not politically correct at all. It’s brilliant.
Mick Herron, Daniel Silva, John Connolly
The other book I just read is Portrait of an Unknown Women by Daniel Silva. Daniel Silva is again one of the authors who shaped me. He writes an Israeli secret agent who is also a restorer of ancient paintings. I just read his latest in that series, I think it’s book 22 or something.
John Connolly’s books – his latest one, The Furies, is coming out soon. It’s the books I pre-order. The Charlie Parker series is a supernatural detective series that’s on book 20. I have these authors who I am a long term fan of, and I have those books on pre-order.
I know as a writer how annoying it is to have a reader who binges the whole series and then says, where’s the next one? With Mick, it’s taken him quite a long time to write eight books in that series, and I’m like, where’s the next one? Of course we read so much faster than writers can write. You know this, you are a writer. Anyway, those are some of the authors I really like.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. This is partly why I called the show The Joys of Binge Reading, because I remember in my student days, you accepted that you were going to have to wait at least another year for your favorite author to do something. Now we can go online and buy the next book, if they’ve got a back list, at midnight and finish it by midnight the next day. It’s a completely different environment, isn’t it?
J F Penn: It is, and that’s where I’ve seen a lot of authors flame out. They try and keep up with readers and you literally cannot keep up with readers.
Jenny Wheeler: Circling around and looking back down the tunnel of time, if you could have the ability to change anything about your career and the way things have gone, what would it be?
What do JF Penn’s next 12 months look like?
J F Penn: I’m never one for regrets, to be honest. I take opportunity as it comes. I write the things I want to write and I do the things I want to do. Obviously I work hard, but no, there’s nothing I would change. I’m not someone who ever thinks that way.
Jenny Wheeler: What do the next 12 months look like for you as a writer? What have you got on your desk for the next little while?
J F Penn: In terms of my writing, I’m doing this Camino walk in September and that is going to be a memoir, because it’s a trilogy of pilgrimages. This is my third pilgrimage. I did the Pilgrims Way, the St Cuthbert’s Way, and this is the Camino de Santiago. You understand, being a woman in her midlife and going for really long walks.
This is a memoir, so I’m writing a midlife, pilgrimage memoir. Pilgrimage, given that I’m not religious, is an interesting angle and it does in a way tie into my fiction because the question of religion and faith and all of that will come into it. I think people who are interested in religion and that kind of thing, might be interested in that.
But then, as I said, I definitely want to get to Vienna this winter. Vienna is amazing in the winter, apparently, so I’m planning to get there to start researching the next Arkane novel. I’ve also got these two other books that I’m toying with at the moment, that are standalone, so I’m at this point I want to commit to a fiction project, but I don’t know which one to commit to.
The memoir is number one on the list
Of course, we all want to write all the books, but as you know, it’s about the time to do this. I’m still wrestling with which one I want to commit to, because I can’t write multiple books at the same time. I don’t know about you, but I need to choose and commit to that one, because you do a lot of research as well, don’t you?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes I do, but I try to do it as I write, not spend months beforehand because you don’t quite know what you need until you start writing. In a sense, that’s my discovery journey. I’m just starting this new book. I did quite a bit of plotting, I think I probably do a bit more outlining than you do, but because I’ve put it on the side for the last couple of weeks with being overwhelmed by the podcast, I’ve lost my way with it a little bit.
I got back into it yesterday and started thinking about how I was going to start it, and I immediately wanted to get the location really clear in my head. This is San Francisco in 1870. Where are the most important buildings and that sort of thing? I sat here with a 3d map, plotting exactly where these events would take place and what the major building would be up the street and that kind of thing.
I don’t want to do that in advance until I know this is a scene I need to write. What do I want to have in it? A bit like you in a way, except not going so easily to the places.
Memoir writing a new experience
Have you written any of those memoirs yet, or are you going to do the three of them? You will have taken masses of notes, but have you sat down and started writing that at all?
J F Penn: I’ve got about 35,000 words, and I understand the themes of what I want to write so I’ve got a lot of it. But what tends to happen on a pilgrimage is you learn something every time, and the gifts of pilgrimage come later. So I’m expecting to have this draft ready, and then go and do my final Camino and then for everything to change, depending on what happens on that trip.
I’ve not written a memoir before, so it’s quite interesting. It’s funny because if people read my Arkane thrillers, Morgan’s thoughts and a lot of my experiences are in her history, so some of these will come up again within a memoir in a different form, as it actually happened to me. I have put a lot of my experiences into my fiction. I often feel that my fiction is very honest, the truth behind the fiction, kind of thing.
Well, all memoirs are trying to be honest about a particular stage of life or particular journey, so it’s very interesting to write something so different. I’m trying to use the idea of a story, obviously in a journey, as a pilgrimage is. It has a beginning and a middle and an end, so yes, it’s an interesting project, but I want to get that done and finished because it’s a promise.
Where to find JF Penn online
When I had COVID really badly, I was lying in bed going, if I die, I will really regret not walking the Camino de Santiago, and so I booked it. I was like, right, I’m going to do it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for decades. And so I was like, right, I’m going to book it, I’m going to go and fulfill that promise to myself because we never know, do we, when it’s the end.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right, and I suspect there’s going to be another non-fiction book, the art of writing memoir, somewhere there too.
J F Penn: I’m not sure about that. I think you have to write quite a lot of books before you can write a book. I mean, I just wrote how to write a novel and I’ve written 17 novels. I don’t think I’ve got 17 memoirs in me.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you enjoy hearing from your readers? I know you do because you get lots of feedback on your podcast. It’s lovely. Where can they find you online?
J F Penn: For my fiction, I’m at www.jfpenn.com. Jo Francis Penn is my name. For writers, www.thecreativepenn.com. My books are available in all the usual places. The best place on social media is Twitter @The Creative Penn. As I mentioned, I put my travel photos on Instagram @ JF Penn Author, and all those links are on the websites.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. We’ll have all the links in the show notes as well. It has been fantastic talking today, Joanna. Thank you so much, and when we publish this we’ll be thinking of you on that trail.
J F Penn: Thanks so much for having me, Jenny. That was great.
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Next week on Binge Reading
Kiwi-based mystery author Fiona Leitch and her Nosey Parker A Cornish Recipe For Murder mystery series. A London police officer switches careers and retreats to a small English village to reinvent herself as a chef – but she can’t seem to avoid solving crime. We’ll be discussing the latest book, A Cornish Recipe For Murder, where Jodie enters a Great Bake Off show, so lots of food features. Next week.
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