YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED…
Are there things in your books that, with retrospect, you wish you could change or do differently? And is there anything you did in the early books that –– now you've written eight, including I Am Missing –– you would never, ever do again?
For me, the writing process is a huge learning curve, even eight books in, so if I wasn't learning as I went (and, in theory, getting better –– or, at least, more certain and comfortable with the processes) there would be something seriously wrong. I try not to look back with too many regrets about what I've written –– every book I've ever released has been the absolute best thing I could have put out at that particular moment in time –– but I certainly don't think they're perfect, and I'd be lying if I said there weren't things I might, in hindsight, have done differently.
Chasing the Dead remains the only book that I've reissued (in 2015). Long time readers might not even realise that, as I never advertised it, but there were little things –– mostly to do with Raker, his character, and his dialogue; but also some of the violence, which I came to realise was a little excessive –– that began to bug me about the original version, the more that time passed. I'm very proud of that book, because it was the one that got me a publishing deal, but it was written over the course of ten years, before I ever became a published writer, and some of it didn't feel in tune with the rest of the series. I'm much happier now I've had the chance to go back and work on it a little (I didn't do a lot –– it's about 95% the same), and in my opinion, the Raker in Chasing the Dead now feels more like the Raker we find in The Dead Tracks onwards.
I don't know exactly how to phrase this without giving things away for people who haven't read What Remains, but in Broken Heart, on p22, you mentioned that Raker's friend (we all know the one!) was now living in secret in south Devon and calling himself Bryan Kennedy. Will we ever hear from him again? Have you ever thought about maybe doing a prequel or a standalone novel featuring him?
Ha ha, great question. Yes, we definitely will be hearing from Raker's friend, but I felt he needed a break from us, and we needed a break from him, especially after the events of What Remains. He was, originally, going to resurface in I Am Missing, but I just wasn't able to juggle the story of Richard Kite with the demands of an, ahem, Bryan Kennedy storyline, so I decided to give him an extra long holiday. (However, he'll definitely be back –– watch this space!) In answer to the second part of your question, yes, I've thought a lot about writing a prequel centred around his earlier life, but I've never quite been able to come up with a compelling enough idea. If I was to do a prequel, it would have to be a police procedural, and there's absolutely tons of those out there at the moment –– so what could I do differently? I'm still mulling that question over.
Your plot twists constantly have the power to surprise me, with Never Coming Back, Fall from Grace (that revelation at the end!) and What Remains particularly coming to mind. So my question is, how many of those plot twists do you work out in advance, and how many just come to you as you're writing?
I would say the majority spring to life as I'm writing, because as I've documented in my blogs, I'm not much of a planner. Generally, I'll start out each book with a concept for someone going missing mysteriously, though not necessarily the how and why, and an end point –– it might be a location for the final scene, or a villain, or it might just be a vague sense of the big conspiracy behind everything –– but all the other stuff gets made up along the way. It sounds like a haphazard way of working and, in some respects, it is; but, personally, I don't believe that characters come alive until you've got them on the page, thinking, acting and interacting with one another and so, for me, it's very hard to judge the effectiveness of a plan because you've got no real sense at that stage of how any of these characters will bed in. More fundamentally, I also think it's easier to do unexpected things when they're not planned, because you're not thinking about them until you get there –– and that's useful in a thriller when one of your most important jobs is to surprise and deceive the reader. I've said this before somewhere, but the whole process of writing thrillers is me second guessing the reader second guessing me.
Both Raker and, in the early books, Healy, have had horrific things happen in their lives, and both are broken in their own way. But how do you decide who's able to 'handle it' and who breaks? How do you assign their personality traits?
That's a great question, but the answer's surprisingly simple, because it's kind of related to what I was talking about earlier: once the characters come alive on the page, then I start to get a firm idea of who they are, how they think and how they can handle things. From there, it's actually a very natural process of building their personalities and back stories. The only thing I knew from the outset, before I ever started writing Chasing the Dead, was that Raker was never going to be a superhero. Clearly, he's put into some extraordinary situations (it's a work of fiction after all!) but I always wanted him to be a (very capable, very handsome, very intelligent!) regular guy, and one with some serious vulnerabilities. In his case, that's the death of Derryn, his wife. When you're looking for adversaries, you're looking for men and women willing to exploit his grief.
Do you ever get affected by the research and writing of a novel? How do the harrowing, emotional and tragic stories of the missing impact on you personally?
You'd have to be the Terminator not to feel something when you're reading about people going missing, especially children. I'd be lying if I said I was reduced to a quivering wreck every time I went through the research stage, but some of the real-life stories you read, and some of the accounts given by the families left behind, are pretty hard to stomach, and definitely do get to you. From the very start of the series, I've always been keen to show that disappearances don't just affect the person going missing –– for the people left behind, often it's even worse. They have no answers and no closure, and –– over time –– it becomes an absolute living hell.
