Allan Guthrie’s latest novel, Savage Night follows two maladjusted Edinburgh families on an unstoppable cycle of revenge so violent – and yet so natural – that it amounts to a kind of fucked-up genius. Fans take note: the book marks the highpoint so far of Guthrie’s multiple narrative technique. Newcomers should read it under medical supervision; easy on the nerves it is not. I caught up with Guthrie – who also goes by the sobriquet of ‘Sunshine’ – to plumb the depths of his entertaining madness.
Damien Seaman: How would you sum up Savage Night in one sentence?
Allan Guthrie: Ah, I always wondered if reading Henry James might come in useful one day. And here we are, at last. One convoluted cheat of a sentence describing Savage Night coming up.
Savage Night, which follows two Edinburgh families – the Parks, spearheaded by Andy, a blithe psychopathic fireraiser who happens to be haemophobic; and the Savages, led by Tommy, an ex-tobacco smuggler who fancies himself as a pacifist – is a bloody revenge tragedy that finally answers, after six intense and frenetic hours, the question of just how much blood both men will spill to avenge those they love.
DS: Savage Night takes its title from Jim Thompson. Should crime fiction fans see this as a straight ahead tribute?
AG: It’s a blithe-psycho noir, but any similarities end there. All my novels borrow titles (or variations of titles) from mid-twentieth century crime paperback originals. Two-Way Split was originally Three-Way Split by Gil Brewer; Kiss Her Goodbye was Wade Miller; Hard Man was David Karp; and of course Savage Night was by Jim Thompson.
DS: Is this because you can't come up with any titles of your own?
AG: Funnily enough I’m pretty good at coming up with titles for other people. But I suck when it comes to my own books, usually because I haven’t a clue what they’re about before I start writing. I wrote a novella, Kill Clock, which is my own title. The next novel, Slammer, is also my own. In both cases, I knew what I was going to write about before I started. But usually the working draft of one of my books (any book) is Blithe Psychopaths.
DS: Would you agree that the book’s narrative structure owes more to filmmakers such as Tarantino than to your literary influences? Can we expect you to experiment more with form and structure in the future?
AG: I’m not sure that I’ve ever been particularly influenced by novelists. My main influences are probably from the theatre and cinema. I read a heap of plays when I was a teenager and developed particular passions for Jacobean drama and the Absurdists, which is quite possibly where the interest in dramatising scenes of violence and tragi-comedy stem from.
But it’s hard to know what’s influential. I think you can see traces of David Goodis’s influence in my first novel. The others, I can’t say. I’ve been reading a lot of Ted Lewis recently and I’d have said he was influential if it weren’t for the fact that most of my books were written before I’d read him.
The structure is a decidedly cinematic one, as you say. Hard Man was too, but in a different way. Movies, undoubtedly, have had a large impact on me, but probably more from learning to write screenplays than from watching the actual films.
DS: The book seeks to generate equal sympathy for the two violent families out to get revenge on each other, and never judges either of them. Is this a fair summary, and why did you write it in this way?
AG: Usually a novel has a protagonist and an antagonist, a good guy and a bad guy, a hero and a villain – however you want to put it. I broke with that tradition with my first novel, where there’s no clear protagonist. If you have two characters (or more) with opposing/conflicting goals, I don’t see why you shouldn’t do your best as an author to put both sides of the argument across. So that was the idea with Savage Night. It morphed into something a little different, more of an ensemble piece. But you’re absolutely right to say I don’t try to suggest favouring one family over the other. They are who they are and it’s entirely up to the reader to respond as they see fit.
Just to pick up on the sympathy aspect. It’s hard to sympathise with most of the characters I write. For instance, Effie and Martin are introduced chopping up a corpse. Since not many of us know what that’s like, never having done it, we can’t sympathise. So I always stress empathy over sympathy. I try to put the reader in the character’s head, so that the reader experiences what the narrator experiences and therefore empathy comes more easily. And I try to do that with every character who takes over the narration. I think I’ve been pretty consistent about that over the course of my writing. That’s also why emotions and sensory experiences are so important – we may not know what it’s like to chop up a body, but we’ve all experienced disgust, fear, horror, the smell of blood, and so on.
DS: Did the novel evolve according to the demands of the story as you wrote it?
AG: The first thing I wrote was the Effie and Martin section. Once I had about 10,000 words, I started to ask myself what on earth was going on, cause, frankly, I had no idea. All I knew was that there was this couple chopping up bodies and that someone was watching them. I was intrigued, and it occurred to me that readers might be too. So when I started trying to find the story, I bore in mind that it’d be good to allow readers to find the story too. Hence the in media res style opening and the ensuing fragmented narrative.
