UK writer Gareth Spark has earned many admirers over the last decade with his compelling short story output. Earlier this year, UK crime fiction website-turned-independent publisher Near To The Knuckle published his terrific crime novel, Marwick’s Reckoning. Tom Leins caught up with Gareth to discuss influences, irritants, and the long hard road out of small press obscurity.
Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your new book, Marwick’s Reckoning. You have written a string of great stories set in the North East over the years – what inspired you to make Spain the setting for your first novel?
Thanks for the kind words! The book has had a long journey to publication, I can tell you. The short answer is that I lived in Spain; specifically Cambrils on the Costa Daurada around, what year are we now? Around nine years back. Went out there following a dream that came to nothing, and literally the only thing of value I brought back from Spain were memories of a mood, this terrible sunlit kind of emptiness, light so bright it brought a kind of de Chirico surrealism to even the most mundane of exchanges and events. The town itself: lines of small bars, cafes with whole legs of ham behind flyblown windows, a solitary phone box standing lonely on a corner and above it all a sky of white that started to grey where it touched the earth; scents of baked sea grass and petrol fumes, of garlic, seafood and cigarettes. A heavy Spanish fatalism made me fall in love with the place. Over the years, only the essentials of the memory survived, making the place something more than just a country and a town, something mythic, an arena of human conflict stripped back to rock and dust, pagan and bloody and sunlit, perfect for the tragedy I needed to write.
The book has a timeless feel – like it could have been written at any time over the last 40 years – was this a conscious decision?
It wasn’t conscious in the sense that I sat down with a plan. I was more concerned with the bare bones of the story, this tragedy, than anything else. You know, the angry fates coming to settle with a bunch of people whose hubris set in chain a Noir apocalypse; that ancient Greek sense of the world putting itself to rights. I don’t want to date anything I write and strive for an effect that might match a folk tale, or a murder ballad. The action is key, not whether the main character logs into Facebook every night. The world of the story isn’t real… it’s an extrapolation of a kind of reality. It’s a paring down to essentials. I hate the kind of fiction that pretends to some kind of veristic authenticity that makes it somehow worthier than, dare I say it, genre work. Fiction isn’t like that, hell, the world isn’t like that. Imagination changes everything; it transforms the world we experience, in our memory, into myth, into story.
You offer an unflattering portrayal of middle-aged gone-to-seed gangsters. When you started writing the book was it a reaction to the wave of Brit gangster films and literature that seemed to dominate our country’s creative focus a few years ago?
I worked in a bar in Cambrils and met some characters who inspired the people in my book. They were a collection of fabulists, sportswear-clad Munchausens, who loved nothing more than to regale the half-empty bar with gritty tales of London street life. I suspect more than one of them was influenced by the literature/cinema to which you refer and it wouldn’t surprise me if not a few had started to believe their own stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There has always been a pulp glamour attached to the gangster in popular culture, and I wanted to explore what that kind of life really did to the men living it and what it did to their, forgive an antiquated expression, souls. I never had the sense of the Guy Ritchie gangsters as men with rounded lives and histories. They were cartoons. That may have been the point, but that kind of fiction has no interest for me as a writer. Give me Brighton Rock over Lock, Stock… any day. Therefore, in that sense, I guess it was a reaction. I wanted to show the real hellfire in that kind of life.
Which British novels and films have influenced your storytelling?
Graham Greene’s cinematic storytelling and depth have been a great influence. One has the sense that he has something to say, that his aim isn’t solely to beguile the time for an hour or two and this is critical in the writers to whose work I respond… they believe in big ideas and have something to say. Let’s see, Thomas Hardy, for his portrayal of small lives captured in the machinery of a malign universe. Eric Ambler, a fantastic writer, who’s ‘The Mask of Demetrius’ is the Noir novel I love the most. Ian Rankin, certainly has been an influence. The cinema has influenced me and my storytelling thoroughly, specifically films like ‘Get Carter’, and Shane Meadows ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’.
Your writing has a refreshingly poetic quality. Poetry and crime fiction seem like uneasy bedfellows – have you experienced much resistance to your approach over the years?
Well, I write poetry too (I’d hesitate to call myself a ‘poet’ though). My first three books are poetry collections, beginning back in, what, 2000? So I tend to go towards using that kind of imagery. I think if there’s anything distinctive about my writing it’s probably that there’s the odd arresting metaphor or image scattered throughout the text like bombs waiting to go off. There’s a poetry to everything, and the action of a crime novel or a roman noir, is essentially poetic. It has a Shakespearean movement. Iago and Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra…people are pushed into a corner by their pride or ambition and the chickens come home to roost. In another sense, I’m writing about specific places I know very well, and that gives me the luxury of description, of funnelling some of the epiphanies or images that occur to me as a poet into my fiction. Many books I’ve chanced across over the last few years read like screenplays with the most rudimental description attached. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me. I want to show people as real as I can write them, with lives you recognise, in a world that’s not an airless construct, but a real natural arena that affects their characters, their destinies. That to me is poetry.
