In the world of up and coming UK crime writers, there are none so uppity as Edinburgh-based hack turned hardboiled honcho Tony Black, whose debut, Paying For It has received a lot of attention among crime fic fans. Tony, who also edits the Pulp Pusher ezine, took time from his busy schedule to talk to Damien Seaman about publicising his work, his take on Scotland’s ‘genteel’ capital, and who he’d choose to play protagonist Gus Dury on film.
Damien: The book’s been out in the UK for a couple of months now. What’s it been like publicising your debut novel? And what kind of response have you had?
Tony: The first time a hack put a tape recorder on me, I have to admit, I thought…gulp. Doing radio and festivals and so on is a bit daunting to begin with but after a while you just get on with it. There’s been a fair amount of interest in the Scottish press because it’s a new Edinburgh-based serial and we tend to make a lot of those up here…we have a good track record, you see.
Damien: How would you summarise the story?
Tony: It’s a gritty, pacey slice of Celtic Noir. A murder mystery told in a thriller style. My protagonist Gus Dury is a former hack who’s lost just about everything when his surrogate father figure asks him to look into the brutal torture and murder of his only son. Gus is a damaged man and the case becomes his idée fixe, he assumes if he can get to the root of the murder he will find some salvation.
Damien: Ian Rankin, Allan Guthrie, Alexander McCall Smith: what does your vision of Edinburgh offer to readers that they can’t find elsewhere?
Tony: Very good question. I’ve already been compared to both Rankin and Guthrie and the comparisons are inevitable I suppose - and very flattering - but no two writers look at life through the same eyes. So, my Edinburghreally has to be mine alone. Much as I’m following in the footsteps of some great writers, the aspects of the city that inspire me are not necessarily the same as anyone else’s. One reviewer, Ali Karim, made an interesting point, though, about how I render Edinburgh - he actually warns readers that the novel ‘casts a long shadow over such a beautiful Scottish city’. I think that sums up a lot about how I feel about the place: yeah, it looks nice, but scratch the surface…
Damien: Your protagonist Gus Dury seems a passionate idealist who hates injustice and tries to do something about it. Who or what was the inspiration behind this character?
Tony: He’s the little guy, the everyman, the bloke shaking his head over the newspaper at the state of the world each morning. There’s millions like him. The only thing different about Gus is that he’s gone over the edge. He doesn’t care about taking matters into his own hands - righting the injustice - because he believes that if he hits rock bottom…he might bounce back.
Damien: How Edinburgh-specific do you think the book is? Can readers learn something about modernEdinburgh by reading about Gus Dury or is this simple entertainment?
Tony: It’s very Edinburgh specific - I couldn’t have set this book anywhere else. Scotland’s capital is a very schizophrenic place, the high contrasts of grandeur and gutter are not unique but they’ve been made into an art form here. I wrote PAYING FOR IT whilst working on a daily newspaper in the city and a lot of the incidents I saw coming across my desk at that time became themes in the book…things like people trafficking, prostitution, Eastern European gang activity.
Damien: Gus Dury is an ex-newspaper man and amateur PI. You’re a newspaper man. Are you sick of being asked about the links between the two in interviews?
Tony: Yes. God, yes. To be honest, it’s not so much that I get tired of taking about newspapers, it’s the fact that I can remember what they used to be like and how passionate people who work on them used to be, before the game went to shit. It’s never been a worse time to be a hack, the bean counters and David Brent-esque editors are systematically engaged in running the show into the ground.
Damien: Paying For It tackles corruption in high places among other things. How much do your personal politics come out in your work?
Tony: Very little…unless you count that I pretty much agree with Gus that all politicians should be rounded up and shot. Then fed to pigs.
Damien: There’s a fair amount of violence in the book. Does Paying For It glamorise violence?
Tony: Can violence be glamorous? I’ve never found it to be so. You’re right, though, there is violence in there, but I don’t use it to pad out the plot or simply for effect. Gus is walking some mean streets, it would be unrealistic to expect him to achieve his ends by a few nice words.
I’m not interested in violence as a means to an end; books that dwell on the crack of bones and the spray of blood, to be honest, bore me rigid. What causes violence, and the effects of it, are often left out of the equation and those are the points I want to explore.
Damien: As well as the violence, Paying For It has people trafficking and forced prostitution at the heart of the story. Is this cashing in on the headlines or something more? Is there any subject you won’t write about – violence against animals, for example?
Tony: These topics have been in the headlines a lot, but I didn’t choose them for that reason; why a writer chooses certain topics is a tricky one to answer and I’m not sure really what drew me to explore the dark subject matter in PAYING FOR IT. I do think there are some obvious cash-ins out there, the Madeline McCann case for example, but I wouldn’t be interested in moulding a story based on news grabs.