DS: Do you sometimes deliberately come up with characters who are difficult to empathise with?
AG: I would hate to think I write characters who are difficult to empathise with. Difficult to sympathise with, sure, because the reader hasn’t been there and done it. But I trust in the imagination of the reader to be able to place themselves in a position where empathy isn’t too much of a struggle. As for the type of characters I write about, I just try to write about the sort of people who fascinate me in the hope that they fascinate readers too.
DS: Do you feel like you are building up a consistent body of work, thematically?
AG: I don’t think much about themes. I think exhaustively about story, characters, scenes, details, emotions, sensory experiences, as I just mentioned. But themes arise out of everything else and I let them take care of themselves.
DS: You’ve said in the past you don’t feel the need for fiction writers to impart any morality or push any messages in their work. Why do you think that?
AG: I try to keep myself out of my writing as much as possible. I like to let my characters do the talking, and they frequently have different opinions from me (and from one another). Authorial intrusion is a bugbear of mine, and imparting morality or pushing messages smacks of it to me. I can’t read anything that’s even slightly preachy – I become disengaged from the story when I think I hear the author trying to tell me something.
Some people would claim that all texts contain a moral message. If the killer gets away with murder, for instance, that may be seen by some to be immoral, whereas others would see it as a reasonable story choice, given that it’s not exactly unheard of in the real world. Certainly the choices I make as a writer reflect how best to serve the story, not how best to make a moral point or get a message across. If I start to prioritise the latter (although exactly what message it might be that anybody would want to hear from me, I don’t know), then the story will most likely suffer.
That’s not to say that you can’t read messages into what I write. ‘Violence hurts’, for instance, might be a recurring ‘message’. But that’s hardly earth-shattering. ‘Morality is complex’, might be another. Again, the significance of a message so banal is debatable.
But I do have an idea for a satirical novel (not a crime novel) that’s all about the premise. The message won’t get in the way of the story, because the story is the message. And there won’t be any authorial intrusion because the protagonist will be the author. So never say never. I might even write it one day.
DS: But wouldn't it be possible to write a crime novel in that way, in which the story is the message and you can avoid authorial intrusion? And isn't it only when an author writes badly that they intrude?
AG: In my own writing thus far I’m more interested in story than message. I try to write with the focus on story and if readers see a message in the story, hopefully that’s a byproduct of the story. I’m sure it’s possible to write a crime novel where the story is the message, but when that happens, I tend to think of it as story rather than message. Maybe we’re just talking semantics here. I would agree that it’s bad writing when an author’s message intrudes, but others would disagree strongly. A lot of political writers are considered pretty good, but I’d rather read Caldwell over Steinbeck.
DS: Despite that, the themes of understanding and forgiveness seem to run through your work. Is this deliberate? Do you think about Christian concepts of forgiveness when you write?
AG: I hope I write about people in all their many guises. Some people are understanding and forgiving, some aren’t. Andy Park, for instance, can hardly be said to be forgiving, unlike Joe Hope (Kiss Her Goodbye), say.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean about Christian concepts of forgiveness, but I suspect if I’d consciously thought about it and wanted to introduce such a thing into Savage Night, I’d have included a communion scene, the drinking of the ‘blood of Christ’ being pertinent to the book. But, unfortunately, that never crossed my mind. None of the characters are religious, either, come to think of it, so maybe it’s just as well.
DS: I meant that, to me, your work tends to stimulate understanding and forgiveness in your readers for all your characters. And by Christian concepts of forgiveness, I mean that your work, whether deliberately or not, challenges readers to remember that only those without sin cast the first stone; or that it's more important to empathise than to judge when people do bad things. How do you respond to that?
AG: Very kind of you to say so, Damien, but I can assure you not everyone feels that way. Ideally, I’d like readers to get to the end of Savage Night and feel a sense of loss. I’m not sure about forgiveness and understanding. Maybe that’s how some readers might see things, but if you think about the misery and punishment I’ve inflicted on these characters as their author, I don’t think you could say I was particularly forgiving. But maybe it’s because I’m tough that readers can feel pity. The relationships between author, characters and reader are enormously complex.
DS: Your three-book deal with Polygon was said to be the largest in that publisher’s history at the time. What pressure did that put on you? Do you think your writing ever suffered as a result?
