What do I have in common with the Russian mafia? Not much, thankfully, except my friend, Joe Stein, has written a brilliant new detective novel which shows that he knows enough about them for both of us. I first wrote about That Twisted Thing Called Truth here, but since then I’ve had the chance to ask Joe some pointed questions about writing this sort of book, which is a genre I love but can’t imagine being able to write, and about his own experiences that have given him the scary inside info that allowed him to write about such scary people:
You write in a genre very different from my own and you excel in plot development. How do you plot out your books? How do you think of the twists and turns?
Very kind of you to say excel! But although the plot is obviously important, I often think of it as a device to show the characters’ development. Events happen which allow the reader to have a new way of looking at a character and how he/she reacts to that event. I usually have a starting point and end in mind for the plot, and sometimes, some set scenes that I want to include, but I think of my plotlines as fairly simple and I don’t want to overcomplicate them, because most events in life, even the extreme ones are reasonably simple and follow patterns. Credibility is really important to me and I hope that any ‘twists and turns’ appear to be natural developments of events or the characters’ reactions to events.
You’ve written a trilogy using one particular character as the main character in each. As a reader, I never tired of him and wouldn’t mind a 4th chance to watch his life. But as a writer, are you tired of him? Does he still intrigue you?
No, I’m not yet tired of Garron. I think (I hope) that he has changed and evolved since the first book. Here’s a guy who grew up in a tough, but not criminal, world with little education, and thought he’d got out through boxing. When that didn’t work, he found he had no other skills. His decisions are driven by his circumstances and in some cases by self-deception about his own motives. He’s an introspective character and in fact the first book was really written not as a thriller, but as a character study, though set in a world with thugs and guns in it. He’s been described as a ‘tough guy’ character, but I don’t really think of him like that. A lot of thriller lead characters are called tough guys, but he’s not a 6 foot 4 ex-special services marine, with three black belts in martial arts, who can make a flame thrower out of an empty washing up liquid bottle and some sticky-back plastic. It takes more to be tough when you’re not sure what’s going to happen, or whether you can deal with it, or if in fact whether you should try dealing with it at all.
One thing I have found in these books though, is that telling a story in the first person does limit you in terms of the language. I find sometimes that I can’t use certain words or phrases because the character telling the story just wouldn’t use them. And that can be a little constricting at times. I have to try to work around that by having other characters say what he wouldn’t!
I love the way you write a car chase. It’s breathtaking, in that it really takes your breath away. Did the style of writing for that scene just happen organically or did you make a conscious decision to write it the way you did?
That’s a very interesting question. It’s back to the credibility thing. I wanted to see if I could write a car chase in a realistic and believable way. We all like car chases, from Bullitt to the Bourne films and most of us drive, but I wanted to see if I could describe what it would really feel like to be in that. To be right on the knife edge of controlling that vehicle. I tried to write it as I would have driven it, if that makes sense. So yes, it was a conscious decision to write it that way, hopefully taking the reader along with the characters, but at the same time, that’s the way it came out. It’s then a question of whether it reads right to me, whether the gut reaction which I’m looking for in the reader is there in me as well. In that respect, it was a little like the unlicensed boxing scene in my second book, where I wanted to write a fight more or less in real time and as it would happen and feel. Then you’re into the re-writing stages, but trying to keep the natural flow of what is going on, which if you’re not careful you can lose when you’re on the second or third draft. If it works, it’s good, if it misses, it misses by a mile!
And I must ask…your ability to write about Russian mafia, the life of a body guard, the violence of the people in that world – where did that come from? Should I be worried about your wellbeing?
No, Sue, thank you but you don’t need to worry about me. I’m out of that world and I have a day job and a family. That’s enough hard work, I don’t need thugs and Russians and bulletproof vests anymore! But I worked in an industry where these people existed. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be able to write credibly about them. Obviously, the books are a fictional exaggeration of the jobs and the people I worked with (and if they weren’t fictionalised, I’d still s
ay that they were!) but those types, mindsets, even some of the lesser events (though not all) are based in reality. And that should give the books the credibility they need as a background to what the characters do and how they act. Because, to get back to your first point, I’m more interested in why something happens and how people react to that, than the event itself. (Have I dodged that question well enough?)
And thank you for the questions, Sue, I don’t often get the opportunity to talk about writing and this has been a pleasure.
Thank you, Joe. And to all you crime novel lovers out there, do go check out Joe’s books. You can buy them in all the usual places.