You always seem to doubt yourself so much. Why is that?
I think self-doubt is part and parcel of the writing process; in fact, it's probably part and parcel of all creative work. What you have to remember is that, for me, writing a book is a 10 month project, enjoyable to start with, but more often a massive slog, especially when you hit 30-40,000 words and start to become overly familiar with the characters and the story. By then, none of it is new anymore, there's not that initial mystery or excitement, and as you barrel towards the middle of the book, you start wondering how you're ever going to tie everything up, or whether what you're doing is even worth tying up. At that stage, you're so close to the manuscript, you have absolutely no perspective on it. There are lightbulb moments later on where you sit back and think, "You know what, that's a pretty good twist", or "That's actually a really nice line," but more often it's, "This is a disaster, I'm a failure, everyone will hate this book."
Of course, that's not to say I don't love being a writer. I do. I love waking up and doing this for a living, and feel very privileged to be in a position to do it full-time. But writing, in the end, is like any other job: there are bits you love, bits you don't, but you just have to do what you're doing to the absolute best of your ability. In one respect, writing books is kind of the inverse of other jobs too: whereas most jobs get easier the more you do them, novels get harder. Or maybe it's just a pressure I put on myself to come up with something different and interesting every time. Either way, a measure of self-doubt, I believe, is healthy because it keeps you humble and makes you constantly examine and re-examine. As I've said a few times, I'd actually be deeply suspicious of any writer that said finishing a novel was easy. It definitely shouldn't be easy!
Are any of your characters based on real people?
There are small things I might take from real people. For example, it's a long time ago now, so you might not remember, but in The Dead Tracks, there's a CID detective called Phillips who –– without being conscious of it –– turns his wedding band while he's asking questions. That was based on someone I knew, who always did that, and I found it an interesting quirk. More often, though, the characters aren't inspired by people in and around my life, but by people I read about or am familiar with in the wider world. Broken Heart is a good example of this, where men like Glen Cramer and Robert Hosterlitz were an amalgam of real-life actors and directors.
What books inspired you to become a writer?
I'd read thrillers (and horror novels!) from my mid-teens, but when I read A Simple Plan by Scott Smith, The Poet by Michael Connelly, and Every Dead Thing by John Connolly back-to-back in the late 90s, I instantly knew I wanted to write a crime novel. Ten years later, and billions of rejection letters later, I got finally got there! There are bundles of other novels that have taught me valuable lessons in structure and pace, or how to use language, or even really simple stuff like how a conversation should feel, but those three were what set me along this path.
We got a brief look at Raker as a journalist in your short story Disconnection, but would you consider setting a whole book then, when Derryn was still alive?
The answer to this is rather like the answer to Question 2. I would definitely consider it, and –– very consciously –– I've laid enough breadcrumbs in the eight novels so far for it not to be an unexpected leap (or, I hope, to be an uninteresting diversion) but it's just finding the right story and right moment to do it. What I may do at some stage, as a kind of proving ground, is to have a few flashbacks to his time as a journo in one of the present-day Raker novels and see how it feels. There are two things that are intriguing to me about that time in his life: the first is his marriage to Derryn –– how it was, how they were together; the other is that he spent so much of his later years as a journalist abroad, in some dangerous places, and that's quite exciting.
Which of the Raker books is your favourite?
All of them and none of them! I tend not to think of them in terms of how much I like them, or don't, and more in terms of when they were written and why. So, for example, The Dead Tracks was a very deliberate attempt at writing a book about a serial killer where the killer wasn't some snarling pantomime villain, but a clever, and in some ways very rational killer; Vanished was a direct result of my long-held obsession for abandoned London Underground stations, and the stories of the network in general; and Broken Heart was a love letter to films, and especially to the type of films I grew up watching as a horror film-loving teen. But all of the books came into being because, at that time, I was interested in the themes that went on to form the heart of the novel –– religious cults, war crimes, Victorian penny arcades. And, actually, I think that's an important point to make. As a writer, you have to write for yourself in the first instance, not for who you think the audience is, or is going to be, because everything is subjective, everyone likes different things, and if you try to make everyone happy, you end up making no one happy.
(And the most popular question of all…)
Will Raker ever find love/someone to settle down with?
This got asked so many times! And the answer is… I don't know. He is, basically, quite a lonely soul, and not just because he's a widower. I often start books with the very clear intention of having him find someone (honestly), but then it starts to feel forced, or –– in the case of Melanie Craw –– it becomes obvious as they interact and move around on the page that this relationship can't really work. My ultimate intention is always for Raker to be happy, especially because he's been through so much –– but sometimes the story just doesn't end up that way.