The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Jay Stringer

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.

The Interrogation Room - Jay

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.

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The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Adam Howe

British author Adam Howe is making a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic with his enjoyably twisted take on Americana, and last year’s three-pronged novella collection Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet offered a thrilling glimpse into his warped world. Tom Leins caught up with Adam to discuss the twin influences of Steven Seagal and Stephen King, and find out why he will never eschew Americana for Brit-grit.

The Interrogation Room - Adam

Firstly, what attracts you to the novella format?

I’d rather leave the reader wanting more, than outstay my welcome.  Novellas are the ideal length for my brand of high-octane, hyper-real genre fiction.  I can keep my foot on the go-pedal, without sacrificing characterisation, which makes for an ultra-intense reading experience.  I spent most of my career writing screenplays, which explains my cinematic prose style.  Had a few feature films optioned, rewrote or doctored other writers’ work, but nothing I wrote ever made it to the screen, and in the end, seeing years of work left to gather dust became too dispiriting, so I returned to writing prose.  As I adapt to this new medium, what I’ve discovered is that my novellas are roughly equivalent in length to a feature film screenplay, so that’s clearly my comfort zone, but the work is getting longer as I gain confidence, and a novel IS in the pipeline.

There remains a resistance among mainstream readers to read anything less than novel length fiction.  In today’s world, where people barely have time to read, and so many other entertainment options, it just doesn’t make sense to me.  Novellas would seem to be perfect for the modern reader.  I think much of this reticence comes down to mainstream readers being scarred by the ‘literary’ shorts they read at school; ambiguous, dense-as-poetry horseshit that barely has a beginning, let alone a middle or ending.  Reading shouldn’t be that hard, and in today’s world, can’t afford to be.  I’m a storyteller, at heart, and though I write for myself, filling that gap on my library shelf, entertaining the reader is always at the forefront of my mind.

Your stories are like toxic melting-pots of horror and crime fiction. Who are your chief literary heroes?

The main ingredients in my ‘toxic melting pot’ are horror and crime fiction, true-crime, 70s/80s horror flicks, the Golden Age of 80s/90s action movies, the EC horror comics (Tales from the Crypt), and the American ‘shock’ comedians of the pre-PC 80s/90s.  These days, my personal reading tastes lean more towards hardboiled crime and non-supernatural horror.  As for literary heroes…?

As a younger reader, the first writer whose voice really spoke to me was Stephen King (and through King I was hearing echoes of Bradbury and Matheson and other genre masters).  I was lucky enough to meet The King when he chose my short story Jumper as the winner of his On Writing contest.  The story, my first published work, was included in the paperback/Kindle editions of King’s book.  It’s proving kinda hard to top that first publication credit.

As I’ve said, I spent a lot of time writing screenplays.  The best way to learn that craft is by studying produced screenplays on the page, which was harder to do in the pre-digital age.  But I lucked out.  In my mid-teens, I landed a job writing copy for a mail-order script company, and had a veritable screenplay library to learn from.  The writer I most responded to was Shane Black, who you’ll know from Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and most recently The Nice Guys.  Classic ‘tarnished knight’ and ‘buddy’ action stuff.  Black was left out in the wilderness for a number of years, so it’s great to see him enjoying a renaissance of late.

Most recently, Joe R. Lansdale has made a huge impression on me.  His genre blending, and use of humour to shepherd the reader between shades of light and darkness, was something I felt I could do.  And his voice seemed to awaken my own inner hillbilly; it’s strange, but before I even read Joe, I’d been hearing a voice like his in my mind for years.  I also have Joe to thank for the title of this current book.  ‘Die dog or eat the hatchet’ is a phrase meaning ‘do or die,’ which I’d noticed him use in several books.  I contacted him, asked his permission to use it, and he very graciously gave me his blessing… instead of telling me to go fuck myself, and using it for the next Hap & Leonard.

Your knack for Americana is extremely convincing – do you foresee a time when you will eschew US stories and write a British book?

