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CHRIS SIMMS Talks to Ali Karim

Written by Ali Karim

 

 

I seemed to have been bumping into Chris Simms a great deal lately. Since his debut with ‘Outside the White Lines’, Chris has been thrust into the dark shadows of the crime-fiction world. His first novel tells the story of the pursuit of a vicious killer who preys on stranded motorists and leaves a trail of blood on British motorway hard-shoulders. It has garnered astounding reviews and terrified Scottish crime-writer Denise Mina who said ‘Driving home at night will never feel the same again’.

Simms has produced that difficult second novel ‘Pecking Order’ detailing the teaming up of two twisted minds and the manipulation and murderous games that occur when a twisted University Professor enlists the aid of a subnormal and mentally disturbed killer. Pecking Order has also garnered praise and acclaim with its plunge into the dark world of the battery-farmed chicken. You need a strong constitution to venture into the coal-black world of Mr Simms. Shots sent me to talk to the affable young Manchester-based writer to find out what it is about the darkness that so intrigues this writer.

I decided to take the train from London and avoided the KFC, travelling in daylight.

 

 

 

 

Ali: Can you tell us what and/or who, influenced you in your writing?
Chris: Over the years all sorts of writers have had an effect on me. Looking at my book shelf, there are quite a few Iain Banks, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis novels dotted about.
Ali: Have you been an advocate of the Crime/Mystery/Thriller Genre?
Chris: Until recently my tastes have been very eclectic. In fact I don’t think I was really aware of the Crime / Thriller genre until after writing ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ and being told that was what my book fell into. I tend to be drawn towards novels with strange characters and psychological elements - I guess ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ was my attempt at the kind of book I’d enjoy reading. More recently my publisher has bombarded me with all the big names in crime.
Ali: We first met at Dead-on-Deansgate a few years ago (when you were unpublished) and then we clinked a few bottles of Bud in Las Vegas at Bouchercon. What is your take on these types of events? And what have you gained from them?
Chris: First and foremost, they’re great fun! I’ve found nothing stuffy or aloof about the crime writing scene - and that applies to authors and fans. For me they’re a great way to meet people (and have a few beers).
Ali: What novels were the early books that you read, that either influenced you, or made you take up the pen?
Chris: Ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly inspirational are The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), Perfume (Patrick Suskind), The Collector (John Fowles), The Butcher Boy (Patrick McCabe) and The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris). Conversely, reading American Psycho also motivated me - but in the sense of ‘I could do better than that’. (In retrospect, I read it some time ago and I think I missed its scathing irony.)
Ali: A writer once told me that the most interesting people (writers or characters in novels) are the ones with some personal trauma that splintered their youth. Did have any trauma or incident that perhaps helped mould you in some way? And if so would you be prepared to share that incident with us?
Chris: I think I had an extremely happy childhood. My Dad was a teacher so we enjoyed long summers camping in a farmer’s field in deepest Exmoor. Proper camping too - ghost stories around an open fire and a walk into the spooky woods anytime you needed the toilet. One year he challenged me and my two brothers to sleep the night on an ancient burial ground (or barrow) out on the windswept moors. We didn’t take him up on it - but I intend to use it as the start of a future novel.
Ali: What were your early experiences as a writer like? Have you always written?
Chris: I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel. After reading a newspaper article that advised you to start off with short stories, I began writing my own ghost stories in the tradition of MR James. (You must read ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad’ - an archetypal English ghost story and a superb camp fire bone chiller.)
Ali: Can you tell us what day-jobs you had/have while pursuing a writing career?
Chris: With the exception of copywriting, I was lucky enough to have never really enjoyed my day jobs. I say lucky because this kept my desire to be a novelist burning. Included on the list are various miserable telesales jobs and stints at airports, post offices and nightclubs. Oh yes, and a battery farm.
Ali: Do you plot extensively, or let the muse take you where it may?
Chris: I tend to have numerous disparate thoughts that aren’t quite plots in themselves floating around my head. Then, suddenly at 3 in the morning, for example, two will connect and the framework for a novel springs up in a matter of minutes. At that point I jump from my bed and rush to scribble it down in case it’s all gone by the morning. From then on it’s just a case of building up layer after layer.
Ali: Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
Chris: I still work as a freelance copywriter to earn an income. Writing is fitted in as and when I’m not doing that. A good month on the copywriting means I can treat myself to a few uninterrupted days up in the attic on my book.
Ali:   ‘Outside the White Lines’ was a terrifying and dark book. Could you tell us about how you came to write it? Chris:   I mentioned earlier that two ideas often collide and a book springs up. One Christmas I was driving home to my mum’s and our car broke down three times. By the third time it was the early hours of the morning and the roads were almost deserted. A van complete with flashing light eventually pulled up behind us and I was just about to, very thankfully, jump out. But the driver hadn’t moved and suddenly the way he just sat there staring made me very uneasy. It turned out he was a motorway maintenance guy clearing up some debris from a previous crash nearby. After a bit he went on his way and I was left with the thought, ‘there has to be a story in that’. I’d also had an idea for a short story based purely around the Searcher character; obviously someone who forages on the central reservation at night could easily witness someone killing break down drivers stranded on the hard shoulder. After that I just had to build in the young motorway traffic policeman’s part and bingo - Outside the White Lines.

