Indie Author Interviews: Michelle Medhat
In April 2019, Michelle Medhat launched her genre-smashing breakthrough novel The Trusted. One year, four books, one novella, and a whirlwind of a story later, she published the finale of the series, The Sum. Michelle has broken down all expectations of genre fiction and created her own unique series that combines the best of the sci-fi, spy fiction, and action thriller worlds. The result is a breath-taking, heart-wrenching, mind-blowing series that is nothing like anything you’ve ever experienced before.
I’ve been lucky enough to edit Michelle’s writing over the last two years and watch her stories develop into this epic series. So it was great to sit down and talk with Mish about her perspective of the journey and how she feels now it has been completed. She gives brilliant insight into the writing process, how to stand out as a writer, and about navigating the intimidating process of indie author marketing.
Hi, Mish! How’re you doing?
Hi there! How are you, alright? Enjoying the sun? (For context, the freckles on my face had significantly multiplied since we last Skyped).
Definitely enjoying the sun. It’s been lovely. Thank you so much for joining us! You’re our second indie author interviewee, which is exciting, for our indie author interviews, which is getting insights, advice, and stories from indie authors.
Absolutely. Fantastic. Thank you very much indeed. I’m very, very happy to be here.
Great. I’m happy that you’re here too. So, let’s get started talking about your Trusted Thriller Series. That’s been a big project for you. Why did you start writing it?
I started writing it because I’ve always loved spy fiction.
I grew up on Ian Fleming and John le Carré and Robert Ludlum type stuff. And I just loved it. But I also love Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and all those giants of sci-fi. And I wanted to bring those two elements together. And I thought, well, I can do this with a vehicle that merges political espionage with metaphysical sci-fi. So not the space-opera-type stuff, you know. Not shooting things in space and all that. It’s not like that at all. It’s totally different. It’s very interdimensional. You don’t feel like you’re in sci-fi at all. It’s actually quite political. But I wanted to do something like this because, to be quite honest, as far as I can see, it hasn’t been done before. But there is a wide audience of people who love sci-fi, who love metaphysical sci-fi, and also like spy fiction. So that’s why I thought, I’m going to have a go.
It’s something that has been developing over the past year or so. The very first book came out on 17th April 2019. That was The Trusted. And on 17th April 2020, the finale, The Sum, came out. Exactly one year hence. And although I wasn’t very well – I had pneumonia – nothing was going to stop me from getting that out. So, it has been a project filled with love and filled with great expectations, and I hope I’ve delivered. I know a lot of readers are loving it. And other readers are searching the pages with certain trepidation thinking, ‘What the hell is this woman on? But this is fun’.
Yeah, it’s all part of the fun! It’s so brilliant. I think that’s something that appeals to so many readers, that it does crossover into different genres and combines into this new thing that I certainly hadn’t experienced before. And that’s all part of the excitement.
Absolutely. You’ve got Altered Carbon, you’ve got Stranger Things, you’ve got The Boys, and all the Marvel as well, which is treading around my genre a little bit. So, there is that acceptance of genre-fusing. But because mine has lots of steamy sex and ultraviolence, it’s been called a guilty pleasure, because people can read it, but maybe in a brown paper bag.
Yeah, there are some scenes you don’t want to be reading with someone looking over your shoulder on the train, maybe. And how does that feel, to have The Sum out there?
It’s a wonderful feeling actually. It’s funny because when you come to the end of something, it’s kind of like you’ve been nurturing this thing that you’ve been growing. It’s been adding to your life and you’ve been adding to it. And there’s this symbiotic element going on all the time. Then suddenly, you come to the end. And you think, ‘Where do we go now?’
It’s quite analogous to when you have a child and you take that child to their first day of school. You’re letting go. And that’s kind of like what I’ve done with The Sum. I’ve let everything go now. That’s it, you know? I can’t have any control over it anymore. That’s it. It’s actually finished. I’ve got to let it take a life of its own through the readers, through the audiences, and just see what happens.
I won’t say anymore because I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it is a ride and a half. None of the readers who have just finished The Refracted, book four, are going to have any idea what’s going to happen in The Sum. Because everything flips, flips, flips, flips, flips. What you think you know, you don’t. Just like in tradecraft. What you think you know, you don’t. Always be aware and always be alert because that’s how I write. You’ve got to have your wits about you.