No immediate plans.  Most of my future works will be set Stateside.  I’m at the mercy of my muse, and right now, these are the stories that want to be told.  I don’t think these stories would work half as well, if at all, if I set ‘em in the UK.  I’ve never taken the adage “write what you know” to mean you must write in your own backyard, but only with authority.  I seem to have a good eye and ear for Americana.  I liken it to a British singer adopting an American twang to sing rock n’ roll.  Of course, it’s a pop culture America, never intended to be 100% accurate, but it seems to work well enough that many readers are surprised to discover I’m a Brit.

I write fiction to escape my own reality, which is pretty dreary.  When I look at the mainstream UK crime fiction scene – and I’m generalising here – I see little variety from series police procedurals or Jack Reacher rip-offs; with the exception of writers like Ken Bruen and Ray Banks – and man, do I wish I wrote as well those guys – stuff like that just doesn’t really interest me, as a reader or a writer.  Writing Americana allows me to work on a bigger canvas, and Americans are such crazy bastards, I can go as OTT as I want, and it still seems borderline plausible.  In fact, much of my work is inspired by ‘weird news’ stories, which most often originate in Florida.  Must be something in the water down there.

As a UK-based writer do you think it is harder to make a name for yourself in crime fiction circles, given the strong independent crime scene in the US?

There are so many great indie writers producing truly phenomenal work, not to mention the wannabes flooding the market with shit, that it’s hard to make a name for yourself period.  So far it seems the majority of my readers are from the States.  Not sure if that’s because I’m writing Americana, that my publisher is American, or just that I’ve yet to establish myself in the UK.  Not that I’m complaining.  At least someone’s reading me.

I’ve been made to feel very welcome by the US crime fiction community.  My humour seems to translate, and a good story is universal; the storyteller’s nationality shouldn’t really make a difference.  I’m not attempting to write ‘the great American novel.’  I write pulp Americana, so I’m not treading on any other writer’s toes.

Your books have been published by Comet Press. How did that association come about, and are there any other titles in their back catalogue that you would recommend?

I first became aware of Comet Press through their early crime and horror anthologies.  Books like The Death Panel, Vile Things, and others brought some great writers to my attention.  So when I started searching for a publisher for my debut collection, Black Cat Mojo, Comet was high on my wish list.  As luck would have it, the editors dug what I did, and we continued the relationship to the follow-up collection, Die Dog.  My experience with Comet has been only positive, and I can’t recommend them highly enough to other indie writers.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve read all of Comet’s catalogue, so apologies to the guys and gals I’m missing here, but notable names include David James Keaton (Fish Bites Cop!), Brett Williams (Family Business), Barbie Wilde, Tim Curran, Simon Wood, Jason Parent (the upcoming Wrathbone), and Randy Chandler (The Dime Detective).

Comet have just launched their first annual YEAR’S BEST HARDCORE HORROR anthology, which includes my story Clean-up On Aisle 3.  This one was first published in Thuglit.  It’s a riff on my favourite Elmore Leonard book, Swag.  Reading about Stick and Frank knocking over liquor stores, I wondered… what if THIS happened? Thuglit readers seemed to enjoy this one.  It brought me to the attention of a lot of new readers.

You are a fully-fledged Seagalogy-toting Steven Seagal fan. If the big man offered you a suitcase full of cash to make a movie of one of your books, would you say yes? If so, which story would you like him to bring to the screen, and which role would he play?

It is hard to imagine Big Steve in any of the Die Dog novellas.  Maybe he could play the skunk ape in Damn Dirty Apes – though I imagine Andy Serkis, who seems to have cornered the motion capture monkey market, would have something to say about that.  Funnily enough, back in my screenwriting days I once wrote a spec script for Seagal.  Have you seen his current, direct-to-video stuff?  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  Well, I figured the man deserved better than that shit, so I wrote him something.  It was called The Gurkha – “Steven Seagal IS…The Gurkha” – and used Death Wish 3 as a rough story template.  Highbrow stuff.  Needless to say that nothing ever came of the project.  Seagal was gearing up for his reality TV show Lawman, and wasn’t considering movie projects at the time… or perhaps he sensed I was taking the piss by casting him as the world’s unlikeliest Gurkha?  Maybe one day I’ll dust off that screenplay and rewrite it as a men’s adventure pulp.  It was pretty funny, as I recall.  All the bad guys giving Seagal shit about his weight and his hair… maybe that’s another reason he rejected it?

