Welcome to the one hundred and eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with crime / thriller novelist Graham Hurley. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Graham. Thank you for joining me today. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Graham: Think post-war Britain. Imagine a household without television. Invent a dad mad about classical music. Picture that intimate semi-circle of armchairs drawn up around the steam radio. And then listen to the naked feet of yours truly retreating upstairs for an early night. Always with an armful of books. And a torch.
Morgen: I blame me having to wear glasses (not that it bothers me that I do, it’s supposed to indicate intelligence after all) on a torch… and Stephen King under my duvet as a teenager – or it might even have been sheets rather than duvet back then. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Graham: I’ve always been fascinated by story, by stuff happening. As a kid the word I used was adventure. A lot of it came from the war. In the early Fifties people had given themselves time to sort their memories out and pass on what had happened to them – either on active service (like my Dad) or (in my Mum’s case) under the bombs in London. Some of this stuff was anecdotal, other narratives found their way into movies or books (both fiction and non-fiction). I lapped it all up. The magic of story. Totally irresistible (thus the torch). Genres? Once I was published, I slipped into the box marked “International Thriller Writer”. That was a huge adventure and sustained seven books. Then I wrote a couple of first-person thrillers seen through the eyes of two separate women. Big contrast but – in their own way – enormously challenging. Finally came an invitation from Orion to plunge into crime fiction with a series based in Portsmouth, where we lived.
Morgen: Go Pompey! I’m not a football fan, at all, but have caught some of your comments about them from time to time. I knew they were having a blip last year (2010) but looking at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portsmouth_F.C.) they’re still plodding on. Sorry, off-topic. You were saying…
Graham: I’m not a great fan of crime fiction and, to be frank, I had a lot of initial reservations but this particular genre box turned out to be far less claustrophobic than I’d imagined. Portsmouth is a gift to any working novelist, the UK writ small, and early on it occurred to me that here was an early example of a society in the process of disintegration. Cops are frequently first-person witnesses at this carnival of self-destruction and as the series developed I managed to create a powerful undertow of social (and thus political) unease. There was also a technical challenge I had to face as a writer because I’d always worked within the framework of one-off stories. Series writing can be tricky but – like a good dinner party – the trick lies in the guest list. These people have to combust over a significant number of books. And, dare I say it, they do.
Morgen: You certainly can. What’s a plot without strong characters? You have an extensive catalogue, what have you had published to-date? Can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Graham: WHSmith’s, Southsea shopping precinct, a wet Wednesday morning in 1988. Three weeks later the book was still there. I always thought that the ink drying on your first publishing contract was the battle won. How wrong was I? To date, incidentally, I’ve published twenty-six books, two of them non-fiction.
Morgen: 26, my goodness. You must write quickly. You mentioned in one of your emails to me that you’ve seen someone reading your book on a train… have you ever spotted any of your books in an unusual location?
Graham: Vang Vieng, Laos, in the hands of a Buddhist monk. Extraordinary moment.
Morgen: I hope he was enjoying it. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Graham: Marketing, alas, is what you have to do to get that single first book off the shelf of the Southsea WHSmith’s (see above). The big publicity push used to be part of the publisher’s commitment, and if you’re lucky enough to be charting in the Top Ten, it still is. But for the majority of today’s published mid-list writers, most of the publishing budget is spent on getting your bookshelf space. The rest is down to you. With social messaging and all the rest that’s a more interesting ask than it used to be but the deafening clamour that passes for today’s cyber-culture makes your voice one of millions. Thank God for blogs.
Morgen: I love having one and I’m surprised how much difference they make (hits to my website rather than sales of books, as mine aren’t ready yet). Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Graham: I’ve been short-listed twice for the Theakstons and have just won a national prize for a novella. This kind of stuff can work wonders in-house and often badges subsequent editions of the paperback. Does it work? Do readers take notice? Some definitely do. The rest? I wonder.