AG: I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. The only novel I’ve written since that deal was Savage Night (Hard Man was already written), and I’m quite fond of it, so I don’t see my writing as having suffered. Others may disagree, of course. As for pressure: I’m not a fan of pressure. Some people need it, others don’t. And I really don’t. I turn white, and sweat, and can’t think. Which isn’t very helpful.
Writing a book that you know is going to be published is a little odd, though. Maybe it’s something you get used to over time, but I’m accustomed to writing novels on spec in the hope but not expectation that they might be good enough to publish.
DS: You have won, or been nominated for, several awards. How seriously do you take awards, and how important do you think they can be to new writers?
AG: Getting shortlisted is a tremendous boost, and writers all benefit from the lift. Anything positive is a godsend. I’ve been lucky enough to win two and the feeling’s pretty special. As to their importance – I think that depends on various factors. For instance, when Kiss Her Goodbye got nominated for an Edgar, I was at the end of a contract and Hard Man was written. I’d been offered a two-book deal a week or two before the nominations were announced, but that changed virtually overnight to a three-book deal, and for quite a bit more money. An ideal situation, but not one you can plan for.
DS: A German edition of Kiss Her Goodbye launches this Easter. An Italian version of Two Way Split has already been published. How did these deals come about? How significant are foreign publishing deals to an author’s reputation?
AG: The Italian deal for Two-Way Split was signed before I even had a UK publisher. It was as simple as Einaudi approaching me and asking if they could publish the book. They went on to buy another three books. Kiss Her Goodbye is being published by Rotbuch Verlag, who have licensed Hard Case Crime in Germany, and they’ve also just bought three more of my books. I’ve also sold books to Spain, Finland and France. So the foreign rights deals are trickling in nicely. I’m not sure how significant foreign deals are to an author’s reputation, but it can make a big difference to an author’s income – or in terms of advances on deals that include translation rights.
DS: What can you tell us about your next book?
AG: It’s a prison novel called Slammer, written from the perspective of a young prison officer, Nick Glass, who’s having a bad time, both at work and at home. It’s a proper noir, exploring the territory somewhere between Two-Way Split and Savage Night. And it’s unusual in being the first novel of mine to be published that’s told entirely by one character.
DS: That is a departure for you. Why have you limited yourself to a single protagonist this time?
AG: Different stories require different approaches. Slammer needs to have a
single voice telling the story because ... well, I don't want to give
anything away. Also, it's good to take a break from having half-a-dozen
voices buzzing in my head.
DS: Your three-book Polygon deal ends later this year. Are there any more deals in the pipeline?
AG: Slammer most likely won’t be out till next year. I need to finish it before I start contemplating another deal. So at the moment, no, nothing in the pipeline.
DS: You’re a literary agent as well as an author. How do you juggle the two to make time for the writing? And do you manage to have a social life?
AG: I don’t know many writers who have a social life. Most have day jobs and write in the evenings and weekends. I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I don’t have a day job. At one point I was working in a bookshop, editing, agenting and writing. Now I’m just agenting and writing, and the agenting is part-time. So I feel like I have quite a bit of time. Also, bear in mind that at my level, the time demands on the writing aren’t that excessive. It’s not as if I’m on national tours or what have you. Writing a book a year doesn’t take up that much time. And fortunately the agenting work is highly flexible. It’s a pretty good combination.
DS: As both a rising star of crime fiction and a literary agent, what advice can you give to other writers, both on writing and on getting published?
AG: Learn the craft. Network. Think about story, because good writing isn’t enough. Don’t even think about giving up until you’ve received at least 1000 rejections. If you’re short of time, stop watching TV and going to the pub. Write short stories (good practice and potential publishing credits).
DS: Finally, if Britain was on fire and you only had time to save one other native crime writer, who would it be and why?
AG: Well, given that it was undoubtedly me who started the fire in a bold bid to get rid of the competition, I wouldn’t be saving anyone. I’d be standing at a safe distance shouting, “Burn, ya native bastards, burn,” and hurling petrol cans into the flames. Unfortunately, most crime writers are instinctive survivors, so I suspect they’d all escape unharmed, while I’d end up sloshing petrol all over myself and setting myself alight.
Damien Seaman’s crime fiction and non-fiction articles have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Noir Originals and Spinetingler Magazine. Drop him a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
SAVAGE NIGHT is published by Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited (1 Mar 2008)
ISBN-10: 1846970199 ISBN-13: 978-1846970191
Visit Allan Guthrie’s website
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