Paul Heatley is one of the most compelling short story writers currently working in the UK, and now Brit-grit publisher Near To The Knuckle has published his excellent novella, An Eye For An Eye. Tom Leins caught up with Paul to discuss the lure of Americana and the appeal of violent stories.
The Straightener was one of my favourite short stories of yours, so I was very happy to see you explore the same world at greater length. Was the novella an itch that needed to be scratched straight away, or did the story come to you at a later date?
Thank you! The Straightener is a story I’m particularly proud of myself, nice to hear that it’s gone down so well. It’s one of those stories I always knew I wanted to write, I just kind of sat on it for a very long time. I read a lot of True Crime, for inspiration mainly. There’s one called ‘Fog On The Tyne’ by Bernard O’Mahoney, which is about a couple of crime families in Newcastle, and until I read that back in 2012 I’d never heard of a straightener. So basically I knew I wanted to write a story about one, but each time I attempted to start it kind of stalled. It wasn’t ready. And then, finally, the tail-end of 2015 arrived and suddenly it clicked. The Straightener was born.
When it comes to ‘An Eye For An Eye’, I actually had no idea I was ever going to go back to those characters. Tends to be I’ll write a story, send it out, and if it’s lucky enough to get published then that’s it done, I move on. Then Near To The Knuckle mentioned they were going to start up their Knuckle Cracking Novella line, and I thought to myself, ‘Right, yes, I want to be a part of that.’ But I had nothing.
Then it came to me. Revisit The Straightener, those characters – Graeme Taylor, Tracksuit Tony, Neil and Jasmine and Michael Doyle – there’s life in them yet. There’s a story there. But I didn’t know what it was. So, again, I sat on it. Near To The Knuckle want fast-paced, what can I give them? Revenge – who doesn’t love a good revenge tale? I got to thinking of Chester Himes’ caper novels, of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed – it’s a chase, who are they chasing, what’ve they done? So I sit down with a pen and paper, start planning it out, and it falls into place. The plan’s written, I got the first draft done in sixteen days. The second draft took longer. Sometimes it’s just a case of waiting, of being patient. So long as I’m working on something I can allow myself to be patient. The idea’s always there, that seed, it just germinates until finally it’s a tree that if I study its leaves I can make some sense of it.
The violence in An Eye For An Eye was unflinching – particularly the fight scene involving Paddy – were you worried that it was too gratuitous (or not gratuitous enough)?
That fight particularly, I wanted it to feel like you were there, to feel realistic – have you seen the film Kill List? The scene in that film with the hammer, it’s brutal, it’s like you’re in the room with them. He twats it off the guy’s head and his skull doesn’t burst like a piece of fruit – the hammer bounces. That served as a big inspiration for the Paddy fight.
As for was I worried – not particularly. I think the violence was as gratuitous as it needs to be. I think it was a believable level of violence. Two guys trying to kill each other, they’re not gonna pull their punches. They’re gonna curse and bite and spit and claw and use anything to hand. They get a knife in, they’re gonna twist it.
What draws you to these kind of violent stories?!
Ha! I guess we’ve all got our tastes, that’s where mine runs. There’s a catharsis in fictional violence, a vicarious thrill. Deep down, male and female, we’re all still cavemen. Deep down we’ve still got that lizard brain – that fight it, kill it, eat it. And we’re all looking for our own ways to quell that little voice that wants to live in a cave and fight anyone that comes near it. People have their vices, everyone does. They gorge themselves on food and television and prayer. Some fight professionally, in rings and cages, and some fight in streets and bars and their own houses.
And some of us write about it, read about it, watch it in movies. It’s a healthy way to get it out your system. I guess that’s where it comes from.
I think that Graeme Taylor is a great character – unflashy, but fully rounded. He seems thoroughly believable – does he have a real-life counterpart?
Not in my life, at least. I think he’s just a kind of general, world-weary type Geordie bloke. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, he just keeps finding himself in situations where he has to do bad things. I kind of subscribe to the Jim Thompson school, usually I don’t care if my characters are likeable, but with Graeme it was different. I liked him, I wanted others to like him. And most people that have talked to me about An Eye For An Eye, they’ve liked him. Back when I read ‘One Day In The Life Of Jason Dean’ by Ian Ayris (and this would have been way back, when it was still being put out by Byker Books, I think) I was struck by his notion of the heavy that could comfortably discuss philosophy and classical music. I wanted to put some of that into Graeme, though without it being such a heavy-handed rip-off. That’s where a lot of the opening of The Straightener comes from, when he’s talking about Van Gogh. Sure, he’s a thug and he’s under no illusions that he’s anything else, but there’s a brain in his head. He’s got interests. He admires art.
Physically, I’ve got this image of him in my head, he’s like a stockier, Geordie Peter Mullan. Of course, if I was going to limit my thought process to only Geordie actors, who’ve I got? Tim Healy? Kevin Whately? Jimmy Nail? I mean, I’m sure there are other Geordie actors out there that didn’t appear in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, but right now I’m struggling to think of them. Charlie Hunnam’s too young. Anyway, Graeme doesn’t look like any of them.
But I’m digressing. Like I say, I can’t really pinpoint anyone I would think of and say ‘That’s Graeme.’
Can we expect to see the Doyle Family, Graeme Taylor or Tracksuit Tony – or any combination thereof – again in the future?
Yes – BUT – I don’t know when. Maybe I should say maybe. Maybe we’ll see them again.
But there’s another story in there, I’m sure of it. I don’t know what it is yet, but if we consider where the characters were at when we left off, it’s something I’m interested to explore further. A work colleague who’s read it, she said Graeme was like a Geordie Marlowe. I’m very pleased with that comparison – who wouldn’t be? But, to me at least, they’re not the kind of double-act that can stumble from incident to incident. They have to be tied up with the Doyle family, and that’s not something that could be realistically drawn out. There’s one more in them, just one.