I think that’s very true. Have your wits about you is good advice. One of my favourite reviews of your books calls it ‘007 on acid with aliens’. I think that’s brilliant. Is that accurate?
Yes. It’s dead accurate.
You think that you’re reading maybe a spy novel, then its velocity suddenly goes woosh, and you really do feel like you are holding on for dear life. Then suddenly there’s these interdimensional kinds of beings – aliens – and you’re like, wow. And the technology that we see in the movies we love, like in the Bonds, it’s amazing tech, but I take it to the next level. I take it to a level that’s like, ‘What the hell?’. Quantum bombs, nanotech, strange mind-altering drugs. Weird stuff. The ride itself is actually like you’re experiencing all kinds of strange stuff. And it does feel like it’s on acid because it is speeding through continuously. So, yeah, it’s a very, very true description, if you like.
The other really good description which is quite well used by my fans is ‘Bond meets The X-Files’. It is a bit like that as well. Or Bourne meets The X-Files. Something like that. Shocking. Very, very shocking. I must say here and now, if you are easily shocked, if you are sensitive, if you’re a cosy reader, stay the hell away from my stuff. Because I’d rather not have you tread down the path then rap a review that hits me.
Or once they start down that path, they won’t be able to stop. They might be changed forever.
It depends. If you really want to go down it, I cannot be responsible for this addiction. Because it is a literal addiction. Somebody wrote on one of the reviews very recently ‘COVID-19 lockdown flew by!’. He just read book after book after book after book. And, my god, the poor guy, it must’ve had a strange effect on his brain. But he loved every second of it. If lockdown is getting to you, this is the reading that you need.
The lockdown library is the Trusted Thriller Series, ladies and gentlemen.
So, you have many characters, many perspective shifts, but Ellie Noor is your main character, right?
Yes and no. Ellie Noor is the ‘main character’. But she’s not the main character in The Trusted. The main character in The Trusted is Sam Noor. That’s her husband, the MI6-spy-cum-diplomat. He is really the main character. But things happen to Ellie Noor. And things happen to her as a result of her being the wife of Sam Noor. A major character as well is, of course, Dr Salim Al Douri. He’s a very nasty character indeed, heading up the Al Nadir collective. So, he’s also a pretty big character. He becomes bigger and bigger as you go through the series.
What I say a lot is you’ve got these two couples. You’ve got Sam and Ellie Noor. And you’ve got Sabena Sanantoni and Salim Al Douri. They are both power couples. One’s dark. One’s light. It gets to a point where they really are pitting against each other.
Is Ellie your favourite character to write?
Yes. I love writing Ellie. And I have to say in The Sum, I had a whale of a time writing Ellie.
I love Ellie because she’s a complex character, she’s so deep, and she doesn’t just run along with things; she thinks, she ponders. There’s a lot more to Ellie than meets the eye. Even when you meet her in The Trusted, you think, this is this woman that has this weird thing happen in her kitchen. But then you realise there’s a lot more going on inside her. A hell of a lot more.
I love Sam as well. Some people say he’s just one of these tough agent type guys who beats the crap out of people and that’s how he gets results. But he’s a much deeper guy than that, and I think, as you go along into the series, you realise quite how deep he really is. So, I love writing in Sam’s mind, getting in the mind of a man, and then getting in the mind of a woman, like Ellie. It is quite challenging but also quite fun.
It’s really fun getting in the mind of Sabena and Salim. But it is pretty twisted. Twisted politics. Twisted everything, really. And Ashton, British Prime Minister Richard Ashton, he is also a very fascinating character. Starts off small, ends up massive.
Probably my favourite character, I’m not gonna lie.
I knew you were going to say that! You love Ashton, do you, darling? Dear, dear.
He’s just a great character!
Absolutely. Eton, Cambridge, and god knows what else besides. Fascinating. He’s a great guy. Well, a great character.
Your books are a lot about themes of connectedness and balance in the universe – big picture stuff. Where did those ideas come from? Why did you want to include those themes in the book?
It’s something I believe in. From quite a young age, I’ve always believed in this flow of energies, that everything has energy, and, actually, when you study science, you realise that everything is full of energy. That’s all we are. I believe that there is a balance of light and dark in all of us, in everything, whether it’s a phone, whether it’s an inanimate object, whatever. At the very base level, whether that’s string or whether that’s going beyond string – string being the base, fundamental elements of life – I do believe that in terms of that energy, whether it’s dark energy, whether it’s light energy, we all need the right combination to enable us to live, to have drive, to do anything.