Morgen: I’d say something as well known (in the UK anyway) as Theakston’s must make a dent. Like the Bridport for short story authors (which I must enter next year!). Oh, and congrats on the novella. Woo hoo! Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
Graham: I don’t write under another name and I’m not sure I ever would. The authors for whom I have real respect are the guys who – by and large – keep a low public profile. John Le Carré is one of them. But – hey – his real name is David Cornwell. And he has this to say on his website: “A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue.”. Excellent advice.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Graham: I’ve had a number of agents over the years, and in between I’ve represented myself. But if you’re new to the publishing game, and you’re offered a contract, you’d be crazy not to seek representation.
Morgen: I’d agree but I think the hurdle for most newbies is getting agents to pay attention. Have a publisher’s contract wafted in their faces would, I’d say, make them sit up and listen.
Graham: A good agent can make a huge difference by getting you a reasonable deal in the first place and by latterly holding the ring between you and your publisher. One caveat: e-publishing threatens to make a bonfire of all the old nostrums. And in some respects agents are as challenged by this development as publishers.
Morgen: I’ve involved in Radio Litopia and it’s probably the most talked about topic. Most of us in the chatroom are unrepresented / newbies so we’re interested and Litopia is run by an agent (who never touts, by the way, and like most agents, he’s fussy) so it’s bound to crop up. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Graham: Yes, most of my books are available as e-books. For readers, laying aside the print / screen debate, the e-revolution can only be good (imagine sitting on a train and downloading Nostromo or Bleak House onto your Kindle – for zilch – because you fancied it). For would-be novelists, distribution platforms like The Kindle Store also short-circuit the desperate business of trying to find a publisher. But you still have – somehow – to get yourself noticed. The clamour, again. Your voice amongst millions of others.
Morgen: A lot of discussions (I’m on Linkedin) are about this and I think that is the worry for most newcomers (I’m in that process) but I still think it relies on reviews. Someone can only have so many friends and family. If 500 people give it a 5-star then the bulk of those are going to be independent. That’s the hope anyway. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Graham: My first acceptance came relatively late. I’d written a couple of mercifully unpublished novels as a teenager, gone to university (which hatched a couple more), then laid the whole thing aside while I ducked into TV documentary-making for a couple of decades. Towards the end of that period, afloat in the North Atlantic looking for the wreck of the Titanic, I had plenty of time to dream up an idea or two and one of these fantasies became a six-part drama commission for ITV (“Rules of Engagement”). That led pretty much instantaneously to a two-book contract for Macmillan… and I’ve done a book a year ever since. Was I thrilled when my agent (Carole Blake) phoned with the news from PanMac? Just a bit…
Morgen: 26 books, a book a year… I’d say not so late (I’m 44 and although I’ve written 4.5 they’ve not been published… yet). Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Graham: Loads. And they still happen (chiefly in the field of film and TV). How do I deal with them? By muttering a quiet prayer for the name at the bottom of the e-mail and moving swiftly on.
Morgen: A prayer because you’ll use them in a tortuous manner in a forthcoming book? We met at a book talk you hosted at Northampton library in September 2009 has much changed in your writing world since then?
Graham: Yes. My books have always sold OK in France and we’ve attended a thousand and one crime festivals, which are always a delight. Recently, my Faraday crime series has been bought by French TV on a one-book-per-film basis and last week I saw the first two DVDs. They’ve done me (and Faraday) proud.
Morgen: I bet that was such a thrill. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Graham: I’m shortly going to embark on a spin-off crime series after the end of the Pompey-based Faraday books (of which there are twelve). My guys were getting far too old to be plausible cops (in a series which is badged by its authenticity)…
Morgen: Mark Billingham was on Litopia last night and was talking about ageing Thorne, prompted by a question in the chat room, and said he’s stopped ageing him because he didn’t want to retire him. Ian Rankin aged Rebus in real time and I think by 15 books he was probably pleased to move on to someone else. Authenticity is vital so I don’t blame you one bit.
Graham: …plus Lin and I have moved west and no longer live in Pompey. The new series will feature young D/S Jimmy Suttle and – as ever – it’s been a delight to get stuck into the research.
Morgen: You love research… yuk, you can do mine for me then.
Graham: Suttle will be joining one of Devon and Cornwall’s Major Crime Investigation Teams, based in Exeter, and the debut title is “Western Approaches”. These will be tightly-drawn stories, character-driven, less freighted with all the procedural clutter. Can’t wait to lift the pen in anger.
