Leeds-based author Steve Mosby created a stir with last year’s The 50/50 Killer. Now, Mosby’s Cry For Helpoffers another high-concept crime thriller following a serial killer who brings cop Sam Currie and magician Dave Lewis face to face with their guilty pasts. It’s fast and furious, a single-sitting read with a palpable sense of creepiness. I asked Steve about his work and what his latest novel means to him.
Damien: What is Cry For Help about, in your own words?
Steve: On a basic level, it’s about a killer who ties people up in their homes and leaves them to die of dehydration. He uses texts and emails to maintain the illusion they’re okay, and then eventually taunts the friends and family who didn’t care enough to check up on the victims. Beyond that, I suppose it’s about our responsibilities, both as individuals and as a community as a whole, and how people can depend on us in ways we miss if we’re not careful – or because sometimes it’s easier not to notice.
Damien: From the novel: ‘Emails, texts, Facebook profiles. People never stopped anymore. Just flitted around each other’s lives obliviously, like butterflies.’ Does the impersonal nature of modern communications technology bother you, or is it just a good hook for a serial killer story?
Steve: It doesn’t really bother me, as it’s the main way I stay in touch with a lot of people. I spend most of the day connected to the internet. So I was never wanting to make any real comment on that type of communication in itself – it’s more about missed signals, and the ways people reassure themselves that everything is okay. That comment comes from one character in particular, and he’s biased because of the investigation going on around him.
Damien: Serial killers plus themes of guilt, complicity and betrayal – isn’t Cry For Help a repeat of your last novel, The 50/50 Killer? What sets these books apart? What drew you back to these themes?
Steve: Well, there are similarities between the two, but mainly because the serial killer element strips the drama down to something simple and essential: what is the hero prepared to do to achieve his goal? In The 50/50 Killer, the trauma is literal: rather than climbing mountains and fighting dragons, the guy just has to endure plain old physical pain to ‘win the girl’ (which, unlike traditional fairytale heroes, he doesn’t necessarily manage). In that book, the killer is a metaphor for the things that can come between a couple and ruin a relationship. In Cry For Help, the killer functions on a slightly different level. To summarise it really bluntly, without the serial killer element 50/50 asks ‘would we put up with our partner hanging around with an ex, given that it hurts our feelings?’ while Cry For Help adds ‘well ... what if their ex really needs them?’
That aside, they’re quite different books. In 50/50, the plot was intricate, but the theme was straight down the middle; Cry For Help is shorter, simpler, and a more straightforward thriller, but the themes are harder to pin down. I guess you could say they were companion pieces, though. The next book will be more of a step away.
Damien: What sort of writer would you say you are? Are you trying to settle into a certain market niche? What are the risks or benefits of doing that?
Steve: I genuinely don’t think about marketing niches at all, and when I’m writing something my only real thought in that direction is ‘can this be classified as crime, or am I going to get in trouble?’ I fell into the genre by accident, although I do see myself as a ‘crime writer’ now. I’m happy with that, but I don’t associate myself with any particular subgenre. There are risks and benefits to both approaches, I suppose. That kind of branding helps in some ways. In others, it hinders. Anything that limits you makes you easier to market ... but you become limited.
Damien: What’s your philosophy on life and how does it influence your fiction?
Steve: I don’t know – nothing well thought out. I guess it’s just the usual. Treat everyone as individuals, be nice, put yourself out for people if you can. In my fiction, I do try to feel some level of empathy with all the major characters. I don’t hate any of them; if they were real people, I’d be saying ‘Yeah, but...’ about them. I suppose I’m a bleeding heart liberal, although I’m still young and naive so that will probably change. Ten years from now, it’ll be all ‘hang him!’
Damien: There’s a memorable scene in Cry For Help in which protagonist Dave Lewis attends the meeting of a popular psychic in order to debunk him. In this scene, there’s the line: ‘Harmless lies. I felt myself growing more angry with every word.’ How much of your own opinion is there in this, if any?
Steve: A little, although I’m nowhere near as angry about it as Dave gets. I don’t believe in anything supernatural – I think it’s all bullshit – but at the same time I’m nobody’s nanny and it’s possible it can be helpful for some people. I don’t know if it’s entirely healthy, psychologically, but I see it as morally more complex than Dave does. His reaction is an emotional one, and in some ways he’s kidding himself as much as he thinks the audience is. That’s part of what interested me – the way that someone will almost ‘rewrite’ events and people from their past to make their lives easier in the present. Dave does that explicitly in one instance, and less obviously in a few others. It’s a first person narrative, but Dave doesn’t speak for me in any way at all.
Damien: Do you think you’ll get bored of writing about serial killers?
Steve: That’s tricky, as I’ve never been overly interested in them anyway. I’m certainly not writing realistic social commentary on serial murder, and I don’t read that widely within the subgenre. I think a lot of it has been absorbed in from the field of Horror. So you get a traditional ‘beating the monster’ narrative couched in the language of the procedural: the vampire as serial killer, entering your home at night, and Van Helsing recast as a profiler. Good, evil; chaos, order.
