My introduction to Stav Sherez was through his tweets, many of which are about writing, music, coffee and the weather. These prompted me to look up his website. When I read the beautifully crafted and intriguing piece called ‘Why I write crime fiction’ (http://stavsherez.com/why-i-write-crime-fiction/), I headed straight for Amazon and bought The Black Monastery and The Devil’s Playground. Since then he has been one of my favourite crime fiction authors.
Recently, I asked Stav about his writing and how his background influences his novels. I also caught up with him at CrimeFest, in between his panel appearances, book signings and trademark espresso-slamming sessions, to take some photographs.
1. Religious settings occur in several of your books, and you are Literary Editor for the Catholic Herald. Is there a reason for your interest in religion and theology? What aspects interest you most? You are very well informed on the subjects. Did you study them at university?
It’s funny because this is one of those things that I’ve only noticed in retrospect. When I was writing the books, I went with whatever felt right for the story but looking back, you’re absolutely right. Religious settings and themes seem to thread through each book, not least of all in the titles. I did Art History and Theology as my degree and despite (or perhaps because of) being agnostic I’m intrigued by what causes people to believe and how it fundamentally changes the world they experience and live through. Theology intrigues me as it posits some of the same questions as philosophy. In a sense, God, and existence are the biggest mysteries of all. On another level, I think monasteries and convents are very creepy, strange and interesting settings for crime novels.
2. How did the journey from rock journalist to novelist come about? Are you ever tempted to return to music journalism? After a great gig or new album, for example?
Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a novelist but music has always been a huge part of my life too. When I was writing my first novel, I was doing a lot of music journalism, but it was always a side project to the novels. As for the second part of your question – no. I’m quite happy now to just enjoy a record or gig without having to think what to say about it.
3. From when I read the ‘Why I write crime fiction’ piece on your website it was obvious that you love language and have a gift for using it. Your expressions are utterly unique and your imagery deliciously fresh. Why is language so important to you, in general, and in your writing?
Well, without language there wouldn’t be any writing! I, like most writers, tend to write what I would like to read and the books I love most do new and strange things with language yet never at the expense of story – I’m talking about people like Thomas Pynchon, James Ellroy, Don DeLillo. It’s through language, and the unit of the sentence, that we tell stories, and I do believe that using language in unusual ways can immerse you deeper into the sensual atmosphere of a novel.
4. You are now a mainstream, well-respected crime novelist. Why do you think that your novels are popular? Can you say what you think your USP is as a writer?
Ha – I’m not so sure about that! I have no idea why people like my novels, I’m just very happy that they do. I think any writer’s USP is his or her language, the way they see the world, and the particular stories they choose to tell about it.
5. Are you enjoying writing a series? What are its challenges and benefits?
It’s much harder than I anticipated. After two standalones, I thought writing a series would be somewhat easier but, as with everything else, I was wrong. The major difficulty I’ve found in writing a series is not repeating yourself. By the very nature of a series you are going to be writing similar scenes from book to book (discovery of body; autopsy; briefing etc) and it’s very hard to make them different but it’s also a challenge that forces you to write outside of your comfort zone and try new things. One of the major benefits of writing a series is not having to tie up every loose end by the final page. Stories and sub-plots can play out across several books. A series will also trace your life into the narrative as you change over the years you are writing it.
6. You are writing the third Carrigan and Miller novel now. Can you tell us what challenges face your detectives in the next novel?
I have no idea! I don’t plan at all and so at the moment I’m still working on what to keep in the second draft. Everything’s up for grabs!
7. With each of your novels you’ve chosen distinctive places as part of the setting for the plot, if not all of it. What do you think ‘place’ adds to a novel? Can there be a ‘good novel’ without this?
For me place is crucial. Every book I’ve written has begun with landscape. Once I know where it’s set, I know what can or cannot happen there, the histories that have come together to make the place what it is. I think setting is very important to the crime novel. It’s a large part of what makes one different from another. It adds context and history and atmosphere. That said, however, there are no rules in fiction and you can certainly write a good novel without it.
8. Which part of the novel-writing process do you find most rewarding, and which the most challenging?
I find pretty much all of it challenging! First drafts are probably the easiest as I write without editing or looking back. Hence, the second draft is often the most soul-crushing one, when you realise nothing works, the story doesn’t make sense, the prose is terrible and you’d rather write any other book, even a fourteenth century costume comedy, than this one. I tend to do about ten drafts of each book and it’s the last four or five that I ‘enjoy’ most – when bit by bit you can feel it starting to click together like pieces of a puzzle. That’s a lovely feeling.
9. Your editing job, blog pieces and article-writing, are all non-fiction writing. Do you find that doing non-fiction work helps or hinders your fiction-writing?
I don’t like writing non-fiction and I find it much harder than fiction. I like to make things up and to use language to create mood and suspense and non-fiction requires a very different discipline, one I’m not very good at.
10. Do you write anything other than prose? Or have any plans to branch into a different medium?
Does Twitter count as prose? (joke). I’m actually writing a screenplay with a friend at the moment – my first attempt at a script since I was at University! It’s an adaptation of the Why I Write Crime Fiction piece that you mentioned. It’s such a wildly different way of working and I’m just trying to get my head around it.
Thanks so much to Stav for providing such thoughtful answers. Of course, I now have lots of supplementary questions but I shall keep those for another time! But, a couple of other things I’m curious about are: is the ‘Amy’ in the why-I-write-crime-fiction piece a real person? And, how does he get his hair to stand up like that? Stav. Stav? Oh, he’s gone…
Stav’s fourth book, Eleven Days, is out in hardback and on Kindle. It’s the second in the ‘Carrigan and Miller’ series. If you fancy checking out Stav’s tweets, you can find him here: @stavsherez
Vicky Newham © 2013