Morgen: Ah, so do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Graham: PC most of the time. Paper on trains and in pubs.
Morgen: Pubs… what a great excuse. “Just going to the office, dear.” Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Graham: I write between the end of October and Christmas, with a month reserved thereafter for a second draft. The rest of the year we go travelling (ancient camper) and offshore rowing with an amazing bunch of guys who’ve become a second family. Good crack. Excellent scenery. Superb pubs. The most I’ve written in a day? 19,000 words, against a savage deadline.
Morgen: Wow wee. Your computer must have been smoking. So this is probably a redundant question… what is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Graham: Mercifully, it’s never happened. If it did, I guess I’d row harder.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Graham: Broadly speaking, I know where the book begins and ends. As a series develops, I get to know the characters on first name terms and if the thing’s working properly, they take responsibility for the middle bits.
Morgen: I love it when that happens.
Graham: This dynamic, incidentally, often changes the book’s intended destination – and always for the better. That might sound fanciful but it’s true.
Morgen: Not at all to me. To a non-write maybe but then I think even a non-writer who’s an avid reader would understand especially when a good book starts to feel real. Talking of characters, do you have a method for creating them, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Graham: These are often people I have to live with for some time (in the case of the Faraday series, more than a decade), so they have to be interesting, self-motivating, and – to me at least – real. Sometimes I nick bits and pieces of people I know and glue the bits together in odd combinations. Sometimes I clock a face in a pub or on a train and let the odd snatch of overheard dialogue do the rest. Other times, my characters come from literally nowhere. This latter process, as you might expect, is mysterious and slightly troubling. Writers might be solitary by nature but their heads are full of other people.
Morgen: Earwigging is great isn’t it? And my characters keep me company, especially when the dog is asleep in the other room. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Graham: My wife, Lin. A savagely honest critic.
Morgen: Perfect. Unpaid, close to hand and doesn’t pull her punches. I have an editor so but have you thought of hiring her out when you don’t need her skills? Speaking of editing, do you do a lot or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Graham: I write from about nine in the morning until six in the evening. Then we have a couple of beers and I cook supper.
Morgen: Wow, a writer and chef… do you hire yourself out?
Graham: After that I’ll go back upstairs and re-read the day’s work before wading in with a revision or three. The beers give me a different perspective. Like I’ve become someone else. Never fails. Do I do much editing beyond that? No.
Morgen: What a shame I don’t like beer. I wonder if Bailey’s or Southern Comfort would have the same effect. You mentioned research earlier, how much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Graham: I do huge amounts of research, chiefly because I believe that most fiction is an act of trespass and the least you owe the world you’ve hi-jacked is some kind of attempt to understand it (or at least get it right). This is especially true with crime fiction, both in terms of the good guys and the not-so-good guys. You’d be amazed at the number of unpublished MSS I get from would-be crime writers who wouldn’t dream of risking a conversation with a working cop. Is this bottling out or simple laziness? I dunno…
Morgen: Maybe naivety? It wouldn’t occur to me that people send you their manuscripts. Wow (I’ve used that word a lot today haven’t I… note to self, get my thesaurus). What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Graham: Boringly mundane. Rub eyes, check the Guardian website, rub eyes again, read yesterday’s last paragraph, plunge in.
Morgen: I hope you don’t rub your eyes too hard, my optician told me a scary story once… now there’s a plot. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Graham: Silence. I love music, especially classical music, but would hate to dilute the pleasure with writing – which is concentration of a totally different kind.
Morgen: I go for classical. That said I’m sitting here in silence (with aforementioned dog on my lap which makes typing really easy!). Ok, play button… What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Graham: Depends. Third person is really effective if you want to ping the narrative from character to character and push the story along whereas first person becomes a strange kind of journey into someone else’s head. If you’ve chosen (created?) the right head, of course, the possibilities can be limitless…which is, in itself, slightly spooky.
Morgen: There was a brilliant film at the flicks earlier this year called ‘Limitless’, superb. Ah, thanks dog. He’s just got down, decided it wasn’t comfortable, clearly. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them? Oh great, squeaky toy and Saint-Sans. Yes, prologues, epilogues…
Graham: I love them. It’s a cliché, I know, but the first page of any book is really important – just like the last – and if you get off to a flying start it gives you an astronomical fix that will shape the entire journey.