They’re familiar stories, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. They’re not realistic, but that’s not the same as being useful or interesting, and so I’m not bored with the serial killer as a fictional device. I suppose I use them to exaggerate the central theme of what might otherwise be a non-crime story, and as a metaphor I think they’re effective. But like I said for question 4, I’m not a ‘serial killer writer’. I’m not organised enough to have that much of a career plan!
Damien: The blurb for Cry For Help makes your protagonists sound more clichéd than they actually are. Does that bother you?
Steve: The back cover? Not really. I found the story hard to summarise, so maybe it’s my fault. The more detail I gave, the more I needed to give, so it ended up being done in broad strokes. Back covers are always a bit cheesy anyway. When I read them in my head, it usually sounds like that ominous movie trailer voice-over guy.
Damien: What input do you have in the marketing of your books?
Steve: Very little – I get the covers in advance, and I provide a basis for the synopsis. And obviously, I’ll do any interviews that come my way. Beyond that, I’m happy to leave it to Orion to do what they think will work best for the book, and I just join in when needs be. I’ve never been that good at promoting myself. My first Harrogate, I had two books out, and when people asked me if I was a writer I’d glance around nervously and say, ‘er, no, not really...’
Damien: What strikes me most about your writing is the skilful use of metaphor in your descriptions of people, places and moods. Do you work hard at this or does it come easily?
Steve: Thanks – glad you think so. Nothing comes easily, to be honest; everything in the books has been gone over and re-written several times. For every good metaphor that’s there, you can bet a fair few alternatives have hit the cutting-room floor along the way. But that’s probably where I’m most comfortable. I’m always happier with the language than the plot.
Damien: What can you tell us about your next book?
Steve: Not much at the moment, as I’ve only just started writing it. There will be a serial killer in it, but it's a much smaller aspect than the last two. The beginning of the book involves a man who’s murdered his girlfriend in a drunken rage and dumped her body in a field, only he can’t remember where. The police put out an appeal and when they finally locate the field, a week later, the body’s somehow gone missing. The book’s about a friend of the victim who feels compelled to find her. I like the idea of a hero trying to save a girl who’s already dead, although there’ll be more to it than that.
Damien: Given the high-concept nature of your work, what comes to you first – scenario, characters, key scenes? Are you a pre-plotter or a reviser?
Steve: I like to have an idea when I start out, and a few points along the way to write towards. Sometimes I have an ending. But I’m very much a reviser. I do my first draft then slowly realise what I should have done. With Cry for Help, about a third of the first draft made it through in one way or another. The second draft, maybe two thirds survived. Even now, there are probably lots of things I’d change. I still revise the earlier books in my head; they’re only ever an approximation of what I’d like them to be, but at some point you’ve got to let them go and move onto something else.
Damien: What’s your day-to-day writing routine?
Steve: It depends where I’m at: I start slowly, then build up. In the early stages of a book, I’m happy with less work, but as I get into it I want at least 1000 words a day, probably more like 2000. I try to do it first thing – start about seven in the morning – and then just see how it pans out. In between, I fit in DVDs, the gym, a bit of wandering the streets, and have dinner on the table when my wife gets home from a day doing proper work.
Damien: Who are your biggest influences, not just literary, but also from film and TV?
Steve: In terms of books, it’s reading people like Stephen King and Dean Koontz as a kid. Since then, I’ve probably added a few others – Jack Ketchum, Michael Marshall Smith, Christopher Priest and Graham Joyce spring to mind – but it’s difficult to single people out as influences, as everything just goes into the soup. I watch more films than I read books, but again, I don’t usually know what influences me. If anything, it would be structures and techniques rather than particular films.
Damien: You took ten years to get an agent, writing several unpublished novels in the process. What advice can you give to other writers who might still be at that difficult stage of their careers?
Steve: I don’t know if I’m in a position to give any advice at all really. The thing is, unless you’re lucky or extremely talented, that’s basically the process you have to go through. You have to see it all as a learning experience, but that doesn’t stop. The rejections were never crushing for me, because I would have been writing regardless, and that’s my only advice really – if you’re not loving it now, then don’t expect publication to change that side of things. It helps in some obvious ways, but there are easier careers for making money, and when you’re published you’ll be rejected far more often (and far more publicly) than you are now.
Damien: If there was just one major thing you’d want readers to take from Cry For Help, what would that be?
Steve: I’d want them to take away that it was entertaining enough to justify the entry fee. That’s all I ever want really. There’s a lot of different stuff in there, but people take things in different ways, and it all basically comes down to ‘I hope you liked it’.
Cry for Help is published by Orion (15 May 2008)
Hbk £18.99 Pbk £9.99
Visit Steve’s website here