Thanks Nick for taking time to talk to Shots Ezine.
Pleasure’s all mine.
Can you tell us when you first started writing?
Sure, it was when I was first learning to read. My Father bought me a small Adler typewriter and I taught myself to type in the hunt–and–peck technique. I wrote my first novel when I was 12, and then I spent my youth hanging around libraries.
So who do you think gave you a thirst for crime fiction and who influenced your writing?
Dashiell Hammett — I read all of his stuff and then I went and read all the Ed McBain novels. I used to go to Heffers in Cambridge – who I noticed incidentally sponsor Shots eZine - a great book shop with a brilliant crime fiction range managed by Richard Reynolds.
Coincidentally, Richard emailed me last night and was really enjoying Mr. Clarinet — small world!
Yes, I was in there recently doing a signing, and I’m planning to be there for their Bodies in the Bookshop event. So I used to go every day to Heffers and buy Ed McBain paperbacks. I especially loved his 87th Precinct series; particular favourites of mine were Cop Hater, Sadie When She Died, Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man, great books. Ed McBain was an amazing writer and I’m so sad that he is no longer with us.
One of the important moments for our editor Mike Stotter was when he interviewed him a few years ago:
Everyone talks about how great Elmore Leonard is at dialogue, but I would also add that Ed McBain was also a master of it. I feel he’s the best at dialogue in the crime novel. I watched a great interview in America with him and when the interviewer asked him how he wrote, McBain said in a throaty voice, ‘Well I get up in the morning and sit myself down on my chair and I write.’ I thought that’s it, the Scots/Irish work ethic. Some people say his work was formulaic but so what? It was the best stuff around when I was growing up.
The same could be said about Alistair MacLean but his work was just exhilarating.
Denis Wheatley — same thing, I read all his horror stuff when I was 12 to 14.
So did I, but the years have not been kind to his work, as it is rather dated now and more a period curiosity.
Yes, but they were great for their time.
So tell me more about your early scribbles, when your Dad bought you the Adler?
I was writing, but it was more about the process of typing, sitting at my Dad’s feet when he was writing himself. He used to be bashing away with this huge mug of tea and all the while he’d be eating chocolate. I inherited the same habit.
I read a very interesting article in the Sunday Times about you and your father, and it seems following your estrangement (after your parents’ divorce) that you have become close again. How important was it for you to be accepted as a published writer by your father?
It meant everything to me. At the age of 12, I always wanted to be a writer but being accepted by my father was very important to me, and I didn’t want him to think that my book was rubbish…laughing.
Is it true that you got a literary agent when you hadn’t written a single word of the novel at that time?
I had met Tibor Fischer because of my father and he introduced me to Lesley Shaw, as she was known then, and I rattled off this plot and she said, ‘That’s all very well but how much have you written of it?’ And I replied, ’Actually none of it..’ So she said, ‘You had better write it then, because I can’t…’
What was your day job at that time?
I was a headhunter, recruiting for the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector. I was on assignment to recruit for a major telecoms company, going to these big organisations and I was pretty good at it. But it wasn’t something I wanted to do with my life and I became rather dispirited after a while, especially as I was interviewing twenty–year–olds who had their lives mapped out by multinationals. Seeing what the pay was for some of these guys made me want to slash my wrists…laughing…so I just jacked the job in. It was my dad who told me a story that cemented my decision to leave. He told me about the father of one of his students who had been a brilliant classical pianist but got married and started a young family and so had to sell insurance to keep his family provided for. He was rubbish at selling insurance and one day he died of a heart attack in his fifties. When my dad told me the story it made me really think and re–evaluate my own life, as I was at my lowest ebb, and it became a parable to me on how not to live your life. I went home and talked to my wife about it, and she was very supportive. She told me that she’d married someone who was going to write, not head–hunt staff and she agreed that I should leave my job, so I did.
So how did you get into print at Penguin and work with the legendary Beverley Cousins?
After I had finished Mr Clarinet, Lesley sent it out to publishers. Beverley was who I really wanted to publish it, because of Penguin’s heritage in crime fiction, and obviously if they had turned me down, I’d have got Lesley to shop around. Beverley has a justifiable reputation within the genre so I had my fingers crossed that she’d like it, and thankfully she did!
I hear that William Morrow (HarperCollins US) have the US rights to Mr Clarinet and your editor is Claire Watchel who also has a big reputation editing Dennis Lehane, Mark Billingham et al.
I was delighted. I love Billingham’s work and Lehane is amazing; I’ve read most of his novels.
What did you make of Shutter Island — one of my favourite novels of recent years?
I loved it as well, but I did enjoy his previous novel Mystic River more because of the depth he put into his characters. There was also the gritty realism, and the story interested me as a crime saga.
What about Lehane’s Patrick and Angie series?
I loved Gone, Baby, Gone, the bleakness and the ending which was so true to life. There was also the cathartic storming of the paedophile’s lair, wonderfully written.
