Steve, welcome to the blog!
Congratulations on the new novel, I Know Who Did It, which is out today. I was lucky enough to read an early copy at the end of August. Having already reviewed the book (linked at the bottom of this post), I thought it would be interesting to ask you a few questions about your writing and some of its psychological themes.
So, over to you.
1. On your website you refer to I Know Who Did It as the book that’s been the hardest to write. Can you tell us a little about this and how you feel now?
It’s certainly taken the longest, from start to finish. I started it in 2012, immediately after finishing Dark Room, and actually wrote a full draft that year. At that point, the story was very different. It had the same central idea, and several of the secondary characters that are in the finished version, but it was centred on Groves; none of the characters from The 50/50 Killer appeared in it, and the ending was very different. And it was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the idea work.
So I talked it over with Orion, and we agreed to shelve it for the time being. I went away, despondent at having basically wasted a year’s work, and started something new, which eventually became The Nightmare Place. But I couldn’t let the original idea go, and I decided to go back to it. And with that distance, I figured out that by splitting up a couple of the storylines and giving it all a different focus, I could make it work.
It’s actually not so different from how I’ve written any of them, really. My first drafts are always a bit exploratory. But I Know Who Did It is the first where I’ve had to abandon it and write an entirely new book in the middle of the process. I really, really hope it’s the last. I usually get a bit closer with the first proper draft than I did there.
2. There’s no snoozing with your novels! At any point, almost anything can happen and this creates an exhilarating read. Readers often don’t like ‘too predictable’ or ‘too unexpected’. I think you get the balance just right but have no idea how you do it. How and where do you draw the line?
Thank you! I appreciate that. I don’t really know, except to say that any unexpected developments emerge organically – hopefully – from the story as it develops. But I do think quite a lot about how to undermine or subvert things. For example, I’m not a big fan of reading or writing huge action scenes, so I tend to cut them off and take the book in a different direction. The ending of I Know Who Did It could have been a lot longer and more action-packed, but I always figure: why bother? That’s not the point, so why not just get to the point instead? So I often find I’m building up to something that in a more normal crime novel would go one way, and I decide to take it another instead. What’s the most interesting and unexpected thing that could happen here? It’s a good question to ask yourself. You can go anywhere you want, so long as it feels natural and doesn’t come totally out of the blue.
3. The new book sees a return of Mark Nelson and John Mercer, both of whom appeared in The 50/50 Killer. Why did you want to write about these characters again? Do you plan to do this with any of your other characters?
I’ve never deliberately set out to avoid writing a series; it’s just that standalones tend to suit me and the way I work. Because it always starts with an idea or a basic theme for me – not a story but a subject. So with Still Bleeding, it was “oh, I’d quite like to write about this online culture of sharing images of death, and what that says about us”. Or with Black Flowers, it was “I’m interested in how real life influences fiction, and then fiction can influence real life”. It’s always vague ideas like that, and from there, I develop a story and the characters I need to make it work. And since I like everything to fit together thematically as tightly as possible, I want characters that reflect the story and the subject matter – people I can fully explore and empty out through the book – and it’s usually easier to build them from the ground up. A series character comes with his or her own baggage, and that might clash with the wallpaper, if you see what I mean.
With I Know Who Did It, when I came back to look at it, I just realised that the characters from The 50/50 Killer worked with the themes and the ideas, and that it might be fun to return to them. The first book is very contained, and I’d never been able to see where to take them after that. But although I Know Who Did It is very different in some ways, it’s about similar concepts and has the same tone, and when I put the characters into it they didn’t seem out of place.
Whether I’ll do it with any of the other characters – I don’t know. Certainly not for the sake of it. But if the right idea comes up, I’d happily go for it. I mean, I know writing a series brings its own set of challenges, but for me, with this one, it really did help to have the characters lined up already.
4. Many of your books show ‘horror’ influences. Is this deliberate on your part and do you think that crime and horror are natural bed fellows?
I always wanted to write horror. When I was growing up, I fell in love with Stephen King’s books, and it was a short step from there to Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and so on. Those were the kinds of books I wanted to write. I think it was only as I got older and started to read more ‘slipstreamy’ stuff – people like Michael Marshall Smith, Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll etc – that I started to see what was possible and to blend different genres into my own writing. And I guess The Third Person could easily have been published as horror or SF, but the crime element stuck, and here I am. Which I like, because I find I can do whatever I want within the crime genre. It’s very flexible.
In general, I think crime and horror go together very well indeed. There’s a natural crossover there – to the point where books with a strong element of supernatural horror like John Connolly’s are published as crime, whereas you’ll find something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door on the horror shelf. Certainly, a lot of novels published as crime – the serial killer stuff, especially – could be packaged as horror instead. At heart, they’re basically ‘beat the monster’ stories: the serial killer could just as easily be a vampire, or whatever, and the point of the story would be the same. And I guess with some noir there’s this sense of existential horror: this bleak idea that we’re alone in an uncaring universe, making mistakes, and everything doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you might want it to. Crime fiction generally goes from order to chaos to order again at the end, whereas horror is allowed to leave you in chaos, and I think some crime fiction can do that too, albeit in less obvious ways.
5. In many of your books you play with what the reader ‘knows’ and thinks he/she knows. To an extent this is a trope of crime fiction but you do it in a very psychological way which makes for a particularly ‘Steve Mosby’ read. Can you tell us about this? Why and how you do it, and if anything is off limits?
