Over the last five years Jay Stringer has carved a reputation as one of the UK’s best new crime writers. To celebrate the release of his new book How To Kill Friends & Implicate People, Tom Leins caught up with Jay to discuss career trajectories, character arcs and Crime & Heartbreak.
When Old Gold dropped back in 2012, what expectations did you have for your writing career?
Big dreams and low expectations. The Miller Trilogy was set in a pretty unfashionable part of England, so I wasn’t sure how it would be received. If I was writing those books now, I’d be able to market them as a “modern Peaky Blinders,” but that came around later. I was tackling a lot of social issues that interested me. The second book sadly turned out to be a pretty accurate prediction of the politics surrounding Brexit, but was published a few years too soon. And more recently I’ve started putting more jokes into my work, which is a career turn I didn’t expect back when I started.
I signed my first book deal in 2011, and I’m at a point now where I think I’ve just figured out my voice, and how to write a book. The next five years will be fun.
You are now five novels into your career – has the pressure increased with each book, and do commercial concerns make writing more or less fun?
It’s all in how the writer chooses to look at it. The only pressure worth caring about is to make the current book the best it can be. Anything else is a distraction from putting words on a page. I do add an extra bit of pressure to myself, because I set out to never write the same book twice.
There are writers who say commercial concerns don’t enter their heads. I’m not sure about those guys. A writer needs an audience, and I want to be paid for what I do. But it’s not something we should let control our work. Writing isn’t easy. If you’re doing it right, that means you’re making it hard. But it’s still about making things up for a living, and if you can’t find the fun in that, you’re in the wrong place.
Your impressive body of work suggests that writer’s block isn’t an issue. When you sit down to start work on a new novel, what do you use as your jump-off point?
I need to have some personal fear or issue, some emotional itch that I’m scratching. Then I need to find a character who can explore that. My first book was written while I was going through a divorce, and it’s clear that the book is about that. I’m working on a story now in which the character is struggling with her memories, and with her self-identity, and that’s because I noticed those were running themes in the subtext of my books, so I decided to tackle them head on this time. Once I’ve got the theme and the character, the rest is pretty easy. It’s just a case of sticking with it, running towards the ending, and finding the perfect fart joke along the way.
I think the trick with writer’s block is that I’m not afraid of it. There are any number of reasons why someone might be struggling to write, ranging from tiredness, to plot issues, to serious mental health problems. But I just embrace that there are times when I can’t write, and I make the most of the time I’m wasting. I ride a bike. I read a book, or watch TV. I take more showers in a day than are reasonable. Whatever works. The page will still be there when I sit back at my desk, and the words will come at some point.
How To Kill Friends & Implicate People is your second book featuring Sam Ireland – what draws you to writing series characters, as opposed to standalone thrillers?
Well, fun fact… Sam Ireland was originally a standalone character. In the first draft of Ways To Die In Glasgow everybody died, including Sam. Al Guthrie and my editor tag-teamed me into keeping her alive, and now she has a second book. After finishing the Eoin Miller Trilogy I planned to spend a few years writing standalone books, but the greatest joke in publishing is someone who tells you their career plan. It’s really the readers who decide. All you can do is write your best book and see what happens.
Do you ever see yourself running with a character beyond a trilogy?
My books tend to be written in five acts, and It’s a natural fit for me to see a character’s journey the same way. I wrote three Eoin Miller books, but he has two more stories to tell if the readers want them. The same goes for Sam. After spending two books in her head, I can see she has three more in her if there’s a demand. Although I love mystery fiction and series characters, I’m not sure a character needs more than five books. But I have a long career ahead of me to prove myself wrong.
Despite your significant US influences, your books are thoroughly British. Which British writers have inspired you over the years, and who do you rate on the current scene?
Most of my crime influences are American. My British influences tend to be from other fields, like comics, stand-up comedy and music. I was heavily influenced by George Orwell when I was younger – which is about as cliché an answer as I could give – and one of my biggest non-US influences was the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey.
The British writers who were setting the bar when I was first looking to break through were Allan Guthrie and Ray Banks. Ray is still writing, and manages to out-do me whenever he puts something out. He’s annoying like that. Al needs to get something written before I start sending him threats.