Talking about violence I found most of Mr Clarinet pretty disturbing, especially what happened to the UN soldiers and the fate of Clyde Beeson, and you left a great deal to our imagination which made it all the more terrifying…
The scene where the UN soldiers were punished was based on a real incident. The soldiers in question who raped the young girl, well, nothing happened to them. Yes, they wrote a letter of apology, and then were transferred to another country where they did the same thing with relative impunity. The whole thing about the letter, all of it happened, and it made me angry, as it was so hypocritical. These soldiers were sent to help but in reality they became part of the problem. What happened in Haiti was awful. OK it wasn’t a great place to be, but we did have a form of law and order, and when but the UN peacekeepers arrived, we thought they’d help but they didn’t…
It must have been difficult seeing the Haiti you recalled as a child, transformed into this lawless and war–ravaged land?
It was a combination of feeling sad and depressed, I just got unbelievably angry, and in some ways I think that comes across in Mr Clarinet. First of all I have a lot of good memories from my childhood, and then seeing the country in ruins just made me angry.
Mr Clarinet is an angry book, like the scene with the GI in the bar?
I saw these American soldiers humiliate local Haitians in exactly the same manner, and yes, it made me very angry, as these poor people couldn’t speak English. They could understand what they were being made to say, all for the fun and entertainment of these GIs, but you couldn’t do anything about it as these soldiers were armed to the teeth. Inside all I wanted to do was to kill them. That was one of the worst things to witness. Ironically I was friendly with a few of the soldiers; one guy, Al Diaz (a sergeant), and I asked him, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing here?’ And he’d smile back and say, ‘Man, I wake up every fucking day and ponder exactly the same question!’
The opening I felt was staggering despite it starting, in my opinion, in an almost clichéd manner: an ex–cop turned PI released from jail, tortured by the death of his wife, hired to seek a missing child from a billionaire father…but somehow you turned it around and made it a riveting tale.
Well, I didn’t think it was a cliché, though I knew it wasn’t unique I guess, because private investigators do look for missing people. The whole prison thing I felt hadn’t been done too many times, but that was my story.
Are you are aware that a large proportion of crime fiction readers are female and therefore potentially the visceral nature of some of the story might be off–putting to some?
No, I just wrote my story and hoped it would find an audience. Some of it was actually cut, quite a big chunk didn’t get past the editor, but again I just wanted to write the book.
The cast was enormous; were you worried about managing them and making them all distinct?
No, not at all, in fact the next one has an even larger cast! I try and make each character distinct – I like to give each one a backstory, and bring them to life.
Naturally Max Mingus is developed strongly in Mr Clarinet as he is the lead. Can you tell us a little about his genesis – is he an amalgam of people you know?
In a word, no. In 1992 two things happened. Firstly I saw Martin Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear and hence the name Max came along, and then I got listening to the work of Charles Mingus (the New Orleans jazz musician), and hence the character Max Mingus was formed. I have used him in virtually every novel I started and abandoned. He was a name and character that came to life and so when I started Mr Clarinet, he was my main character.
There are many references to Bruce Springsteen throughout Mr Clarinet, so are you a fan of The Boss?
Yes, I’m a huge Springsteen fan. I have all his stuff and have followed his music for many years. In George Pelecanos’s Soul Circus we have Derek Strange and Quinn, his white side–kick — and there is a line that goes something like: ‘It would be as strange as seeing a brother at a Springsteen concert…’ Which amused me, because if you see Springsteen play in England, you see his fans are from every ethnic group. So I felt like saying hey George, you can’t say that! …laughing…
One of my few claims to fame is that on one of the sleeves of the LP set of his live triple album, there is a panoramic shot taken from the stage at Wembley (Born in the USA tour) and you can see me, my brother and a friend right at the front….and I’ve ribbed George Pelecanos about Springsteen many times myself as George is also a huge fan.
I’m a big fan of Pelecanos and have seen him several times doing readings in the UK. Last time I was introduced to George by Mark Billingham which was a blast. His dialogue is excellent and he writes for that stunning TV series ‘The Wire’. He is the coolest writer I know, and his enthusiasm for writing is amazing.
A lot of debut novelists have stuff in their bottom drawer — have you?
Well I have a couple of screenplays, and uncompleted novels, but nothing I would want to see the light of day. One was a sort of low rent version of Dice Man, but these were more learning experiences. I used to start writing in January, when the weather was rubbish, get to about 180 pages and when the weather improved, I’d abandon them…laughing…and then enjoy the summer.
A great deal of debut novelists use first person in their work, but you chose to write in third person. Was there any debate internally about point of view?
Not really. I do like, say, the way Roman Polanski used the Jake Gittes point of view in Chinatown, and, without giving too much away, I am toying with the idea of trying to write in that style – a first person slant from Max Mingus’s point of view.
Anyway thank you for your time and insight Nick, and Mr Clarinet is a tremendous read!
Thanks for the interest.