Morgen: I agree. I’m not an ‘oguer’ but hook and climax are the pivotal strengths of a book. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Morgen: OK. Nuff sed. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Graham: Favourite? The solitude and the opportunity for a spot of serious control freakery. Least favourite? Pass…
Morgen: Yay, nothing you don’t like. Oh yes, you love research. I love solitude too, I’d be a hermit if I could, although I love going out with the dog. Oh, speak of the devil, you want to play? In a minute? OK? Thanks. Sorry Graham. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Graham: That the ideas, and – so far – the readers, keep coming.
Morgen: That’s want every writer dreams of, I’d say. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Graham: Keep at it. The joy of a really effective sentence, or a passage of dialogue, or something that takes you utterly by surprise outweighs anything else. Forget the glittering prizes and those posters on the tube. Writing remains one of life’s true mysteries. Enjoy.
Morgen: And hopefully we all do. I love it when I’ve written something I really love and sit here clapping to myself – the advantage of having a dog rather than human company, although it sounds like Lin would understand. What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Graham: Early John Le Carré. Justin Cartwright. Graham Greene. Alan Furst.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Graham: We row. And row. And drink. And row again. And head the camper south.
Morgen: You’re based in the UK, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Graham: No. Thanks to the I/net.
Morgen: Isn’t it great! Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Graham: I’m afraid I’m not. They drive me nuts. I haven’t even got a mobile.
Morgen: That’s why you write so many books, I guess, they do eat time. Your website is http://www.grahamhurley.co.uk. Are there other places where we can we out about you and your writing?
Graham: There are loads of entries on the I/net, which might be useful, and just now I’m basking in a newly-designed website which is bringing in lots of new readers. Check it out!!
Morgen: Yes, please do. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Graham: To be honest, I’m not sure. My own view is that writing is a kind of virus. If you’ve got it, it’s extremely hard to get rid of it and I know countless writers who labour on in the sure knowledge that they’ll never find a publisher. Yet they still do it. Why? Because it’s one of the few creative areas left that is cheap, low-tech and offers an almost limitless sense of imaginative possibility. Get stuck into a book (as a writer, rather than a reader) and you start playing God. Anything can happen. And often does.
Morgen: And that’s what I love. You never know what’s going to come out but it’s a thrill a minute (a second) for me. I so value the time I spend writing. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Graham: How come the one shop left untouched in the recent looting on Clapham High Street was Waterstone’s?
Morgen: Because books are too sacred to damage? Looters with taste? Or on the flipside they can’t read? Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Graham: You were one of four in the audience at Northampton Library. Hope I didn’t disappoint.
Morgen: Absolutely not – fond memories of the evening and actually one of the early ones that got me hooked meeting ‘real’ authors. There were some empty chairs but definitely more of us than that including, I remember, a rather vocal lady (even more enthusiastic than me) who had read your books (as I’m shamefully yet to do but I do have nine of them and loved Nocturne so I’m part-way there :)). I had three when we met and you kindly signed one to my German friend Heike which went off to her shortly after that and you can imagine how thrilled she was… Thank you Graham.
I then invited Graham to include an excerpt of his writing:
What follows is an imagining. It was sparked by the events that followed my father’s death, and it’s based on the months of reading, archival research, and face-to-face conversations that followed. As Dad’s only daughter, for reasons that I still can’t explain to myself, it felt right for me to try and connect the many dots that comprise the strangeness of his life. The dates and the locations are real, as was the vicious little eddy of history that swept him into captivity. The rest, I confess at once, is my take on what may have happened. The closer I shadowed my father’s wartime journey, the better I felt I understood the man he became. That I may also have stumbled on a larger truth – that we are all the prisoners of our past – is for you to judge.
Morgen: Thank you again Graham and now I’m (finally) getting involved in writing crime (readers of some of my previous interviews will know that I was told by agent Judith Murdoch “you’re a crime writer, you need to write crime” at the July 2011 Winchester Writers Conference), a genre I’ve read for years, I hope to see you again before too long. The hound and I are off to the park now.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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