As it stands, there are certainly some open ends to their story. Some resolution is needed. So far there’s been a short story and a novella. It feels like to wrap it up it almost certainly has to be a novel-length work. I’ll get there. The seed’s planted, it’s in the dark at the minute but occasionally I’ll water it.
A significant chunk of your impressive short story output has been Americana-flavoured. Is it harder or easier to explore the North East through your fiction?
I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve never had an American editor/publisher come back to me and say ‘What’s this shit? What’re you trying to pull, you Limey fuck?’ They don’t seem to mind, or at least they’re incredibly patient, when I spell realise with an ‘s’, or stick a ‘u’ in colour or harbour.
Thing is, writers always hear this rule, ‘Write what you know.’ It’s a terrible rule. I hate it. Evidently, I’ve totally disregarded it. I’ve been to America once, for two weeks, to Florida.
But if I stop to consider – what do I know? I know Americana. I read American. I watch American. Above my writing desk I’ve got posters of Rocky, of James Dean, a Marilyn Monroe calendar, a list of Jack Kerouac’s techniques for modern prose which was given to me by my boss (who, coincidentally, is American). American fiction is where my heart lies, and I guess I just try to emulate it as best I can. I could maybe force myself to be more British, but then I wouldn’t be being true to myself, and it would show.
I actually find it harder to explore the North East. I KNOW the North East, I can’t afford to get it wrong. I describe a building as being one colour and I pass it a week later and it’s a different, it’s gonna eat me up. If it’s writing people, yeah, that’s fine. I can do that. But locale? I over think it, it takes the fun out.
If I’m writing something in America, I take artistic license as far as it will stretch. It’s like a movie, it’s just fantasy, it’s a Brit working blind’s interpretation of some post-apocalyptic-looking dying town where the factory’s been closed for the last decade and the waitresses in the local diner are losing their mind from hearing Buddy Holly on loop, where old-fashioned cars with massive fins cruise the roads looking for kicks, and no matter how dark it is there’s this Disneyland glow on the horizon.
I’m careful with what I set in the North East, in Newcastle. Newcastle is a marvellously noir city, but I’m careful not to oversaturate it. If I’m going to write about Newcastle, I’m going to take the James Ellroy approach. His characters live in LA, they come across each other, they interact. Dudley Smith, Ed Exley etc. It’s like Balzac, it’s like Zola, it’s building up this universe and all these characters live in it and for me, that’s much more rewarding than each book being its own self-contained universe.
An Eye For An Eye felt authentic and contemporary. Which British novels and films have influenced your storytelling?
Like I said above, I mostly read American. Most of the British authors I read I’m friends with on Facebook – yourself, Paul Brazill, Gary Duncan, Cal Marcius (I’ll stop there in case I forget anyone). Outside of that, there’s Ray Banks, Irvine Welsh, to a lesser extent Martin Amis. I really enjoyed Howard Linskey’s Drop, Damage, and Dead books, but now he’s with a bigger publisher he seems to be going the procedural route. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not for me. I’ve heard good things about Allan Guthrie and Derek Raymond. When it comes to British crime I really need to expand my horizons. I think Zadie Smith is incredible. She doesn’t fall under the crime banner, but she’s one of the greatest writers this nation has ever produced and the world is lucky to have her.
In terms of film, Get Carter, of course. Kill List, which I’ve mentioned already, and anything else by Ben Wheatley. I just watched Down Terrace for the first time the other week. There’s Shane Meadows, Dead Man’s Shoes particularly. It’s not a movie, but Top Boy was a phenomenal television show that just seemed to come to a very abrupt end. It could have been the UK’s The Wire. Channel 4 seems to keep dropping the ball like that – Utopia was brilliant too. And they cut it, for what? Fucking Coach Trip? Come Dine With Me? Bollocks.
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’ve never really thought about the hardships, I’ve always just assumed it was difficult all over to make an impact, regardless of nationality. The only exception to that would be the lack of ‘cons’ over here. There’s Bouchercon in the States, a few others. A penniless writer in the UK, it’s not exactly easy to hop on a jet and make it over for that kind of thing. Noir at the Bar seems to have made the journey, and it looks to have settled in Newcastle.
In terms of a British ‘scene’, as a British writer I don’t think I can answer that. It’s the kind of question I think could only really be answered by someone from overseas.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose?
Stephen King. I don’t need his money, I don’t need his fame – I want his output. If I can get all these ideas I have down on paper, get them out, like he has, that’s what I want. He’s transcended his genre, he’s a genre unto himself. He can write whatever he wants – horror, sci-fi, fantasy, crime – and book to book no one’s shocked that he’s mixing it up.
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the projects that you are working on next?
Well, I’m always working! I’ve found that if you keep writing, if you make sure you’re writing every day, being creative, you’re more susceptible to being struck by inspiration. Unfortunately that also means you’re pulling yourself off in ten different directions because you’re so excited about this new idea you don’t want to sit still and finish what it is you’re supposed to be finishing. I keep a list of my projects – what I need to plan, what I need to write, what I need to edit, and where I’m planning on sending them – currently it’s got six novel/novellas on it, three others to plan, and one short story. One of the novels/novellas is finished, and another I finished the first draft of last week. I’m planning on expanding it a hell of a lot, but I need to do some research for it first. I’m tentatively excited about it – ‘tentatively’ because sometimes things fall apart – but hopefully all the stuff I’m planning on adding, expanding it with, will work out. Fingers crossed!