And when a good thing happens, then sometimes a bad thing happens. There is this kind of constant balance. But it’s not a balance that actually happens just naturally. Everything happens in interactions. So, you and I are talking right now and there is a flow of energy going back and forth. This is how things happen. It has been proven that when we think, we create the energies to make the reality that is around us. A lot of big science has gone into this. There is some stuff around Orch OR – orchestrated objective reduction – whereby the microtubules in the brain actually have a quantum connection to the quantum elements in the universe. There’s a lot of very talented people (far more talented than me, that’s for sure) who are going into this real science.
It’s called metaphysical at the moment, but it’s not that far removed from real physics.
So, what I’ve done is, as I always do with technologies, extrapolated the science of the quantum interconnectedness and the quantum mechanics of how things work into a wider notion that there are these overseeing guardians that keep everything in balance in the universe. Because if there was a shift to the dark or a shift to the light, then all kinds of hell breaks loose.
This is exactly what I love about your writing. There’s this seamless blend of spirituality and complex science, both of which you have a deep connection to. It works well. You talked a bit about your inclusion of nanotechnology in the fiction. What inspired you to want to also include those elements?
The nanotech side of it, so the nano-bombs, I did a lot of research around different things I know about it. I do have a background in science, 28 years in science, engineering, and technology, director of the Innovation Institute, strategic development OPS director there. So, it’s not like this sci-tech stuff comes fresh to me. It’s almost ingrained in me.
But I wanted to have something that went way beyond a suicide bomber. Something far greater, that absolutely caused devastation. So, you’ve got the nano-bombs. And they are actually grounded in real science. This is the scary bit. So, I’m hoping that they stay in science fiction, please. But you’ve also got a lot of nanotech around things like the face-changing cream, which, again, I wrote about and I did some research. But I have since found out that Cambridge University has done exactly the same thing. I wrote about it way back a year ago. Then I saw a paper, in August/September last year, about very similar biomimetic type stuff, using the same characteristics as to how a chameleon changes its colour. I’ve done exactly the same thing with the face-changing nano-cream.
Then you’ve got the invisible photochromic plane, and the stealth suits as well. And they’re all nanotech. This is all possible. Photochromics are something that a lot of people are still working on. Could you actually build a stealth suit? Whereby people can actually put it on, become invisible, and then go in and do whatever they need to do? It is very close. I can’t say any more than that.
But what’s great about your writing is you don’t just include the stealth suit and leave it at that. You explain exactly how that has the potential to work. And whether or not it exists doesn’t matter, because you’ve created that in reality for the reader in their imagination.
Absolutely. And another thing. When I wrote about the quantum computer back at the CIA base that enables the stripping of a particular code so that agents can see things they wouldn’t be able to see because of various cloaking devices Salim al Douri has, it uses quantum entanglement. Well, the kind of science that I used is now being used by Honeywell to produce the very first quantum computer. Now I’m not saying I created the science. But the application of it in my book is exactly what Honeywell has done.
So, one of my friends who’s a vice president in a tech company said I could be the next HG Wells. Well, here’s hoping, darling, here’s hoping.
So, you are a self-publishing author, an indie author. What do you enjoy most about being an indie author?
I can decide when I push a book out. I can also decide when I want to promote and if I want to raise the price. Everything is manageable through my hands. Rather than going through a publisher, or an agent and a publisher, which then starts to get very complex and you get caught up in politics with a small P. It just gives you more control, basically. That’s essentially why I do it.
And what are the biggest challenges of being an indie author?
Although having said that, I know a lot of people whose books have gone through traditional publishing and they’re still having to promote like hell themselves. Okay, there is a certain degree that is done through the publishing houses. But unless you’re at that very high level, the likes of James Patterson and Michael Connelly, you’re not going to get that kind of exposure. You’re still going to have to do an awful lot of marketing. And you won’t get so much of the return. You won’t get so much of the cut, the commission, the royalty.
That is always going to be a problem. Whether you’re trad or whether you self-publish. It’s just about getting the right amount of, as I call it, mark-comms – marketing communications – out there, and having a consistent key message. Having good tag lines like ‘007 on acid with aliens’, ‘Bond meets The X-Files’, ‘guilty pleasure’, ‘popping candy for the mind’.