Marwick’s Reckoning managed to keep me guessing until the final act. Was the whodunit aspect the hardest part of the book to write, or did the biggest challenge lie elsewhere?
Thank you for the compliment! It worked out like this… I’d written a good portion of the book and then, in one of those famous flashes of lightning writers like to talk about, it came to me who the murderer was. I’m not a great outliner, even when I’ve written an outline, I’ll rarely stick to it. The book becomes a journey and it’s amazing how it takes on a destiny of its own. The hope is that if the plot holds surprises and revelations for the author, then it also will for the reader. The pitfalls of this approach are obvious, however: going back to rewrite parts contradicting your later discoveries and approaches can be time consuming in the extreme… frustrating sometimes too. That would have been the greatest challenge in the writing of the book.
As a British crime writer, do you think that you have to work that little bit harder to make an impact within the independent crime world? Do you think there is a British ‘scene’ emerging?
I certainly think there’s a British scene emerging, especially with sites such as Near to the Knuckle supporting an almost punk brand of crime writing, that is an alternative to the mainstream breed. You have writers out there such as Paul D. Brazill, Darren Sant, Aidan Thorn, the currently M.I.A. Chris Leek, Nick Quantrill, Keith Nixon, and many more; things like the Number 13 series, Paul Brazill’s Brit Grit Alley, and publishers such as Near to the Knuckle, Caffeine Nights, et al. British crime writing has never been stronger. I would say that, in America, they don’t seem so hidebound to the detective story. Crime fiction over there has a greater variety. Still, I see small press British crime writers making an impact internationally, and it makes me happy. I’m proud to be a part of it.
You have been involved with the small press scene for quite some time – what advice would you give a 25-year-old Gareth? Are there any things you would have done differently over the years?
I would say to that younger version of myself not to be so distracted! To recognise the kind of thing you should be writing and work hard at that rather than labour at so many dead ends; to work harder and play less; to take every opportunity seriously and be a little less embarrassed about hustling some publicity, because if you don’t others will. How many times have we seen the loudest voice in the room become flavour of the month, when their work has little serious merit? The answer is, all too often. Pursue your work, your writing, because in the end the words, the good words, will last. Moreover, if you’re very lucky and you’ve worked hard enough at your craft, then those words, your voice, all that you know and feel and understand about the world, all your life has taught you, the person you are, will live and be heard a hundred years hence. There’s a lot of rejection waiting for you, a lot of bloodied noses and dark nights and hung-over mornings questioning whether it’s worth it, any of it. When you question the logic of working ten years at a craft when the nature of publishing has changed so radically that the writer’s income has dwindled to hardly anything; when you wonder why you spend years writing a book that may never see the light of day, while others are pursuing careers in engineering, or plumbing and making fortunes. Fight through it… fight with everything you’ve got and never cease fighting, because you’re carrying a vision that only you have and that needs to be given to the world. And I’d say the same to any struggling young writer: your work is important, it’s what you were born to do; the rewards are deeper and offer more satisfaction than the ability to buy a hot tub or a new car, or whatever the forces of commerce demand you need. You don’t need anything other than a pen and paper and time. This is a calling; respect it. Honour your vocation and never give in to doubt, not for a second.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose?
A writer I admire is Frank Bill author of ‘Crimes in Southern Indiana’. Like myself, he’s a working-class, a small-town guy, who wanted to write, to capture his world, and did so. He worked as a forklift driver in a warehouse, as I do, and published a collection of short stories that led onto his amazing novel ‘Donny Brook’. Now, he’s a well-respected writer, with great reviews AND people like Giovanni Ribisi travel to Corydon to hang with him. Maybe I can get some Hollywood types up to Whitby, who knows?
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the projects that you are working on next?
I’m about halfway into a novel about a kidnapping… I’ve got a novella somewhat near finished. I went down a bit of a dead end with a novel. I wrote the first draft, two years work, but it just wasn’t coming together and I think that’s because I was writing with one eye on what a publisher might be interested in. Screw that, NEVER do that. An agent was interested in the book, but I couldn’t publish it. The work was lifeless and lacked that (if you’ll pardon the pun) spark. Your books will last, they are your testament; it’s a serious business, and I just wasn’t prepared to publish something half-arsed. So, I junked it and went back to my roots. It was one of those blind alleys, but you live and learn. I’m writing a lot of poetry again, and getting some published, but I want to get back into short stories. Maybe I will when this novel’s finished and out there.