Where do you get your ideas from?
Has anyone ever been able to answer that? Plots gather around tiny details, the way crystals grow in suspension. I usually start with a character and a situation, and work backwards – the plot is an excuse to put the character in that situation. And there’ll be a recurring theme that runs through the book and helps bind it together. In The Last Voice You Hear, this was love; in Smoke & Whispers, it’s identity. At the most basic level, this means that Sarah Tucker’s task in the novel is to identify a body. In the broader sense, it’s about wondering how well you can ever know anybody.
Why did you set Smoke & Whispers in Newcastle upon Tyne?
Newcastle’s where I grew up, and I’ve long wanted to set a novel there. Now seemed the right time, not least because it’s changed so much over the past few decades. From being a city in decline – it suffered during the last recession, and was brutalised by the city planners – it’s bloomed again in recent years. Down by the River Tyne itself, the Sage and the Baltic – a concert hall and modern art museum respectively – have put Newcastle firmly on the country’s cultural map. (In the novel, Sarah is somewhat disrespectful of the Baltic’s exhibits, but if she’d seen Yoko Ono’s Between The Sky And My Head, she’d have been more enthusiastic.) Not long ago, the city appeared on a list of the ten coolest places on the planet, not something anyone would have predicted back in the eighties. None of which is to suggest that it doesn’t still have its dark places. Sarah gets to visit them too; the little pockets of old Newcastle that no amount of gentrification or urban regeneration will, thank goodness, ever do away with.
For all this, I was well aware that Newcastle is not my home any more; and besides, with genuinely local crime writers like the fine Martin Waites on the scene, it would amount to poaching to pretend to insider knowledge. So Sarah’s only a visitor to Newcastle, which allowed me to see it through a stranger’s eyes, and enjoy its tourist side as much as its grimier realities.
And besides, my niece and nephews’ bands – XYZ and Last Orders – are based in Newcastle, and it was a great opportunity to namedrop them.
Your series novels sometimes focus on Sarah Tucker; sometimes on private detective Zoë Boehm. Why two characters? And why both women?
The two women are very different, I hope, so shuttling between them allows me to indulge opposing viewpoints. Sarah is the more feeling of the pair, and I sometimes claim that I’m getting in touch with my feminine side when writing about her. The more likely truth is that, when writing about Zoë, I’m trying to bolster my masculine nature. Zoë is pretty stubborn, and doesn’t much care whether people like her or not so long as she gets the job done. Sarah’s more concerned about doing the right thing, and other people’s emotions matter to her. On the other hand, I had thought she’d given up having adventures, and hadn’t expected to be writing about her again. So maybe she’s got a stubborn streak too.
As for why I choose female protagonists, my answer changes depending on what mood I’m in, but I think the truth is that it keeps me on my toes. It’s not much of a stretch to decide what a male response to a situation might be – I just have to decide what I’d do if it was me. With a female character, I have to think a little harder. Plus, they make for good camouflage. When I feel like smuggling the odd chunk of autobiography into a book, I can generally get away with it without anybody noticing.
Is crime fiction in a healthy state?
Yes. Every year new names appear, while established writers carry on producing excellent work. It's surprising, too – and encouraging – how often writers who’ve been quarrying away for years can be suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Peter Temple’s a good example: long feted in Australia, he’s only recently been published in Britain, to immediate and well-deserved acclaim. In the US, Laura Lippman is a shining example of what good genre writing can achieve, while back in the UK, John Harvey shows that a career can maintain an upward trajectory on an apparently indefinite basis. The same holds true of Reginald Hill, whose work is an enduring delight.
Do you have a strict routine when you write?
Absolutely. The important part of being a novelist is the bit where you actually sit down and put the words on the page, which is something most of us would go to great lengths to avoid. So making it part of a routine is crucial. For me, the magic number is 350 – that’s how many words I set myself to write every evening. (A pitiful amount, I know, but I do have a full-time job.) Music helps. Right now, I’m listening to the (sorely missed) Esbjörn Svensson Trio.
As for the actual business of structuring a book, when I start a novel, I usually have a scene-by-scene breakdown of the first chapter, but nothing much after that. By the time I get to the end, I'm about a page ahead of the reader.
How much research do you do?
I’m a firm adherent of the school of Making Stuff Up.
What do you think’s the most important element in writing?
The sad truth is, when sitting down to write, the most important goal is the daily word-count. At that moment, I’m 350 words away from being able to get up again. But once I start, word-count becomes an administrative detail: what matters then is that the sentences take shape, and flow cleanly, one from the other.
What advice would you give an aspiring novelist?
There are only two pieces of advice any would-be writer needs. The first is “Give up.” Those who heed that don’t need to hear the second, which is “Don’t give up.”
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a long, complicated novel about unsuccessful spies, and wishing I were writing a short, romantic one about almost anything else. Perhaps next time.