Can you tell us a little bit about your future publishing plans?

Up next is Tijuana Donkey Showdown, the ‘eagerly anticipated’ sequel to the Damn Dirty Apes novella from the Die Dog collection, in which I continue the misadventures of my hapless hero, boxer-turned-bouncer Reggie Levine.  No skunk apes in this one, though the chupacabra, and Nicolas Cage, make an appearance.  I’ve gone the ‘bigger and louder’ sequel route.  This thing’s fucking balls-out crazy.  (As if Damn Dirty Apes was subtle.)  Like 80s action meets Looney Tunes.

And I’m currently collaborating with rising-star American horror writer Adam Cesare on an as yet untitled period crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Beyond that?  My partner and I are expecting our first child next month, so I’ve cleared my schedule while I adapt (ha! pray for me) to the change.

Should we expect to see you out-do yourself in terms of disturbing themes?

Nah, to try and out-gross-out myself would be hackwork.  My mind tends towards extremes with little coaxing.  As you know, I don’t shy away when it comes to writing graphic violence – I seem to have a knack for it, for what it’s worth, so I might as well play to my strengths – but even my most extreme material is organic to the story.  I don’t write gore for gore’s sake.  It’s not gratuitous.  Of course, it may be too much for some readers’ tastes, but that’s purely subjective.  Personally, I like my dark fiction pitch-black.  I’m drawn to disturbing and ‘controversial’ subject matters – like the period racial tensions of the Gator Bait novella – because it creates the most intense conflict for my characters.  I do have more ‘mainstream’ genre stories I’d like to write, in which I’ll dial down the blood ‘n’ guts and madness… if I can.  But as I’ve said, I’m at the mercy of my muse, and these are the stories that want to be written right now.

Finally, your books explore some pretty twisted territory – what is the most reprehensible term you have typed into your search engine in the name of research?!

You’re always dicing with danger when you start researching bizarre sexual practices… Most recently, ‘gerbilling,’ which as I’m sure you know, Tom, is when a live rodent is inserted into the anal cavity for sexual kicks.  Who are we to judge?  This, I hasten to add, was for a story called Foreign Bodies, a blackly comic crime piece about a Z-list Hollywood fixer attempting to remove the gerbil which has become trapped in his celebrity client’s arse.  I can assure you that I left my research as the keyword search stage.  I’m not a method writer.

Book Review: Route 12 by Marietta Miles

ROUTE 12

Author: Marietta Miles

Publisher: All Due Respect

Release Date: February 2016

route-12-marietta-miles

Route 12 by Marietta Miles comprises two evocative, disturbing novellas set in Appalachia in the 1960s and 1970s. These are bleak stories about people who have been dealt a rotten hand by life: a boy dragged into reform school at an early age, due to his mother’s unhealthy lifestyle choices – only to emerge with a violent disregard for society; a girl crippled by a bad dose of polio vaccine, and left friendless and exposed; a drunken mother desperate for cash who makes a terrible mistake… In these pitch-black stories the characters’ choices define them – for better or worse.

Marietta Miles brings a gothic intensity to these tales of damaged small town lives, which seem to congeal in the worst way imaginable.  Opening story ‘Route 12’ is the jewel in the tarnished crown – a tremendous, nastily memorable piece of work. Chief protagonist Percy is a horribly damaged young man, whose queasy charisma sucks a pair of vulnerable young girls into his sick orbit. Miles displays an unfailingly sharp eye for detail, teasing small, haunting nuggets out of the plot, and imbuing the drama with a skin-crawling level of tension.

While the title story will likely attract the most attention, B-side cut ‘Blood & Sin’ is no less compelling, and the character of Pastor Danny Friend is a true literary grotesque. Although it feels like the story has the life choked out of it just as it starts getting really twisted, the gruelling content still packs one hell of a punch.

All in all, a dark, unsettling pair of novellas that adds a bold, new dimension to the All Due Respect slate. Impressive, distinctive work from Marietta Miles.

Reviewed by Tom Leins