Born in Kirkcaldy but now settled in Newcastle, Ray Banks used to be a croupier, but decided on a desk job when a truck containing several armed men ram-raided his place of work. His debut novel, The Big Blind, was published by Point Blank in the USA and his second novel, Saturday’s Child, at last brings to the UK his wayward PI, Cal Innes.
Saturday's Child is written in the first person, but from the perspective of two characters, Cal & Mo. Was it difficult to maintain their individuality throughout the novel?
The first few drafts of Saturday’s Child didn’t feature Mo’s narrative at all – it was 100% unadulterated Cal. And I think the book was okay like that, but it didn’t have the depth I wanted. So my wife (my first and favourite reader) suggested that I give Mo his own soap box. Course, me being the precious and moody artist type of guy, I went off it and told her where she could stick her “advice”. And then my agent said basically the same thing. So, y’know, that was an important lesson learned right there – always listen to me missus.
Mo’s voice wasn’t actually that difficult to write, either – a lot of the stories I was writing at the time had that reliance on dialect and rhythm – and giving him his own space to rant on about whatever was kind of fun. You’ve got to remember, this was like the first time I’d actively had to do a lot of drafts on a book, so that was deeply frustrating. The number of times my inadequacies as a writer came to the fore, the number of times I wanted to quit… Jesus. But writing Mo helped get a lot of that frustration out. Parts of his narrative, I found myself sneering at the monitor. But I think bringing Mo into the equation helped me deal with events that, up until his inclusion, had taken place off-stage. And as the two characters came together at times, I could mess around with points of view in a way that was more personal than if it had just been third-person.
There were some suggestions that we put “Cal” and “Mo” as headings on their respective chapters, but I didn’t think it was necessary, really. If it had been necessary, then I wasn’t doing my job right – the two voices, as you’ve said, needed to be completely individual if it was going to work. I wanted that same feeling I got reading Trainspotting: when Begbie or Spud come onto the page, you immediately know who’s speaking. But I haven’t had any complaints about the two narratives being confusing, so I suppose the job’s a good ‘un.
Cal Innes is a PI in England sent to sort out the bad guys, by the bad guys. What set you thinking about this as a scenario?
When I first wrote Cal (about four years ago, in a story called “The Monkey Man”), I didn’t envisage him as PI. If anything, he was more of an ex-con who did paid favours for people. As the short stories progressed, I think he became more of an unofficial PI simply by his actions (and the fact that he had an office), but I was always aware of how unworkable the central conceit of a British PI could be. The private investigator, to me, is such a specifically American hero archetype, that I knew I couldn’t translate it well to the UK without it being self-conscious or just plain silly. I mean, there are exceptions to that rule – I’m a huge fan of Public Eye, and I think if Cal ever grows middle-aged and calm, I’d like him to be in the Frank Marker mould – but I wasn’t sure I could pull off a character type that I’d read in British novels before and thought daft.
As for the bad guys… I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think of any of my characters as bad guys. Just as I don’t think of any of them as good guys. And I’m in an even smaller minority (perhaps just comprising me and my wife) who actually sympathises with Mo a little. Yeah, he can be a nasty piece of work, but he’s damaged, y’know? They’re all damaged to an extent, and I’m primarily interested in how they deal with that damage. There are some characters where it’s not altogether obvious where their weaknesses are (Paulo, for instance, maybe Morris Tiernan), but they definitely have them, and it’s just a case of showing them over the course of the series. Basically, all I’m doing is hardboiled soap opera.
Saturday's Child is set in both Manchester and Newcastle. How important to you was it that both cities are portrayed almost as characters of within the story?
Manchester and Newcastle are characters in the story, but only in the sense that they’re “fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental…”
I make it a point of saying that neither city is accurately depicted, geographically speaking, but some individual places might be. Everything else is chopped, changed, moved about and nailed down for the purposes of the story. When I read a book that’s accurate and specific to one city, especially a city I don’t know, I lose the thread. Feels like it’s been written for those anal readers who are quite happy to tell you, “Oh, you know that street you had the gun fight on? It doesn’t lead to this other street.” But what it doesn’t do is move me in any way. So, yeah, I try to treat places as characters, give them more of an emotional tag than a physical one. Unfortunately for residents of both cities, they don’t come out too well, so I apologise for that one.
Donna is a very interesting character. Was her manner of introduction to Cal drawn from personal experience and, if so, do you have her number? A "drunk" with a heart rather than a tart with a heart is an unusual slant, where did she come from?
Donna was introduced in the short stories as Cal’s older girlfriend, and I felt I had to include her in some way. But just as Cal isn’t exactly the same character as he is in the shorts, so it goes with Donna. I’m glad you find her interesting, because she was a tough one to write, especially in the later books. I suppose I’m just not as in touch with my feminine side as I need to be. But I’m learning. As for her introduction, I just wanted to make her immediately stronger than Cal. I swear, I’ve never been picked up by drunk women in pubs in the middle of the afternoon.
