Dead Head Reviews (DHR): J. Askew, thank you so much for joining us today. Your first short stories were published in September, with your eighth coming in January – most are sci-fi/horror, so what draws you to those genres?
J. Askew (JA): Sometimes I feel like sci-fi and horror are the only genres that can move me, make me feel. Sci-fi has always pushed boundaries, always used elements to help us understand the world a little better, and shone a light on things that are holding us back as a human race currently. I’ve had a career in science and tech PR so I’ve seen first-hand the advances that are happening behind the scenes. Sci-fi shows us that we can create a utopia, make it work, make it diverse, but also we’ve still got that basic human instinct that screw these things up – there’s your story.
Also, I want a superpower.
DHR: The PR career must come in handy with research! You’ve been published through some interesting publications, is there anything you particularly look for, when approaching publishers for your stories?
JA: Representation is key. I often scroll through publishers and tot up how many underrepresented writers they publish. If I see a long-line of clearly white-male middle-class authors, it’s a turn off, for me as a writer, and also as a reader. I’m from Eastern European heritage, an LGBTQ+ working class woman – I’ve got shit to say and I want a platform that champions those voices.
I also like publishers who give back to charity, like TL; DR, who recently released their sci-fi collection, Beneath Strange Stars, and the profits all go to the ASE who promote education in STEM subjects. My short time-travel space-lesbian story, The Einsteiners, appears in this collection.
Also – a good website! Visually, I want my work to be represented in a way that helps the reader engage. Ash Tales is an apocalyptic short story publication, and although they don’t have the readership of say, Fantasy and Science Fiction mag, their website is lovely and slick, making it easier for readers to take in your words.
DHR: It’s great that you look for those sort of things, and good to see publishers working to give back, too. When did you start writing fiction?
JA: I used to live in California (at the start of last decade!) and whilst out there I studied under a great fiction writer, Paul Eggers. I doubt he’ll remember that British blonde who snuck into his class until she was given an actual place on the course, but he really inspired me by believing in my work. I wrote a few bits and bobs back then but was then thrust into a London career in science and tech marketing and PR copy-writing and I lost myself a little (for many years).
I also had a music career playing folk and country, guitar and banjo, alongside my day-job, singing my sad songs all across London, but I realised it was stories I wanted to tell, and the medium of song was too short for me.
When I made it to the top of my career ladder, and into a role where I was in charge of the PR of a very elite brand, it was like a smack in the face. How can a working-class bisexual woman from the Midlands ever fit in here? I couldn’t be myself. A PR career makes you act like someone else, for the sake of your clients.
I went to a therapist, okay… several therapists, and discovered I had been repressing a huge part of myself – my imagination. A song lyric from British folk artist, Johnny Flynn, plagued me – “Pray for the people inside your head, because they won’t be there when you’re dead.” It occurred to me that I had characters that I loved more than a lot of real people, inside my mind who would never be born, never live, unless I made them live. I had to do something about it, not for me, but for them.
I left my job, took four months off and started writing my debut, Green Again in Autumn 2018 and finished the final manuscript in Autumn 2019. I went back to work but only part-time, working as a freelance copy-writer and that has given me the space and time I needed to grow as a writer, and more than anything – I am finally happy.
I suffer from OCD, which is a condition blanketed in falsities. Most people see OCD as germaphobes, but mine is very different. I become obsessed with things, specifically time and patterns. I time everything and I have an order to everything – if I do something in the wrong order, I have to start all over again. Becoming an author has taught me that I’m not ill, I’ve got a super power that keeps me on track and helps me navigate the world of writing. I see things very differently, and am able to channel creativity into productivity, so in spite of what my doctor says, I am thankful to have this condition. This is why a lot of my characters are neurodiverse or have mental health issues.
When Green Again went off to my team of very talented beta readers and fantastic editor, Ella Chappell, I started writing short stories so I wouldn’t get stale. That’s when my mind kinda exploded with writing and I couldn’t stop. A year later, I have written 18 short stories, 8 of which have found homes in great magazines, a complete ready-to-go dystopian horror manuscript which I am looking for representation for currently, and a first draft of my sexy crime space opera which I cannot wait to release into the world.
So, in conclusion, I started writing seriously at the end of 2018 and it has been the best year of my life.
DHR: It’s a really interesting way to come to writing, and fingers crossed your other stories find homes soon. Are there any particular influences for your stories?
JA: Music. I was brought up in a Blues household listening to all the classics. I had a guitar in my arms from a young age, and surrounded myself with music. When I listen to a song, I’m like, what next? Music takes me somewhere else, a new planet, a mad spaceship, a broken Earth, and when I’m there, the stories come.
Women also inspire me. We have been traditionally underrepresented in horror and sci-fi for so long but I see so many women authors out there writing incredible fiction, and I would love to count myself as one of them and aim to work hard to get to the top of the game and represent us lasses.
DHR: That’s fantastic, and music is definitely a great source of inspiration. What do you tend to start with when writing a story – do you think of character first, or something else?
JA: It’s usually a scene. I never plan my endings or twists, I just get there and go ‘what if this happens now?’ Sometimes I start with a conversation and let it happen in my head like I’m watching the characters on screen. It never feels like I’m making it up, it feels like I’m watching it unfold.
DHR: What does a typical writing day look like for you?
JA: I’m an early bird. I get up before the sun most days, grab a coffee (or ten) snuggle down in bed (despite me having a lush antique writing desk), let my two cats come find a spot between me and my laptop, and write. I don’t stop unless I have written 1500 words. Music is very key to me so if I’m writing, it’s fast country or something cinematic. If I’m editing, then I slow it down and put on some ballads. Each type of work I write has its own playlist.