I think I just like twists! And I tend to rate twists by how much of what you’ve read or watched you’re forced to re-evaluate in light of it. And since I tend to focus on the psychological side of things rather than, say, intricate plot machinations or big confrontations, the twists I try for generally happen on that side of things. I wouldn’t say my books have unreliable narrators as such, but they’re first person narratives, and I think people often do hide things from themselves to an extent. With first person, you’re listening to someone telling a story, and the story they tell is inevitably going to be biased and incomplete. And of course, you’re doing that too as the writer. But a twist has to feel right. That’s the boring answer to what’s off-limits: absolutely nothing is, so long as it works. It has to make sense and I think it also has to feel organic and even necessary on some intuitive level. There has to be a point to it – a moment of “oh god, of course the story had to go there; I get what it’s all about now”. That’s one of the differences between a top-drawer twist and, say, a character waking up, and there’s another character in the shower, and it was all a dream.
6. ‘Justice’ is a theme which occurs in your novels. What aspects of this interest you and how do you think morality complicates it?
Well, I think justice and morality are intertwined concepts. When someone does something immoral, justice is about them being punished; when someone behaves well, they should be rewarded. It’s not quite as simple as that, but it’s close enough. So the concept of justice is kind of predicated on the concept of morality. And that’s fine, because for the most part we share a sense of morality: it varies through time and around the world, but most of us growing up in the same stew of religious and social influences are going to agree on some basic norms of good and bad behaviour that serve to maintain social cohesion. Many of those will be codified in law; others just frowned upon. And there will be disagreements. But I don’t think you can have a sense of justice outside of a moral perspective.
Now, in crime fiction, the immoral act is frequently a murder: the social cohesion is broken by a killing, then restored by the culprit being identified and taken into custody, and there you go: that’s justice. But put like that, that’s obviously really trivial and mundane. And so of course, most crime fiction goes well beyond that. All is never well again, for one thing – how important or comforting really is ‘justice’ to the people left behind? And it’s never sufficient to say “the murderer acted immorally” and leave it at that; it’s the equivalent of just saying “he did it because he was evil”, which is an intellectually lazy cop out. Good crime fiction addresses these different aspects, and I think the complicating factor isn’t morality, but empathy. Empathy for the victims and the survivors, of course. But also, perhaps perversely, empathy for the perpetrator, insofar as trying to understand not just the motive but the reasons behind the motive.
One of the characters in I Know Who Did It, Groves, is a policeman whose infant son has been abducted and murdered. He’s a man of faith and a fierce believer in the law. And at one point, he’s investigating a suspected pedophile, a man he should hate, and he forces himself to try to understand, to think about the man’s upbringing and the social conditions that formed him. Groves says that the story of everybody’s life is a book that was started before they were born. And it’s important to me as a writer to try always to consider that aspect – to try to have empathy. Everyone walks their own hard road, and all that.
7. In both The 50/50 Killer and I Know Who Did It people do are faced with decisions which require them to save themselves or a loved one. Can you tell us why this intrigues you?
I don’t know; it’s always been an interest. I suppose one of the things I’m keen on exploring is how and why people care about each other, and what can intervene to change that. And the kind of decision you mention is just an ultra-extreme version of that. In The 50/50 Killer, the killer challenges one of a couple to decide which of them will be tortured and killed over the course of a night – and they can change their mind at any point. Which just seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for a relationship in flux! You can claim you’ll love someone forever, and that you couldn’t live without them, and so on, all that stuff – but what happens when real life gets in the way? How much hurt do you put up with? How much are you prepared to hurt someone to get what you want? When do you give up on love – or do you? The scenario is really just a dramatisation of those concerns, and it’s those underlying questions that intrigue me.
8. Crime fiction is evolving all the time. Are there any developments which interest, please or bother you?
Not really. Crime fiction is a broad church, and that’s wonderful, and the key thing with evolution is natural selection, so we all know that trends will come and go, and what’s successful will stick around. As a writer, it’s the same as ever: all you can do is work on what interests you and hope for the best.
Negative stuff? I suppose you could point to things like increasingly explicit violence, but I don’t know if that’s actually a problem, and I think it’s a cultural thing across the board anyway, rather than particular to crime fiction. Violence against women – but again, that emerges from the wider culture; I suppose it’s good that we have that conversation every so often, even if it never gets resolved. I sometimes wish crime fiction would be more open to cross-genre stuff. It is in some ways, but there are books like (for example) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass and China Mieville’s The City And The City, which were all published as SF but I think deserved to have gained more traction and recognition in the crime world. So it goes, though.
9. In what ways do you notice changes in your writing since The Third Person in 2003? Either in terms of what you write about or how you do it?
I hope it’s got considerably better! I’m proud of The Third Person and The Cutting Crew in their own separate ways, and for different reasons, but they both feel a world away from what I’m doing now, and I always cringe slightly when someone who’s enjoyed one of the later books picks one of those up next.
There’s this conventional wisdom that a writer spends their life writing their first book, and then has to write their second really quickly to a deadline. Difficult second album syndrome, and there’s truth in that. Val McDermid told me once that she was often far more interested in a writer’s third book, because by then they’re starting to figure themselves out and find their feet. That was 100% true for me. In many ways, The 50/50 Killer was a complete break away from the first two, and that was the point I began to feel like “right – this is my subject matter, this is my style”. It hasn’t made it any easier, of course. Each book gets harder to write.
10. Finally, what can we expect for the book after I Know Who Did It?
Another standalone. But it’s very early days in terms of writing it, so I don’t want to say too much about the storyline at this point – not least because it will probably change!
But in the meantime, thanks a lot for having me here, and for asking such interesting questions. Cheers!
And now for the book. My review of I Know Who Did It is here.
Vicky Newham © 2015