There are so many superb aspects of the book that make it both intriguing and captivating. One of the most captivating is the "atmosphere" with which it is laced – the darkness of the plotline against the snappy dialogue – is almost Bruen-esque, without ever being an imitation. Was this difficult to nurture?
Thanks for that. Making me blush here, mate.
When you start writing, you automatically take on board what you like to read, and try to recreate that. Bruen’s a good example of someone I read and immediately thought, “Jesus, you can do this with a crime novel?” The other two in my “living triumvirate” – James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell – prompted that reaction too. What makes these guys special, and what I’d like to learn to do in my own stuff, is that they combine an intellectual awareness of plot and structure with an unerring emotional awareness of character. I mean, there’s a real emotional honesty with their books, and that’s what makes great writing to me. Of course, when that honesty comes into play, I think there’s a definite shift into the shadows because it’s more interesting. Bruen’s darkness is bitter, sardonic; Sallis’ almost existential; and Woodrell conjures up an almost classical sense of tragedy. Add to that their incredible brevity and clarity of thought, and you’ve got the best in the business. So I’m a student with formidable teachers, and they’re just the ones who are alive. Don’t get me started on Charles Willeford, Derek Raymond and Jim Thompson… There’s a great bit in Raymond’s The Devil’s Home On Leave where the nameless DS’s boss says, “If you will stay a sergeant, you’ll always get the shitty end of the stick.” And the reply: “Maybe, but I think that’s the end where the truth is.”
So that’s what it’s all about – trying to find a shitty truth.
In your biography you make mention of the fact that you used to be a croupier until some masked men ram raided your place of work. Tell me more?
Ah, one of those stories that make good copy. Can’t go into it too much, I’m afraid, because it’s going to be a major plot point in the “sequel” to The Big Blind. But, yeah, we were doing the table floats at the end of the night when a truck came through the wall. Course, we all bolted for the nearest exit. I was the unlucky sod who still had the pit keys in my hand, so I dumped them and we all barrelled out the back. Apparently, these guys had ski masks and shotguns, but I didn’t see ‘em. Amazing how fast you can run when you think you’re going to be taken hostage. Anyway, we had a gaping hole in the side of the casino when we opened for business the next afternoon (I was on a double shift the next day), as well as offers of counselling from the bosses. By that time, I’d already considered moving on. Having a truck come through the wall pretty much made my decision for me, though. After all the shit I went through on a nightly basis in that place, the idea of getting physically hurt for someone else’s money was a wee bit too much. Besides, I already had enough material...
Your first novel, The Big Blind , received some great reviews and critical acclaim in the US. Any plans for it to be brought to the fore in the UK?
As far as I'm aware, there are no plans to release The Big Blind as a new book over here. I know we discussed it at one point, but I don’t know if either my publisher or agent are even interested. It's still in print in the States, but it's a debut novel, y'know? If it looks like it's going to fall out of print, I'll look into shopping it around, but as long as it's available, I'm pretty happy with that. I am planning a sequel of sorts, though, following the pit boss from The Big Blind, Graham Ellis, and his subsequent downfall.
How do you feel about authors and their publishers being seemingly reluctant to experiment and push back the boundaries of crime fiction? Are there any scenarios about which you simply will not write?
Here’s the thing: big publishers are always going to be reluctant to let their authors experiment because big publishers are looking to sell as many books as possible to as many people as possible. It’s natural to assume that this mindset, when applied to a sales-orientated author, results in derivative, lowest common denominator fiction. Been that way since Year Dot, it’s not going to change. Derivative fiction happens to be extremely popular.
Stands to reason that a lot of the experimentation is actually happening outside of the large publishers and some literary publishers are looking to crime. I’m lucky in that my US and UK publishers both have more literary lists than their larger contemporaries. I’ve basically been told that I can write whatever I want, which is incredibly liberating. They’re also not on at me to be The Next Big Thing, which is good, because with my neuroses, I’d probably end up topping myself.
So, yeah, I can write what I want, but there’s plenty I wouldn’t write about. I’ve never felt the need to discuss child abuse or rape in any great detail, mainly because I don’t think I have the ability, not at this stage in my fledgling career anyway, to do the subjects enough emotional justice – there’s a level at which some authors discuss these things that borderlines on pornography. And the idea of a serial killer book makes me want to vomit. As does a police procedural. Very difficult for me to even consider a type of book I wouldn’t read myself.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing aspiring authors these days? Do you enjoy the promotional process?