There are subjects I won’t tackle, simply because they don’t interest me. It all comes down to story at the end of the day, if I came up with a good enough storyline, and I could make it work, I’d be open minded. I’d certainly tackle violence against animals, if for nothing else to highlight the repugnance of it; in fact my next book, GUTTED, is about dog fighting.
Damien: What draws you to hardboiled crime writing? What makes you want to explore the darker side of life?
Tony: There’s something about the people on the edge of society that interests me, the cracked, damaged individuals…their stories seem real. I’ve never been able to read mannered tales from the drawing-room, it’s always been the grit that draws me.
Damien: There are a number of US-influenced UK crime writers now, including you, Al Guthrie, Ray Banks, Cathi Unsworth, maybe David Peace. Do you think British authors can compete with the current crop of US writers, or is there still some way to go?
Tony: We’re definitely holding our own. You only need to look at the raves coming from the US for the writers you mention to see how they’ve been accepted over the Pond. If we were to extend the boundary across the Irish Sea, then Ken Bruen has a fair claim to leading a charge that the Americans are following. There’s certainly a formidable crop of talent from this side of the Atlantic right now.
Damien: How much have films influenced your work?
Tony: I love film, but its influence is diminishing all the time. There’s so many remakes and bloody pastiche these days that it’s harder to find new movies to get excited about. It’s interesting though, thinking about some of your earlier questions, I grew up on Clint Eastwood movies and he always played characters with a violent streak and a search for justice…hmnnn.
Damien: Many have commented on the book’s filmic quality. Did you have film adaptation in mind when you wrote it? Who plays Gus Dury in the perfect film version you carry round in your mind?
Tony: I’ve had that a lot, I don’t quite know what gives a novel a ‘filmic’ quality but I’ll take the compliment, ta very much. I wasn’t actually thinking of a movie adaptation - I think that would be a recipe for disaster - I was only interested in writing the best book that I possibly could. But as for who plays Gus Dury, it would have to be Robert Carlyle, no question.
Damien: You were born in Australia and spent some of your formative years in Ireland. How has this influenced your writing?
Tony: I love both countries and have a heap of great memories from them, which means I can pretty much slip into the voices of characters from both countries effortlessly. I’ve written a few short stories featuring Aussies, and I’ve got a whole crime novel mapped out set in Melbourne I’d love to write one of these days. I’ve also got a couple of unpublished novels, one set in Ireland and one set in Australia called THE LAST TIGER about the demise of the Tasmanian tiger - I actually sold that one but the publisher went bust.
Damien: Paying for It is about to come out in Ireland. How does that make you feel?
Tony: It’s actually out there now, and in Australia…I’m over the moon. My Irish and Aussie friends have just been so excited about it too, and helping to publicise it. I’m blessed to have these connections with places I love so much.
Damien: If you had to name your top three literary influences, who would they be and why?
Tony: Ernest Hemingway - the economy of his prose, those short, declarative sentences that appear to say nothing, but actually, say it all.
Robert Burns - put his life into his work and made his life the work.
Ken Bruen - breathed new life into a tired genre with true style…and substance.
Damien: What can you tell us about the next Gus Dury novel?
Tony: GUTTED kicks off with Gus stumbling over the mutilated corpse of a man on Edinburgh’s Corstorphine Hill. The victim is a gang member who was recently in the frame for the killing of a toddler in a pit bull attack. To complicate matters, fifty grand is missing from the scene of the crime and Gus is under suspicion. His investigation leads him into the city’s sink estates and an underground dog-fighting culture with links to bent coppers, a jailed gang lord and a judge with a guilty secret.
Damien: Did you write GUTTED any differently from Paying For It? Did you plan more? Have a clearer idea of the various characters? Did you feel any pressure to surpass Paying For It?
Tony: Well, each book is different but the process for GUTTED was more or less the same. I certainly had a clearer idea of the characters - it’s the same cast as PAYING FOR IT - so that made it somewhat simpler. There is a huge pressure to make the second book every bit as good as the first - it’s like difficult second album syndrome! By all accounts GUTTED is the book everyone at my publishers wanted and I’ve shown it to a few people and been rapt with their responses. We put a taster of the first chapter of GUTTED in the paperback of PAYING FOR IT and when it came back the typesetter had scrawled on it: ‘When does this come out? I have to read it now!’
Damien: How much mileage do you see in Gus and his adventures? How are you going to keep readers coming back for more? Have you planned a story arc spanning a certain number of books or are you playing it more by ear?
Tony: There’s certainly a few more books, it’s a series with no end in sight for me. I’ve talked to a few writers about this and some clearly do envisage a set number, a trilogy or whatever, for their character, but I haven’t got anything set in stone for Gus.
There are a number of storylines that will run and run, Gus’s on-off relationship with Debs and his seeming inability to kick-start his career etcetera…the name of the game is to keep myself interested, I’m by no means done with Gus.
Read Ali Karim's interview with Tony
PAYING FOR IT published by Preface Publishing
(17th July 2008) £16.99 HBK
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