I get so buzzed if I’ve done a good day of writing, so that feeling is what I strive for. I want to feel like that after every day of writing. I am so hard on myself, but as I’m at the start of my career, I feel like I need to be. The more pain and effort I put in now, the better my future as an author will be.
DHR: It’s always good to have a routine, and I bet the cats are great company. Many of your stories, though set in different places and on different planets, feel like they’re all linked – part of the same world. Was that intentional when you started writing?
JA: Yes. World building is very key to me. I have a very precise view of what the future looks like and I want everything to link in, just in case, one day, maybe, probably not, my works get really popular and my readers can go through my back catalogue and read more about the world I’ve created.
DHR: Out of your published stories, do you have a particular favourite?
JA: My short story, Bulletproof, was recently turned into a podcast by Hawk and Cleaver’s The Other Stories. It had always been my favourite. It was so fun to write. The twist in the ending came so organically that it seemed so real to me. Hawk and Cleaver did such a good job in bringing the story to life and I could hardly believe I wrote the story. The narration was perfect, the sound effects made me scared, I really rate their production techniques. The emotion they portray through their story-telling is world-class.
DHR: It is a great production and I highly recommend it to our readers. Besides the world of fiction, any other hobbies or interests you particularly enjoy?
JA: I still write songs, often about my characters in my work. It gives me that bit of empathy I need to create characters on the page.
But I am a huge nature nerd. I didn’t have many friends growing up, but I always had a reference book and miles of woodland to lose myself in. I still do that today. I hike, get lost in the woods, forage wild foods etc. Part of this inspired Green Again, and most of my inspiration for this novel came from those deep dark woods.
DHR: Songs seem like such a great way to get into a character’s head. Do you have a favourite sci-fi franchise?
JA: The hardest question so far! My favourite franchise throughout my life has been Star Wars, and ultimately, my heart will always belong to that universe, but let’s bring Firefly back okay? We didn’t get enough, we can never get enough, please give us more. Kaleigh is the ultimate sci-fi female to me, mechanic, quite boyish, but hell, she knows she’s a woman and isn’t trying to be anything else.
Other more recent franchises that have captured my heart have been The Orville (everyone needs to watch this) as it’s the most human, genuine space opera out there. Netflix’s reboot of Star Trek is incredible too. Anything with a strong woman protagonist in it like The OA, Dark Crystal, Disenchantment, and Final Space makes me feel so fulfilled, makes me emotional. I remember being a kid and not having kick-ass women (barring Carrie Fisher) to look up to. Now, we have so many brilliant ones – always room for more though!
DHR: Yes to bringing Firefly back! What would be your ultimate writing goal, if you have one?
JA: I want to make people feel the way other writers and creatives have made me feel throughout my life. That shock feeling when reading Game of Thrones, that feeling of awe and wonder when Luke Skywalker looks out across Tatooine, the feeling of belonging when a team comes together like in Firefly or The Dark Crystal, all I want is to give back, be one of those people who creates something like this, to make readers feel that powerful pull towards something. Also I want a Netflix series based on something I’ve written – no big ask.
DHR: Hopefully someone at Netflix is reading this. Is there anything you’re working on at the moment you can tell us about?
JA: Currently, my debut, Green Again, is out there looking for representation. I want to find the right agent to put it in front of the right publishers, but I can’t not write whilst I’m doing the submission rounds… so in the past two months I have miraculously pulled a space opera out of my butt which I have now started editing. It is very different to the emotional journey of Green Again, and has been a breath of fresh air to write.
The Hollow Way is set on a prison spaceship and follows prison guard, Wren Novak, as she tries to make a better life for her son by volunteering to track down the galaxy’s most notorious killer, the Nova Ripper. As in true J. Askew style, there is a twist.
DHR: Sounds fantastic, can’t wait to read it. Anyone you’d like to give a shout-out to?
JA: So many people. There are three that stick out straight away but of course, thank you to all the readers, and publishers that gave my writing a chance.
My Mum. She is my first reader. She reads all my short-stories, rings me straight after she’s finished them with her instant reaction. She’s so easily pleased that it gives me the instant gratification I need to make sure I don’t doubt myself. She believes in me. She still can’t understand why I don’t have a Netflix series yet though…
Dead Head’s own Elle Turpitt. I e-met Elle in the summer, hired her for beta reading, and she has been a source of inspiration, advice and editing since. When I’m writing now, I think, ‘would Elle like this?’ or ‘I can’t wait to get this over to Elle’. She keeps me going, keeps me believing in my own bullshit.
My partner. They have to put up with so much crap from me like when I zone out because I just went to another planet in my mind. They are my rock, my muse, and my teammate. They have such a tough job as a junior doctor in a crumbling NHS and offer me the best advice when dealing with medical issues in my fiction. “Darling, can you get decapitated with persistent shotgun fire?”
And finally, to all the amazing women in science and technology. I’ll be walking the path you pave to the future.
DHR: Firstly, thanks for the shoutout to me (I am honoured as hell!) and thanks so much for your time!
J. Askew enjoys exploring mental health issues, sexual identity, and disability through sci-fi and horror. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and aims to be a leading female author in her genres. Her debut novel, Green Again, which explores mental health and neurodiverse people at the end of the world, is currently in editing and will be doing the submission rounds shortly. In the meantime she is enjoying writing short stories that show the strength of those with alternate needs in a sci-fi or horror setting. She is a member of the LGBTQ community and identifies as bisexual.
You can follow J. Askew on:
Author’s Website: www.jaskewauthor.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B07Z91JGNC
Interview conducted by Elle Turpitt