 

Ali: How did you get it accepted for publication?
Chris: I was fortunate enough to get picked from the slush pile - I understand this happens with increasing rarity nowadays. After making some alterations suggested by my agent, the finished novel was sent to a couple of senior people at Random House and they went for it immediately.
Ali: What are your experiences vis-à-vis the ‘rejection’ process in publishing?
Chris: That particular slush pile was about the 12th I’d sloshed around in. I recommend treating the process of trying to get published as a hobby you don’t get too uptight about. After all, it’s going to be a very long, hard (and slow) slog.
Ali: In today’s highly competitive world of publishing, what are your thoughts in how a new(-ish) author can establish him/herself on our crowded bookshelves?
Chris: If I could answer that I’d be writing the bestseller as we speak! I think somehow you have to come up with something that stands out - whether it’s something a bit different in terms of writing style, plot structure or subject matter. But also within an area that’s regarded as ‘publishable’ - historical crime being the hot area at the moment. As regards crowded bookshelves, I believe a well-designed jacket can make the difference between your book being picked over its neighbour.
Ali: www.chrissimms.info is your web presence. How important is the site for you?
Chris: It’s early days yet, but constructing it was very enjoyable. I do a fair bit of web writing anyway and so know a good designer and photographer who were also sympathetic to the gothic, eerie look I was hoping to achieve.
Ali: Some people amongst our intelligentsia do not consider genre fiction to be “literary” enough when compared to ‘general fiction’? Would you care to comment?
Chris: I find the need to categorise books quite perplexing. All sorts of supposed crime novels are also very literary and vice versa. For instance, Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ involves a deranged individual with murderous intentions. Sometimes it seems that any depiction of violence or murder consigns a book to the ‘crime bin’ - a rubbish view in my opinion.
Ali:   ‘Pecking Order’ is another dark excursion into the minds of madmen. Where did the inspiration come from? And did you do much research in the world of the battery-farmed chicken? Chris:  Having worked on a battery farm - though only for three hours before walking out in disgust - I’d had first hand experience of what goes on in those hell-holes. The theme of the novel, which is something to do with the ‘nature v nurture’ debate and how an individual can be moulded into a killer, was one of those ideas floating around in my head. It found the perfect stage in the scenario of a mentally subnormal farm worker and an intelligent, but evil, manipulator.

 

Ali: Behind the story of ‘Pecking Order’ and ‘Outside the White Lines’ there seems to be a theme of ‘class divide’. With the professor and his subnormal working class thug in ‘Pecking Order’, while in your debut, the killer bemoans his low social rank. Why does the British Class system interest you so much? And what class do see yourself fitting?
Chris: I’m not making a conscious effort to write about class divides - I’d say that any novel set in Britain is going to touch on it in some way or another. I completed a degree in social studies at university so perhaps my sociology background is creeping in there. I guess I fall into that vague definition of middle class - parents who were teachers, university educated and a reader of broad sheet newspapers!
Ali: There are very gruesome scenes in your work, like the skull-crushings in ‘Outside the White Lines’ and the awful scene in ‘Pecking Order’ when Rubble seeks sexual gratification from a chicken. What is your view on violence and sex in the mystery novel? And is there a line that you wouldn’t cross?
Chris: For me, violence in a crime novel is as inevitable as the appearance of the police. The descriptions in ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ were necessarily graphic to convey the intensity of the rage he feels towards cars, car drivers and the motorway network. The violence in Pecking Order is less brutal - oh, except at the end. (But those people deserved it anyway.) As regards Pecking Order’s sex scene, Rubble’s little experiment is with a dead, not live, chicken. Which somehow doesn’t seem so bad to me. The idea of writing a sex scene between two humans makes me absolutely cringe. (Strange as that sounds!). In terms of lines I wouldn't cross, I think child abuse would be mine. I have respect for authors who have tackled it. The only novels I have read that it features in were both written, very interestingly, by females: Mo Hayder and Karin Slaughter.
Ali: Have you had any success in the US with your work, as the British Thriller is very popular on the other side of the Atlantic?
Chris: I have, largely as a result of going over to Bouchercon and meeting people in the US crime writing scene. Though I haven’t got a US deal, I met some very nice owners of specialist crime book stores (of which there are loads compared to the UK) and have also received some very favourable reviews in US crime magazines. I know many of the hardback copies of ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ went over to the States?
Ali: What books particularly impressed you in 2003? And why?
Chris: I’ve undergone a bit of a crash course in reading crime novels since writing ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ but a recent book that stood out for me was ‘THE CUTTING ROOM’ by Louise Welsh. Dark but with some great flashes of humour.
Ali: What do you see as future trends in the Crime/Mystery/Thriller genre?
Chris: Hopefully gritty dark psychological thrillers will soon dominate every bestseller list!
Ali: What are you working on currently?
Chris: I have several ideas but the one I’m most anxious to start writing is currently experiencing a few ‘technical difficulties’ getting past the highly critical eye of my editor. I should say no more.
Ali: Thank you for your time and good luck with ‘Pecking Order’ and can you tell us when it is out in Hardcover and when ‘Outside the White Lines’ is out in paperback.
Chris: Pecking Order is out in hardback on the 5th of February - so you’ve still got time to give up buying battery farmed eggs. The paperback of ‘OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES’ came out on the 1st of January, so if you don’t yet know how to change a flat tyre, learn fast! Thanks very much Ali for such thought provoking questions.

 

 

 

 

 


 

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Chris Simms



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