Action adventure writing is not just for men, says author Judith O'Reilly

The action adventure genre is a “male-dominated” world but a female author is taking the fight to the grandmasters of escapist fiction.

Judith O’Reilly has drawn praise from the likes of thriller heavyweights Lee Child, David Baldacci and Andy McNab for her first two books in the ‘Michael North’ series.

Her hero is, to quote Judith: “Young, sexy and reckless. He is a former soldier who has been wounded. He has taken a bullet to the head, which they couldn’t get out without killing him. So he literally could die at any second.

“What that does is it makes him incredibly determined to do the right thing, to do his duty and to make what life he has left really matter.”

Reviews of her latest book, ‘Curse The Day’, have said ‘it reads like a Bond movie’. Acclaimed author David Baldacci has also endorsed it as a ‘sheer delight to read’.

But this praise was hard won. Judith, a former Sunday Times journalist, struggled to find a publisher for her first Michael North book, ‘Killing State’.

This was despite her having success with two non-fiction books. Her first was the very popular ‘Wife in the North’ that was based on her blog of the same name. Her musings were also credited with leading to a rise in domestic blogging.

To get her action story published, Judith even toyed with the idea of using her initials or shortening her name to Jude. Both would have disguised her gender on the book’s front cover. But she thought, ‘Why should I?’.

The writer said: “It is male dominated. There is a very good writer called Zoe Sharp who writes action adventure. She’s got a female bodyguard series. But it tends to be men. I don’t know why because women read a lot of it.”

Judith, who was also a political producer on Newsnight and Channel Four News, added: “I do make a point of making my female characters really strong and interesting.

“I do think that you need a bit of heart and emotional depth to an action adventure because it makes what happens to the characters way more important to the reader. I don’t see why there is any reason why women can’t write action adventure.”

Judith had to publish her first action novel independently. It went on to get positive reviews in the national press. Judith also managed to get it stocked by WH Smith at airports and railway stations. Momentum built from there.

On the back of that she picked up a two-book deal with Head of Zeus, and Judith has just been offered another similar deal by the publisher.

Judith O’Reilly’s new novel ‘Curse The Day’ has been published by Head of Zeus

Her new book ‘Curse The Day’, which focuses on the theft of groundbreaking Artificial Intelligence by terrorists, came out on April 2. But the long-planned for event coincided with the height of the coronavirus lockdown.

It is an understatement to say the freedom of movement restrictions have had a massive impact on the book’s launch.

Bookshops closed and there were problems initially with the supply of books to online retailers. Book tours and reader panel events at crime-writing festivals were also off limits.

The author added: “All the promotion moved online. I decided I could either get incredibly mawkish about that and regard it as the worst possible thing, or I could use it as a learning opportunity.”

Judith opted for the latter, embracing Instagram, virtual reader panels and online readings. She added: “Basically, I’ve learned a shedload. It is the most difficult launch I’m ever going to have, but I must say there have been a lot of positives as well.”

Author Judith O'Reilly. Picture: Ray Wells.

For the moment, Judith is busy with establishing the Michael North series. His surname reflects Judith’s roots and her love of the North.

She was born in Leeds and went to university in Durham. She worked as a journalist in Newcastle before London came calling. She later quit the Westminster world and moved back to the North East with her family. The shift back up North was also the inspiration for Judith’s blog and ‘Wife in the North’ book.

She said: “The North is really important to me. With the North you get the idea of integrity and authenticity. You get the notion of True North and true grit. It can be hard, both in terms of the people and the landscape, but soft as well. The scenery can also be stunningly beautiful, and the people are so kind and generous.

“To me, the North is woven into what I am doing here.”

And for someone who likes to set her books in the near future, where does she see herself heading? Judith answered: “You can expect another Michael North book. Ideally this is a series now and the start of something big, hopefully.”

She added: “I want to stay in thrillers, definitely, and for the minute action adventure. The key thing for me now is to build the Michael North series until it is something significant.”

To read an excerpt visit www.judithoreilly.com