The UK scene is dominated largely by police procedurals and domestic thrillers. I’m not crapping on those genres, but they aren’t really my thing, so sometimes I’ll miss great work. The writer who is probably doing the most interesting work in the British market at the moment is Eva Dolan. Really good social fiction. Luca Veste, Nick Quantrill, and Russel D Mclean are all very strong writers. I was also impressed with Brooke Magnanti’s debut, The Turning Tide. It’s the kind of ambitious political satire that the UK market hasn’t seen in a while.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any other writer, who would you choose, and why?
I think Stephen King’s career would be nice….
Seriously, good question but I’m not sure. I love Richard Price’s work, and George Pelecanos. I like the way they can go back and forth between TV and books. Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott are both showing how it’s done. I really like the way writers like Lawrence Block and Elmore Leonard build careers with specific eras, and vary between darker work and comedy.
I want to be able to write social fiction, hardboiled mystery, gonzo comedy, sci-fi, comics, and maybe a little bit of TV. And it can be tricky getting to switch around like that when making money from publishing requires you to stay in one box. I think my own career will be the one I’ll want to emulate, but I’ll need to get back to you on that in 10 years to see if it worked out.
You have seemingly worked hard to build your reputation in the US, as well as in the UK – was that always a key objective?
Totally. Most of my influences growing up were American. I learned to read using superhero comics, my favourite music tended to be from the States, and I got hooked on American mystery fiction. It just never really occurred to me not to chase that, and over the last few years the US crime community has become my family. My Miller books were an attempt to marry that stylistic influence to the area where I grew up, use the American style to explore British issues. The book I’m working on right now is set in New York, so I’m coming back the other way, and seeing if I can bring a little of my British voice to bear on an American story.
Have you had any interest from TV or movie types in bringing any of your books to the screen? In your opinion, would they be a better fit for film or TV?
There was some very minor interest in Old Gold, but it didn’t lead anywhere.
The smart money right now is in TV. That’s where the creative freedom seems to be. I think Peaky Blinders has proven that Eoin Miller could work on the small screen. Sam Ireland would lend herself very easily to a quirky, offbeat PI series set in Glasgow.
At the same time, I kinda root for a real resurgence in small independent films. I think the room is there right now, with just a little bit of financing, to make small interesting crime films of the kind we haven’t seen much since the seventies. The fact that the studios aren’t financing them could be a bonus if people source the funding elsewhere, because it would mean total creative control. And there are plenty of digital distribution options now. I think any of my books would be suited to that kind of film, but it would need to be someone else who adapts them, I think. I’ve already written my version.
Do you listen to music when you write, and if so, which albums or artists soundtracked the writing of How To Kill Friends …?
I don’t listen to music when I write. I need to keep my head clear to hear the character’s talking. I think some authors choose to write their work all in one rhythm, and music can be great for that because it gets you into a certain beat, a certain flow. But I try and change rhythm’s, and let different characters’ dialogue flow in different ways. So I need to keep music out of it while I’m sat at my desk. It’s the same reason I’m sometimes wary when people give advice like “speak all of your dialogue out loud.” It absolutely does help you to write dialogue that flows, but it can also make you fall into the trap of making everyone speak in a way that is comfortable to your own voice, and then they all sound like you. I like to keep changing it up, try different things.
But I do use music to help me find a character, and to get in the right mood before I start to work.
Finally, you are the editor and driving force behind the upcoming anthology ‘Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak inspired by The Replacements’. Can you tell us a little bit about the background of the project, and what can readers expect from the finished collection?
It’s coming very soon. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it.
I’ve been toying with some kind of music-inspired collection for a while. At one point I was planning to put out a collection of my own work, with stories inspired by Lou Reed’s New York album. Joe Clifford and Gutter Books released an anthology of Springsteen-inspired shorts a couple years ago, and on Facebook I mentioned that… one day… in the future… I’d like to do something similar for my favourite band, The Replacements. Then Tom Pitts – also from Gutter Books – hit me up and basically said, “well how about right now?”
We’ve put together a good mix of stories. There is some great work by writers who are well known in the crime community, but we’ve also pulled in some names from other fields, like Franz Nicolay – who for my money is one of the best lyricists going right now – and Gorman Bechard – the director who made the ‘Mats documentary, among many other fine films. The anthology has noir, comedy, romance, and social fiction. There are characters burned up by love and ambition, and characters burned out by a lack of either. Naturally, Johnny Shaw took Gary’s Got A Boner.
The guys at Gutter are working on the cover right now, and we’ll be announcing a release date soon.