The biggest obstacle is bad advice, which is why I try not to give it anymore. Too many blogs where supposedly established authors tell the congregation exactly how to get published, and why you should be spending more time and effort marketing your book than writing it. Then there’s the agent-publisher Catch 22, the whole idea of “marketability” and this idiotic idea that being thick is hip, and that having any kind of artistic pretension on top of your ambition to write solid stories is somehow frowned upon.
The online promotional stuff is mainly taken care of by my wife, so I enjoy that aspect of it. I did used to have a blog, but I think that ship’s sailed for me – too little time spent writing, too much time spent being opinionated. But I’ve been getting quite a few events through the tireless staff at Polygon and Publicity & The Printed Word and, if I’m honest, it can be hard-going. When you’re starting out on the publicity trail, it’s inevitable that nobody knows who you are, and with me writing what I do, I’m either not going to be popular, or some readers are going to associate the characters with the author and think I’m a bit of a psycho. Either way, some events can be salvaged simply by meeting like-minded individuals, so it can be worth it. Really, I’m not moaning here – I like a bit of travelling, me.
Give three tips to aspiring authors desperate to have their book published. What do you do when you're not writing? What do you read? What are you currently reading?
What’d I tell you about advice? Sheesh. Okay… Christ, I don't know the first thing about getting published. I was really lucky. But if I was approaching the whole process again, back at square one with a manuscript to hand, here's what I'd want someone to say.
First tip: Get an agent. You don't need an agent to sell a book, but having one helps immeasurably and chances are, you're going to get screwed on your first contract without one. It's nothing personal, but any publisher will try to get as much as they can, as cheap as they can. I know, looking for an agent is a hassle and a half, but it will be necessary and your life will be made so much easier - your agent will be able to get away with some terrible behaviour on your behalf. So get an agent.
Second tip: Keep writing. Keep doing it. You do not have a finite number of words in your head; your talent will not run out. If you keep writing, keep submitting, you will not only make a name for yourself, but you'll also be doing what a lot of people don't want to hear: you'll be learning your fucking craft, which is the most important thing. Because publishing will change, trends will change, but you will only be getting better. And if you feel like giving up, give up. If you can give up, then this business ain’t for you. If you can’t, keep plugging away.
Third tip: Keep it as personal as possible when you’re writing, and as objective as possible when you’re editing. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief in the long run if you do that. Believe me, it’s something I have a great deal of trouble with at times.
When I’m not writing, I tend to be sleeping, at the day job, or sleeping at the day job. We don’t have reception on our telly (haven’t had reception for about two years), so we tend to watch a lot of movies and DVD box-sets (just finished season two of The Wire and waiting on the third to arrive; I’m also a rabid Deadwood fan). Most of my reading takes place on the Metro to work or on trains to events. As such, I’ve managed to read quite a bit this past month, mostly crime: The Not-Knowing, Cathi Unsworth; Citizen Vince, Jess Walter; Muscle For The Wing, Daniel Woodrell; Black Hornet, James Sallis; all four of the Hoke Moseley books by Charles Willeford and a bunch more. All of them come highly recommended. I get my reading recs from a certain Allan Guthrie, who’s like the best pimp in town when it comes to literature – he was the one who turned me on to Ed McBain’s Guns, which is just a perfect and honest noir. At the moment, I’ve got Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (which is just heartbreaking from page one and beautifully written) and I’m going through my Derek Raymonds with The Devil’s Home On Leave. So with those two, you can bet your balls I’m in a bright mood.
Of what does your typical writing day consist? Do you have set times in which you write or particular routines to follow?
I don’t really have a typical writing day – at least, I haven’t had one lately. With the day job an’ all, it’s skittish to say the least. But I’ve just gone part-time (got my Wednesdays off), so I keep office hours if I can – nine to five – and then wind down. I can normally get about seven to eight thousand words done like that. Then there’s normally a day or both on the weekends, some nights if I’m not too tired. But I have to be regularly writing or I get incredibly cranky – a week’s about the most I can manage without doing it. The Big Blind, I wrote mostly drunk and angry, which made editing a pain in the arse. But all I need now’s coffee and water. I have a couple of beers now, and I just end up staring at the monitor.
What's next for Cal Innes and Ray Banks?
Good question. I’m not sure. The Innes books look like they’re coming out like this at the moment: Donkey Punch May 2007, with No More Heroes in September and Beast Of Burden coming in 2008. Saturday’s Child will be out in the US this autumn, with the rest following on an annual basis. In the meantime, I’ve got to finish off the Innes books and get sequels to The Big Blind done, as well as a new series I’ve been thinking about for a while, kind of a Geordie nod to the Chester Himes Coffin Ed and Gravedigger books. Then there are all the standalones. Oh yeah, and there’s the short stories and non-fiction, which I’ve been letting slide recently.
Rays’ short story PHILLIE’S LAST DANCE can be found online: PHILLIE’S LAST DANCE