The best one I’ve got at the moment, which I can honestly say blew me away, is that The Refracted, book 4, ‘is an engorged banquet compared to Killing Eve, which seems like a packed lunch’. Now that works in marketing. It can p*** people off, but at the same time, it gets people thinking. Killing Eve is a mad thing, totally mad. If it would be regarded as a packed lunch and Michelle Medhat’s The Refracted is being regarded as an engorged banquet, you’ve got to read her. What’s she got in her book? These kinds of gold dust gold nugget kind of things really work well, and I do work them, in marketing.
But also, there’s the whole AMS keywords and all that kind of stuff. It becomes more mechanical. It is a very mechanical thing, and I’m much more on the creative side. I like the marketing to be more on the creative side. But I realise that there is a large amount that needs to be done on the mechanics of marketing. So getting those figures up and making sure that you hit those AMS keywords and you’re getting the right kind of test sets on Facebook and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I understand it. I have done marketing research, I’ve done the statistical stuff when I was in university, and I’ve done it in a previous position when I was a marketing director. But it’s not my love. Some people love that kind of statistical stuff. But I’m always on the creative. Can’t help it. That’s me.
But most writers are on the creative side, so I think that’s a challenge for so many indie writers. Like you say, it’s something you can’t avoid. If you’re going for traditional publishing to avoid marketing, then clearly that’s not gonna happen. You’re always, as a writer, going to have to learn how to market.
Unless you happen to be the daughter of a top celebrity or a politician or whatever, it’s not going to happen. You’re still going to have to put that four-penneth into the marketing. No matter how much you go through trad.
Who is a favourite author of yours? Who would you say has inspired your writing?
Wow, a favourite author of mine? Ian Fleming. All the films of James Bond, I love. Fantastic films. But if you read the books, you really get into the mind of James Bond, and he is a killer. He’s a brutal individual and he treats women like, you know. There’s none of this lovey-dovey, romantic, looking-in-the-eyes kind of thing. It’s really just ‘you’re mine tonight’. That’s it. But I loved his books, I loved his books, and they became a real strong element for me.
Robert Ludlum, I love his books as well. Absolutely fabulous. Fabulous books.
And I have to say the good old greats, the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle. I absolutely love Sherlock Holmes. My parents got me the omnibus when I was ten. I don’t know where it’s gone now, because I’ve been moving so many times around the world, but I had it and it was almost like my Bible. I loved it.
And Agatha Christie. I know they’re a bit cliched, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, but fine, I love them. And I still revert to them when I want to just get a bit more grounded. They’re great on characterization, fantastic characterization.
The other novelist I love is Arthur C Clarke. I love Arthur C Clarke. 2001, that blew my mind away. And it did become a quite big inspiration for me on how I took The Trusted series and where I was going to take it to. 2001, wow. It is still my all-time favourites sci-fi book ever. And then, I think, after that, it’s I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Those are my two favourite sci-fi books.
And then slightly more recent stuff like Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, which I read before the series came out on Netflix. And I love that. It’s just so broad, so mind-expanding, this whole idea of this world in the future and being able to change sleeves, your skin. It’s just amazing, the whole stack idea and everything else. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
So those kinds of authors, the ones that pushed the boundaries of their time. That’s important. It’s authors that push the boundaries, those are the ones that I wanted to explore more and more.
What are your plans for the future? What are you working on now? What can we expect next?
Well, at the moment, because the series is finished, I’ve got the Operations, which are novellas, so about 35-50,000 words. One is Operation Snowdrop, and that’s available. If you go to http://www.forever-connected.com/operationsnowdrop, you can get it for free, folks!
That is very much under-the-bullet type, slightly different kind of nuances, different style of writing, much more pace, less kind of flowing on the literature side. You really do feel you’re under the bullet, that you’re under time pressure. Certainly, in Operation Snowdrop. The kind of comments on the website are ‘I really feel every second for this guy who’s going through this’. I pick up which spy I’m going to be writing and I put them into first person. So you really feel the emotion.
Now I’m writing Operation Oystercatcher and that’s going to be in the first-person voice of Sam Noor. It’s set two years prior to the events in The Trusted. So, it’s going to be one of his key missions. Lots of tech, lots of violence, lots of torture, lots of sex. And that’s all in the first twenty pages.
