Ray Banks has just pulled off one of the great feats of crime fiction in my eyes - successfully capped a PI series. With Beast of Burden, he's brought Cal Innes to a conclusion that in retrospect seems inevitable without ever losing my investment along the way. Over at Ransom Notes, he's listing his personal favorite short series, but here at the Hardboiled Wonderland he's giving us a peak inside his head.
Can you briefly relay the story of the end of your croupier career and the beginning of the writing one? Did the one follow the other immediately?
The two had no connection whatsoever, despite what you may have read. I left the casino because I was overworked, underpaid and the armed robbery brought it home how little staff safety meant to the organisation. The writing career, such as it was, didn't start until a year or so later, and was chiefly a way of keeping myself sane when I was unemployed. I'd tried writing books before I went to Manchester, but they were just drunken pseudo-Palahniuk rubbish. I only started having some success when I made a point of subbing to places that edited like Handheld Crime, Hardluck Stories and Thrilling Detective. Once I started learning, that was when I started to think that maybe I had a shot at this.
How heavily did The Big Blind draw on your personal experiences?
Well, Les Beale was a composite of a lot of different punters I knew. The casino staff were also composites of various people I knew at the time, too. All the casinos mentioned in the book are based on real Manchester and Salford casinos, but with the names and layouts changed slightly. As for the double-glazing salesman stuff, a lot of the sales talk was taken from my time on the doors and listening to salesmen. So yeah, it was reasonably autobiographical.
How much do you stick to the "write what you know" advice?
I don't take it as literally as some people. I mean, obviously I use whatever personal experiences I feel are apt for a particular scene or book, but it doesn't have to be as autobiographical as the advice would suggest. Yes, I've written books about gamblers, and I'm writing one about a casino robbery at the moment, but if I purely wrote what I knew, I wouldn't have written the Innes novels. I mean, what do I know about stroke-related aphasia, prison or private investigation? I think that particular maxim needs to be taken as a general "write with emotional integrity" maxim.
How intent on writing a series character were you with Innes?
Completely intent, if the publishers would let me. I had things I wanted to explore. As it turned out, both UK and US publishers were quick to turn a two-book deal into four, so I had some wriggle-room. It was never going to be a long-running series, though. It couldn't be, could it? Not with Innes getting battered like that. In my head, it was originally five books, with the Scottish part of Beast of Burden as its own novel, but in the end the Declan stuff fitted better with the overall concerns of Beast of Burden, so I folded it into that book.
Yeah, I really respond to those short-series characters who leave everything on the page. Gotta keep a good sense of the stakes right? Do you have any more series characters coming?
That's exactly it. The longer the series, the less likely something awful is going to happen. It reminds me of that quote I posted recently from an NYT article about Breaking Bad - "The depravities of leading men in TV dramas traditionally don't leave permanent scars". And that's how I see it. A series should essentially be a mini-series, not an ongoing soap opera, and anything that happens in that series should have lasting consequences. You should pick up a new book in the series not knowing if something is going to blow that series' world apart. That doesn't exactly fit with a traditional idea of what a series is, though.
But yeah, I always saw Farrell and Cobb as series characters in a kind of Hap and Leonard, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones kind of way. I don't know how many books as yet, but I do have a last one in mind.
Beast of Burden came out in UK a couple years ago, why did we have to wait so long in the colonies and what else are we behind on?
When the deal was done I think there was a year in between, and because Polygon published in March and HMH in September, it actually turned into 18 months. The US wasn't that far behind when you look at it like that, but it has been odd seeing the reaction to something I wrote almost two years ago. And you've got to hand it to HMH - they've put out some lovely-looking hardbacks. As for anything else, I think the only things the US may have missed out on are the two novellas, Gun and California, but I'm working on putting that right. I've been storing books in the meantime. Expect a flurry of books coming your way soon.
I've been reading a lot of books lately that would've benefitted immensely from having their page-count halved. Gun and California are great examples of why I love novellas - just right to the point story-telling that doesn't skimp on the emotional impact. Do you think they're easier to write stamina-wise or is it harder to pull of a successful story that length?
My tendency is to write short anyway, so they're much easier to write. I mean, thinking about it, a 15-30k novella is about a third of a novel, and so finding a natural arc is actually quite straightforward. And some ideas don't scream out to be novels, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be written. It's nice to have a halfway point between novel and short story. The actual writing of them is exactly the same - outlined, drafted, retro-outlined, drafted again etc. It just takes less time.
Have you written screenplays before?
Quite a few, as it turns out. I have a horror/thriller script doing the rounds at the moment about a stag party who fall prey to a bunch of itinerant Highland cannibals, there was another horror thing about a haunted oil refinery on Canvey Island, and I'm currently messing around with another draft of a Savage Night adaptation. Guthrie's, not Thompson's. Again, I have a list of stories I want to get out there, but I have to have to be able to write 'em first.
How'd you come to write and publish Wolf Tickets (the serialized novel spanning three issues of Needle magazine)?
