Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Tess Makovesky to discuss her new book, Gravy Train (All Due Respect).
Congratulations on the publication of your new book! How would you pitch Gravy Train to potential readers?
Thank you! I’m going to start with the same question I used to pitch the book to my publisher: how far would you go for £80,000?
Luckily, they didn’t report me for attempted bribery because this really is the premise of Gravy Train. It’s a breathless romp in which a group of low-lives and losers chase a bag of ill-gotten money around the back streets of Birmingham. They’re great at nicking it, but hopeless at hanging onto it, so when it all blows up into a showdown by the local canal it’s less about who wins and more about whether any of them manage to get their hands on it. Aside from the action (which has already been described as ‘raucous’ and ‘barnstorming’), there’s also a more serious message about greed, and just how far people are prepared to go for that much money. Violence, blackmail, sexual favours… Would you? Probably not – and I know I wouldn’t. But these guys are desperate enough that they just might.
What do you hope that readers take away from the book?
Apart from square eyes from reading it too quickly, you mean? Well, I hope they have as much fun reading it as I had putting it together, because it really was a joy to write. Even though (or perhaps because) the characters are so hopeless, they ended up getting under my skin and I hope the readers will care about them too. I also had a great time with the humour in the book – the slips, the trips, the sheer blazing coincidences – and I hope it will give everyone a giggle.
On top of that I hope that the book’s setting helps readers see Birmingham in a new light. Too often it’s portrayed as nothing but dull 1960s concrete when in actual fact it’s a fascinating and historic city full of odd nooks and unexpected sights. Although I can only put a fraction of that into each of my books, I’m hoping readers will be intrigued enough by the descriptions of Five Ways island, Gas Street canal basin and the Victorian suburbs of Moseley and Acocks Green to want to go and find out more for themselves.
Oh – and then there’s the scattered references to Pink Floyd lyrics (mostly from Have a Cigar, which also spawned the book’s title), which people might have fun tracking down. And then there are the elephants…
Birmingham seems like a great setting for a crime caper – are there any notable Birmingham/Midlands crime novels that you would recommend?
Your readers will probably shout at me but off the top of my head I can’t think of many crime books set in the city, which surprises me because it’s such a classic location for crime fiction. However, there is one author who leaps to mind – the late and much missed Joel Lane. He wrote two or three novels set in and around the city, and my own favourite is From Blue to Black. This noir masterpiece is set mostly in the leafy Birmingham suburb of Moseley, where I lived for many years, and involves a musician falling in half-love, half-hero worship with the lead singer of a rock band. Needless to say, there’s no happy ending, but the use of language is incredible and the strange, pared-down grey-scale palette with occasional flashes of colour left a lasting impression on me.
This book was published by All Due Respect; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
Although I read almost constantly, I have to admit that I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction. But when I do, I’m happy with a mixture of traditional print, small indie companies, digital, self-published – basically, whoever publishes the books and/or authors I like. That ranges from household names like Peter May and Ann Cleeves, via the domestic noir of Sarah Hilary and Michael J Malone, to the more unusual (John Connolly’s paranormal crime or Mark Mills’ mysteries with a historical edge, for example). And I’m constantly looking for new books and new authors, in pretty much any format I can get my hands on.
Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?
There are two main groups that I kind of ‘grew up’ with as a crime writer. First, there’s a bunch of us who started out writing noir short stories for the indie publisher Byker Books at around the same time, and who have kept tripping over each other in anthologies and magazines ever since. This includes Nick Quantrill, Aidan Thorn, Ian Ayris, Craig Douglas, and of course the king of Brit-Grit himself, Paul D Brazill, and it’s a pleasure to feel I have something in common with their work.
Secondly, there’s the Crime and Publishment gang, who came together thanks to the wonderful annual crime writing course organised by Graham Smith. Since he set it up, around 8 or 9 authors have gone on to get publishing deals, many of us as a direct result of contacts made at the course, and we’re all fiercely supportive of each other’s work. As well as me, the list includes Graham himself, Mike Craven, Jackie Baldwin, Lucy Cameron and Les Morris, amongst others, and I can thoroughly recommend their books.
But this is very much the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg. Crime fiction has exploded recently and there are so many amazing authors coming through the ranks. I’m lucky to know even a fraction of them.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
You’re probably expecting me to choose someone like J K Rowling – and who wouldn’t want to be hugely famous, sell squillions of books, and make more money than some small countries? Well, me actually. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for someone else, and I’m happy following my own path, at my own pace, through life. It’s fun finding out what that path leads to, and even if it sometimes seems to be taking a while to reach the top of the mountain, at least I get to stop and admire the scenery along the way.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
I’m currently working on another Birmingham-based crime caper called Embers of Bridges, featuring loyalty, a heist-gone-wrong and a getaway on a canal boat, and I have two or three others that are kind of part-finished. Nothing is certain in the world of publishing, of course, but I’d love to place all of them with All Due Respect over the next few years and build up a catalogue of fun, gritty books that, hopefully, readers will enjoy.
Liverpool lass Tess is now settled in the far north of England where she roams the fells with a brolly, dreaming up new stories and startling the occasional sheep.
Tess writes a distinctive brand of British comédie noir and her short stories have darkened the pages of various anthologies and magazines, including Shotgun Honey, Pulp Metal Magazine, ‘Drag Noir’ (Fox Spirit Books), ‘Rogue’ (Near to the Knuckle), and ‘Locked and Loaded’ (One Eye Press). Her debut novella, a psychological noir called Raise the Blade, is available from Caffeine Nights Publishing, and her first novel, Gravy Train, is due imminently from All Due Respect.
You can follow her ramblings (both literary and literal) at her blog: http://tessmakovesky.wordpress.com