The other thing I’m going to be doing is something completely different. That’s going to be a police procedural type thing, about cold cases, set in East Devon. I’ve got all types of things germinating in my mind at the moment. But it’s essentially going to be a number of shorter stories and they’re all going to be around a cold case. But there’s going to be a running thread throughout all of them, and you’re going to find out something towards the end. If I’m lucky, they’re going to be based on real cold cases. There’s going to be a very strong female character in it, a really strong DCI. And tech, lots of tech. Just because it’s cold cases, doesn’t mean to say there’s not going to be lots of tech. Lots of science as well. As that is my signature.
And there might be a kids’ book. It’s a project I’m doing, well I may be doing, with my husband, who’s got an idea. It will probably be illustrated. I don’t know. It’s just something that I’m working on. And it’s really cool. It’s going to be set in London, there’s going to be a spy element to it, and it’s going to animals. It’s going to be very, very different from anything that I’ve ever written before.
Lots of people say to me, ‘How do you write what you write?’ And I say, ‘Well because I’ve still got the imagination of a kid’. And I said this at a conference a few years ago about creative writing: ‘It’s because I’ve tried to maintain the fact that I’m still a kid in here’. It can drive my husband mad, actually. But also, it gives me the opportunity to see if I can play around with that and make a kids’ book.
I may get pilloried by parents. I’ll have to hold back on the Bugs Bunny torture. No acid involved, guys. Just acid drops.
What advice would you have for new indie authors?
I would say one of the first things you need to do is make sure you have a damn good cover.
You need to look at the covers in your genre or genres. I would say you need to have a look at what’s hot in Amazon at the moment, and make sure that your cover matches and can be regarded as that kind of genre. So any reader will know immediately that is the kind of genre that I’m interested in. So they don’t need to think too much about pressing the ‘buy now’.
You need a really good blurb, something to catch the eye quickly.
You need to think about how you are doing your advertising and target people that are reading the same kind of books that you’re writing. And also think about what else they’re doing. What TV programmes and what kind of films they like. That kind of thing. So you build up a total picture of who your readership could potentially be. And that’s important. You need to build that archetype, so you understand them, you get into their head, you know what works, what doesn’t.
I’m not an expert at this, not by any means, because I’m still learning. Believe it or not. It’s actually quite funny and ironic because although I have been a marketer and a marketing director, for some obscure reason, last year, I didn’t think that I needed to market my books that much. But then I suddenly realised I did.
It is important to make sure your book is right for your genre. So you’re writing in trope, you’ve got the right kind of things that the reader will expect to see. Although I write cross-genre, I’ve got the whole kind of Whitehall/Pentagon/White House feel to it. I understand that kind of thing because I’ve lived and breathed in various ways, kind of past incarnations. So I understand the whole political thing, but I also understand the science, and I also understand the whole tradecraft elements. You have to bring in all these elements.
So anybody reading my books who’s purely read spy fiction will get these spy fiction elements. And anyone who’s just read political fiction will get the political feeling of it. Anyone who’s just read sci-fi will immediately get the nuances around the sci-fi, the interdimensional elements, the metaphysical elements, all that kind of stuff. It works. Although I have a fusion going on, the actual tropes there are strong, immediately identifiable.
I think that’s really important to bear in mind. As self-publishing is so accessible and a relatively easy process, it’s easy to skim over book covers and keywords and blurbs. But that’s the really important stuff. That’s where you stand out, by taking the time and energy to invest in those things.
Right. You’ve got to understand what your keywords are. You’ve got to understand what your readers are reading, and looking at, and thinking about, and listening to. I have playlists as well, which is another kind of marketing tool. I’ve got complete playlists of songs that reflect every single book. From The Trusted through to The Sum, there’s a playlist that reflects different scenes from chapters. So you can look at that playlist and almost get the book immediately. You got Traitor there then Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. That’s in The Resonance, guys.
It’s about creating intrigue in people. If you’re a new indie author, people have to take a chance on you. You have to set that intrigue. You have to get people to click ‘buy now’ because they’re intrigued. That’s what you have to generate.
I hope this helps people because we need more and more indie authors out there. There’s a lot of people out there who have a story to tell. Don’t pontificate about it. Just pick up a pen or hit a keyboard and start writing.
You’ve got a story in you? Let it out!