I originally wrote Wolf Tickets as a collaboration with a well-known Irish crime writer back in 2005 or thereabouts, but for contractual reasons he couldn't continue with it beyond the first chapter. He gave me his blessing to continue with the book and I wrote it in about a month, whereupon it sat on my hard drive doing bugger all for five years. I don't even think we put it out to publishers. Not because it was a bad book - if I thought that, it would've stayed where it was, along with all the other failures - but because it wasn't particularly marketable. The main characters were a dog-killer and a shoplifter, and those were probably their least repellent traits. There was an inordinate amount of swearing and slang that wouldn't be heard outside of Tyneside. It was around 60k too, so it was too short for most publishers.
But when I heard that Needle were looking for longer pieces to run, I asked them if they'd be willing to look at Wolf Tickets as a three-parter. It was partly pure advertising on my part - I didn't have anything new coming out in 2011 other than a novella and the US edition of Beast of Burden, and I thought a serial might be a fun way to get my name out there. Plus, I knew that Weddle and JHJ wouldn't care about the concerns I've just mentioned - they're better men than that. So I did a page-one rewrite and they seemed to like it. Then they published it and other people seemed to agree with them. For me, I got to be in one of the best crime print mags I've ever read, so it was win-win.
Do you get worried notes about impenetrable Brit-slang in your work from US editors?
Is it impenetrable?
My US editors have been brilliant about the slang - I think if it had been a problem, they wouldn't have bought the books in the first place. In fact the only thing they did ask me to change was the title of the second Innes. "Donkey Punch" is a phrase with unsavoury connotations, and I was more than happy to change it, given that it didn't have much to do with boxing.
No, certainly not impenetrable, but I think it goes a bit beyond an accent... A lot of my favorite American crime writers seem to have a larger international following than domestic, do you have any sense as to the geographical appeal of your work?
I hear more from American readers than Brits, but I think the books have a higher profile in the US. The Big Blind was also published in the US first, so that might've had something to do with it. Plus, a majority of the websites I've written stories for have been American. I think there are small pockets of appreciation in the UK, and I've had some nice reviews, but I don't tend to hear very much from my readers, so it's difficult to tell. I know there have been Italian and Polish editions of Saturday's Child, so there's obviously some kind of market abroad. Other than all that, I haven't a clue.
You said that The Big Blind wasn't conceived as a crime novel, what's your attraction to crime writing?
Yeah, I said that before I knew what a crime novel could be. I thought I was being literary because I was splattering angst all over the page, and I thought crime novels were all about solving crimes rather than committing them. I swiftly learned that crime fiction was more than the police procedurals and thrillers that make up the bestseller lists. Crime fiction is realist drama, it's social fiction with the discipline of a plot. It features human beings at the extremes of emotion and morality. It can focus on marginalised members of society as well as those who run it. It delves into the psychology - normal or otherwise - of both the state and the citizen. A crime novel can be both high and low culture, a novel of ideas or tabloid dreck. That's why I love it - the scope and the potential.
Did you study writing formally?
Nope. And I wouldn't, unless I was going to teach it. Don't see the point otherwise.
Would you like to teach? If so, what do you think you could impart?
I don't think so. I've had the opportunity to teach before, and I've said no. This is a tough one, because I know writers who teach and who are brilliant at it. I mean, these guys can get pretty much anyone's work up to a publishable standard. But I can't help but feel that "publishable" shouldn't be the goal here. The bookstores of the world are yawning with "publishable". It keeps those guys in work, and I'm happy for them, but I don't know that I'd be comfortable with it. I just wouldn't know what to say to people. Read better?
Help me read better then. What are you looking for in a book?
An authentic and compelling voice. Clarity of thought and description. Brevity of action. Wit and originality. I want to see recognisable human beings as characters, and I want to see those characters treated with emotional integrity. There should also be the ambition to create something beyond entertainment, but also the knowledge that entertainment is a narrative necessity. A great book might not have all of these things, but it should have as many as possible. And when you see something that hits one of those marks, you should take time to see how it was done.
Do you re-read many books?
Everything I own, I re-read, otherwise there's no point in owning 'em. The only ones I can think of that I re-read on an annual basis would be Ted Lewis' GBH, Don Herron's Willeford bio, something by Richard Yates and Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. Everything else gets read when I need specific inspiration.
Why aren't you huge?
Loads of reasons. The Innes books are PI fiction, which is an extremely unfashionable sub-genre. None of my characters are particularly sympathetic, and Innes is neither a conventional hero, nor is he cool enough to be a successful anti-hero. My plots aren't exactly thrill-rides, there are no big, explosive set-pieces, and the violence is anything but slick. Then there's the "bad language", both in terms of swearing and slang, which apparently offends and befuddles readers respectively. Oh, and I don't subscribe to the kind of gonzo nihilism that defines your average bestselling "cult" authors. Finally, there's always the possibility - and a very strong one at that - that the books just aren't good enough or universal enough to connect with a large mainstream audience. That's okay, though. I knew I'd be a tough sell.
Is that basically your pitch letter then?